'When America First Met China' and 'The Great Railroad Revolution'

Two new books explore how US found its way toward and past the horizon.

When America First Met China By Eric Jay Dolin Liveright 416 pp. The Great Railroad Revolution By Christian Wolmar PublicAffairs 448 pp.

The foreigners looked odd, spoke a peculiar language, and were clearly inferior to the greatest people on earth.

Despite all this, the Chinese decided to deal with the strangers who landed on their shores. After all, these men from Europe – and, later, America – came bearing valuable things like furs and ginseng. And in return, they only wanted porcelain, silk, and tons upon tons of tea.

For their part, American sailors would return home with great shipments of Chinese products. Over time, the imports would eventually make up as much as 20 percent of the items in some American homes.

Toys, T-shirts, and televisions, perhaps? Nope. Think earlier, much earlier. The 20 percent figure, referring to many of the homes in Boston and Salem, Mass., is from the early 1800s. Back then, fantastic Chinese paintings, wallpaper, and dinnerware made up a major chunk of the personal property of Americans who could afford them.

Such are the complications of understanding China's long history with the United States. China, not the US, was burdened with a superiority complex. And the epic influx of Chinese goods, long an issue for American politicians, is hardly a creation of modern times.

When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail tracks this dicey international relationship from the 1770s through the Civil War era. It's one of two new books – the other is "The Great Railroad Revolution: The History of Trains in America" – that explore how the USA looked toward and beyond its western horizon.

Both books are hobbled by their focus on details and events instead of storytelling and scintillating personalities. Still, they're both authoritative accounts, managing to fascinate through their bounty of facts. And at one point, their stories intersect.

The Great Railroad Revolution chronicles the American history of trains and tracks, the greatest advances in transportation since a prehistoric R&D department came up with the wheel.

Christian Wolmar, a British railway scholar, argues in his first sentence that "America was made by the railroads." He thinks they united the country, turned it into an industrial sensation and provided the spark for world dominance.

That's quite a case to make for the chugga-chugga-choo-choo. Wolmar defends his thesis in dense prose and page-long paragraphs. The book is heavy sledding at times, but readers do get to take a broad voyage through railroad vs. railroad battles (even including espionage), the Civil War (in which trains were crucial), and the ultimate decline of trains.

Wolmar also provides glimpses of what it was like to travel by train decades ago: "ladies' coaches," tobacco-strewn floors, and dangerous sparks that threatened those who opened windows in stifling cars.

Railroads would, of course, bring the two sides of the US closer together, spurring the development of the western states. "When America First Met China," by Eric Jay Dolin, looks even further west – to the East.

Dolin, who's written books about the whaling and fur trades, explores the US-China commerce that began around the time of the American Revolution and never ended. As Dolin writes, the international trade "helped create the nation's first millionaires, instilled confidence in Americans in their ability to compete on the world stage, and spurred an explosion in shipbuilding."

Considering that the US has long held a highly positive opinion of itself, it's a delight to read to that it had company in China, which believed it was the "Middle Kingdom," below heaven but above all the other parts of the world. Foreigners were considered nothing more than barbarians.

But those sorry savages couldn't be ignored. As part of its trade with the West, China eagerly sent out what would become its most valuable product: tea. American colonists were positively "besotted" with the stuff, and Europeans adored it too.

Teacups (with handles to keep fingers from getting burned), saucers and teapots soon became all the rage. In many cases, they bore the name of the place they came from: china.

There is an intriguing character in all this: a young American woman, the niece of a merchant, who provides an eyewitness view to the Chinese world. She spent four years in China, where she was mystified by "incomprehensible" Western men, shocked by the horrific foot-binding of women (meant to make them sexually attractive), and so appalled at the restrictions on female travel that she disguised herself as a boy to get around.

After a brief appearance, the young American vanishes from the narrative. Instead, Dolin focuses on the trade in opium – first introduced to China by Europeans – and explains how the US became one of China's drug suppliers.

Ultimately, China would be humiliated during the Opium Wars (now forgotten in the US but not across the Pacific) and develop a resentment against America. It didn't help that those railroads in the US would spawn the worst kind of international trade. Americans needed men to build those railroads across the West, and they found them in China. These workers, dismissed as mere "coolies," became virtual slaves.

And so the East would meet the West once again.

This time, however, the natives of the Middle Kingdom would find themselves on the bottom rung of humanity. It would take moral strength, hardly a hallmark of commerce, to turn things around. Now, as we hear of sweatshops in China, the morality of our mutual dependency is once again at stake.

Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer in San Diego.

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