- Transnationalism as Metahistoriography: Washington Irving’s Chinese Americas
In the April 1872 issue of Shen Bao, China’s flagship private newspaper, a loose translation of “Rip Van Winkle” was published under the title “A Sleep of Seventy Years 一睡七十年.” Possibly the first piece of American fiction in China, “A Sleep of Seventy Years” appears without any paratextual information or mention of Washington Irving, a mere sliver of a story sandwiched between an admonition about hearsay and gossip and a report on the violations committed by British missionaries on the Yangtze River. The story itself bridges these two articles by addressing historical crisis and the way such news is often delivered. In “A Sleep,” Wei finds himself in an oasis in the mountains where he is met by three Daoist saints. After imbibing their liquor, the young scholar falls asleep only to wake up 70 years later. Bearing the distinct imprint of “Rip Van Winkle,” Wei only registers the passage of time when he notices that his rifle(火枪) has rotted. Like Rip, he returns to a village where everyone else has aged. Wei learns that he has completely bypassed the domestic life into which he thinks he had just entered (his wife and son have already died), discovering that his newfound social identity is consigned to nostalgic chit-chat. “A Sleep of Seventy Years” might pass as any other folktale but for two important clues: the modern rifle and the specificity of 70 years. Like “Rip Van Winkle,” this tale capitalizes on the structural suitability of a before-and-after story for conveying pessimism about contemporary historical happenings without having to go into details. Only here, the historical referents are changed: the 20 years of Rip Van [End Page 271] Winkle’s slumber becomes the 70 years of European incursion into China, including the punitive and humiliating Opium Wars and the unequal treaties that followed1; the American Revolution blanked out by Rip becomes the death throes of the Qing dynasty for Wei.
The attribution of “A Sleep of Seventy Years” to “Rip Van Winkle” is open to debate, and perhaps such ambiguity of origins is a fitting problem for a story about abeyance.2 Unassisted by any corresponding milestone in Sino-American relations, any attempt to pin down the source of the story would have to turn to imagined transnational flows.3 At the same time, the appearance of “Rip Van Winkle” in China, through whatever real or imagined transnational channels, suggests on both sides a shared interest in the alternative forms of literary–historical management offered by unrecoverable time and experience. Further, the shared literary form between America and China, tantalizingly represented by “A Sleep,” also reveals the importance of one nation to the other’s sense of history, even when it seems absent. For however much “A Sleep of Seventy Years” appearing in newsprint in China in 1872 might say about American literature’s global reach prior to the twentieth century, there is another story here about how China impacted the historical consciousness of American literature in the early nineteenth century. Long before Rip Van Winkle went to China, China had come to “Rip Van Winkle” and its tendentiously formed America. And as elusively as Irving runs through the Chinese story, China also runs through his. This essay demonstrates how Irving used China’s immanent presence in America to puzzle out geopolitical configurations of the new nation that will never come to pass, and how the juncture where China met American historiography opened up for him opportunities for reflecting on the psychosis of writing history and then living in it.
Whom does Rip Van Winkle encounter in the mountains before his 20-year sleep? According to the consensus of his fellow villagers and many modern readers, Rip consorts with none other than the ghosts of “Hendrick Hudson” (782) and his men. This identification allows Rip to go back and make sense of the oxymoron of the “grave roysters” (776), their doomed revelry capturing perfectly the pathos of Hudson’s cohort marooned by their mutinous crew on their abortive second trip to the New World. But since the characters can only conjecture, there is no...