Misreading China: It's time to move beyond old stereotypes

China has outgrown 'The Good Earth' and so should the rest of us.

Three-quarters of a century ago, Americans often viewed China through one of two distorting lenses, both of which can be linked to famous works of popular culture of the 1930s. One was a patronizing lens that can be associated with the 1931 Pearl Buck novel "The Good Earth," and the popular 1937 film it inspired. The other was a demonizing lens that can be associated with a 1932 horror film, "The Mask of Fu Manchu." China today, of course, is a very different place.

And yet, as a look at recent American bestseller lists reveals, lenses of the "Good Earth" and "Fu Manchu" varieties continue to distort our view of the world's most populous country.

"Scratches on Our Minds: American Views of China and India," a masterly 1958 study by the journalist and later M.I.T. professor Harold Isaacs, was the first book to analyze those lenses in detail. Isaacs argued that two "sets of images" bedeviled American understanding of China. A positive set "identified in our own generation with the people of Pearl Buck's novels," presented the Chinese as "solid, simple, courageous folk staunchly coping with the blows of fate." And a negative set that encouraged us to think of China as a place that produced power-mad sadists (such as the diabolical Dr. Fu Manchu) and faceless hordes ready to do their bidding. One set of images kept alive the fantasy that, if only given the chance, the Chinese would embrace our ways and buy our goods; the other kept alive yellow peril visions of a China threat.

Isaacs would later write prefaces to two follow-up editions to "Scratches on Our Minds," in which he noted the continued hold of these images and fantasies up through 1980. Were he still alive, bestseller lists might convince him that though we are in a new century, we remain trapped in these old patterns.

"The Good Earth" was recently back on these lists in 2004. Why? Because talk-show host Oprah Winfrey selected it for her book club. A much newer book also enjoying popularity is Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's "Mao: The Unknown Story." This does not present Mao as a complex figure who was responsible for causing enormous suffering at certain points (the most common view among scholars), but as from start to finish a sadist without redeeming features, a sort of Fu Manchu with totalitarian characteristics - and a mass following. President Bush, according to The New York Times, thinks it a great book.

My goal here is not to cast aspersions on Buck's literary skills or Ms. Chang's and Mr. Halliday's abilities as the authors (though I should note that I am among the China specialists who have published harshly critical reviews of their sensationalized life of Mao). My interest in the books here is simply that their reception is one indication that Americans remain stuck in old ruts regarding China at a time when new scholarly approaches to that country are needed.

Accessible books that provide the basis for fresh thinking certainly do exist. A case in point is "The Changing Face of China" by John Gittings, who was trained in Chinese studies and for decades covered East Asia for the Guardian newspaper. A more recent book with even more potential to move us beyond stereotypes is Sang Ye's "China Candid: The People on the People's Republic," a wonderful collection of diverse interviews with men and women of differing ages and occupations that introduces us to an array of distinctive Chinese individuals trying to get along and make sense of the often confusing transformations swirling around them. When taken together, they provide a powerful and unforgettable sense of just how varied the experiences and viewpoints of contemporary residents of the People's Republic of China can be.

If only Mr. Bush or, more realistically, Ms. Winfrey would sing the praises of a book like "China Candid"! Then, perhaps, someday when I quote Isaacs in class, I will be able to present "Scratches on Our Minds" as quaint, a period piece. Alas, yet again this semester I had to treat its arguments as remaining as relevant today as they were midway through the past century.

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, director of the East Asian Studies Center at Indiana University, is the author of the forthcoming book "China's Brave New World - And Other Tales for Global Times."

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