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

When I was old enough to embark upon education, it was Ch’u Sao-tzu who escorted me to Chinese kindergarten. And Chinese kindergarten was a joy. Getting there involved one obstacle. Each day my route led me past the same genial policeman, and each day he would ask me my name and roar with mirth when I replied. It seems that the Chinese phonetic equivalent of my name, Jimmy, or “Chimi,” a name bestowed upon me inadvertently by my mother, had the literal meaning “Chicken Feed,” a term which unfortunately connotes no greater virility in Chinese than in English. But Chi-mi I remained, and to kindergarten I toddled daily. There I learned to salute the Chinese flag, to sing the Chinese national anthem, and to bow three times before the portrait of Dr. Sun Yat-sen. I learned, in short, to be a useful Chinese citizen. But I was not as great a success as my brother had been before me, for he had come home from the all-Chinese school one day, to my mother’s rather mixed pleasure, with a prize for being the second-cleanest boy in the class. Anyway, after several months of this, my parents decided that it was time to train me in my cultural heritage. And so I was dispatched to an nglo-American Quaker kindergarten. It was here that I got religion, so to speak; and that was useful, too.

In the first place, it gave me and a small female friend a stimulus to play endless sessions of a game. which must be the missionary equivalent of “House”—except that instead of taking turns being Mama and Papa, we played, as I remember, a totally asexual and Presbyterian variety in which we took turns being God and Jesus. This tended to produce fierce altercations as to who had played which role longer, though I do not recall who took precedence in our hierarchy. It was also at Quaker kindergarten that I leaned to pray. This skill found special use in my continued and inconclusive battle against the carrot, a vegetable I abhorred. My greatest triumph came the day I went into the kitchen with a large black book under my arm and asked the cook and amah to join with me in a prayer meeting. This they reverently did, bowing their heads while I called upon the deity generally to preserve us from carrots and, in particular, to keep the cook from buying or preparing them ever again. The ceremony had its effect, I discovered, as Li-hua felt it would shake my youthful belief in God were he to disobey my wishes on the subject. So carrots disappeared from the menu for several months until my mother complained and learned the story. It seems she had less regard for the tenderness of my faith.

Kndergartens aside, Nanking was a lively place in the thirties. The years from 1928 to 1937 were an interval of promise as well as upheaval. The Kuomintang government, whatever its shortcomings, was infused with a good deal of youth, vigor, and idealism. It mapped out some of the most ambitious programs of modernization the country had ever known. Nanking was the hub of the new order, and there one could feel the quickening pulse of the land.

Most of this, of course, passed me by. But I do clearly recall the Generalissimo’s curious plan for national regeneration along neo-Confucian principles, something called the “New Life Movement”which, I must confess, darkly fascinated me for some time, as I was convinced that it had something to do with the excretory process. Had I been less of a prude, I should have raised the point with my parents. But prude I was, which fact indicates a staggering victory for Presbyterianism in the wilds of Asia, as there is nothing to which life in China is less conducive than prudery. A country in which the fields are periodically draped in night soil is not a country where one learns to be finicky about the more private bodily functions as in our overcivilized West. Men and women tended to relieve themselves without self-consciousness or concealment. The only problem was that Chinese children and even some less circumspect adults seemed to place a premium on the valu of observing a foreigner so performing. In later years I was to become quite blasé about the large and genuinely curious crowds which would gather around the open outhouses of country inns where I happened to be spending a night. Among Chinese children. I am convinced, that there exists a game whose title, roughly translated, reads: “Catch-the-foreign-devil-going-pee-pee.”

It should be mentioned that one thing to which Westerners in China did have to accustom themselves speedily was the fact of living in a zoo-but. not on the spectator side of the bars. As big-nosed, pinkfaced people, we were excruciatingly funny to observe, and in the course of the years, our entertainment value was immense, if at all else we failed. As foreigners we gathered swarms of spectators wherever we went outside such cosmopolitan and sophisticated centers as Shanghai and Hong Kong. We were funny when walking, we were comical when eating, and we were downright ludicrous when taking pictures, reading books, or writing letters. In later years I was often to collect crowds of as many as thirty people in the course of changing a single camera film. Once, long afterwards, in postwar West China, a friend and I overnighted in a town which had not seen a foreigner in six years and inadvertently led a parade of five hundred screaming children through the streets in desperate search of anonymity and the small, elusive inn where we had left our baggage.

Not that this particularly bothered me in the thirties. I was universally addressed by street urchins as “hsiao yang kuei-tzu,” or “little foreign devil,” but came to regard it as almost a term of endearment. Even “ta-pi,” or “big-nose,” seemed rather mild, especially in the face of such spicier epithets as “big turnip” and “turtle’s egg.” Chinese swearing was colorful, if less than overwhelming in translation. And the zoolike aspects of life in China were often diverting for a child.

And so the thirties passed, filled with the songs of street vendors and mountain carriers, with misty landscapes and soft red temples, with pagoda roofs and the smells of the Chinese alley. It was in the summer of 1937, while we played in the Lushan mountains at Kuling, that a second Nanking Incident occurred with the Japanese occupation of that city; and once again I missed the excitement. For a few months we remained refugees in our mountain fastness as the Sino-Japanese war snapped and crackled to the north of us. And then, on New Year’s Day, we walked down Kuling’s 3000 steps to the international train which whisked us south to Hong Kong, a city memorable chiefly for our refugee camp cots in the cavernous dining salon of the Peninsular Hotel. Next came Shanghai, an international enclave where we could park ourselves peacefully for two more years on the campus of the Shanghai American School. Shanghai I remember for the world’s most comfortable rickshaws, for double-decker buses, chocolate shops, White Russian cafés, and the Jessfield Zoo’s most cheerful inmate, one “Jimmy the Giant Kangaroo.” The implications of this sizable advance over the days of Chicken Feed were not lost on me. Shanghai was cosmopolitan in the extreme and a very gay place; but it was not really China. Only once did we return to Nanking, a curiously dead, gray city now in the spring of 1938.

But then came furlough time at last. By late 1939 I was on my way to the country I had never known, a paradise so clean, I was assured, that you could pick pennies off the street and pop them quite safely into your mouth.

It was nine years before I returned to China, and the China to which I returned was a rather different one. Many of the differences lay in me, for I was seeing the country through seventeen-yearold eyes. The hazy, happy memories still lingered, and they snapped into clear focus as I revisited old scenes and relived old experiences. But scenes and experiences assumed new significance, for my arrival coincided with the collapse of the regime and the way of life we had known so well in Nanking.

I traveled to China in July, 1948, with a classmate (Winthrop Knowlton, now president of Harper & Row, publishers) who was joining me for a year abroad between school and college. In the summer months we wandered in the North around Peking, the Great Wall, and Inner Mongolia, then to central China up the Yangtze River in the mountains of the Lushan range once again. In September we enrolled in Nanking University and settled down for nine months of prewar domesticity. It turned out to be a bare two and a half months. By December the Communist armies were poised a few miles above Nanking, and my parents were moving to South China. The two of us bade farewell to things academic. This was our last chance, we said; so we armed ourselves with DDT, bedding rolls, and a sense of urgency. And we took off for four months of travel through the West and Southwest. They were months which brought us to the heart of the China that lies far behind the Eastern seaboard. Meanwhile, the walls were crumbling about us.

China was a curious place in this period of turnover. During our last weeks in Nanking enormous armies were convulsed in the greatest battle of Chinese history at Hsuchow, forty miles to the north of us. But all was deceptively serene in the city itself. Elsewhere in West China, later in the year, we had stepped back a thousand years to a land in which the war a few hundred miles away had no effect on the ancient rhythm of sowing and harvesting, of giving birth and dying. The tranquil past one found in West China was as nothing I have ever known. This was the China that had vexed a score of conquerors; the glacial China that lumbered on relentlessly in its peaceful and massive way, engulfing, quelling, absorbing.

It was in the West, too, that I came to know the reality of the unchanging Chinese spirit. We traveled a great deal as “yellow fish”—illegal paying hitchhikers—on the tops of antique postal buses and trucks, clinging to the sides of mailbags, market baskets, and freshly butchered hogs. We stopped for meals and lodgings in towns, remote villages, and sometimes Buddhist monasteries. Our fellow “fish” were provincial businessmen and farmers moving from town to town. They gaped at us, they guffawed at us. (China was still a zoo.) But almost never were we able to pay for a night’s lodging, almost never for a meal. Whenever we asked for the bill in the small mud-floor lamplit restaurant, the proprietor would reply that a gentleman at another table had already paid for us. Invariably this would be one of our fellow wayfarers, a countryman whose Confucian ethic had long ago taught him to show kindness to the stranger traveling through his land. We tried to repay by distributing peanuts and tangerines to the others during the ride. In the midst of misery they could be the most gracious and generous people on earth.

West China was an eye-opener in other ways. It instructed me further in the nature of Chinese governance. Here, after nearly forty years of nominal republican rule, the central government maintained control only through a careful network of alliances with powerful local warlords who still retained private armies.

And here it was that we encountered age-old symptoms of disorder best illustrated in the dilemma we confronted in February, 1949, when we reached Kweiyang in the Southwest on our trek back to the Coast. We had to choose, then, between a motor route southward, which was officially closed because bandits had seized a large portion of the road, and a river route southeastward, which was officially closed because pirates had seized a large portion of the river. As it was, we elected to try our luck with a narrow-gauge railway leading eastward which had been built in strips but never connected. The procedure was to journey in trucks by day, meet the railroad by nightfall, and meander through the darkness in plush prewar wagons-lits. Why had the rail sections never been linked? Because the local general had deduced from history that The Enemy always marched up completed railroads, so it would be best to construct only incomplete railroads.

And why, we asked one night, as we chugged along at two miles per hour, did the trains run so slowly? Oh, said the conductor, because if the train went any faster, the locomotive usually jumped the track. But, he added, there was one other problem: when the train ran slowly, bandits would walk aboard, rob all the passengers, and walk off again. It was a hard life, he sighed.

Were we imperialists? I suppose so—though judging by the outcome we were less than a success. And if anyone changed anyone, they changed us.

All I know is that I cried when I heard those first sounds from Peking on the television last spring.

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