Friday, April 17, 2015

Book Review: Fateful Ties by Gordon H. Chang

This book is a comprehensive review and valiant attempt to explain the unusual love-hate relationship between China and the United States. Given the funny season that is about to descend on us, as candidates race for the U.S. presidency, this book could not come at a better time. Readers will find the book an antidote to the inevitable anti-China polemic venom to come from candidates looking for slightest edge.

Written by a Stanford history professor—no, not the other Gordon Chang that runs around cackling that the sky is falling in China—this is the scholarly one that writes with elegance and eloquence about the ups and downs of a relationship between the most powerful nation and the most populous one.

The author points out that China’s relationship began with America even before there was an America. All the tea dumped in the Boston Harbor came from China—the Brits have not yet smuggled the tea saplings to India—and it was the desire to buy tea direct from China and save on the taxes being imposed by the British crown that led to the American Revolution. (My “aha” moment: All of a sudden I realized where the expression came from, “I wouldn’t do such and such for all the tea in China.”)

The author goes on to suggest that visions of trading for the wealth that was China led Jefferson to the Louisiana Purchase and sending Lewis and Clark west to find the passage to China, as Columbus attempted centuries before.

Such notable historical characters as Anson Burlingame, John and Alice Dewey, Pearl Buck and Henry Luce furthered America’s fascination with China. Burlingame went to China as the American ambassador and came back as the envoy from China. The Deweys went to Japan for a vacation, decided to visit China on a whim and stayed for two years. Buck and Luce wrote and published bountifully about China.

These people spent a significant part of their lives in China and were all enthralled by the Chinese people and culture. They became positive influences in America’s perception of China. On the other hand, xenophobes such as Denis Kearney that spewed racist hatred across the American society had never been to China and know nothing about China. Sounds familiar in today’s context?

China suffered from the ravages of the Opium War and the unequal treaties imposed on the country by the western imperialists. Burlingame attempted to help China rectify the injustices. The Treaty of 1868 named after him entered between China and the U.S. actually paved the way for the first batch of Chinese boys to be educated in New England.

While the U.S. participated in the quelling of the Boxer Rebellion, it was the only western power to return most of the indemnity fund back to China in the form of scholarships for advance studies in America. Studying in the United States became the gold standard for every aspiring student in China and continues to this day.

The writings of many others such as John Dewey and Pearl Buck created a level of understanding about China that formed the foundation of popular American sympathy and support for China and sentiment against Japan during the eve of World War II.

This book is a pleasure to read for entertainment and for those wishing to become better informed individuals. It should be required reading for all current and aspiring politicians. Given all the loose talk about the impending conflict between a rising power and reigning power, it is crucial that our leaders understand China and get the relationship right.

1 comment:

dinahlinmba said...

George, as usual, very articulate, and it does inspire me to buy the book.