We seek out anything that Hua Hsu writes—he has a gift for seeking out his own fascinations, no matter how obscure, and making them fascinating for a reader as well. His first book, A Floating Chinaman: Fantasy and Failure Across the Pacific, explores American-Chinese relations between between the World Wars and focuses on the literary and political forces jockeying to shape Americans’ understanding of China. Hua is a contributing writer to The New Yorker and teaches at Vassar. Hear him on episode #224.
Excerpt from The Idiot
In the nineteen-thirties, “The Good Earth,” by Pearl S. Buck, was inescapable. The tale of a noble Chinese farmer and his struggles against famine, political upheaval, and personal temptation, the book was an immediate success upon publication, in 1931. Buck was born in West Virginia, but she was raised in rural China, the daughter of American missionaries, and she resisted the sense of Christian superiority many within her circle felt toward the “heathen” Chinese. “When I was in the Chinese world I was Chinese, I spoke Chinese and behaved as a Chinese and ate as the Chinese did, and I shared their thoughts and feelings,” she later recalled. Her sympathetic backstory gave “The Good Earth” a rare kind of authority: it was billed as an authentic tale of a distant, windswept China, but its author was a white American, and it told the kind of story that Americans grappling with the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl wanted to hear—of hard work, perseverance, and triumph in the face of natural disaster and corruption.
At the time, China, for most Americans, was a wondrous abstraction, an inscrutable assemblage of four hundred million future Christians, consumers, or citizens, depending on your game. Promise on this scale required experts and explainers; it required prophets. “The Good Earth,” and its Academy Award-winning 1937 film adaptation, established Buck as one of America’s most prominent voices on all things Chinese, an informal position she would hold for decades. She nurtured her authority within this world with care, becoming an outspoken advocate for China’s poor and producing a remarkably steady output of novels and reportage. She also used her fame to promote the work of others, through her publisher, the John Day Company, which began prioritizing books about Asia after Buck’s pathbreaking success.
To anoint an expert is also to draw distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate forms of knowledge. Inevitably, there are stories that get erased, perspectives that are overlooked, possibilities that are made to seem crazy or impossible. The same year that “The Good Earth” was released, a New York-based writer from China named H. T. Tsiang self-published an epistolary romance called “China Red,” in which Chi and Sheng, a pair of Chinese lovers separated by political ideology and the Pacific, slowly drift apart. In contrast to Buck’s sentimental hit, “China Red” was offbeat and sarcastic, critical of overeducated Chinese élites and clueless Americans alike. Publishers weren’t interested; the back cover of the paperback features a series of lukewarm and dismissive lines from the letters they sent him.