“Transpacific Community: America, China, and the Rise and Fall of a Cultural Network” by Richard Jean So

Agnes Smedley

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.

"Transpacific Community: America, China, and the Rise and Fall of a Cultural Network", Richard Jean So (Columbia University Press, May 2016)
“Transpacific Community: America, China, and the Rise and Fall of a Cultural Network”, Richard Jean So (Columbia University Press, May 2016)

The author’s admiration for these writers is evident. He characterizes as historically important Smedley’s proletarian novel Daughter of Earth, and praises her work in collaborating with Chinese leftist writers to organize a campaign to liberate the imprisoned communist writer Ding Ling in the mid-1930s and publicize the murders of leftist writers in Longhua (the Five Martyrs) in 1931.

He notes the significance of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, which articulated

 

a vision of democracy that made American and Chinese notions of ‘equality’ mutually commensurable within a modern, liberal ideological framework

 

and lauds her involvement in the effort to repeal the Chinese Exclusion laws.

Richard Jean So describes Paul Robeson, the left-wing African-American singer, musician and actor, as “extraordinarily erudite, intellectually curious, and academically disciplined,” and highlights his collaboration with Chinese singer Liu Linangmo in the United States in the early 1940s in developing a “fusion of African American and Chinese folk traditions.” Together they wrote a songbook, China Sings, and released a best-selling record, Chee Lai!, which they believed “resonated with liberation struggles across the world in the early 1940s.”

Lin Yutang was a prolific Chinese writer living in the United States in the early 1940s. Lin’s books, especially My Country and My People (1936), Moment in Peking (1937), and A Leaf in the Storm (1941), made him, in Jean So’s words, “the toast of the New York literary scene.” But, the author notes, Lin’s “habits and dispositions ran counter” to Chinese leftist writers who “were producing vicious polemics and blending politics and art.” To them, Lin’s work, which included a Chinese translation of the American Declaration of Independence, “reeked of a passive bourgeois complacency.” Lin believed that China was fertile ground for US liberal ideas. After it became clear that the communists would emerge victorious in the postwar struggle for power, Lin, in Chinatown Family (1948), promoted the notion of Chinese immigrant assimilation into American society.

The book’s final subject, the Chinese writer Lao She, who came to the United States for an extended visit in 1945, according to So, facilitated “ideological harmony between Chinese leftist activists and American diplomats,” particularly through his novel Rickshaw Boy. State Department officials referred to this novel about the class struggle and socialism as “liberal” and “democratic”. In 1945, the government released a special edition of the English translation of the book and directed its circulation among US soldiers stationed in Asia.

 

But there is another side to this history. While the book succeeds in telling the story of this cultural network and the writers and artists who facilitated it, it is selective in its discussion of the complete political aspects of this cultural network.

Lao She for example returned to China and had an honored place among writers under Mao’s regime until the Cultural Revolution when he was denounced and apparently committed suicide.

The author laments the Cold War’s destruction of the US-Chinese cultural network. “The success of Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communists on the Chinese mainland,” he explains,

 

the rise of Harry Truman and the American century in the postwar half-decade, and the failure of Henry Wallace in the 1948 election ensured a rigid democratic/communist antagonism between the United States and China in the next three decades.

 

However lamentable the demise of the US-Chinese cultural network, there are hints of moral equivalence in So’s book. Whatever So feels about Henry Wallace, who had the backing of the US Communist Party in the 1948 election, and the “rigid” Harry Truman, the US government’s responsibility for worsening US-Chinese relations was in no way comparable to Mao’s communist regime which came to power in China a year later. He also suggests that Agnes Smedley, who died during an operation in London in 1950, was murdered by the US State Department.

There were, furthermore, those in the US government quite receptive to socialism and the importance of the class struggle. High-level US officials, such as Deputy Treasury Secretary Harry Dexter White, White House staffer Lauchlin Currie, and the State Department’s Alger Hiss, along with some lower-level bureaucrats were either actively working on behalf of the communists or ideologically sympathetic to the communist cause. There is no mention in the book of the Institute of Pacific Relations (IPR), the infamous Amerasia case, and Venona (US signals intercepts of Soviet communications during and after the war), which revealed the extent of communist infiltration of the US government before, during and after the war. These revelations, it is worth noting, preceded the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

More troublesome is the author’s failure to mention Smedley’s role in Richard Sorge’s Soviet spy ring during the 1940s, and his downplaying of her work with the Comintern apparatus in China to promote the eventual success of Mao’s revolution; and his unwillingness to note or come to terms with Robeson’s communist sympathies, including his worshipful tribute to Joseph Stalin that appeared in the New World Review shortly after the dictator’s death.

The five writers featured in the book, the author claims, “embraced liberalism as an attitude” and “imagined the Transpacific as an environment of flexible thought where communication engendered community.” However true this may be, in the end, their work had more cultural than political consequences. But the dark side of this was that Smedley and Robeson, in their efforts to promote global liberalism, used their considerable literary and artistic talents in the service of the most murderous regimes in history, and unlike some other Western “political pilgrims”, they remained unrepentant to the end.


Francis P Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War. His writings appear in The Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman and other publications. He is an attorney, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy.