The First Chinese Lady

Andrew Singer on Afong Moy, China’s first female immigrant to the US

Afong Moy is generally accepted as the first Chinese woman to arrive in America, when she stepped off a ship in New York City as a teenager in 1834. She lived there for 17 documented years, and most likely the remainder of her life, but wasn’t mentioned in historical sources after around 1850. A few sailors and itinerant Chinese men had previously traveled across the Pacific since the first decades after the American Revolution, but only a handful or two, and long before the influx of immigrants during the Californian gold rush of 1848. Back then, China was an exotic mystery imbued with Orientalist myths and easy stereotypes. Afong Moy was a living, breathing representative, and her life reveals much about the earliest Chinese treatment in America.

Moy’s story is told in Nancy E. Davis’ biography The Chinese Lady: Afong Moy in Early America. Davis weaves a flowing, well-researched narrative (including 42 pages of end notes and a ten-page bibliography) of this quasi-tragic character. However, it is the character of America and Americans, not China and the Chinese, which is most clearly revealed in these pages. Part of the reason is because, as the author notes, almost all of our knowledge of Afong Moy has to be pieced together from third party sources looking at, talking about, and interacting with her – not the other way around. As such, what we glean about this young woman, with a few significant exceptions, is the gloss placed on her by the American viewer. In the reflected rendering of a Chinese woman, we see the views, prejudices and goals of the commentators.



Chinese Short Short Stories

Brian Hayes reviews Contemporary Chinese Short Short Stories, ed. Aili Mu

Most Mandarin textbooks incorporate Chinese culture into the learning process. Typically, the textbook’s protagonists find themselves in some conventional location in China (climbing the Great Wall, crowding onto a packed subway in Shanghai, visiting the Terracotta Army in Xi’an) and a Mandarin conversation ensues. This framework attempts to simultaneously teach Chinese culture and language. However grammatical structures, vocabulary and character recognition usually takes precedence over discussions about Chinese cultural mores. Readers are challenged to decipher what the textbook’s characters are saying, not necessarily why they say it.

At some point, formulaic textbook conversations and edited essays can wear down even the most ardent of Chinese learners. It becomes apparent to most students that there is a huge gap between the language provided in textbooks and authentic Mandarin source material. It is one thing to master sentence patterns and vocabulary lists, but quite another to become sensitive to the unseen cultural concepts that native Chinese speakers draw upon in their everyday interactions. Advanced learners are often simply told to go read texts written by native speakers, but the harsh reality is that many cultural allusions and references made by native speakers may not be appreciated or understood by the Chinese learner still finding his or her way to fluency. In short, after a few years of Mandarin study, learners often reach an impasse: textbooks and graded readers are too simple, and native-level writings and articles are too difficult.



The Sisters Who Made Modern China

James Carter reviews Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister by Jung Chang

One of the great challenges for authors writing biographies is their relationship to their subjects. They risk either putting them on a pedestal and explaining away their foibles, or demonizing them and finding evil intent behind every action. Jung Chang has swung to both horns of this dilemma in the past. In Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, she interpreted the historical evidence to claim that rather than the hidebound reactionary she is often portrayed to be, Cixi was a progressive visionary who, had she not been thwarted, would have presided over a golden age of Chinese democracy. On the other hand, in Mao: The Unknown Story, Chang and co-author Jon Halliday so thoroughly and unskeptically demonized Mao that they achieved the unlikely effect of bringing sinologists to write a book about their book itself, Was Mao Really a Monster?

In Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister: Three Women at the Heart of Twentieth-Century China, Jung Chang has opened a window onto the lives of the Soong sisters – Soong Ai-ling, Soong Ching-ling, and Soong May-ling – who like Cixi are on the short list of the most famous women in China’s modern history. Chang does not shy away from criticism in this latest book, though that criticism is not, for the most part, directed at her subjects. Sun Yat-sen comes off especially poorly, as a womanizing political opportunist. Chiang Kai-shek doesn’t shine either, and we already know Chang’s views on Mao. Sister’s 300 pages entertain and titillate through remarkable stories of unlikely experiences, but without the controversy or the intimacy of Chang’s earlier books.



What We Talk About When We Talk About China

Kyle Shernuk reviews Bill Hayton’s The Invention of China 

What does it mean to be American? If the 2020 presidential election and storming of the US Capitol made nothing else clear, it was that there are competing internal visions for what America was, is, and should be. That American identity is subject to change and can mean more than one thing at any given time makes it a slippery issue to discuss. It is also, arguably, a defining feature of (the myth of) America that we have the privilege to debate this with relative openness, even and especially when tensions run high.

Bill Hayton’s The Invention of China tells an analogous story about China, and what it means to be “Chinese.” The stakes of engaging in such discussions in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), however, are higher than in the US. The consequences of highlighting the malleability of the concept of “China” – which can be seen by the state as a form of splittism – can range from both online and physical harassment to incarceration or even being “disappeared” entirely. This notable contrast leads Hayton to raise a question that is critical for understanding modern China: Why are the definitions of China and Chineseness such sensitive issues in the PRC today?



Racism with Chinese Characteristics

How China’s imperial legacy underpins state racism and violence in Xinjiang – Magnus Fiskesjö

Due to incidents last year in the Chinese city of Guangzhou, where Africans were evicted and forced to sleep on the street simply because they are African, there is a growing realization around the world that Chinese racism exists. Despite the government's denials, racism against Africans in China is often blatant. In one widely circulated clip, one can see a white and a black woman both trying to enter a shopping mall: only the white woman is permitted, and both leave in disgust. Just as in the West's past, in China contempt for Africans is also often mixed up with patronizing exoticization. Chinese comedians wear blackface on state TV. In Shenzhen's Windows on the World theme park, dark-skinned ethnic minority people are choreographed to perform either as primitive Africans, or as primitive themselves.

All such racism is serious, as are incidents of street racism against Muslims in India and against Asians in Western countries that have taken place in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. This is to say nothing of the continued racism and police brutality in the United States. But as for China, we must also include the ongoing mass racist campaign run by the Chinese government, in Xinjiang, western China (or East Turkestan depending on whom you ask). Millions of people are being targeted solely because of their ethnicity – textbook racism. These are Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic minority people: over 12 million people who are not foreigners, but native inhabitants in their own land. They are also citizens of China, who on paper have a constitutional right to be culturally different. Yet since 2017, their nations have been put under a draconian program of racist profiling which discriminates and denigrates their ethnicity, culture, language and religion. The Chinese state deploys ominously biologistic terminology directly recalling the Nazis, and has detained at least one million people in extra-legal mass camps for “re-education” (that is, brainwashing). Many have perished inside; able-bodied ones are sent to forced labor.