"As A Chinaman Saw Us"

As is true of a lot of the articles posted to this site recently, this is a copy and paste from my old LJ account. I find this book to be highly interesting, and still think about it (it's been about 6 months since I have read it) so I figured this was worth porting over.

Finally sat down to finish reading the last bit of As A Chinaman Saw Us (link takes you to the free e-book via Project Gutenberg). This, to recap, is a 1904 (and/or 1916) book by an "anonymous Chinese male", edited by Henry Pearson Gratton, which purports to be culled out of a series of letters from the writer to a friend in China who is interested in American society from 1892 to 1902. The editor claims he has "preserved the salient features of it, with but little essential change and practically in its original shape." I'll get back to this in a moment.

I would recommend this to just about anyone, because it is a surreal look of one culture upon another, it is just damned hard to say if this is an American book mocking the Chinese or a Chinese book mocking an American.

In the preface, again, the editor comments "If the reader misses the peculiar idioms, or the pigeon-English that is usually placed in the mouth of the Chinaman of the novel or story, he or she should remember that the writer of the letters, while a "heathen Chinee," was an educated gentleman in the American sense of the term."

This is the first red flag of the entire text as not being what it claimed. Some other clues that suggest this is entirely the work of Gratton, or a ghost writer aligned with him (note how all of these are circumstantial at best, and somewhat easily explained even if the book is completely honest, it just seems suspicious in light of all of them):

  1. the preface and the rest of the book are written in a very similar rhythm and flow.
  2. the Chinese man seems awfully concerned with American immigrants as an issue. Especially focused on the Irish. Sometimes good. Sometimes bad.
  3. though a huge number of jokes and wordplays are understood, and used, by the supposedly Chinese writer, nearly every chapter includes a "but what did he mean by this" followed by an almost overly obvious wordplay. Quite often this wordplay that is overlooked is set up to be a joke on the writer. This suggests, to me, a red herring tactic.
  4. the vast majority of criticisms for Americans are dealing with its being muddled by immigration, allowing blacks freedom, opposing cheap Chinese labor (in favor of more expensive European labor), and pretending to have equality. Also complaints of alcohol consumption and the level of undress of American women. In more than one place reports precise anti-alcohol statistics. All is the sort of thing that, say, a Prohibitionist minister might take offense at.
  5. though it mentions precise details of American life to the Chinese friend, usually glosses over the Chinese details with only broad facts of history (known to Americans at the time) and with little reference to any specific location. It seems that an interested friend would want comparison to things they know. Talks about "Confucian" (note, instead of calling him by K'ung-fu-tzu, he goes by a the romanization) ideas in a suspiciously third person way most of the time.
  6. despite being staged as a something of an attack on America, it does tend to praise the American government, the American education system and overly praises the American military while sort of railing against certain big government issues and corruption...again the sort of thing that strikes me as America against America.
  7. finally, it claims to be trying to keep the anonymity of the writer for "obvious reasons" but then cites specific meetings with various heads of state and local leaders, the sort of thing that could be traced back to the writer.

At any rate, I don't know if this is all a big load of fakery or not, but it still stands as an interestingly prescient view of the century to come. Not only does it discuss the assassination of McKinley (though this only counts as prescient if the timing of the letter is held to be true), but also discusses a possible war with Japan, problems that might brew due to the increased numbers of Mexican workers for the Western farms and cheap labor (apparently brought in, according to this, because while they were cheaper than most, they were more expensive than the Chinese and therefore not considered quite as unfair for employment), and the power China could hold over the United States by forcing a trade deficit.

Plus, its almost random spurts of hatred and bigotry, as well as his infatuation with American women, all add to the weird, bizarro tone.

Plus...it's free!

You can read a short review of it from the New York Times' 1904 Archives (ah, the joy of the internet). Note that they don't quite buy the book's back story either.

Written by W Doug Bolden

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