“Coolie Democracy”, US-China Exchanges 1925-1955

A review of Coolie Democracy: US–China Political and Literary Exchange, 1925–1955, by Richard Jean So.

Literary-critical study of China-US relations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is experiencing an exciting emergence, and Richard Jean So’s dissertation, Coolie Democracy, finds itself at the vanguard of this development in the field. This project combines language expertise with transnational methodologies that emerged from Americanists’ de-centering of the United States to forward a self-consciously comparative study of alternative forms of the democratic discourse from the 1920s to the 1950s. At the macro-level, Richard So makes a literary-historical argument and a political-theoretical argument. He looks at an “in-between” time in American literary history and the history of US-China relations from 1900-1950, a period that current scholarship strings along a series of flashpoints: anti-Chinese sentiments and policies in the late 1800s; the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Acts in 1943; the concurrent formation of Chinese-American immigrant communities and identities; and the official “break” between China and the United States over Communism and political allegiances on the eve of World War II. So recovers a forgotten segment in this period. So reconstructs, through meticulous and creative research, a series of unlikely Chinese-American exchanges and intellectual circles. These exchanges and collaborations coincided with the rise of the Leftist cultural front in the US, a movement So investigates for its transnational figures and their complicated translingual activities in China. This was a moment during which American and Chinese authors actively and directly engaged with each other to think out in literature the possibility of a politically united “Chinese America.” This by-and-large discursive “Chinese America” would be built upon a shared concept of “natural democracy” that comes organically of the texts of both nations, a concept that called upon the figure of the coolie to serve as an example of such democratic principles in praxis and as a cipher of mutual resistance against capitalism.

As So contextualizes this shared reaching for democratic “Chinese America” and its principal actors, he also shows the movement’s own historical impotence. In the writers Agnes Smedley (1892-1950), Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973), Lin Yutang 林語堂 (1895-1976) and Lao She 老舍 (1899-1966), So finds the slow and subtle unfolding of a movement destined to exist only, and also spend itself, in the historically-contingent practices of literature. So exhibits the simultaneous breadth and incoherence of “coolie democracy” rather than see it as one marginalized version of American democracy that can somehow be restored. Thus he avoids the critical cliché of cherry-picking “subaltern” democratic forms from alternative discourses and intellectual movements in unknown archives. What So proposes is far bolder than a historical contextualization of a democratic concept that strays at its geopolitical edges. Instead of settling with an unsatisfying, but hard-to-argue-with claim that democracy was “always already” transnational, So makes early-twentieth century democracy’s transnational origins a given and proceeds to talk about this structure of thinking and what it allows and delimits. Hechallenges the notion of a syncretic democratic form (as something that can be found here and not there, or applied here and not there) by emphasizing how odd the concept is (and was) and its ongoing and systematic recourse to other texts, bodies and political praxis. These recourses often led to “synthetic” re-envisionings of Chinese literary forms in claims on both sides of the Pacific that “the Chinese in China inhabit a ‘democracy before democracy’… a concept that achieves greatest visibility in the figure of ‘the coolie’” (p. 1) He explores the ad hoc literary forms set up to accommodate the possibility of a democratic Chinese America, or China-inspired American socialist reform, and asks how ad hoc literary forms diminish the political viability of those futures the literature is meant to secure.

This dissertation departs from Asian-American studies insofar as So never regards China-US interactions as a cultural formation that has to be accounted for, choosing instead to see those interactions as often counter-historical examples of what Chinese and American cultural convergence may look like. Further, as much as So draws from the rich work done on comparative racialization, intra-ethnic racialization, and the politics of pan-ethnicization (by people such as Helen Jung, Colleen Lye, David Palumbo-Liu, and Lisa Lowe) he also takes the intersection of Marxist, Communist, Chinese, American, naturalist, and realist writings to new directions. Where studies of the transpacific have focused on racialization in imperialist literary representation, So turns to literary production for the formation of the concept of “coolie democracy,” a concept that is racialized, but also classed, gendered, and inflected in all sorts of ways having to do with textual production in a global environment itself.

So’s work also offers something original to China Studies by building upon but also resituating in a unique historical space the virtuoso work done on late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century China-West exchanges by critics such as Lydia Liu, Rey Chow, and David Palumbo-Liu. So makes good on their methodological and theoretical assumptions by looking at alternative zones of hegemonic contact such as translation, historiography, and the universalization of the cultural concept, but he separates out the particularities of China-US relations as offering not a “clash” model but a “third space of interaction.” So does track how, in some of these China-US interactions, the US tried to find its own image in what was in China “all along” or, in the more famous analogy, tried to measure China by its own yardstick. US-China literary exchanges certainly lapse into these problems of equivalences but, as So shows, they do so in their own terms. The uniqueness of US-China literary exchange lies in the discourse of land use, for example, and the divergences within the Leftist Cultural Front, in the debates over literary realism, nativism, and the democratic form, and, of course, in the continued incoherence of America’s own accounting of democracy in the advent of an intensification of a Communist/Capitalist divide by mid-century.

Coolie Democracy is divided into four chapters and a coda; its organization reflects a conceptual, though also chronological, trajectory. So focuses on the relays between literary practice and cultural imperative that, on balance, kept Chinese American democracy as an immanent political form. Along the way we re-discover works that have fallen victim to reductive hermeneutics that see in the works only simple economies of Orientalism or anti-capitalism, stereotyped auto-ethnography or crass realism.

Chapter 1, “Fragments of the Pacific Cultural Front,” looks at the cosmopolitan life of Agnes Smedley. So revisits her sympathies with Chinese socialist activists and writers (i.e. the plight of Ding Ling 丁玲, 1904-1986), a sympathy that would lead Smedley to create a literary form accommodating the idea of a Chinese “democracy” situated in land and labor. So comes to define Smedley’s vision of an alternative democratic practice by way of her intellectual friendship with Lu Xun 魯迅 (1881-1936). Smedley and Lu Xun began a cultural exchange mediated and occasioned by the German artist Käthe Kollwitz’s (1867-1945) woodblock prints, and in these exchanges helped Smedley modify Marxist political theory into a more humanist democratic praxis. In Smedley’s adaptation of the realist form in Daughters of the Earth (1929), So uncovers her strained relationship to an American realism that seeks to holistically integrate the plight of the Other in order to model the democratizing function of literature. And yet So calls her literary style a “cracked realism,” one that aims for a worldview of suffering and unity while also reflecting the contradictions between internationalism and democracy. So makes what seems like a cross-purposed and even elliptical critical move: on the one hand, he painstakingly recovers the physical proximity between American and Chinese intellectuals, their translingual negotiations and even their dissociable affinities in political thought. At the same time So insists that we do not regard these “proximities” as metonyms or evidences of “genuine US-Sino political dialogue,” or even that such ends should be the rubric by which we measure any US-Sino interactions. Indeed, the whole question of commensurability (in literary, political and cultural forms) between China and the U.S. is complicated by the fact that, according to So, literary actors set up ad hoc commensurabilities “as a means to social action.” So uses the oxymoron “synthetic realism.” The realism forged by American and Chinese cross-appropriations and by Chinese-American coalitions is “synthetic” in two senses of the word: first, “synthetic” in the sense of “makeshift,” created to address the perceived needs of the moment, and “synthetic” in the sense of falsely holistic — literary actors reach for an internationalism to reveal the world as inherently discontinuous. This claim informs the rest of the dissertation.

Chapter 2, “Fictions of ‘Natural Democracy,’” examines through the life and writings of Pearl S. Buck the discourse of “natural democracy” as a uniquely “trans-Pacific [model of] cultural reciprocity.” Broadly, So argues that Buck located in Chinese literature an agrarian, peasant sociality that presented an ideal form of “a ‘world’ democracy”—a form at once indigenously Chinese and presciently American, a form that could reach its fullest potential once recalibrated by Buck’s own experiments in literary realism. In this chapter So achieves another feat of historical contextualization, threading through his needle discourses, movements and historical actors who have never been considered together or even in adjacency. Performing a genealogical reading of Buck’s wildly popular but subsequently vilified novel, The Good Earth (1931), So retraces her interconnected roles in Chinese Exclusion Reform, debates over the Leftist appropriation of seventeenth-century Chinese novel Shuihu Zhuan 水滸傳 (Outlaws of the Marshes), and revival of Jeffersonian agrarian democracy in the 1930s. The story begins with Buck’s efforts in repealing the Chinese Exclusion Acts. We learn that her interest in “natural democracy” in China comes out of her involvement in the populist revival of the novel Outlaws of the Marshes in China in the 1920s and her subsequent rejection of Chinese reformer Chen Duxiu’s 陳獨秀 (1879-1942) overly Communist recasting of the novel. Buck’s own translation of the classic, by focusing on mass mobilization around the notion of the “land,” opted to see in Chinese tradition a liberal and individualist form of socialist democracy. The worldwide popularity in the 1930s of her novel The Good Earth, which So reads as an intensification of that argument in literary form, attests to the reemergence of a debate around “man-land relationships.” Recovering the “earth” part of The Good Earth, So breaks from critics who accuse Buck of Orientalism and argues that her novel contests Western models of land use and their indigenization in China. Buck was not entirely successful, however, in disaggregating capitalist premises from the concept of an international democracy. Moreover, in the backdrop, as So goes to lengths to show, were competing (and perhaps ultimately more successful) discourses from both America and China: on America’s side, racialized rhetoric on the assimilability of the coolie to the democratic model and, on China’s side, politicized efforts to keep the trope of Chinese laborers in a Communist framework and not a socialist-Democratic one. Buck’s “natural democracy,” does not then represent merely the literary side of US-Sino policies from the 1920s through the 1940s; rather, it offers itself poignant example of “lost future genealogies.”

Chapter 3, “Domesticating the Coolie Democrat,” picks up in personages where Chapter 2 left off — it begins by examining Pearl S. Buck’s influence on Lin Yutang 林語堂 — but offers a different iteration of the thesis that a shared US-China democracy often came in historical and generic fragments that piggy-backed onto other discourses and intellectual movements. This chapter looks at Chinese writer Lin Yutang’s movement in Chinese Anglophone literary circuits in Shanghai in the 1920s and 30s. This movement centered around The China Critic (Zhongguo pinglun zhoubao 中國評論週報), an English-language journal published in Shanghai, and its self-appointed role as mediator and facilitator of translational modernities between China and America that would be politically beneficial and edifying for both. So reconstructs the literary world in Shanghai during this time as a brief efflorescence of Chinese American democracy. Lin Yutang would help foster a Chinese Anglophone literature that housed “a broader language of freedom in China [which] existed only in fragments but merely needed a broader discourse to connect itself to.” The same philosophy would fall apart in Lin Yutang’s Chinese Anglophone undertakings in America, however, and become irreversibly associated with self- or auto-ethnographicization. Fascinatingly, So links the auto-ethnographic imperative given to Lin by his American supporters Buck and Richard to the rise of American anthropology in the early decades of the twentieth century and its forms and tools for cultural comparison. In the pluralization of culture Buck and Walsh saw a way to renew their visions for a Chinese America: one that resituated the democratic form in the history of China and America and one that saw China’s contribution to the genre as making the literature of “mass movement.” Thus the content, style and sense of “worldedness” in Lin’s works were in part already determined by Buck and Walsh’s own exploitation of American anthropology for the Popular Front. They wanted to divert Lin from a Modernist style toward cultural anthropology’s genre of choice: the realist novel. Fictions of Chinese-American communities would provide therapeutic alternatives to increasingly disharmonious relations between China and the US fueled by the growing evidence that China would “go red”; thus, it was a perfect time to revive the “natural democracy” platform and reconceptualize the coolie laborer’s fit for democracy and civil rights. This Chinese Anglophone world in America would, for Buck and Walsh, restore the lost opportunity of finding liberalism in China. But Lin’s role as a mediator or “cipher” of China and America, and especially as a cipher for Buck and Walsh’s ideal Chinese America, would expose him to accusations of auto-ethnography and playing the “native informant.” Lin, for his part, pushed back against this imperative even as his writing style showed concessionary tendencies. So shows how Lin’s Moment in Peking (1939) and Chinatown Family (1948) reveal divided fidelities to Modernist vision and experimentation and a call to ethnography under the “benevolently coerced” co-authorship of Lin’s Anglophone writings. What So adroitly argues is that even counterhistorical, “lost” visions of what a China and America united front may have been have their own coercive practices rooted in developments in American literary and culture.

Chapter 4, “Divided World, Divided Words: Lao She and Self-Translation,” closes the case on the “futures past” of coolie democracy. It examines the Chinese writer Lao She 老舍, and how Lao She’s interaction with the US literary system in the mid 1940s eventually led to a falling out with “American” democracy. The narrative of Lao She’s turning away from American democracy to Communism is slowed down here. So revises the consensus that Lao She turned, blindly and ideologically, to a “rigid political doctrine” — rejecting America for China, Capitalism for Communism. So too does So refuse to see Lao She’s political turn as a simple reflection of history. For although Lao She’s renunciation coincides with a period in US-China relations that saw the “deepening impossibility of post-war cooperation between the United States and Chinese political-cultural systems,” Lao She’s own writings and writing practices reveal a different pathway to the closing of possibility. So examines three scenes of Lao She’s disillusionment: his famous novel about coolie labor, Camel Xiangzi 駱駝祥子 (1936), and his translation collaborations with Ida Pruitt (1888-1985) on Four Generations (Sishi tongtang 四世同堂) and with Helen Kuo 郭鏡秋 on The Drum Singer (Gushu yiren 鼓書藝人). So re-reads Buck’s The Good Earth to show how Lao She’s Camel Xiangzi rebuts Buck’s model of natural democracy and its “American ‘patterns’ of personal agency.” Unlike Buck Lao She believed that the coolie may never be free, not merely because of the conditions of capitalism, but because capitalism creates “oppressive patterns” of structural awareness. In the process of writing Camel Xiangzi (dialogically with The Good Earth) and in his four years mingling in American intellectual circles, Lao She would come to detect a difference between putative freedom and cultural freedom, which has to take shape around capitalist patterns of living. His “collaborations” with American writers beginning with his litigations with Evan King over his “bowdlerized translation” Rickshaw Boy, would further dampen Lao She’s interest in a shared Chinese American socialist literary form. Both Pruitt and Kuo would overstep their boundaries as collaborations and co-translators by asking Lao She to “self-translate” his China into an American version, thus narrowing the spectrum of experiential and expressive possibility with a polemic of equivalences. For Lao She, it is over the fine points of translation and narratology that coolie democracy was reconsidered and finally withdrawn from candidacy.

The coda to the dissertation offers a poignant reflection on the short-livedness of Chinese American democracy by running through the fates of Agnes Smedley, Pearl Buck, Lin Yutang, and Lao She, who all died unmourned, underappreciated, and sometimes as a result of being hounded by those political groups that they tried to complicate through their transnational efforts. History has been unkind, as has literary reception. To quote So, “They are seen as barely present as American writers, if ‘American’ at all.” If this coda is a plea for recuperation, the dissertation itself has intellectually earned the plaintive final note. If these “Chinese” and “American” writers “rose” and “fell,” to use So’s words again, it is not only due to the ironies of history but also to what So amply demonstrated as the constitutionally aporetic, and often self-betraying quality of the mutually-shared discourse of “coolie democracy.”

Nan Z. Da
Department of English Language and Literature
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Primary Sources

China Critic (periodical)
Agnes Smedley’s unpublished works and letters (New York Public Library and the Columbia University East Asian Studies Library)
Lin Yutang correspondence with Richard Walsh (Princeton Archives, Manuscript Library)
Lao She letters (Columbia University Library Archives)
Ida Pruit papers (Harvard University, Radcliffe Archives)

Dissertation Information

Columbia University. 2010. 290 pp. Primary Advisor: Jonathan Arac.


Image: Lin Yutang and Pearl Buck. Wikimedia Commons.


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