For the past fifty years, American historical scholarship documenting the Chinese presence in the United States has focused largely on various aspects of the anti-Chinese movement, often paying more attention to the “excluders” than the “excluded.” This obvious trend in the historiographical record prompted Roger Daniels in 1966 to write, “Other immigrant groups were celebrated for what they had accomplished; Orientals were important for what was done to them.” 1 Currently, despite a growing body of literature on Chinese American labor and legal history and Asian American literary criticism, little scholarship has appeared that gives voice to the Chinese in America, thus impeding the development of a Chinese American intellectual or cultural history. 2
Ironically, the politics surrounding the development of Asian American studies has contributed to this trend. Asian Americans, long considered perpetual foreigners, rightfully sought to claim themselves as Americans, full participants in American democratic society, unquestionably deserving of the respect and privileges that accompany membership in the American polity. For Asian American scholars and activists, however, the cost of this strategy often meant distancing themselves from their historical ties to Asia. By focusing primarily on the American perspective of the Asian American experience, the Asian voice has often been neglected. In an article published in 1991, Sucheta [End Page 201] Mazumdar challenged Asian American scholars to recontextualize their work so that it included a broader, more international perspective. She wrote, “Asian American Studies has been located within the context of American Studies and stripped of its international links. . . . To isolate Asian American history from its international underpinnings, to abstract it from the global context of capital and labor migration, is to distort this history.” 3 This essay, using both Chinese- and English-language sources, attempts to respond to this challenge. Although not rooted in the capital and labor migration context of which Mazumdar spoke, it seeks to widen the range of Chinese American studies by exploring the links between Chinese and Chinese American intellectual and cultural history. More to the point, a study of this kind can contribute to the ongoing internationalization of Asian American and American studies.
This essay examines three Chinese perceptions of American culture during a time of social transformation in China, when many Chinese intellectuals looked to the United States as a model for modernization and an ally against European imperialism. Specifically, it utilizes Chinese representations of George Washington, the travel diary of Liang Qichao (1873–1929) published in 1904, and the personal memoirs of Yung Wing (1828–1912). These three views of America reflect a developing understanding of American society on the part of the Chinese as each one comes closer to America spatially, in the amount of time spent in this country, and in their appreciation and appropriation of American culture. These examples also disclose a growing sense of how Chinese intellectuals and political reformers were influenced by what they found in the United States and its attendant culture, thus revealing that the Chinese presence in America had a mutually transformative effect on both Chinese and Americans. Not only was the American landscape transformed through Chinese labor while American immigration policy became increasingly racialized and class biased through the passage of exclusionary legislation enacted against Chinese immigrants, the Chinese experience in America also had an important cultural impact on the Chinese, similar to what Mary Louise Pratt terms transculturation. She defines this term as the process whereby “subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted to them by a dominant or metropolitan culture.” 4 The examples of Chinese perceptions of George Washington, Liang Qichao’s views of the Chinese in San Francisco, and Yung Wing’s vision of the salvational [End Page 202] qualities of an American education speak eloquently of the process of cultural borrowing, adaptation, and transformation. By encountering a variety of “Others,” in the United States, these Chinese intellectuals, political reformers, and diplomats came to reevaluate their Sinocentrism and thereby laid the foundations for an early Chinese American cultural outlook, which, during this period, was a blend of Chinese and Western social and political values.
Research approaches that can give voice to...