THE FOLLOWING IS TAKEN from Pankaj Mishra’s introduction to Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land, edited by Angilee Shah and Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom; Wasserstrom is Los Angeles Review of Books Asia editor. The book contains essays by Alec Ash, James Carter, Leslie T. Chang, Xujun Eberlein, Harriet Evans, Anna Greenspan, Peter Hessler, Ian Johnson, Ananth Krishnan, Christina Larson, Michelle Dammon Loyalka, James Millward, Evan Osnos, Jeffrey Prescott, and Megan Shank, all of whom tell stories of ordinary people living in divergent circumstances, all affected by the storm of change sweeping their enormous country.
Looking back four decades later at his years as a journalist in China in the 1940s, the historian John K. Fairbank blamed himself and his journalistic colleagues for “one of the great failures in history”: “We had no knowledge, in other words, and no way to gain any knowledge, of the life of ordinary Chinese people. . . . Our reporting was very superficial. We could not educate or illuminate or inform the American people or the American leadership in such a way that we could modify the outcome.”
What was this outcome he so regretted? Fairbank not only had in mind the American support for the Nationalist Party (Guomindang) and unstinting hostility to the Communists. He was also thinking of the way America reacted to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949: that it had “lost” China to Communism.
Fairbank was targeted for his allegedly Communist sympathies, so he knew all too well that this anti-Communist obsession had serious consequences. The vengeful rage of budding cold warriors found ready scapegoats among diplomats and journalists — the many “China Hands” — who had correctly perceived the strengths of Mao Zedong’s army and the weaknesses of America’s ally Chiang Kai-shek. Promptly branded fellow travelers of Communism, they were purged from positions of influence in the government, universities, and the media — a self-mutilation that led to the intellectual and military fiascos of Korea and Vietnam, when the United States, drawn into ground wars in Asia by Cold War paranoia, could barely see its enemy.
Fairbank implicated himself and other American journalists in these wars, which he described as “a first-class disaster for the American people.” Reading him now, you may wonder if he was exaggerating his own role in history. The general public may have been underinformed but to what extent could journalists be blamed for failures in American foreign policy making?
The West’s understanding of China, a country always deemed more “inscrutable” than its Asian counterparts, had long been filtered through the varying interpretations of foreign writers in the country — right from the carefully detailed accounts of the first Jesuits in China to the jubilant news spread by American businessmen and publicists about the world’s last unexplored market in the early twentieth century. In the 1920s and 1930s, Anna Louise Strong, Agnes Smedley, and Edgar Snow attempted to educate American progressives about left-wing currents in China. At the same time, children of American missionaries in China such as Pearl S. Buck and Henry Luce — the first a Nobel Prize-winning writer, the latter the publisher of Time, Life, ...read more