A specialist book, Writing the South Seas is, steeped with lexicon which could take getting used to unless you work in the field. The title, however, is vivid: the term “South Seas” or (Nanyang in Mandarin) is familiar to everyone of Chinese ancestry from Southeast Asia. It refers to the lands south of China which are connected by an expanse of water aptly known as the South China Sea. Between the 1850s and the 1940s, the waves of this sea carried twenty million people from southern China to the varied countries of the Nanyang. Some of my ancestors were among them.
Those with an academic interest in Chinese literature are undoubtedly aware of the CT Hsia classic History of Modern Chinese Fiction which has just been reissued by the Chinese University Press. Those who aren’t might find the thought of a 600-page tome of literary criticism to be more than a little daunting; that would be a pity, for the volume is an example of erudition and clarity of expression.
One would think—what with this year being the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare—that a treatment of the playwright in China would be inevitable. And so it has proved: Nancy Pellegrini’s The People’s Bard has just been released as the latest Penguin China Special.
While the communication of ideas across cultures is itself generally a good thing, it inevitably involves the transmission of both good and bad ideas.
Richard Jean So, an assistant professor of English at the University of Chicago, in his new book Transpacific Community, describes the development and evolution of a cultural, literary network between certain writers and activists in China and the United States beginning in the 1920s and continuing through World War II. It included on the American side, Agnes Smedley, Pearl Buck, and Paul Robeson, and on the Chinese side, Lin Yutang and Lao She. The network’s growth was fostered by what Jean So calls “a new era in media technologies and the rise of a ubiquitous discourse of ‘communications’”, which enabled literary and artistic works to be transmitted more readily between East and West.