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American Radio in China: International Encounters with Technology and Communications, 1919–41 by Michael Krysko (review)

From: Technology and Culture
Volume 55, Number 2, April 2014
pp. 504-505 | 10.1353/tech.2014.0058

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Reviewed by
American Radio in China: International Encounters with Technology and Communications, 1919–41. By Michael Krysko. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Pp. xiii+ 286. $85.

This valuable study traces various American efforts to introduce U.S.-style radio telegraphy and broadcasting services into what became Nationalist China in the two decades prior to American entry into World War II. Melding the study of technological innovation, foreign affairs, and what is today dubbed cultural diplomacy, we learn why those efforts were doomed to failure long before Japan invaded China in 1937. This book began as the author’s dissertation (SUNY-Stony Brook, 2001) and is here revised for publication and a broader readership. Michael Krysko now teaches history at Kansas State University.

Despite its two-nation title, this is really a study of a three-way national struggle involving the United States and China, but increasingly in the 1930s, Japan as well. The growing anti-American tone of Japan’s aggressive imperialism was easily as much of a reason for U.S. broadcasting’s failure as was chronic Chinese political instability and resistance to the messages transmitted.

This tone is set in chapter 1 as the Federal Telegraph Co. tries to develop wireless links between the United States and China in the 1920s in the face of existing contracts held by Dutch and Japanese firms. Close government ties to commercial radio companies were evident in both the American and Japanese cases as they competed for the potentially huge Chinese market. But in a complex tale, Federal was forced out of the picture by 1929. Initiatives from the growing Radio Corporation of America (RCA) from 1928 (after it ceased supporting the Federal initiative) to 1937 are assessed in chapter 2. Here again, the unstable Chinese political situation made marketing dicey to say the least. Revenues barely met the costs of operating. Unwilling [End Page 504] to deal with growing Chinese nationalism, and in the face of an everstronger Japanese military presence, RCA withdrew in 1938.

Chapters 3 (which originally appeared in this journal in October 2004) and 4 describe several broadcast efforts, many based in the international settlements of Shanghai. Attempts to broadcast faced growing Chinese resistance, especially after the Nationalist government took power in 1927. Amateur shortwave stations within and directed to China were impacted as well. Importing radio equipment, first officially banned in 1915 as “military contraband,” grew increasingly difficult.

The particular role of religious broadcasters and the American Missionary Movement in Nationalist China is discussed in chapter 5. Made famous for later audiences in such films as The Sand Pebbles (1966), this was a period of committed, if too often naïve, religious drives to convert the rural “heathen” Chinese. As Krysko makes all too clear, many such broadcasts seemed to reinforce the expatriate ministers’ ideals (and link them to home) while being largely ignored by their intended Chinese listeners.

Chapter 6 explores the role of news broadcast from expatriate transmitters (mainly in Shanghai) to a largely expat audience amid growing U.S.-Japanese conflicts over China on the eve of the Pacific war. Some broadcasts were jammed—a sign of things to come elsewhere.

Many of the Americans in the period photos look positively smug—which at least suggests why they faced such problems trying to implant their ideas and ideals within a very different culture. For as Krysko sums it up: “American radio initiatives in China from 1919 to 1941 consistently underscored and antagonized the incompatible visions that Americans, Chinese, and Japanese held for the future of East Asia” (p. 188). Too often real American commercial or religious self-interest was gilded (the author’s term) in rhetoric about improving China’s way of life with Western ideas and technologies. And thus not surprisingly, these radio ventures were seen as just another Western attempt to dominate “backward” Asia.

For both the details on who did what and when, and the conclusions as to why virtually nothing worked out for the American efforts, Krysko’s fascinating book is valuable in rescuing a time and place largely forgotten in the decades since. [End Page 505]

Christopher H. Sterling

Christopher H. Sterling is an emeritus...