At this time of shifting geopolitical relationships—“decoupling” between China and the US, rapprochement between China and Russia—it is unsurprising that the cultural and intellectual as well as political history of these relationships has attracted increasing attention. Recent volumes on Sino-Soviet “internationalist” interaction is now joined by Arise, Africa! Roar, China!, Gao Yunxiang’s recent study of “the close relationships between a trio of famous twentieth-century African Americans and two little-known Chinese” from, roughly, the 1930s through the advent of the Cold War. Her three Americans, WEB Du Bois, Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes “need no introduction”, she writes, “but their Chinese allies, journalist and musician Liu Liangmo and Sino-Afro-Caribbean dancer-choreographer Sylvia Si-lan Chen, have, until now, been consigned to the dustbin of history.”
This is an academic title from an university press, and Gao starts by making the case for her book
While most scholarship on Sino-American relations treats the United States as default white, this book breaks new pathways by foregrounding African Americans, combining the study of Black internationalism and the experiences of Chinese Americans with a transpacific narrative, and understanding the global remaking of China’s modern popular culture and politics …
a case which, for the non-academic reader, is entirely unnecessary, for Gao is by any measure a talented and engaging writer who brings her fascinating subjects vividly to life. The book is devoid of jargon; if there’s theory, it’s hidden under readable prose.
Sylvia Chen’s life is the stuff of movies, or should be.
On the one hand, while Du Bois, Robeson and Hughes seem to have had a longer-lasting resonance and legacy in China than their Soviet counterparts, notably Sergey Tretyakov, any such treatment is by its nature somewhat anecdotal. The significance of these relationships depends on what one is measuring. Nevertheless, should these three need a bit more introduction that Gao thinks might or should be necessary, her book serves that purpose as well: while her coverage uses relationships with China as focus and context, the biographies cover far more ground than that.
Of particular interest, narrative and otherwise, is the way that these
five citizens of the world interacted with one another in a variety of ways, at times collaborating and contributing to historic alliances, at other times falling in and out of love …
for which Moscow (rather than Beijing) was often the central pivot. Gao includes numerous details about things one perhaps knew but maybe forgot, such as Paul Robeson’s fondness for “Chee Lai!” (now the Chinese national anthem), his renditions of which are now easily available online. Langston Hughes’s chapter is liberally sprinkled with his poetry. And the malign invasiveness of the FBI in this period is also well worth being reminded of.
While both Chinese protagonists are interesting, Sylvia Chen’s life is the stuff of movies, or should be. Of mixed Chinese, African and French heritage, she was the daughter of Trinidad-born Eugene Chen (who became a leading diplomat in the Nationalist Government) and Alphonsine Agatha Ganteaume, a French creole. She was educated first in London and later at the Bolshoi (in 1930, she—probably wisely—declined the lead role in the Bolshoi’s new production of The Red Poppy) and became an accomplished dancer and adventurous choreographer, with credits from China to Hollywood. She was for a while the love interest of Langston Hughes, or believed herself to be. Although she lived in the US for decades, she was kept in immigration limbo due to her Chinese ancestry and leftist political leanings.
Although Gao has considerable sympathy for her subjects and their struggles for personal and broader social justice, she doesn’t treat them with kid gloves. She notes that
Du Bois flirted with support for Japanese military aggression against China, arguing that an Asian dictatorial power was better than Western colonial governance.
Some of Du Bois’s later comments about China have also not aged well. And despite China being portrayed, and portraying itself, as a haven for African-Americans oppressed in their country, China was not without racial prejudice itself: the fact that Chen’s mother was of Caribbean African descent was something trailed both her and her father Eugene (who became Foreign Minister in the Nationalist Government) inside China as well as out. Langston Hughes, meanwhile, is portrayed as playing unfairly or unfeelingly with Chen’s romantic sensibilities.
Gao concludes with
Together, their lives stand as powerful counters to narratives that foreground racism and alienation. Their lives offer a view into the power and potential of Black internationalism and Sino-African American collaboration. “Arise, Africa!” and “Roar, China!” as articulated by Du Bois and Hughes, respectively, match the shared struggles of a nation and a nation-within-a-nation. Their power and promise resonate to this day.
One is left with the impression that “Sino-African American relations” might, at some level, have had an importance at least as great as that of those she calls the “default white” with which China, after all, had had, and continued to have, a rather poor experience.
Gao has a bobble or two, admittedly somewhat outside the book’s main focus. When she writes that
Soviet futurist poet and playwright Sergei Tretiakov had first authored a poem titled “Roar, China!” around 1924, while teaching Russian in Beijing. He soon transformed it into a play prophetically predicting the 1926 Wanxian Incident, in which the British military massacred hundreds of Chinese civilians …
she seems to conflate the poem and the play. The two were discussed in detail by, for example, Edward Tyerman in Internationalist Aesthetics: China and Early Soviet Culture:
Tretyakov … reused the title of his poem “Roar China” to name a new play … in January 1926 … At its core was a recent historical event: an act of British imperialist violence that had taken place in the city of Wanxian …
The only other drawback is that because the lives are organized thematically rather than chronologically, Gao will jump back and forth in time. Whatever the merits of laying the stories out this way, the transitions can be a bit abrupt.
But neither detracts from the book’s main and major virtue: Gao tells a good story, actually five, and tells them very well. That the stories and protagonists are all linked yields a book is far more than the sum of its parts.