From the Midwest to the Far East
By Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom Posted Jan 14 2007
Missouri and China do not ordinarily go together in people's minds. One tends to think of China as most closely tied to parts of the U.S. that either sit by the Pacific (like California) or were early magnets of Chinese migration (like New York)-and neither is true of the Show Me State. Still, dig around a bit and a host of connections between Missouri and the Middle Kingdom emerge. Some are merely interesting historical tidbits. For example, the fact that a nephew of the Chinese emperor attended the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904, or the fact that the plane that launched the missiles that hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999 set off for Serbia from a Missouri airfield. Other China-Missouri links are more significant, such as that a native of the Show Me State, Harry S. Truman, was President when Chinese and American forces fought each other in Korea. Still others are just bizarre. In this category, I would put the presence of the “New Shanghai Theater,” which hosts year-round performances by the Acrobats of China performing group, in Branson, Missouri (aka the “Las Vegas of the Ozarks”). And the infamous 1940 statement by a U.S. Senator that has often been quoted in the past to epitomize a certain kind of recurrent American hubris concerning nation-building projects: “with God's help we will lift Shanghai up and up, ever up, until it is just like Kansas City.”
Probably the single most intriguing connection between the two places, though, is a literary one, which was brought to my mind by the recent announcement that a National Book Award nomination had gone to Oracle Bones: A Journey between China's Past and Present. Peter Hessler, the author of this elegantly written book, which mixes elements of travelogue and memoir with reportage and political analysis, grew up in Columbia, Missouri-and he is just the latest in a long line of writers with ties to that state to emerge as an influential shaper of American images of China. The originator of the lineage can even be said to be none other than Mark Twain, the first Show Me State citizen to gain global renown as an author. Though he never made it to China on his travels, Twain was fascinated by the country, and he wrote everything from an epistolary tale about a Chinese immigrant (“Goldsmith's Friend Abroad Again”), to a newspaper editorial denouncing the “unequal treaties” that the West had forced upon the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) in the mid-1800s, to essays sympathetic to the anti-Christian Boxer insurgents (since, in his mind, any foes of missionaries couldn't be all bad).
The highpoint of China-writing by people with ties to Missouri came a bit later than Twain's day, in the early-to-mid 1900s. This was when Edgar Snow and Agnes Smedley, both Missouri-born journalists, published famous books on the Chinese Revolution. The influence of Snow's Red Star Over China (1936), the book through which many Americans got their first close look at the previously mysterious figure of Mao (presented there as a very sympathetic, indeed heroic figure), is hard to overstate. Smedley never wrote a book that had as big an impact, but her writings introduced American readers to new topics, such as the role that women played in the Chinese Revolution, and her Battle Hymn of China (1941) was one of the most widely read accounts of the country published in the United States during World War II.
Though Snow and Smedley were the most famous, they were far from the only journalists with Missouri ties to influence American images of China in the first half of the twentieth century. There was also the subject of Paul French's new University of Hong Kong Press biography, Carl Crow-A Tough Old China Hand: The Life, Times, and Adventures of an American in Shanghai, a man who, after traveling from Missouri to China, wrote books such as 400 Million Customers (1937) and The Chinese Are Like That (1943). There was John B. (J. B.) Powell, who wrote My Twenty-Five Years in China (1945), contributed many articles on Chinese affairs to American newspapers, and served for decades as the editor of the China Weekly Review, the most important Shanghai-based English language weekly-a periodical later edited by his son, John W. (Bill) Powell, who was born in China in 1917 but raised in Hannibal, Missouri, the same town in which Twain spent his childhood. Looking back just a bit further, there was Thomas F. Millard, who founded the magazine that the Powells would later run (Millard's Review of the Far East was its original title), contributed articles on China to the Nation and wrote books such as Our Eastern Question (1916) and China: Where It is Today and Why (1928), titles that are now largely forgotten but in their time were much talked about.
What, if anything, should we make of the fact that, as in Snow and Smedley's heyday, we are now in a period when interest in China is running high in America, and a writer with Missouri roots is emerging as a key shaper of images of that country? There is no way to tell if Hessler will ever write a book with the immediate impact and long legs of Red Star Over China, which has recently been justly criticized for presenting far too hagiographic a portrait of Mao, yet continues to show up on reading lists for college classes, due to the power of Snow's writing. But there is little doubt about Hessler's growing influence, thanks to the high praise and sales figures garnered by Oracle Bones, which comes on the heels of an acclaimed first book, River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (a memoir of the time he spent in Sichuan as a Peace Corp volunteer), and a series of notable articles for the New York Times, National Geographic and the New Yorker, for which he serves as the Beijing correspondent.
It is tempting to speculate that there might be something about China that gives it a special allure for people from Missouri, or that coming from that part of the American Midwest somehow makes it easier to find one's footing in the Middle Kingdom. Perhaps the key, a geographically minded theory-spinner might suggest, lies in the fact that the China is a country closely identified with its great rivers, while Missouri is a state intimately linked with the Mississippi, as Twain's writings make abundantly clear.
In reality, though, there is a more prosaic explanation of one crucial part of the story: the disproportionately important role of journalists with Missouri ties in inter-war China reporting. Namely, with the notable exception of Smedley, all of the writers from that period singled out above (as well as several other noted journalists who could have been mentioned) were affiliated with the famous journalism school based at the Columbia campus of the University of Missouri, which was the first professional program of its sort ever established. It was no accident that J. B. Powell would end up at the helm of the China Weekly Review: Millard had been one of Powell's professors and recruited his former student to follow him to Shanghai. An important book on the history of U.S. coverage of Chinese affairs, China Reporting: An Oral History of American Journalism in the 1930s and 1940s, even refers playfully to the influence of a “Missouri mafia,” in which connections made in Columbia classrooms were crucial. Old school ties helped them place stories on China in American newspapers, such as the Chicago Tribune (for which Millard and Powell both served as special correspondents and for which Snow later also wrote), linked them to Shanghai-based periodicals such as the China Weekly Review (where Snow worked for a time), and even connected them to leading Chinese journalists such as Hollington Tong (a University of Missouri alum who served for a time as Associate Editor of the China Weekly Review and then rose to a high position in Chiang Kai-shek's government).
A variety of connections to China were forged by early members of the “Missouri mafia” such as Millard and J.B. Powell, as well as by Walter Williams, the visionary first dean of the School of Journalism who took a trip Asia in the 1920s that extended the ties between the Columbia campus and Chinese journalists that began with the time that people such as Hollington Tong spent in the Midwest. These connections would prove to have lasting effects on both the Columbia campus and on American reporting on Chinese affairs. For example, one site that visitors to the School of Journalism still see today is a pair of stone lions that the Chinese government sent to it in the 1930s to honor the part that the institution had played in furthering understanding of China and educating students from that country. And the School's reputation as a training ground for American journalists bound for China brought students from other parts of the country, with an interest in East Asia, to the campus in the 1930s and beyond. Some of these, such as Seymour Topping, former managing editor of the New York Times and author of books such as A Journey Between Two Chinas (1972), would go on to distinguished careers reporting on Chinese affairs.
In one sense, drawing attention to the University of Missouri's part in the story of American coverage of China makes it even more tempting to treat Hessler as following in the footsteps of Show Me State journalists like Millard and J. B. Powell. After all, the school where the former taught the latter (and, incidentally, the latter taught Snow) is located in the city in which Hessler grew up. And yet, in another sense, highlighting the academic side of the tale undermines any notion of continuity with the old Missouri mafia: Hessler did not go to the University of Missouri but to Princeton; he did not major in Journalism but in English and Creative Writing, and he made his way into covering China via a much more circuitous route than people like Snow, as much by way of travel writing and a general wanderlust (according to published interviews with the author, at least) as by anything else.
In the end, though, noting this difference between the routes that Hessler and members of the old Missouri mafia took to China reporting does not make probing for a local connection a dead end-for the author of Oracle Bones is not the first person with ties to the Show Me State to follow the trajectory just described. I am thinking here of St. Louis-born Emily Hahn (1905-1997), whose name is not now widely known but in the middle of the twentieth century was among the most famous Americans writing about China. In fact, many of the same readers who got their first sense of Mao Zedong as a person from Snow, got their first introduction to Chiang Kai-shek as an individual from Hahn's most famous China book, The Soong Sisters, one of the eponymous figures in which was the Generalissimo's dynamic wife, Soong Mei-ling.
For Hahn, too, it was wanderlust that got her to China: she was just supposed to stop for a short visit but ended up living in Shanghai for several years. While there, she taught English (as did Hessler initially) and scandalously cohabitated with a Chinese poet before, even more scandalously, starting a liaison with a married British military officer based in Hong Kong, Charles Boxer, with whom she had a child and whom she eventually wed. Hahn, like Hessler, found an ideal venue for her musings on China in the New Yorker, to which ended up contributing well over one hundred articles. The most frequently reprinted of these was
“The Big Smoke,” which began: “Though I had always wanted to be an opium addict, I can't claim that as the reason I went to China.” One of her great strengths, in that article as in books such as China to Me (1944), a very popular work when it first appeared, was to combine personal details with telling insights into a land that, for Americans, seemed very far away, not just physically but emotionally as well-something that Hessler does skillfully in both River Town and Oracles Bones.
It might seem more appealing to Hessler to be seen as a fledgling Edgar Snow (albeit one with a more critical view of the Communist Party) than as the next Emily Hahn (even one with a less colorful personal life and perhaps a more critical view of Chiang Kai-shek, a far more menacing figure than some of her writings suggest). But he should be able to take some comfort from being placed in the same category as that earlier New Yorker correspondent with Missouri roots who, like Hessler, was capable of finding as much humor in her own predicaments as a foreigner abroad as in the words and actions of those she encountered. He has mentioned in interviews wanting to combine an ongoing focus on Chinese issues with forays into coverage of and travels to other parts of the world. This is just what Hahn did, with China to Me being followed by Africa to Me and England to Me, among many other books.