WHAT DOES IT MEAN to be “serious”? This is a question I often think about because I happen to be an academic who studies Asian-American literature and culture. For a long time, I had to defend the seriousness of what I studied. Even now, when I tell other academics in a different discipline (say political science or education) that this is my area of specialty, they give me a funny look. Some will respond, “Do you mean you study US-Asian relations?” Or, “Asia is big.” Or, “Oh, Amy Tan.”
Fortunately, such responses are becoming rarer. There are enough prominent American writers of Asian descent that the idea of an “Asian-American literature” doesn’t seem strange. Just as important, there is an impressive body of scholarship devoted to this subject that makes it more difficult to be dismissive. Even if we limit ourselves to the period before World War II, when Asian immigration to the United States was almost completely prohibited by a series of harsh laws, several important recent literary critical books come to mind. These are either monographs or edited collections of essays by Colleen Lye; Keith Lawrence and Floyd Cheung; Monica Chiu; Josephine Lee, Imogene Lim, and Yuko Matsukawa; Yunte Huang; Julia Lee; Emma Jinhua Teng; Yu-Fang Cho; Richard Jean So; and many others. All of these works attest to the ways in which there is a significant body of literary works written by Asian Americans before the mid-20th century who were actively in dialogue with the mainstream literary movements and writers of their day. They were also keenly aware of the larger history of transpacific relations that were already an important part of how the United States imagined itself as a nation.
It is this impressive body of scholarship that informs Hua Hsu’s A Floating Chinaman: Fantasy and Failure Across the Pacific. Written in a style that fits snuggly in the pages of The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly (Hsu is a frequent contributor to both, and a part of this book was excerpted in The New Yorker), it tells the ambitious story of two authors and the international milieu in which they worked. The first is Pearl S. Buck, whose second novel, The Good Earth, received a Pulitzer Prize and who eventually went on to earn a Nobel Prize in Literature. Her huge literary successes during the 1930s and 1940s made her one of the leading authorities on China for a US audience in the midst of discovering a deep fascination with the Middle Kingdom. Her successes helped spawn a large cohort of China watchers, who made their careers by explaining this distant land for American readers eager to learn more, some of whom were motivated by the idea of reaching its “400 million customers” (a phrase made famous by ad man and newspaper publisher Carl Crow).
Written in a plain, easy-to-read style with a hint of biblical language, wholly appropriate for the daughter of Christian missionaries, The Good Earth was neither literary like “Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather, Carl Sandburg, T. S. Eliot, or Ernest Hemingway,” as Buck’s detractors pointed out when her Nobel was announced, nor merely popular like Earl Derr Biggers, the author of the Charlie Chan mystery novels. She was, in other words, a firmly middlebrow author whose respect for the ordinary Chinese farmer and romanticization of his connection to the land spoke to the interests of many Americans struggling through difficult lives in the midst of the Depression. The Good Earth seems explicitly designed to be taken seriously, but in a way that didn’t lose touch with what common people could understand. The prose is realist (this is how ordinary folks live) and sentimental (all ordinary folks are really all alike), and is also in this way sneaky about the exaggerations it indulges. The main female character O-Lan, for example, gives birth to her children by herself in a shut-off room, without any aid from anyone, and appears ready the next day to work alongside her husband in the field.
The other author is H. T. Tsiang. Hsu offers his readers an entertaining, and respectful, portrait of an everyman who fumes at his lack of literary success even as he knows, despite all external evidence to the contrary, that what he has to offer is profoundly significant. Unable to convince publishers to print his books, Tsiang self-published and traveled around New York City with a suitcase, trying to persuade random people to buy them. On the cover, Tsiang reproduced rejection letters from publishers and backhanded compliments from famous writers, almost as if he reveled in his outsider status. Almost midway through A Floating Chinaman, Hsu mounts a radical defense of his subject matter: “I am of the belief that anyone who self-publishes an ‘American Epic’ is worth investigating, especially when they seem to luxuriate in their own marginality.” Tsiang comes across in these investigations like every obscure person who turns to Twitter in the hopes of finding a large following and, failing, grows ever more erratic in the kind of tweets he or she writes.
I remember reading Tsiang’s final novel, And China Has Hands, with acute embarrassment, exactly as if I were reading a series of those tweets. It was so slight and so earnest. The style was notional and the characters obviously stand-ins for larger political themes. It also contained some very memorable moments that still come to mind with vivid force, such as when the main character Wan-Lee Wong offers lychee nuts to the white children who have been racially harassing him. What does it mean to take this work seriously, as the reprinting of this novel and The Hanging on Union Square asks readers to do? Hsu is impressive in how he maneuvers his own readers around this question, putting us into the mind of an author about whom we know relatively little. Tsiang acts as a reminder of what the Chinese already in the United States offered, and how they were ignored. With great skill, Hsu gives important historical context, including the rise of public interest in China and the emergence of proletariat fiction in the United States in the 1930s. His story continues on to the waning years of the Depression, and the equally waning influence of Buck and her peers, and the ways in which World War II and the start of the Cold War made their hopes for a republican China melded to the United States via bonds of shared feelings and robust trade seem quaint. Even at their height, their claims to authority were dinged by the lack of attention to the Chinese Americans down the street from them.
Hsu convincingly argues that the China watchers belatedly turned their attention to the Chinese in the United States as a way to revive flagging interest in China, and in this way to shore up their declining prestige. As Hsu points out (drawing on the work of the historian Ellen Wu), this interest in Chinese Americans was to endure, but not in the way the old China watchers had imagined. Rather than being figures that helped to explain China to the United States, as Buck and her cohort had hoped, they became the United States’s model minority, and as such agents of racial calming who could sell the United States to the rest of the world. If this story were to continue, the transpacific relationship that both Buck and Tsiang worked so hard to imagine into being would start to look even more radically different. The term “transpacific” makes frequent appearances in A Floating Chinaman to describe the kind of linkages that were made, and hoped for, during this era between the United States and China; the term could also just as easily be speaking to a much more radical speculative futurity that a scholar like Aimee Bahng is writing about, one filled with great flows of capital, inventive new technologies, and hardened inequalities among a highly mobile population that together threaten to dissolve, or maybe simply redraw, national borders. The all-too-brief attention that Buck and her cohort paid to Chinese Americans prevented them from fully appreciating the changes that were about to come.
By the end of the book, Buck and Tsiang mature in ways that both approach and diverge from each other in surprising ways. Buck reveals herself to be more like Tsiang than anyone could have realized, as she betrays her own sense of marginalization. Increasingly bereft of her cultural authority, she writes a biting, and thinly veiled, novel about her longtime China-expert rival Henry Luce, the publishing magnate responsible for magazines like Time and Life. Tsiang moves to Los Angeles. An FBI file Hsu uncovers provides a rigorous and attentive profile of Tsiang in the latter part of his life: someone who may or may not be an actual communist, but who is in all likelihood harmless. During these years, Tsiang turns to acting, appearing on stage (he developed “a one-man adaptation of Hamlet set at a nudist colony”) and later in films. One of his last roles is the houseboy in the original Ocean’s Eleven. The small, but meaningful, acting roles he finds seem to give him a tiny bit of the respect he searched for so desperately in his early life.
Sometimes, A Floating Chinaman stutters, such as when it discusses one character in one paragraph and then in the next introduces yet another character, or when it recycles the same anecdote or quotations from an earlier chapter for a latter chapter. There is something deliberate about these qualities, even if they seem to me errors of style. They reinforce a desire to keep the reader focused on the important primary material the book uncovers and to proliferate the social situations that Hsu’s two main literary actors occupy in such radically asymmetrical ways. In the introduction, Hsu tells us explicitly what he’s up to:
A Floating Chinaman — my version — is essentially about who gets to speak for China. On one hand, it focuses on a prominent cluster of writers and thinkers in the 1930s and ’40s who helped Americans understand China as a land of possibilities — an emerging market, a democratic ally, a mirror for the American future. But A Floating Chinaman is also about the conditions that created their authority — about why they were taken seriously in the first place.
Again, the question emerges: What does it mean to be serious? Or, more specifically, how does a subject get to be something (or someone) worth speaking about? Who gets to speak about this subject and be accepted as someone who knows what he or she is talking about? What forms can this authority take, and in what kinds of contexts? Pearl S. Buck’s wild successes and H. T. Tsiang’s wild failures are the two extremes. The former defined what it took to be the premier expert on an important subject in the 1930s and the latter what it felt like to be completely dismissed. Underlying this pairing is a counterfactual impulse, to imagine what might have been if Tsiang and people like him were also taken seriously.
Min Hyoung Song is professor of English at Boston College. His most recent book is entitled The Children of 1965: On Writing, and Not Writing, as an Asian American, and he is also the co-editor of The Cambridge History of Asian American Literature.