Tsiang of China Hsu's chronicle of a Chinese writer in America charts the shifting, and dubious, waters of cultural exchange.

A Floating Chinaman: Fantasy and Failure Across the Pacific

By Hua Hsu (2016, Harvard University Press) 276 pages with notes and index

Literary studies are rarely as amusing, engaging or important as Hua Hsu’s A Floating Chinaman: Fantasy and Failure Across the Pacific. Hsu examines the many-faceted contradictions of the radical politics and publishing of 1930s America through the misadventures of writer H. T. Tsiang and invites us to consider, “how authority accrues, particularly authority on a remote and fairly obscure subject.” Tsiang, a young bureaucrat left his native China to study in the United States in 1926 and there found fellow travelers swept up by the same revolutionary fervor taking place back home. Inspired by leftist writing in New Masses and the Daily Worker, Tsiang was eager to contribute to this conversation on global revolution. So in 1929 Tsiang published Poems of the Chinese Revolution, eight of which had previously been published in the Daily Worker and New Masses. But publishers politely and repeatedly rejected his first novel, China Red forcing Tsiang to publish it himself in 1931. He then sold it out of a suitcase on street corners or at leftist gatherings. Tsiang’s singular misfortune was to have published China Red in the same year that Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth appeared. Buck’s novel of the yeoman farmer Wang Lung sold a million and a half copies in its first year. It won the Pulitzer Prize and in 1938, Buck was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. The Good Earth swept aside earlier representations of the Chinese in Western literature and for a generation of Americans, Pearl Buck’s Chinese peasants were the standard with which H.T. Tsiang and others had to compete. More than her intimate connection to China (and despite his) the market confirmed her authority.

Exploring this illuminating moment in the early 20th century through the failed literary career of an author, arguably better informed on China, than the coterie of American “China hands,” Hsu muses on “how the identities of Asians travel beyond the borders that produced them.” Alongside discussions of the writing of American authors on China, Hsu includes, through Tsiang’s writing, the perspectives of Chinese students, workers, displaced denizens of Chinatowns, whose experience of the transpacific placed them on the distant periphery of the elite inner-circle of those China watchers. Hsu’s narrative strategy amplifies the irony, indeed the dissonance, between a newfound American affection for Chinese peasants, the Chinese Exclusion Act and the disenfranchised sojourners of Chinatowns.

Exploring this illuminating moment in the early 20th century through the failed literary career of an author, arguably better informed on China, than the coterie of American “China hands,” Hsu muses on “how the identities of Asians travel beyond the borders that produced them.”

The structure of A Floating Chinaman mirrors and underscores its argument. Of the study’s six chapters three describe the writers and writing that generated the new China in the American imagination, Pearl Buck and Carl Crow among others. Three alternate chapters are devoted to H.T. Tsiang’s efforts to make his work legible in the literary context created by these American authorities. Each chapter discussing the cheerful writing on a theoretical China is coupled with a chapter on H.T. Tsiang’s grim existence in New York as he struggles to publish his actual experiences of revolutionary China. For example, one chapter includes a discussion of journalist Carl Crow, who arrived in Shanghai in 1911, to work for an English language newspaper. In 1918, Crow opened an advertising and merchandising firm and wrote numerous books on China aimed for mainstream American consumption. Crow’s best-seller, Four Hundred Million Customers (1937) a guide to doing business in China, won the National Book Award. Just as Buck’s sentimental realism made the Chinese more sympathetic to Americans, Crow’s China was accessible and connected to the United States through trade.

The following chapter tracks Tsiang’s attack on a publishing establishment that perpetuated the China of sentimental fiction or characterized it as an extension of the American frontier. Tsiang’s second self-published novel, The Hanging on Union Square (1936) is a dark allegory (characters are named “Mr. Nut,” “Mr. Wiseguy,”) that Hsu unpacks with admirable clarity. Hanging calls attention to itself as both a story about a market-driven economy’s the pernicious impact on creative writing and the end product of that process. The opening pages of Hanging reproduce the numerous rejection slips and letters Tsiang received from publishers and fellow writers. Just one offered constructive criticism: “re-write the story in straightforward terms as a realistic novel.” The rest acknowledged that the experimental novel was “interesting” “original” but refused to publish. Including these documents forces the reader to witness the process of literary production where imaginative work is evaluated, in his opinion, for its salability. Here Tsiang indicts his fellow travelers for failing to nurture one of their own.

Hsu’s argument throughout A Floating Chinaman is that Tsiang’s failures, in life and in art, are instructive and at times, inspired.

Hsu’s argument throughout A Floating Chinaman is that Tsiang’s failures, in life and in art, are instructive and at times, inspired. Knowing that he is incapable of producing novels about Chinese peasants, he is liberated to include, “all that America had ignored—the voices that had been relegated to the ‘unsaid.’” When Mr.Nut, the protagonist of Hanging, is driven to attempt suicide, Mr. Wiseguy intercedes. Wiseguy’s modest proposal persuades Nut that people will pay to witness a hanging; Nut should charge the spectators a fee. After Wiseguy’s cut, the proceeds would go to the dead man’s family. There would be the additional bonus for the city: one less person unemployed. Hanging, Hsu writes, “is an autopsy of [Tsaing’s] own failures.” Not surprisingly, when Tsiang turned to the familiar immigrant narrative, he obtained a publisher.

H.T. Tsiang’s third novel, And China Has Hands, was published by Robert Speller in 1937. The novel is distinguished for being the first representation of Chinatown by a Chinese American writer. The protagonists, Wong Wan-Lee and Pearl Chang represent challenges to Chinese and American identity. Wong, a laundryman in New York’s Chinatown, is a relative newcomer to the American scene. Pearl Chang, who is from the South, and biracial (Chinese and African American) is also a newcomer to the City. Wong is impressed by her correct English but dismayed by her ignorance of Chinese culture. Together they fill the gaps in each other’s knowledge. Through Wong, the Chinese immigrant, and Chang the mixed-race American, Tsiang highlights the floating or shifting nature of individual and group identity. Pearl reports that in the South she is black but in New York she is Chinese.

And China Has Hands was inspired by the political radicalization of New York’s Chinese laundrymen who created The Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance in 1933 to resist white efforts to impose restrictive registration fees on Chinese-owned laundries. In addition to resisting “Hands” in Tsiang title, And China Has Hands is in part, a nod to the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance. Despite their remove from the Chinatown community, Wong and Chang participate in a rally to protest unfair labor practices. Through the protagonists and the Alliance of Chinese workers, Tsiang proposes a vision of a nascent, activist Chinese American community that the conclusion frustrates when Wong is killed by an assassin’s bullet. Unlike his fortunate cousin, the narrator observes, “Wong Lung who had made a million and had become the hero of The Good Earth-Horatio Alger” Wong Wan-Lee died a poor man. This would be Tsiang’s parting shot at Pearl Buck and the too many “China hands.” Tsiang makes a cameo appearance at the end of the novel as a sad-sack character who has come to a rally to sell his books. He is kicked out of a lecture hall and bullied by a “bureaucrat” who berates him for not having a respectable publisher and for never having gotten a Guggenheim. Tsiang’s appearance here, “floating on the fringes of his own book,” suggests what the conclusion of the novel confirms. He concedes defeat.

The Good Earth swept aside earlier representations of the Chinese in Western literature and for a generation of Americans, Pearl Buck’s Chinese peasants were the standard with which H.T. Tsiang and others had to compete. More than her intimate connection to China (and despite his) the market confirmed her authority.

In the early 1940s, H.T. Tsiang was confined on Ellis Island awaiting a deportation hearing. He became a compulsive letter-writer to friends, Rockwell Kent or Eleanor Roosevelt, anyone who might be able to help him. This archive productively complicates our understanding of Tsiang. Although desperate he is determined to remain in the United States and ultimately his efforts are successful. By 1943, he had moved on to Hollywood where he found modest success as a playwright and actor. In 1951 another archive was compiled by the F.B.I. Tsiang might have been delighted with his F.B.I file. As Hsu argues the Bureau’s agents were among his most careful readers and they questioned everyone he knew. To most he seemed, “a little crazy” but probably harmless. H.T. Tsiang survived the F.B.I. and inevitably lived long enough to prove the China hands wrong. Mao, not Shang-kai Shek, emerged victorious at the end of the four-decade Chinese Revolution. Hsu’s thoughtful and beautifully written account of H.T. Tsiang’s efforts to add to the China experts’ conversation about his native land is a brilliant study of “what ifs?” H.T. Tsiang’s life as “a floating Chinaman” speaks eloquently to questions about community and belonging that reach beyond those boundaries and beg to differ.

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