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Book Review


Richard Jean So, Transpacific Community: America, China, and the Rise and Fall of a Cultural Network.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.  Pp. xxxix + 260.  Figures, Notes, and Index.  $60.00 (cloth).


     In Transpacific Community: America, China, and the Rise and Fall of a Cultural Network, Richard Jean So presents a straightforward and appealing thesis: between roughly 1930 and 1950 a network of American and Chinese writers, artists, and activists bridged the cultural and geographical gap to push for greater democracy and equality in both societies, gaining strength through mutual reinforcement.  A professor of English at the University of Chicago who studied with Edward Said at Columbia, So breaks with his mentor to argue that the figures he profiles were not shackled by "Orientalist" fantasies or prejudices, on the one side, or feelings of inferiority or rage, on the other.  Their ability to form the "cultural network" of the book's subtitle was based in part by the deep ties forged by living in the other society and, equally important, by new technological means of communication, including the transpacific telegraph, air mail, radio, and even a typewriter prototype to handle Chinese characters.

     So organizes his book around case studies of five major figures: radical journalist Agnes Smedley, novelists Pearl S. Buck and Lao She, singer and activist Paul Robeson, and literary critic and essayist Lin Yutang.  All have been the subject of much previous scholarship, but So adds fresh insights on each, especially as they involve inspiration drawn from their cross-cultural connections.  So's most compelling point, however, is that the works of these individuals, along with their many collaborators, assume greater significance when juxtaposed and linked with each other, as they then demonstrate not merely isolated breaches of the wall of condescension and unequal relations between these societies but development as partners.

     The author examines deeply rather than widely the work of his central personages.  For Agnes Smedley, who became involved in the Indian independence movement in the World War I era and later traveled to China, So focuses on her efforts to free Communist writer Ding Ling, who was imprisoned by the Nationalist regime from 1933 until 1936.  Smedley's campaign drew in Roger Baldwin and the American Civil Liberties Union, along with prominent figures in American publishing.  For Pearl Buck, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Good Earth, So emphasizes her grounding in Chinese culture and literature, growing up there as the child of American missionaries, as well as her exposition for American readers of Chinese society's "natural democracy."  Buck's most popular novel, So tells us, not only had an enormous impact on Americans' views of China, culminating in her leadership during World War II of the successful drive to repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act, but was also embraced by much of the Chinese literary community.  For internationally-acclaimed African American performer Paul Robeson, So zeroes in on his work with Chinese musician Liu Liangmo to popularize for Americans radicalized versions of Chinese folk songs and on the connections he drew between African and Chinese musical forms. 

     So presents Lin Yutang, the Harvard-educated literary critic and commentator on Chinese culture who was later brought to the attention of American audiences, and then to the U.S. itself, by Buck and her husband and publisher, Richard J. Walsh, as emblematic of a modernist impulse to adapt for China the best of the West: the ideals of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, for example, and a typewriter incorporating Chinese characters that could make printed materials more accessible to his people.  But the efforts of Lin to interpret China to Americans, as in his best-selling 1935 work, My Country and My People, were equally important.  So argues that as Lin adopted in some of his later writings aspects of an "autoethnographic" approach common to many immigrant writers, he articulated a transnational voice that refused to be overshadowed by American conventions.  Lin's friend Lao She, a major figure among Chinese intellectuals in the late 1930s anti-Japanese resistance, came to the attention of Americans with his proletarian novel Rickshaw Boy, published in the U.S. in an unauthorized translation in 1945. Through the efforts of both the State Department and Buck, Lao She arrived in the U.S. as World War II ended to work as a writer, reconnecting with Smedley and working closely with Chinese-born Ida Pruitt, another child of American missionaries. 

     But just as Lao She's American sojourn exemplifies the overlapping layers of this cultural network, his experiences in the U.S. demonstrate how quickly the network disintegrated, as Communists battled Nationalists in China's civil war and the U.S. helped launch the Cold War.  Smedley, Robeson, and Lao She soon suffered in the U.S. due to their leftist stances; Buck's portrait of the Chinese as inherently democratic lost its luster; and, Lin became estranged even from his closest American patrons, Buck and Walsh.  The "transpacific community" foundered in the postwar world, and even the technological innovations which had undergirded its rise could not sustain it.

     So's close examination of the interconnections between these literary and cultural figures and their impact on politics in both the United States and China makes a contribution to scholarship, as does his attention to the new communications technologies.  In addition, his work in American archives and his reading of Chinese-language sources add depth to our knowledge of Smedley's work on behalf of leftist Chinese writers, Buck's reception in China in the 1930s, Robeson's interest in and popularization of Chinese music, and Lao She's conceptualization of the political role of literature and his travails in the United States.  So's balanced evaluation of Lin's depictions of Chinese Americans redresses the virulent critiques leveled by some Asian American writers from the 1960s to the 1990s.

     However, Transpacific Community is riddled with errors of fact, infelicitous and ambiguous writing, unsupported claims, and puzzling omissions, only a handful of which can be noted here.  The dense and at times jargon-laden prose will make it slow going even for graduate students and professors.

     Some errors are mundane.  For example, Pearl Buck had not yet married her first husband in 1914 (45).  A telegram from Roger Baldwin and his associates to Chiang Kai-shek is misidentified in a caption as having been sent by Smedley to Baldwin (29), while the phrase "All men are created equal" comes from the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution (76).  Other assertions are more serious.  Smedley may have traveled to China after World War I because she was "disenchanted with U.S. politics," but that was not the reason for Buck's return to China (xiv).  Chronological imprecision abounds, in statements such as "America drifted into the war in the Pacific in the 1930s" (43).

     Moreover, when Smedley, in China, inks in the name of Malcolm Cowley on a telegram sent from New York, it can hardly be described as "a nice affective touch" (28), as her alteration calls into question the document's veracity.  The idea that "Smedley helped to launch the American proletarian movement with her novel Daughter of Earth (1929)" (xviii) would surely surprise Haymarket strikers of the 1880s and early twentieth-century Socialist activists.  While So has read widely, at times he takes a cavalier approach to citations.  He asserts that "most reviews" of Robeson's Chinese songs comment on his command of the language, but provides only one such example (114).  His source for Buck's alleged opposition to "the socialist turn in American society in the early 1930s" (52) makes no such claim. 

     Some omissions are surprising and significant.  For example, the author not only misidentifies Lao She's collaborator Pruitt, who was not "a novelist" (xxx), but ignores her important 1945 publication, A Daughter of Han, which itself constituted part of this "transpacific community."  So perpetuates the myth that Buck had only one major novel about China.  In fact, her World War II status as a China expert was based not only on The Good Earth, but on numerous additional best-selling works of fiction and non-fiction.  Perhaps most importantly, So all but omits Lin's early and implacable anti-Communism.  This "cultural network" was sundered not only by the external effects of the Cold War but by unbridgeable fissures among these five major figures. 

     So acknowledges that the U.S.-China connection constituted only one aspect of transpacific ties in these years, and it is certainly his right to limit the study to one main theme.  However, Smedley, Robeson, Buck, and Lin all developed intimate ties to the Indian independence movement, and in the cases of Buck and Lin these developed in part because of their support for China during World War II.  One cannot disentangle Robeson's interest in Chinese politics and music from his broader internationalism, which also led to recordings of Spanish Civil War and Soviet Red Army songs, among others.  Consideration of such issues would have strengthened So's argument about mid-twentieth century transnational ties.

     Richard Jean So weaves together many strands of important material in this study, diligently tracking down forerunners, influences, and unexpected connections between these writers.  Unfortunately, the pervasive errors and ambiguities detract from his book's usefulness and reflect poorly on both the author and on Columbia University Press.

Robert Shaffer,, is Professor of History at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, where he also teaches social studies education.  His work last appeared in World History Connected in February 2016, in an article on mid-twentieth century Indonesia expert Raymond Kennedy.


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