Recollections of a Cultural Imperialist

"All of us have been the tools of American cultural aggression, perhaps without being wholly conscious of it."

—Y. T. Wu, Chinese Christian leader, July, 1951

So at last it begins to happen: the reopening of China to Americans. Bizarrely, belatedly, but inevitably, a “new page” is turned in Sino-American relations.

For the real China Lobby within American society, this past spring has been a season of exhilaration. I speak of those scattered thousands throughout our country who once lived in China and are determined someday to return: the pre-1949 expatriates of the missionary, business, diplomatic, journalistic, and even military community, but especially their legions of sons and daughters. For twenty years now, inside and outside our government, nostalgia for a “land of lost content” has afflicted a small but persistent cluster of Americans. “Back-to-the-Mainland” is no monopoly of Chiang Kai-shek.

As one who belongs to this lobby, who spent his childhood in China and has yearned to go back, I share in the exhilaration. Yet the feeling is curiously mingled with twinges of anxiety. What will it be like? How will it feel? Will anything be the same? And will the memories be destroyed?

What memories?

What follows are some random recollections of a “cultural imperialist”—Peking’s term for foreign missionaries—but a cultural imperialist junior-grade, an infant member of the species, in pre-Communist China. I offer them as a glimpse of a fast-receding era, now that we seem on the verge of a very new one.

Among the children of American missionaries in China, there persisted before the war two social divisions-the BIC’s and the BOF’s. The BIC’s were the elite, those fortunate enough to have been born in China. The BOF’s were the rest, born on furlough when their parents returned to America for their one-year-in-seven breathers. That I was a BOF pained me except that it meant I might one day be elected President of the United States, while my BIC brother and sisters very probably could not. That provided me with one major source of security.

Otherwise, I was quite insecure. I was years younger than the rest of the family. And besides, I had missed 1927, the year in which everything had happened. Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist troops, in alliance with the Communists, had marched up from the South to overthrow the Northern warlords. My father and mother, militant pacifists at the time, had refused to budge from their Nanking home when the American Consul warned all citizens to take refuge down the Yangtze River in Shanghai. So there they sat, with three children and a grandmother; and in poured Chiang’s underfed, underclothed troops, eager to relieve foreigners of their belongings and, in a few cases, their lives. The visitors went wild for three days, and by the end of that time the Nanking Incident had taken place and I had missed it. The high point was reached when the family, looted of their last possessions, were lined up for final disposal by some trigger-happy farm boys from the South. At the last minute my father’s students saved the day by buying them off for four hundred silver dollars. The soldiers initially wanted four thousand but decided, on closer inspection, that the price was too inflated for the particular goods in question. Eventually, the U.S. Navy came to the rescue.

But all this, as I say, was well before my time. It was not until 1933, at the age of one and a half, that I emigrated to China. And for the next seven years, China was home.

It was a splendid home, too. Not that what I came to know was really “the old China.” It was rather an interim phase that had begun with the Generalissimo’s accession to power in 1927. Pre-1927 Nanking was something I knew only from stories at the dinner table. These were countless, and in the course of their retelling, I came to cherish favorites among the pageant of heroes and villains that passed before my mind’s eye.

One special hero was the King of the Thieves. In the old days he had reigned supreme over the city’s ancient and respected guild of robbers. Each winter, on the eve of Chinese New Year, the cook would announce the arrival of the King of the Thieves, a tall, dark Northerner who then entered, bowed, and awaited his annual gift with the utmost grace and courtesy. The ten silver dollars constituted a small protection fee which kept us immune from robbery for the next twelve months. And it worked. Every once in a while a slipup might occur, and a protected household would awaken to find that the family silver had vanished in the night. But a pained protest to the King of the Thieves would always bring most of the missing loot speedily back to the doorstep, together with an explanation that some novice had pilfered the wrong house and would be sternly reprimanded. All this came to an end with the creation of the Nanking police force in the nineteen thirties. So did our immunity from thieves.

Mother of my heroes was the old warlord of Nanking. He had died some years before, and his funeral had been one of the city’s memorable events. Chinese funerals are always festive. This time the entire city came out in parade. First marched the zesty mourners and two brass bands playing the irrelevant pseudo-Western music of which the warlord was so fond. Then came an eight-horse hearse. The climax was five carriageloads of bereaved concubines, followed by a third brass band blaring forth ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me.”

This was, incidentally, the same warlord who would periodically institute, during the years of chronic disorder, a rather ineffectual system of martial law. Our next-door neighbor, Pearl Buck (who later scandalized the missionary community by publishing a novel, divorcing her husband, marrying her publisher, and winning the Nobel Prize), was out visiting friends beyond the city walls one evening. She returned by carriage somewhat after eleven to discover the city gates closed and barred because of a new curfew. “Halt, who goes there?” shouted the sentry. “Give the password!” Mrs. Buck groped for an inspiration and called out, “Hopei!” “You fool!” said the sentry, “that was yesterday’s password. Today’s is Shensi!” “Shensi,” shouted Mrs. Buck. “Pass!” said the sentry. Such incidents kept me from developing too serious a concern over the dangers of Chinese militarism.

Among the villains, on the other hand, of these dinner-table legends were wild boars and wolves. Boars were there to be hunted, outside the city walls. But wolves had the habit, it seemed, of straying through the city gates unnoticed and causing a considerable commotion. Nanking, the “Southern Capital,” had been the seat of the first Ming emperor and was once a great city. But the Taipings had wrought terrible havoc there during their curious midnineteenth-century rebellion, and afterwards it was reduced to a sleepy provincial town. It retained certain marks of imperial grandeur-among them its impressive walls, seventy feet high, twenty-six miles long, and wide enough on top for two small cars to pass. Much of the area within the walls was now rural, and wolf hunts could be good sport even inside the city limits. It was in the twenties, too, that my father used to go hunting for wild boars in the eroded and beautifully treeless countryside beyond the walls. But the boars seem to have emigrated with the coming of Chiang’s armies, so my father was left to hunt deer until the day he shot a doe who looked like my sister Nancy, at which point he put away his gun and turned to photography.

But this is not to say that the impact of China was communicated to me over the dining room table. Far from it. China was all around me-its sounds, its smells, its colors-beyond the protection of the walls which enclosed our Western-style brick house, our servants’ quarters, and our garden with its camphor, pomegranate, fig, and persimmon trees. Sometimes China even sneaked inside the walls.

My father was a professor of chemistry at the mission-sponsored University of Nanking. My mother taught school for the older missionary children. They had originally journeyed to China in 1917 as embodiments of confused ecumenism. My father was Dutch Reformed, my mother Episcopalian; they had been dispatched to China by the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions to take the place of a Methodist at an interdenominational university and had occupied a house owned by the Disciples of Christ. For a while, in their first year, no one would pay their salary. But all this was past history by the time I came along. From the beginning I was certain that the true road to salvation lay through Presbyterianism, especially since the Presbyterian Board was now footing the bill. As for my father’s employment, I knew he could do wondrous things in an exciting place called his “laboratory”—like grinding wheat for our porridge, peanuts for our peanut butter, and brewing buttermilk by the vat. Other than this, I was reasonably impervious to the missionary enterprise and was left to my own devices.

These devices brought me into contact with the second most important woman in my life, namely Ch’u Sao-tzu the amah. Ch’u Sao-tzu had previously belonged to famous Pearl Buck and considered her present employment, I think, a distinct step downward on the social ladder; She was the most strongwilled female I have ever known, swore with eloquence rare even among the Chinese, chased the male servants with hot irons when her ire was aroused, and kept her poor husband, Li-hua the cook, in a state of lamblike docility. It had taken a steely hand to catch Li-hua, and Ch’u Sao-tzu had not been averse to using it. Shortly before his announcement of his desire to marry her, Li-hua had been locked in the cellar for three days by his lady, unbeknownst to the household. Many years later a childless Ch’u Sao-tzu decided it was high time she should have some heirs. So she found Li-hua a second wife, got them married, and expropriated the eventual offspring of this union.

Extraordinarily, independent of mind, Ch’u Saotzu was highly adaptable of spirit. Some years before, a’ good missionary had brought her into the arms of Christianity, and she was a confirmed and reasonably faithful member of the Chung Hua Shen Kung Hui, or Chinese Episcopal Church. At least twice a year, too, she would burn incense to her ancestors to assure good luck. Now and then she would visit the local Buddhist temple and purchase a prayer stick or two. She always stopped to pay her respects to the little images in Taoist shrines along the roads in the countryside. And to the extent that her unbridled spirit would permit, she honored the precepts of the Sage Confucius in her human relationships. Ch’u Sao-tzu was. a formidable example of the obstacles facing Christian evangelism in China. She was imbued with a wholesome disregard for metaphysics, a zestful concern for the here and now, and a boundless capacity for absorbing such trivia as credos and forms of worship.

It was through Ch’u Sao-tzu that I first knew the China beyond our brick-wall frontier. It was she who used to lift me over to the amah next door, an amiable soul well stocked with such delights as spiced dumplings and, on special occasions, almondpaste “moon cakes.” It was Ch’u Sao-tzu who would let me sample, on the sly, the forbidden wares of the street vendors-fried breads and spun sweets. It was Ch’u Sao-tzu who taught me songs and poems of an earthier nature than those I learned in school. And it was she who would tend me when I was ill, taking special care, in accordance with my mother’s instructions, to sterilize the thermometer in alcohol-after which she would lick it off just to make sure it was clean.

In fact, it was from Ch’u Sao-tzu that I derived my early skepticism about sanitation, and about germs in general. My father was to germs very much what Joseph McCarthy was to American Communists; he saw them everywhere and pursued them ferociously. But from Ch’u Sao-tzu I learned that all this was an example of Western superstition; the Chinese were above such things, but tolerated the foreigners’ eccentricity in this regard, as they did in most others. Sometimes her attitude used to worry my mother. And on one memorable occasion the missionary community decided to have a showing of a documentary film on the menace of flies for the enlightenment of all the local servants. It was. one of those awesome things in which the fly is magnified several hundred times to show its full filth and really looks appalling. Afterwards it was Ch’u Sao-tzu who voiced the audience’s sense of revelation. “Oh, T’ang Sze-mu!” she exclaimed to my mother, in Chinese, “I see why you have always made such a fuss about flies, since flies are so very large in your country. But you must not worry. You see, our Chinese flies are really tiny little harmless things.”

Teaching Ch’u Sao-tzu Western sanitation was just about as difficult as teaching the local carpenter to accustom himself to Western designs for furniture. My father once wanted a special desk built for his laboratory, so he called in this craftsman, chatted with him, and made a perspective drawing of the completed piece. The carpenter reluctantly agreed that it might be possible to produce such a desk, and came back in a week with the finished product. It was a. very curious desk; the top was in the shape of a tired parallelogram, while the rear legs were shorter than the front legs. He had followed the drawing exactly—and had constructed the desk itself in perspective.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In