Paths of Stone, Rivers of Ink:
The Sino-American World through Its Writers
By Russell C. Leong
In these fevered days of globalized commerce and Olympiad competition between America and China, literature may appear as the odd one in the race. But oddly enough, it is the literature—the poems, stories, and writing of the Chinese of America—that can give us insights into the shifts of Sino-American relations in the past, and inform American and Chinese readers in the present.
Literature by the Chinese of America provides an insiders’ perspective, beyond parochial approaches, to understand not only Western perceptions of the Chinese, but also Chinese perceptions of the West through the power of language, through the persistence of culture, and through the infinite possibilities of the imagination.
Through Western and Chinese Eyes
Twenty five thousand
The world, and eight
Through the center. I am teaching you.
You are taught by me.
A lady taught me to speak
And read English.
- English Lessons from Rev. I.M. Condit’s English and Chinese Reader (1882), a missionary lesson book used to convert the Chinese in the Americas and Australia to English and Christianity.
Stepping back a hundred years or so, we find that the 19th and early 20th century forerunners of today's Chinese American writers were mostly Chinese workers and students, as well as a few scholars, diplomats, and merchants who wrote poems, novels, autobiographies, fictional stories and journalistic accounts about their experiences in America. Yet, they wrote at a time when most Anglo-American writers since the 1870s depicted the Chinese in a negative light, as a foreign, dangerous, and exotic “Yellow Peril.” Bret Harte (1836-1902), penned “The Heathen Chinee,” a narrative poem, in 1870. One stanza about a card game between a Chinese and a white man goes: “Then I looked up at Nye / And he gazed upon me / And he rose with a sigh, / And said, “Can this be? We are ruined by Chinese cheap labor,”—And he went for that heathen Chinee.” Once published, this satiric verse was recited and widely used by opponents to the admission of Chinese immigrants, to the dismay of the poet. Jack London (1876-1916), later opined that the Chinese would soon “conquer America.”
At the same time, the Chinese who found themselves in the U.S. were writing about the world they experienced from their own points of view. According to the immigrant writer Wenquan, Chinese Americans first recited and wrote their poems in the Cantonese, the native dialect of most of the early immigrants before World War II. They formed literary organizations in the U.S., Canada, and South America even during the Chinese Exclusionary period of the 1880s.
One rare narrative account, written by an unnamed merchant, was called the The Bitter Society, Ku Shehui, published in Shanghai in 1905 at the height of the campaign to boycott American goods. The novel's main theme is the suffering of the Chinese during this exclusionary period. Critic June Mei states that “The factor which united virtually all the Chinese in America, regardless of class, was nationalism." The novel traces the experiences of five down and out educated young men from central China. They all wind up in Guangdong—and each intends to work abroad to make money. Some go to Peru, others make it to the U.S.
The story's value lies in its descriptions of the thoughts, attitudes, and reactions of early immigrants to their incarceration, to arrests, stoning, and so forth, for few historical documents contain such information. Essentially, The Bitter Society depicted the early emigration experience as seen through Chinese eyes.
Other writers, like Liang Qichao (1873-1929), the late Qing dynasty scholar, pioneering journalist, and political reformer, described his visits to 20 cities in the U.S. and Canada in his memoir: Memories of My Travels in the New World, published in China in 1908. Both as an intrepid writer and as a premier editor, Liang, in his call for newspapers to “serve the people of the nation” helped to set standards for modern journalism in post-dynastic Republican China.
A third genre, besides accounts and novels, was the Christianized autobiography, a by-product of the Western missionary tradition in China which was later carried over to America. The lessons cited above are from the English and Chinese Reader, an illustrated phrase book by Rev. I.M. Condit, used to convert and to teach English to the Chinese in the Americas and Australia. Ironically, its date of publication coincided with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. At the same time, American missionaries established over a dozen universities in China including Nanking and Yenching Universities and sponsored students to study abroad in America. Yung Wing (1828-1912), the first Chinese student to graduate from an American University (Yale, in 1854), chronicled his life in My Life in China and America (1909).
Besides the writing mentioned above, there existed a robust immigrant tradition of thousands of Chinese folk verses and vernacular songs produced by the Chinese immigrants themselves. These were collected in Jinshan Geiji, Songs of Gold Mountain published in San Francisco in 1911 and 1915 and later edited by the literary scholar, Marlon K. Hom, with an introduction. The classic collection of verse remains: Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island 1910-1940, edited and translated by the Chinese American historian, Him Mark Lai, with Jenny Lim and Judy Yung. Frustrated and angry Chinese immigrants incarcerated within this detention station on Angel Island (San Francisco Bay) carved hundreds of poems on the walls of their barracks.
Through fictional narratives by writers including Edith Eaton (Sui Sin Far, 1865-1914), Louis Chu (1915-1970), Jade Snow Wong (1922-2006), and short fiction by Leftist progressive writers from the 1930s and 40s (Xinmiao—New Bud), we know how the Chinese thought and felt about both America and China in times of crisis—from the Great Depression in the U.S. to the anti-Japanese movement in China, all the way to the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. These writings written in English or in Chinese open a window into the Sino-American world from the viewpoint of the insider. For the best general account of the Chinese in America, see, Him Mark Lai, Becoming Chinese American: A History of Communities and Institutions (2004).
During the anti-communist McCarthy era of the 1950s, the voices of many immigrant and Chinese American writers, intellectuals, artists, and activists were quelled, forcing those individuals and groups who supported the New China temporarily underground. It was not until the 1960s and 70s did these voice re-emerge, re-infusing new life into literature, journalism, and publishing.
The Spirit of Contemporary Writers
Ancient sacred spirit
We meet you
Faraway in a foreign land
Do you remember still
Your once noble origin
- Mai Mang, U.S.A.
Today, the term Chinese American literature, states Zhang Ziqing (Foreign Literature, Nanjing University), can include both those "Chinese American writers who are born, brought up, and educated in the United States, and those who are born, brought up, and educated in China. For instance, Bai Xian-yong, a novelist from Taiwan who resides in the U.S. writes in Chinese, while Ha Jin, a poet and novelist from mainland China, writes about his experiences in China in English." Mai Mang was born in Hunan, educated in Beijing and the U.S., and writes poems in both languages. These writers are not alone in inhabiting different sectors of the Sino-American world literally, linguistically, and culturally. Yet, the boundaries of their words and worlds often blur and overlap.
Other Chinese American narrative and poetry writers including Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, Frank Chin, Gish Jen, Gus Lee, Fae Myenne Ng, Jade Snow Wong, David Wong Louie, Li-Young Lee, John Yau, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Wing Tek Lum, Alan Chong Lau, Diana Chang, David Henry Hwang, Ruthanne Lum McCunn, Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Arthur Sze, and I, write in English but also have been translated into Chinese for readers in mainland China and Taiwan.
Dialogues, Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong
Chinese and Asian American writers, in fact, have been read, published, and taught since the late 1960s in U.S. schools, colleges, and universities from Yale to UCLA. But few outside the People’s Republic know that also in today's China, the poems, stories, and novels of Chinese American writers are being read, taught, translated, and critiqued in major Chinese universities in Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Xian, Nanjing, Hangzhou, Hong Kong, and also in Taipei.
One of the earliest exponents and critics of Chinese American literature is Zhang Ziqing. In an overview, A History of 20th Century American Poetry (1995, 1997), published in Chinese, Zhang included a section on Chinese American poets. In 1998, he was the co-editor of the first series of translated Chinese American literature and also compiled a book of essays entitled Cultural Meetings: American Writers, Scholars and Artists in China (2003), which also included American writers of Chinese descent.
Henry Yiheng Zhao and L. Ling-chi Wang edited the first book of contemporary Chinese American poetry published in Shanghai as Liangtiao he di yitu (The Intention of Two Rivers) in 1990, with an English edition following entitled Chinese American Poetry: An Anthology (Santa Barbara, 1991). Nowadays, Zhao is the chief editor for Journal of Diasporic Chinese Art and Culture, a bilingual journal published by Sichuan University Press which covers writing of the diaspora—from Australia to the U.S.
In Beijing, the first Chinese American Literature Research Center was founded at the Beijing University of Foreign Studies in 2003. Professor Wu Bing, its director, has invited American writers and scholars to give talks including King-Kok Cheung, Marlon K. Hom, Sau-ling C. Wong, Maxine Hong Kingston, Shawn Hsu Wong, William Poy Lee, Jinqi Ling, Elaine H. Kim, Marjorie Lee, L. Ling-chi Wang, Helen Zia, myself, and others. The Center makes its choice collection of contemporary Chinese American books and manuscripts available to students and scholars. Others currently in Beijing in 2008-2009, like King-Kok Cheung, have given talks in China that take comparative approaches to literature, often incorporating African American writers like Nella Larson and James Weldon Johnson. In China as in the rest of Asia, the study of African American writing as part of the canon of American literature has enjoyed a longer history and popularity than the study of Asian American literature.
An Anthology of Chinese American Literature, the first of its kind published in China, was compiled and edited by Yingguo Xu , a professor of the Nankai University of Science and Engineering in 2004. Xu feels that Chinese American works, rather than being seen primarily as "overseas Chinese literature" in fact can do the opposite: open up perspectives for the study of contemporary American literature with its predominate themes of cultural conflict, class, race, gender, and identity. Xu has overseen dozens of theses on Chinese American literature and notes that Chinese American literature is now being offered in all major universities in China. As well, Wang Guang-lin, Professor of the Shanghai Foreign Trade Institute, is now introducing works by Chinese American, Chinese Australian, Chinese British, and Chinese Canadian writers.
In Taiwan, writers from Frank Chin to Maxine Hong Kingston are studied by scholars including Shan Te-Hsing, Pin-chia Feng, Ho Wen-ching, Lee Yucheng, and others. They have helped to sustain a cross-straits dialogue between Taiwan-based and mainland based Chinese scholars on issues of Chinese American, comparative, and diasporic literatures and through academic journals based in Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Chengdu, Taipei, Hong Kong, and Los Angeles. In Hong Kong, besides traditional university-based journals, new internet-based journals including Cha have embraced a more pan-Asian perspective and have included Chinese American writers as well. In the U.S., Amerasia Journal publishes literary critiques from both mainland China and Taiwan, and recently published an essay on Edward Said and an interview with Maxine Hong Kingston, both by Taipei-based Shan Te-Hsing, and an article on the Lu Xun’s influence on modern Chinese literature by Beijing-based Luo Xuanmin.
In the Greater Chinese world, nonetheless, English-language and Chinese-language literary productions still occupy separate realms of authorship, teaching, publishing, and readership. Luo Xuanmin, director of the Center for Translation at Tsinghua University, argues that translation thus remains key in bridging the gap in cross-cultural critique and Sino-American literary exchange.
Paths of Stone, Rivers of Ink *
The Hunan poet, Mai Mang (Yibing Huang), born in 1967, has spent half of his life in China, and the other in the West. He reflects upon his journey with the lines above, about a tortoise-shaped granite rock discovered in a desolate Los Angeles riverbed. Under a calm blue sky we two had stumbled upon the large gray and white rock compressed by fire, water, and time, its small pointed head seemingly tucked into what resembled the back of a tortoise. This ancient rock, we guessed, had probably existed here along with the original inhabitants of the area, the Tongva Indians, during their revolts against the Spanish landowners.
In the autobiographical essay in his collection, Stone Turtle: Poems 1987-2000 published in Iowa, Mai Mang continues: “Los Angeles River, a neglected and polluted river in our 'modern pastoral,' once was also a life-giving river, and the struggling stone turtle that I described in the title poem attested to this prevalence of life and native traditions. Turtle, a sacred being in the Chinese tradition as well as in various Native American traditions, has found its lodging and re-incarnation in a rock or stone. The adventure of life, like a river on the earth, flows, takes twists, and flows again.”
2008 marks the centennial year of the 1908 publication of Liang Qichao’s vision of the “New World;” a hundred years later, Chinese writers, artists, and filmmakers in China and in America are casting, and broadcasting, their visions of the world anew, in print, virtual, and mixed-media languages. In Fall of 2008, to commemorate the significant development of the reading and teaching of Chinese American and Asian American literature outside of the U.S., the UCLA Amerasia Journal will launch a special edition which features new essays by the leading proponents and scholars of Chinese American literature in the People's Republic of China cited above: Wu Bing, Zhang Ziqing, and Xu Yinggo. In addition, the issue will include writers and critics on Asian American literature from Italy, Sweden, Singapore, Korea, and Poland. See: http://www.aasc.ucla.edu/aascpress/
Print (in addition to the authors and books cited in this article): For the first critical analysis of the representation of the Chinese in American literature, see William P. Fenn, Ah Sin and His Brethren in American Literature (Peking: College of Chinese Studies, 1933), and more recently, William F. Wu, Yellow Peril: Chinese Americans in American Fiction 1850-1910. The Coming Man: 19th Century American Perceptions of the Chinese (Seattle, 1995), edited by Philip P. Choy, Lorraine Dong, and Marlon K. Hom, provides graphic documentation of the skewed images of the Chinese created and published by American magazines and tabloids of the day.
* "Paths of Stone, Rivers of Ink," is taken from an essay by Russell C. Leong in Zhang Ziqing, co-editor, Cultural Meetings: American Writers, Scholars and Artists in China published in China in 2003.
Electronic Databases: See, also, the Amerasia Journal complete text data base of over 40,000 pages — aascpress.metapress.com (launch date: October 2008) for interviews, writings, and essays by other noted writers and critics in Chinese American literature and society including: Frank Chin, Maxine Hong Kingston, Gordon H. Chang, L. Ling-chi Wang, Wing Tek Lum, Alan Chong Lau, Shan Te-Hsing, Dominika Ferens, Jeffrey Paul Chan, June Mei, Walter Lim, Marlon Hom, Sau-ling C. Wong, Jinqi Ling, and others. For past issues, also see http://www.aasc.ucla.edu/aascpress/. Thanks to King-Kok Cheung for reading and commenting on this essay, via the internet, from Beijing.
[keywords: literature, Sino-American world, Yellow Peril, insiders’ perspective, nationalism, cross-straits dialogue, Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Amerasia]