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Book Review


Leong, Karen J. The China Mystique: Pearl S. Buck, Anna May Wong, Mayling Soong, and the Transformation of American Orientalism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005). 236 pp, $22.95.

     Sino-US relations are extremely relevant today, as evidenced by the two countries' deep economic ties and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's inaugural trip to Asia, but Karen Leong reminds us that China—and more importantly what Americans thought of China—was also of paramount importance to US politics from the 1920s through the 1940s. During this period American perceptions of China softened and US popular media became more receptive to representations of China. American orientalism was replaced by what Leong calls the "China mystique," "a romanticized, progressive, and highly gendered image" of a "new China" that had been positively transformed by American culture and democracy (1). Unlike orientalism, which positioned "East" and "West" as diametric opposites, the China mystique "promoted the similarities between China and the United States" and established a public space in which new images of Chinese people could emerge (169). Leong analyzes how three women created, narrated, and navigated these images: the American missionary Pearl S. Buck, the Chinese-American movie actress Anna May Wong, and the First Lady of Nationalist China Mayling Soong (Song Meiling). Leong's work is distinguished by its inclusion of Wong and Soong as shapers of American orientalism on par with Buck (6). This book can successfully be used in world history courses to discuss diasporic communities, national and racial identities, and the gendered politics of nationalism.

     Leong's choice of cast allows her to forefront a gender analysis of American orientalism, as well as to question the formation and contestation of national and racial identities. She begins with the missionary Pearl Buck. Best known for her 1931 novel The Good Earth, which MGM studios put on the silver screen in 1937, Buck was raised by her missionary parents in Jiangsu province and lived in China until attending college in the U.S. at age 18. After graduation she returned to China, married a fellow missionary, and accompanied him to a small village in Anhui province, where the couple served together until Buck returned to the U.S. and sought a divorce in 1933. After living in China for nearly thirty-five years, the novelist Buck presented herself to her American audience as "more Chinese than American" (24). As Leong rightly points out, this (self-) marketing was augmented by Buck's racial and national authority as a white woman of American heritage, and the public interpreted her account as the "true" story of "real" China (26). Though there is no dearth of scholarship on Pearl Buck, Leong's analysis stands out for its incisive critique of Buck's continuing reliance on her racial and national privileges, even as she challenged stereotypes and sought to create a more positive image of Chinese people in the American media. The fact that Buck positioned her challenges to orientalism within the overall episteme of American exceptionalism and never challenged assumptions of American political, economic, and cultural supremacy made China appear malleable and facilitated U.S. consumption of the China mystique (12).

     The American public received Pearl Buck's novelistic interpretation of rural China as the "true" story because it was a non-threatening, white-narrated affirmation of the U.S. gender order: O-lan, the farmer's wife in The Good Earth, labored under Confucian patriarchy and was far more oppressed than any American woman would ever profess or appear to be. By contrast, for years Anna May Wong played roles that disparaged Chinese women as either despotic "dragon ladies" or as sexy seductresses that threatened to undermine the white heterosexual order. These were the only roles available to her; more positive Asian roles were given to Euro-American actors and actresses in "yellowface" (such was the case in "The Good Earth," despite Buck's recommendations of specific Chinese actors for what she wanted to be an all-Chinese cast) (27). As a Chinese-American, Wong was typecast and famously "died a thousand deaths" onscreen rather than threaten the white woman's ultimate possession of the white man (64, 68). As a woman, she was expected to conform to a strict moral standard and was badly reviewed in the Chinese press for disgracing Chinese womanhood (74-5). Yet Wong parlayed the China mystique into the first successful Chinese-American acting career, and also shaped American orientalism by being a visible Chinese-American in an era when the two identities were more often assumed to preclude one another than to coexist (104).

     Perhaps no one better illustrated and represented the "new China" than the English-speaking, Methodist Madame Chiang Kai-shek. Mayling Soong first came to the United States at age 9 to attend boarding school with her sisters in Macon, Georgia. After finishing college (she attended both Wesleyan and Wellesley) she returned to China and married Chiang Kai-shek, who soon thereafter became Chairman of the Nationalist Government. Soong reportedly converted her husband to Christianity and served as his English-language interpreter. During World War II she frequently traveled to the United States and toured the country speaking with politicians and civic groups, championing China's war of resistance and seeking relief funds. In 1943 she was the second woman and the first Asian to address the US Senate and House of Representatives. The American public eagerly sought news of China's First Lady and, as an embodiment of China's modernizing potential, she played a crucial role in narrating the China mystique (118). However, Leong argues that Soong's secondary status as a Chinese and as a woman blocked her from full leverage of her class privilege and elite station as an American-educated Christian, and she ultimately remained trapped within the mystique, unable to challenge it fully (154).

     The China mystique—an image of China as a modernizing country with hard-working citizens desirous of positive change—reflects early twentieth-century American culture far more than it defines China. In an era of international expansion and economic growth, Americans filtered their newfound dominance through stories of American exceptionalism and a new version of the "white man's burden" that interpreted other countries as wanting and needing U.S. help (167-8). Leong's analysis foregrounds gender, race, and nationality. Orientalism gendered the China female, and three women emerged as the definitive narrators of the "new China." Additionally, all three women gained public prominence as interpreters of the China mystique through their ability to enact whiteness, "a radial ideology that values white culture and normalizes its dominance over non-white cultures" (160). Leong's interpretation falls slightly short when it comes to national identity, however. She criticizes Pearl Buck for assuming a Chinese identity and faults American orientalism for not allowing Anna May Wong to assume a fully Chinese and American identity as an American of Chinese heritage. If Buck, who was raised in China and spoke fluent Chinese, could not claim a simultaneously Chinese and American identity, should a Chinese-American residing in the U.S. not consider herself American as well as Chinese? Many Americans and Chinese had no trouble seeing the English-speaking, American-educated, Christian Soong as both Chinese and American (126, 138).

     Leong's book opens some issues for further exploration in the classroom: Is nationality sentimental or biological? Can it be self-assigned, or must it be determined by the larger community? If it can be self-assigned, what other identities must one call on in order to claim this authority? Such discussions could begin in a small group setting with reports to the entire class. The book's structure with short (50-page average) sections on each woman facilitates assignment of a different section to each group, so that the overall reading assignment need not be too onerous. The instructor can read the introduction and conclusion for background in mediating the discussion. The book would also work best in concert with Chinese reportage of the three women; the only challenge lies in finding such pieces in English translation.

     Karen Leong's insightful juxtaposition of the American Pearl Buck, the Chinese-American Anna May Wong, and the Chinese Mayling Soong yields a fruitful exploration of diaspora, international politics, and identities while also ensuring a critique of the racism and sexism that prevailed in early twentieth-century Sino-US relations. Moreover, its narrative style is eminently readable and its incisive analysis marks it as an important piece of new scholarship.


Nicole Elizabeth Barnes
University of California, Irvine


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