Abstract

This essay focuses on a remarkable friendship album found among the papers of the Foreign Mission School in Cornwall, Connecticut. Made in 1824 by a Chinese student, "Henry Martyn Alan" or "Wu Lan," this album is quite possibly the earliest book produced by a Chinese person in the United States. In a provocative educational experiment, the Cornwall Foreign Mission School provided a Christian education to an extraordinary range of "tawny and dusky youth," hoping to prepare them for missionary work in their native communities. Most research on the school has focused on its founding Hawaiian students and on the scandalous elopement of Cherokee students John Ridge and Elias Boudinot with two white girls, precipitating the closing of the school. Despite this recent historical work, no one has studied the five Cantonese youth whose 1818 enrollment predates virtually all historical discussions of Chinese presence in the U.S. This essay traces Wu Lan through the missionary press, and through a reading of this extraordinary album. This friendship album combines conventional Christian poetry copied and signed by various Cornwall students, watercolor drawings in an essentially Chinese style, and inscriptions in Chinese. Most of the Chinese texts simply translate the English poetry or serve as titles for the drawings, but two of them are love poems directed to the recipient of the album, Wu Lan's teacher, Miss Cherry Stone. Containing entries from many students–one wonderful trait of this album is how the students sign their nationality alongside their names–the book documents this community of foreign young men being trained in Christian "civilization," including the making of such books. I argue that the archival recovery of this friendship album powerfully alters our national narratives, providing us with nuanced and intimate access to one of the very earliest Chinese American interactions, and with it new ways of thinking about the processes of assimilation and conversion so central to ethnic and racial relations in the United States.

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