The China Boom
We who dwell in China find ourselves, aside from our more obvious difficulties, in a peculiar situation. The world is watching us, or at any rate it used to watch us, say the newspaper correspondents as they depart, before the fickle public wearied of China’s plight however piteous, and turned their attention to the fresher horrors of Europe. Yet we have no idea of what we look like. We cannot hear from the interior, where everything is really happening; we must wait until foreign papers pick up their information so that we may reprint it. What news reaches us is merely that which has been selected by news agencies, and then censored. Most of the occurrences in other regions of China never come to our eyes or ears.
As for the outside world, judging from our daily journals’ discreet remarks, that world is sympathetic, and greatly given to bonfires of Japanese silk stockings, resolutions on the part of pacifist students, and questions in the House of Commons. This is gratifying. Yet a thought is inevitable, as it is to any actor on the stage; what do they think of us really? How do we look, from the other side of the footlights?
Such frivolous reflections, incongruous in war-swept Shanghai, led me in the unhealthy hush that followed the noisy war, for want of normal work, to begin a survey of modern fiction dealing with China. As yet we have not received any war literature; these books are a record of a “boom” that prepared Europe and America for nearly a decade of peace to understand some small bit of Asia, now in the grip of war. How well-prepared are the people at home by these books?
I have lived in China three years. This is not a long time. I am still a novice compared with those foreigners who can remember being twice evacuated from the upper Yangtze. Yet three years have somehow, in the insidious way of years, dulled my first impressions and gently removed from my mind the sharp clear pictures of China I expected to find, the China which had been painted for me fragmentarily, through a lifetime, by people, pictures, museums, newspapers, and books.
I do not mean to say that I was full of expectations of China, nor that I had crammed for my visit like a student preparing for his entrance examinations. I was no Sinologue, wise in the ways of Asia from years of study in some library of the Dynasties. On the contrary, China was not my chief interest in travelling, and I was actually en route to Africa when I stopped off in Shanghai for that fatal first fortnight. My ideas of Asia were therefore just as vague and undirected as any American’s could possibly be. Now, it is exactly because of this that I desire to recapture that state of mind; could I understand myself of three years ago, I feel, I would be in a fair way to understanding the mentality of the American at home who has never seen China and never hopes to, who reads the newspapers and forms his opinions on what he finds there. How outrageously mistaken was I, three years ago? What ridiculous misapprehensions clouded my understanding? And why did I make their mistakes; what agencies misled me then, just as they are now misleading my compatriots?
To begin with I must make a comparison of two experiences. I have always found that personal knowledge belies rumour to a remarkably large extent. My travels have often led me, in the footsteps of previous explorers, violently to deny their observations and conclusions. This would not matter had I kept my disagreement to myself, but I have always been a foolishly hopeful person, with the naïve idea that if people are wrong, they should be told about it without delay. Time after time experience has proved me mistaken, to my mystification and discomfort. People don’t want to be told. Their early ardent beliefs, their little warped romances are dear to them.
My first collision with this attitude came after I returned to the middle West from New Mexico and Arizona. This region of the United States was then enjoying the height of its popularity. After years of feeding on folksongs and thrillers and movie matinées, people were urged to go out and see the wild West for themselves, at cut rates and in controlled groups, shepherded by an astute Railway’s employees [sic]. The slogan “See America First” was shouted at one from gay posters depicting the Grand Canyon, the towering red cliffs which bound the desert, dignified Redskins posing against symbolical setting suns, and incredibly handsome cowboys in picture hats. People who had been saving up for Europe now flooded west by thousands. It was more patriotic, it was as cheap now that the exchange had shifted, and it was certainly, considering the language difficulties, more comfortable.
In the race for the tourist trade, New Mexico was winning out. Hitherto Montana and Nevada and Oregon had held the American fancy, but somebody working for the astute Railway discovered that the Mexican influence upon the Southwest could be turned into publicity value. A novelist born in the Southwest happened to write a prize novel, and the thing was done. Magazines became receptive to stories of ancient Spanish conquistadores, the Santa Fé Trail, and the Penitentes who paraded every Easter.
I went out to the Southwest in the employ of this same astute Railway, and I learned to know New Mexico somewhat. Do not misunderstand me. I was not, as they say, “disillusioned”. I still love that desert country beyond any other, and cherish the hope of some day living there. But working on the inside, as it were, I found that certain of the publicity items changed their colour for me. When I went home, then, and remarked that a famous curio-dealer’s self-told romantic story was not strictly true, and that a certain cowboy because of his youth had always been a dude-wrangler and nothing else, and that true cowboys wear little flat black hats instead of those enormous swooping Stetsons so beloved of the movies—I was met with a violent opposition which amazed and hurt me. I think the straw that broke the camel’s back and ruined my reputation forever in family circles was my shattering statement that Lo, the poor Indian, the vanishing Redskin, is not vanishing at all. His birth-rate is increasing to an extent alarming to the Government, which is hard-pressed to find enough wholly worthless land out of which to make more Reservations for him.
Now, the Redskin has been an object of pity for years and years. I daresay no race is more popular in America than this mysterious aborigine. I myself when I was a child wept over his sad fate, his inevitable disappearance, and my brothers and sisters and parents shared my indignation against our rude forefathers who had so mistreated the hapless fellows of Pocahontas. You would have thought that everyone would share my joy over the discovery that he is not vanishing, after all. You might expect a little decent appreciation of the fact that Pocahontas’ collateral descendants are getting on well. But no. All unwittingly I had broken a settled notion, romantic and tenderly beautiful in its tragedy. Lo the poor Indian had jolly well got to go on being poor, or else … In fact, I was probably mistaken, they said; I didn’t know anything. I was indeed all wrong. After a week of sporadic argument, my family relapsed comfortably into their old, fine indignation on behalf of the Redskin, so mistreated and harried, so soon to disappear from this earth along with the dodo and the ichthyosaurus, mute, tragic evidence of Progress’ immutable decree. As for my statement, they must be put down to the cheap cynicism of youth. And since I was wrong about the Redskin, I was also wrong, probably, about the cowboys and the curio-dealer. Their dream was still safe.
Anyone but my stupid self would have learned his lesson from this, but it takes more than one failure to convince me. That is why I wrote a book after my visit to Africa, a book which did not agree with most of the things hitherto written about the Dark Continent. Later another effort appeared, called Debunking Africa, which did what I tried to do in that people read it, but it failed as signally as did I in revising their opinions of Africa’s dangers and thrills. Debunking Africa was acceptable because it was funny, but my book simply enraged everybody. I could not undertand why; I had loved Africa, and done my best for her. In presenting the Itura Forest as a pleasant region for anybody who likes solitude and quiet, peopled by gentle and hungry natives who are overworked, I was outraging the boyhood dreams of many a sedentary bank-clerk and hundreds of practical bond-salesmen. My sincerely truthful picture of safari as a simple camping-trip, and of the hospital as a small mitigation of squalor and poverty in the lives of these most un-fierce savages, was called disheartening and lying and dull. I had done even worse; I had trod on the toes of the modern artists. Tired, as artists usually are, of everything which daily life in America and England can offer, they had built up a little Paradise in the Africa of their dreams, where happy, free natives led lives of incredible sexual strength, dancing the long day through their very significant and symbolical dances, and having orgies all night.
The reporters of popular newspapers attempted to get at least something familiar out of me. Do not be misled; newspapers never want anything new. They have grasped what I took so long to learn, that the public wants the same old stories served up with the same headlines and pictures.
“Not one attempt at rape?” they pleaded. “No mutiny in the camp? And nowhere that you could have called yourself the First White Woman to Set Foot?”
Incredibly, I had to deny it. The natives of Africa, in spite of all that passion with which we have invested them, remained un-inflamed by my pallid charms. My explanation, that most tropical climates have a calming effect upon the passions, was not accepted. Hot countries make hot people. It must have been a lack in myself. Everybody knew already that negroes are madly sexual … As for mutiny, though I admitted that fifty years ago it might not have been so easy as I found it to cross the Itura unarmed, nobody cared about fifty years ago except that they had all read Stanley. Now, about Stanley I have various strong beliefs, borne out by a book not nearly so well-read, by his lieutenant. Stanley was a journalist; Stanley was a professional explorer, and explorers have ever been the same. Were his sufferings, his toils, his hungers, quite so unmitigated as he often made out?
Anyway nobody liked my book, and until I stopped talking about Africa nobody liked me either. It took a year or two for the scandal to die down. Until I stressed my memories of the beauty of negroes’ naked bodies rather than their preoccupation with famine; until I forgot the ramifications of Colonial government and chattered about tom-tom rhythms, nobody would talk to me at all. I found unexpected support in the works of Schweinfurth, actually the First White Man to set foot in many African regions, but he has never been famous. He was only a scientist, not an explorer; he sought healing herbs, not gold or stranded missionaries; nobody was interested in his statement that the untrammelled savage is of all men the most captive, the most tied by convention and taboo. I might at least, they obviously felt, have been the First White Woman to do this or that. They felt that I had failed them most of all when I pointed out that traders and missionaries and Mrs. Martin Johnson have really been just about everywhere before me. In vain I described the sensations of the fairly large colony in Sierra Leone, with people snug and happy in the civilization they have so laboriously wrought, when they read the effusions of Mr. Seabrooke, who dined out for years in Paris and New York on the strength of that one dinner in Sierra Leone of alleged human flesh…
Very well, and now for China. What do all these good people want to hear about China?
It is not quite as bad as it might be. They don’t believe any more in the insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu, and that is rather a pity, for Fu-Manchu was attractive in his way. I have been looking at him again; he has always fascinated me, and he still does. “Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government—which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.”
Remarkable, is it not? Fu-Manchu was the forerunner of those moving-pictures which so often offended the censors in China, all those thrilling mysteries wherein Anna May Wong played the cunning adventuress or the faithful slave-girl who always died for love. He came ahead of Burke’s Limehouse, and the dope-fiends in the dope-dens of San Francisco. He left to his fictional posterity his inscrutability, a quality we must take on trust, for Fu-Manchu was far from inscrutably silent. Indeed, his villainies always came to naught because of a fatal chattiness, and never did he learn by experience to cease telling his victims just what he meant to do to them. But Dr. Petrie has told us over and over again that the Doctor is inscrutable, and we must believe him; is he not Chinese? Of course, even though his name be Manchu.
Those were halcyon days for Mr. Rohmer and the movies. The war had not yet made everybody tiresomely sensitive about passports and reputations. We could read and write freely of Roumanian villains, Italian gangsters, German arch-plotters, with never a protest from any Ambassador. Even when they did at last resent that sort of thing, we still had Asia. In those days, China did not care what strange stuff we wished to read on Sundays, and so Fu-Manchu went on prowling about, frightening us into fits with his wicked test-tubes, his cat-green eyes and his hysterical voice. E. Phillips Oppenheim had to be content with nameless Balkan states, but Sax Rohmer still had Fu-Manchu and The Scorpion. Ah, that Scorpion! It was in Soochow, or rather Sû-chow, where he was first seen, near the Wû-Men Bridge. He wore a thick green veil, and ricksha coolies fell on their faces at his approach, whereas Fu-Manchu’s activities centred about Ho-Nan, with an occasional foray for more wickedness into the mysterious purlieus of Kiang-Su. The Scorpion may not have been quite as Chinese as Fu-Manchu. East is East to Mr. Rohmer, and he binds together many countries, China and Egypt and India, with happy abandon. Their peoples are all Orientals to him, inimical to the wholesome West, flooding in sinister number from the West India Dock Road to pester honest citizens…
Enough of Mr. Rohmer; we have many later books to examine. Time brought a change to China, and suddenly she showed a belated resentment at this nonsense. Perhaps there was an official protest, perhaps merely a boycott; anyway, Dr. Fu-Manchu, to my everlasting regret, stayed at last in his grave. But China remained secret for many years; so secret, in fact, that we used to accept without laughter a song I learned in my early school-days, a really remarkable piece of geographical confusion. Was it about China or Japan? Nobody knew.
Across the purple hilltops, and beyond the sunset skies,
I give you my solemn word, that is what we used to sing in kindergarten in America, twenty-five years ago.
This article does not pretend to be a work of scholarship, the result of long and painstaking investigation. My library is limited, my memory defective. I am merely putting down my own impressions when the Boom began in Chinese topics for English fiction. It was in 1931 that I became aware of a feeling amongst the intelligentsia—horrid word—of New York, that China was Significant. Since the happenings of 1927, I suppose, this feeling had been growing stronger, but not until a dinner party of publishers’ readers, sub-editors and so on, did I know how much the young people were thinking and talking of China. I had interrupted somebody who was speaking of it, and he turned on me angrily. “Don’t you realize that over there the most immense, the most important thing in the world is happening?” he snapped. “If we’re really to make anything of this mess of a world, the strength is coming from China, and it’s coming soon.”
China? I gaped at him. There had been a ridiculous book published during my last university year. The Rising Tide of Colour, it was called, and it had angered me. But I had not bothered about it. It appeared a year before the Revolution…
One of those people shortly afterwards busied himself with the English translation of Marc Chadourne’s book in French: China. Actually it has no place in our list, since it is not fiction. It is not quite fact either. M. Chadourne toured China and wrote a travel-diary, vaguely Leftist in sentiment; a very short book for such a large country. Through it one feels that M. Chadourne took the easiest way, asking questions rather than learning the language to find things out for himself. After all, it is not easy to learn Chinese in a few months, which is all the time he had for it. Besides, he had complete confidence in his guides. Because they were proper Leftists, he seems to have though, of course they told the truth, and of course they knew everything, and of course they told him all of it, without mistake or falsehood or reservation. His style is breezy, cocky, and has that faint tinge of amused superiority with which a Frenchman usually regards any country but his own. I remember reading China in New York because of the Covarrubias illustrations, and because that dinner party had made me feel uncomfortable ignorant of current affairs. From it I gathered that the Middle Kingdom was awfully funny, hopelessly corrupt, and sometimes dangerous for courageous journalist-travellers like M. Chadourne. Her only hope, it seemed, was in her Youth, and foreign education had marred them…
To be perfectly fair, Mr. [sic] Chadourne did call attention to certain aspects of Chinese education; it was from his book that I first learned how appallingly many and useless are the schools and universities which hopeful businessmen have founded in Shanghai. The last page of the final chapter, added for the American edition, is of particular interest in the year of 1938: “She (Japan) adds, not without some justification, ‘We represent order and civilization in face of the non-civilized. Leave to us the role of policeman.’”
Another French commentator is André Malraux, who became a best-seller by way of China, with his Condition Humaine [sic]. He is an ardent young man, and he came to China for other reasons than to produce a book and a few lectures. It is his really arresting style rather than the setting which attracted his public’s attention, but the natural result of reading it was heightened interest in the Revolution of 1927. Fiery and sincere, it is very convincing in spirit. Mr. Malraux may not have known much of Shanghai, and many of the details are wrong, but these are of no importance. For the first time I saw the Chinese as people possibly like myself instead of excuses for romantic longings, or as mysteries sinister and profound. Malraux’ China must have disappointed the yearning bank-clerks and their wives, who adored the Kai Lung books, slung Mandarin coats over their pianos, and shuddered pleasurably over Thomas Burke. They explained away their disappointment, however, by the phrase “Communist propaganda”. Anything which is propaganda is automatically discredited in their minds, and so their Flowery Kingdom, the ideal which they had held from childhood, old and beloved, was still safe. In vain did Chen live and toil and die; useless were Kyo’s sufferings. China was still a nation of impassive slant-eyed Orientals or delightful old philosophers. Still the Western stage portrayed pigtailed imbeciles who kept their hands up their silken sleeves and hissed sibilantly when they bowed.
To my mind, the only creature who kept my ideas straight about China during that time was a Cantonese laundryman, memory of my early childhood, a kind old fellow who welcomed me to his shop where I chattered with him and played happily with his kitten. I love him dearly. My mother put a stop to the affair because of her firm belief that cats transmitted typhoid to little girls, and so I lost my first boy-friend. But all through the later years of ignorance I held to the memory of my laundryman. He had not been impassive, nor sinister, enigmatic, nor anything we were told to believe of the Chinese.
For some reason, the sugary whimsicalities of Kai Lung have always left me cold. I don’t know just why. Some of the best people swear by Mr. Bramah, but I haven’t that much of a sweet tooth. It is perhaps unfair to assume that Kai Lung was ever intended as realistic picture of a Chinese; he is an Englishman of Puckish nature, wearing fancy-dress to protect himself in his sarcasm, that is all. I am perfectly sure that he makes the mistake all fancy-dress Chinamen do; he is wearing a woman’s embroidered coat, I will bet anybody. A red coat, at that…
The Good Earth was an eye-opener in a way. Certainly it gave a healthy jog to the China built up in foreigners’ minds. Wang Lung was no Fu-Manchu, nor was he the pigtailed comic of the early cinema shorts; neither was he a Chinese Alexander Woollcott, like Kai Lung. He was a peasant, the Peasant of any country in the world. But Mrs. Buck’s style, now so famous, gave to her prose a quality we usually associate only with poetry, and though this quality is no demerit to her story, still it does remove Wang Lung to a plane just a little too high for the rest of us. The Good Earth is so much a work of art that it transcends or falls short of realism, though I do not wish to imply that realism was Mrs. Buck’s chief intention. In her later stories, where she comes closer to it, she loses a certain part of her first excellence, so no doubt her instinct was right. In its own fashion The Good Earth is a splendid book, but it is not that perfect, all-satisfying book of China for which China waits.
Nearer to this ultimate ideal, I think, is Alice Tisdale Hobart’s first best-seller, Oil for the Lamps of China. I say this now, after living three years in China; read without even this slight knowledge and in America, it must give a false impression. After all, of course, it does not pretend to be a story of China, but of Americans in China, and there is all the difference in the world between the two viewpoints. Probably no foreigner will ever come nearer to writing the perfect book, and Mrs. Hobart was wise in refraining from the attempt. Even Somerset Maugham, who dares most things, has never dared put himself into the mind of a native of any of those countries he so loves to use as a background to his chronicles of Anglo-Saxon colonial vagaries. To my mind, Mr. Maugham’s reputation as writer of Java, China, Malaya et al. is a mistake; any of his tales could be told of any country, for they are all about Anglo-Saxons, and the difference lies merely in the colour of the servant bringing in tea, the rhythm of native music in the background, the vegetation of the forest which has such disturbing effect upon Mr. Maugham’s Ladyships and gentlemen…
To come back to Oil for the Lamps of China, I salute it as a good job, without loving it. Its hero Stephen, sensitive American, learns through an arduous lifetime that he can make friends with the Chinese, but to my mind he would not have taken such a long time about it had he lost his superstitious and exaggerated idea of the difficulty of such a feat. “On the right and the left of a square table they sat—Stephen, correct in his well-cut riding breeches … Merchant Yang, clothed in a long blue cotton gown … In his left hand, then in his right, Yang held two walnuts which he passed constantly back and forth over each other. Stephen felt his gaze held by the supple beauty of the merchant’s moving fingers. The slow Eastern politeness began. Sons, ancestors were discussed. ‘Is the most honourable merchant a native of this new and rich province?’ asked Stephen … ‘I, a most miserable and humble man, am a native of Shansi.’ … ‘Ah, a newcomer then, like my most miserable self? How long has the honourable one been here?’ ‘Two hundred years.’ Silence between them, a long Eastern silence … ‘Two hundred years!’ thought Stephen. ‘And I have been thinking of Manchuria as a new country and these men as pioneers!’ Some door of perception in his mind opened and he saw Yang a thousand, two thousand years old, so identified with his clan that he did not distinguish his residence in Manchuria from that of his ancestor. Two thousand years of memory—the accumulated wisdom of Yang’s merchant ancestors was his.”
But why was it is, any more than the wisdom of Stephen’s ancestors was Stephen’s? Nevertheless, “That’s it,” said the hundreds of people who read Oil for the Lamps of China, with satisfaction. “That’s the stuff we want; that’s just what we’ve always known about the Chinese. Queer people, great on family and all that, like the Jews … This is a good book,” they said to themselves. “She certainly understands the Chinese.”
I grant that her portrayal of Western business methods in contact with the East is excellent. Only, this insistence upon Chinese peculiarities is misleading, taking us away from the ultimate truth that these differences are traceable not to some occult inheritance, but to tradition and training and environment. Unless we learn this, how can we ever understand China or ourselves? Is not this attitude, harmless and pretty though the results be here, at the bottom of Nazi persecution, Fascist banditry, unfair immigration laws? There is too much of wonder and amaze in our regard of the Chinese race, too little of human understanding. So I think now, after three years in China, but what would I have though over this book in New York? I fear it would be just what they still are thinking over there, that the heathen Chinese is peculiar…
One more complaint against this really remarkably well-constructed book, and I am through. Mrs. Hobart sins when she quotes the Chinese speech. The high-flown diction in her works may be excellent for old-fashioned melodrama, but against this background of American business it is simply off-colour instead of local colour. Thus: “‘All is not as you wish?’ ‘I fear I cause you too much trouble…’ ‘Tell me, and it shall be done.’ ‘Your house is too full for hospitality. I perhaps, but my servant—it is too much.’ ‘Ai yah. My good-for-nothing dogs of servants can not be trusted. I will go myself and see that all is right.’”
Now, to the New Yorker, perhaps, this sounds like the real McCoy, but what is it in fact but stilted, bad translation? Why can’t translation from the Chinese be done naturally, so that it sounds like living conversation? What in Heaven’s name gets into these people when they quote Chinese talking? We’d roar with laughter if anyone did the same thing to French or German translation; we would recognize its falsity immediately. Allow me to rewrite that dialogue as it probably would sound to a normal Chinese, speaking in his own tongue: “‘Is something wrong?’ ‘Well, I’m afraid I’m putting you people to too much trouble, so…’ ‘But what is it? Do please tell me and let me fix it up.’ ‘Well, to tell the truth I think your house is too crowded . It’s all right so far as I am concerned, it’s only that my servant here—oh well, never mind. We’ll manage.’ ‘Damn! No no, look here, you can’t go off like this; these damned half-wits of mine…I’ll take care of this; just wait a minute.’”
Why couldn’t Mrs. Hobart have written it in something of that style? She could have, of course, but she felt that it would have lacked something, some romance would be missing, some local colour lost. Unfortunately she seems to share a strange idea of the public’s that all persons whose skin-pigmentation differs from ours must use a bastard eighteenth-century Biblical sort of elocution. Otherwise we may feel that they aren’t real true Chinese or Africans or Indians. For years we have expected this classy, high-flown language from the Chinese, even the coolies, and we must not be disappointed. Not in a best-seller, anyway.
This is a pity in Oil for the Lamps of China. Nobody else has given us such realistic portrayals of very familiar types; the amah, the house-boy, the manager’s wife, queen of the hong. Mrs. Hobart’s later book, Yang and Ying, follows the same pattern, with the same excellence and the same faults. Her boy Sen Lo Shih and his aunt Sen S Mo fail to convince us that they are alive, a natural result of thinking and speaking in such strange manner. Her American missionaries, because of a more flexible and natural language, survive better. Of course, for they are more at ease, save when they speak Chinese.
Signor Daniele Varé of Peking has written several historical books and two of fiction: The Maker of Heavenly Trousers and The Gate of Happy Sparrows. As the most sensitive, talented member of that very special little colony of privileged foreigners, dwelling in what Edgar Snow calls “their own little never-never land”, he has naturally produced perfectly charming stories like the cream of all those Geographies of Carpenter’s which we used to love so well when we were children. His Chinese are all either dead-and-gone nobles or modern servants; ancient nobles are charming and noble; modern servant and charming and scoundrelly. He is very convincing. To read him is to suffer pangs of nostalgia for Peking. Pity, that we cannot all dwell in Peking so gently, so appreciatively! But if everyone in China should live in Peking, it would not be so charming … Peking Picnic by Ann Bridge is another of the same: Princess der Ling’s [sic] books, Juliet Bredon’s, all mirror faithfully the preoccupation with the past which our Peking residents usually manifest. Stay-at-home Americans who read this school of Chinese fiction will be strongly tempted to come on over, forgetting the wide miles of China which are not Peking, the four hundred million living souls who are not privileged foreigners, and the famine, the war, the modern Governmental problems which are not pure Beauty…
Maurice Dekobra’s impertinent melodrama His Chinese Concubine is sheer twaddle, not even living up to its name, for it has almost nothing to do with a Chinese concubine. Less offensive, but still twaddle, is Eric Linklater’s Juan in China. Mr. Linklater at least knows that his is twaddle; I am not so sure of Mr. Dekobra.
And now, what else have we? There is Nora Waln’s House of Exile, called by an angry Chinese reviewer, wittily and unkindly, “Nora’s Doll's House”. If by this time you subscribe to my theories I need not tell you why this book was a raging success. Here is everything one wants, everything one has ever dreamed, along with Nora Waln, of the glamorous East. Outlandish custom upon custom, marvellous silks, quaint names for everything, peach-trees in blossom, veiled brides—not Marco Polo, not Sir James Fraser himself, ever compounded such an exciting mixture. Miss Waln’s English is quaintly old-fashioned and her Quaker training renders unassailable her right to the use of “thee” and “thou”, which usage sets the tone of the book. So much has been written attacking its genuineness, so many arguments have raged over her veracity, that I hesitate to speak of it. I will say only that if it is all a dream and nothing but a dream, as many Chinese vow, it is a dream America loves and has loved for years, before Nora Waln ever set Chinese brush to paper. It is true that in my three years I have seen nothing approaching her Doll’s House, but there are many, many things I have not seen, which do exist. Also the latter half of the book has a ring of truth, as though dream had merged upon waking into half-reality. But if Miss Waln’s readers come flocking to Chinese shores hoping to find her house of exile, they will wander and seek for a long time. They will not come, however; they never come. They read their books and stay at home. So, does it matter what they read? Yes, it does, if they are ever to understand Asia.
There is also Son of Han, by Richard La Piere, who has never been in China and cheerfully admits it. However, he has many Chinese friends who helped him avoid mistakes in this novel, and it is a refreshingly human story, with more truth in one of his simple unaffected sentences than in whole pages of fancy writing by some Old China Hand. The customs he describes are just what they should be, customs merely, not symbols of a complicated other-world psychology, impossibly remote.
Now at last we have come to something for which I have been clamouring; a book about China by a Chinese. Two books, in fact, though The Importance of Living is really a continuation of the author’s first My Country and My People. They are not novels; I don’t know just what they are. And I must be very hard to satisfy, for I feel that Lin Yutang, though he has written something easy and pleasant, has not yet done anything excitingly large. He has presented himself most endearingly, but he has not struck his blow for China, not yet. He has taken his cue too much from the Westerners who write about China—a strange anomaly, a Chinese telling us what we have told him to tell us about himself. It is that fatal Chinese courtesy, perhaps; Lin Yutang could not bring himself to contradict that cultured galaxy of ladies who had already presented to the world their own ideas of his country and his people.
Nevertheless, he has done something powerful. He has shown us that one Chinese has a complete philosophy of life, real life, not ancestor-worship. He brings to us again that manner of existence shared by a choice few of scholars at the beginning of the Ching Dynasty, those who ushered out the Ming dynasty with a sort of defiance. Disappointed in this world’s reception of them, they forsook politics wherein they had failed, and sought a new Heaven in the good things of this life; wine, tea, bamboos, flowers, a girl’s mouth, the curve of an eyebrow, lily feet. Smooth, suave, brilliant, they killed time in their own way, deliberately decadent, knowingly annoying. One detects in Dr. Lin’s preoccupation with these Ming scholars a touch of wistfulness. Could it be done again? Could Japan and all these troubled times be forgotten in a faraway city, in the cloisters of a foreign university? One fancies him wondering.
No, it is too late. China cannot be ignored. China grows, bursting from the wooden covers of ancient books, from the glass cases of dusty museums. China is more than the old silk of a painting, faded ink brushed upon brittle paper. When will she find voice to roar across the seas, resounding with something more than cries of anguish? When will her Western brothers recognize her for a living sister, and not a dead ancestor?
This war is not merely the violation of a tomb; it is the rape of a living body. Surely it is time that the world be told.