A Chinese Reader at Large in Yankeeland
By Art Yun
If one didn’t read the newspapers China would be a very pleasant place.—William F. MeDermott in Cleveland Plain Dealer
What a pity that the first trade struggle should have centered around opium. Not that the white man introduced it into the country.—Alice Tisdale Hobart in “Pidgin Cargo.”
With all the talk about opium, it ought to be generally know that opium was not indigenous to China but was introduced to the country from abroad. The Encyclopedia Brittanica is authority for the statement that opium was introduced to China in the thirteenth century. “Pidgin Cargo” was widely hailed by reviewers in America, and Mrs. Hobart, lauded as a new voice of China, has been writing “sensational” features for the Sunday Springfield Union.
Credo of the Foreign Correspondent in China
With shuddering fear of the communist domination of the Yangtze valley and the five war fronts, China today is in THE WORST SITUATION SINCE THE OVERTHROW OF THE MANCHU DYNASTY.—Hallett Abend in St. Louis Globe-Democrat.
Reporting in China is done in superlatives. Every passing event is hailed as the worst in history. As that is impossible the reader’s faith in the accuracy of Chinese news is constantly being shaken, and he tends to label them all, as the New York World says, “mah-jonng tales.” This condition is brought about by the peculiar credo of the foreign correspondent working in China. The credo is:
That every civil war in China is the worst since the downfall of the Manchu dynasty.
That stories which do not concern famine, war, and banditry are not worth cabling.
That the communist scare angle must be worked in wherever possible so as to make the headlines.
That if a foreigner shoots a Chinese it is not news, but if a Chinese shoots a foreigner it is worth columns of front page space.
That the missionaries are headlines only when they are kidnapped, or their mission burned, seized or looted.
That Japanese news dispatches are accurate and reliable, and, therefore, worth cabling.
That it is safe to say foreign lives are endangered in every looting of a town.
Chinese in the United States
The Chinese, for example, are in many ways a wonderful people. They are hard-working, temperate, likeable, intelligent, and much more besides. But—the Chinese are different! They are no different from us in blood, culture, ideals and general outlook on life that they cannot be assimilated, and we know that if they come to us in vast numbers they would either destroy us or hopelessly mongrelize us. Therefore, no matter how intelligent, or industrious, or everything else they may be, we do not want them and we will not have them.—Lothrop Stoddard in “Reforging America.”
Stoddard is a Harvard Ph. D., and that helps him get away with lots of his inaccuracies. This particular idea has long been foisted on an unsuspecting American public. It’s a fallacy so long unchallenged that it passes for gospel truth.
But move about Chinatown, and see how assimilable Chinese are. Indeed, they are being over-assimilated, absorbing both America’s virtues as well as her vices. They are as public-minded as any other racial group in America. The Chinese Float at Portland’s annual Rose Festival has often won first prizes. Chinese have subscribed for Liberty Loans; they have given freely to Community Funds; they have sent their sons to the war. There’s even a ticker tape in Chinatown.
A Chinese lad won the American Legion essay contest. A Chinese girl has won the California spelling-bee contest. Paul Fung draws the daily American flapper comic, “Gus and Gussie,” and “Dumb Dora” which are widely syndicated by Hearst. The Chinese manager of Frisco’s Chinatown is a Shriner. Miss Soo Young [sic], Mei Lan-fang’s prologist in America, has served on Broadway: with Katherine Cornell in “The Latter;” with Arthur Byron in “South of Siam;” with Lester Lornigan in “The House Unguarded.” Anna Chang, Chinatown girl who made good in vaudeville, is anything but Chinese except in skin.
Will McDermott, dramatic critic, writes on the subject in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, following attendance at a party given by Chinese stage folks. He says in part:
The differences were surprisingly slight. They consisted almost exclusively of differences in clothes and complexions. Anyone who had a lingering doubt of the efficacy of the American melting pot to mold strange metal into the American image would have been won over to the affirmative by this social gathering of Chinese actors. Their mode of amusement, their talk, their expression of taste, item by item were the same as that of American mimes under similar occasions. They wore Chinese garb self-consciously as a concession to the prejudices of an Occidental audience. Tailored coats and Parisian hats , by the way of Chicago to Cleveland, were raiment in which they felt at home. The melting pot has done a superb job in amalgamating them into an exact image of their American brothers and sisters.
Originality at Williamstown
A much bruited fallacy is the value of learned men as molders of public opinion. The fallacy is all the more glaring in the case of the United States. Who runs America? Do you think experts, scholars, and professors have a “say?”
James W. Girard’s recent list of 59 American rulers did not include a single name from the intellectual hierarchy. To him, America is run by bankers, industrialists, and newspaper publishers. That may be a good thing for China.
Take, for instance, that Williamstown Institute of Politics where professors and their friends hold summer pow-wow. George H. Blakeslee of Clark University, who built a name on Far Eastern problems, came out for military intervention in China by the rest of the world. This Ph. D. questioned whether “any state, in our small independent world, had the right to enjoy the luxury of decade-long political disorganization.” On the other hand, a banker, Jerome D. Greene, rejected any such idea that China’s problems might be solved by intervention, economic or otherwise.
Dr. Blakeslee’s idea appears original among American professors. For China it’s fortunate that professors do not run America, even when they are original.
An Editor’s Thanks to Nippon
Unlike England, America is famous for its magazine editors who do not write. Ellery Sedgwick of the Atlantic Monthly is one of the most noted of them. That does not mean that Sedgwick can’t write. Once every four years when a presidential campaign is being waged, he fires a literary blast on behalf of the minority candidate. His picture of Al Smith two years ago was so admirable that papers all over the land copied extracts and Democratic orators thundered its beauties from platforms. Except for this quadrennial outburst, Sedgwick maintains a sphinx-like silence year in and year out.
Japan, however, has succeeded in making him break this tradition. With other editors, he accepted an invitation to tour Japan. Now back in America, he is the first to repay his island-host in words of jade.
American monthly magazines use only about half a dozen articles on the Far East a year; and when the majority of these tell of Japan over the signature of their editors, it’s a real achievement. Sedgwick’s first article, called “Japanese Mystery,” is a lyric statement for modern Japan—its beauty, its laughter, its joy. Lifted outside the realm of publicity by sheer writing, it is, nevertheless, publicity, because inspired and paid for by an interested party.
This boosting affects China indirectly. There’s nice words on one side and virtual silence on the other. It strengthens the current notion that Japan is the tower of Oriental civilization, while the truth is that all that is finest in Japan—in art and literature—came originally from China.
A Formula for Writers
It’s not an easy matter to put over a Chinese trade boost in an American business magazine. For one reason, the editors are skeptical. For another, Uncle Sam, through the Department of Commerce, practically monopolizes this kind of export boosting.
But once in a while a general magazine will use such an article if the proper elements are well mixed. Raymond Fuller has done that in the North American Review in a piece called, “Seraglios in Asia.” Here’s the trick:
First, Fuller presents a bogey. The Soviet bogey has always worked, so why not in the trade field. If American business don’t look out the Soviets will capture the China market. They can undersell the world; they have industrial brains; they have natural resources; their worker morale is high. So look out, America!
Second, Fuller presents color. Look at China: starving millions; no railroads; primitive methods; incredible backwardness. Though missionaries have overworked the picture, it’s always new; it gets attention. Indeed, it is the gravy of every article on China in an American magazine.
Third, Fuller, like an expert showman, winds up with a brilliant verbal finish. His horn emits such sounds as “Two railroads east and west through China will sell more products than any elevated motor drive from New York to Boston,” “A power plant at Nanking would yield future dividends to rival Muscle Shoals.”
There is nothing new here that the Department of Commerce has not said time and time again. The article shows that the old formula still clicks with American editors: a snappy title, Soviet bogey, rag-ridden millions, and a brilliant verbal finish.
More Chinese Fantastics
Thomas Steep, the N. Y. Herald-Tribune chap who wrote “Chinese Fantastics” a few years ago, returns to his old love of capturing facets of Chinese life. The August issue of Japan prints his “Shanghai Silhouettes.”
I know of nothing as charming to read as these innocuous bits of observation. There’s a book—the Nightside of Japan by a Japanese—which is found in the majority of public libraries in America. It’s done in a style resembling broken porcelain. I wonder why no Chinese has ever written in like fashion of China. A book of that kind is not only timeless, but has wide appeal.
There’s nothing that Steep sees which you don’t. For example, here’s a bit of his observation:
Opposite the Palace Hotel near the Bund, a Chinese sign painter with palette in hand is standing on a bamboo ladder. The ladder leans against a signboard upon which the Chinese is painting for an American automobile concern a scene along the Hudson River. The painter has never been away from the Orient and probably has never ridden in an automobile, yet he paints realistically a landscape in a country he has never seen and accurately the characters of a language he does not understand.
Satire, wit, irony, sentiment are in all of Steep’s snatches. Chinese students of English should try this sort of writing. The woods are full of Chinese writing on politics, economics, government—stuff that’s born today and forgotten tomorrow. The other kind may be harder, but it’s more durable. One of the world’s best journalists, the late C.E. Montague, is known abroad not for his brilliant work on the Manchester Guardian, but for his writings on the lighter aspects of life.
This Yankeetown of Ours
Calvin Coolidge, who once bossed the White House and lately turned columnist, is trying humor in his daily pieces……Naomi Winter, night club dancer, rates as the first oriental girl without a country. Of Japanese extraction, her birth in Montreal made her a Canadian citizen; she lost her Canadian citizenship by marrying an American and then lost her American citizensihp [sic] by divorcing him. She never had any citizenship in Japan because she wasn’t born there……H.L. Mencken, the 50-year-old mocker of matrimony, went and got married and stood lots of razzing by wits, nearwits and nitwits……Heywood Broun accepted the Socialist nomination without consulting his editor and still holds his job on the N.Y. Telegram……Willie Fung, Chinese actor, graduate of the Chinese stage in San Francisco, plays the part of a South Sea store-keeper in the movie, Sea-God……Cigarettes are becoming so cheap that a lot of stylish girls may stop smoking them……So popular has been the demand for lurid, blood-thirsty tales of the Orient, despite goodwill boosters that a new all-fiction pulp paper magazine has been started under the name, FAR EAST ADVENTURES……Yun Gee, new Chinese artist in New York, plans to start first Chinese Art School there……K.K. Kawakami writing about Japan getting quota rights, literally says, “I am from Missouri. Show me!”
Chicago, Ill, September, 15, 1930.
(Next post on Friday: Yolk Magazine, 1994–2003)