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Yuen-Ying Chan Reimagining America SCHOLARS HAVE USED A VARIETY OF TERMS TO DESCRIBE CHINESE perceptions of the United States: exotic, menacing, open, energetic, independent, modem, and rich. These conflicting images of America through the ages reflect American realities as much as they do the historical and cultural specificity of the Chinese situation. In the Chinese psyche, America’s international activity evokes memories of China’s repeated humiliation by imperialist powers in the mid-nineteenth centuiy, and during the period from the corrupt Qing dynasty through the founding of the Chinese Republic in 1911, and then again at the victory of the communist revolution in 1949. But on the other hand, the United States is also seen as the benign imperialist that forgave loans, sent aid, and built missionary schools. Officials, intel­ lectuals and ordinary citizens looked up to Mei Guo, the abbreviated Chinese name for the United States that means “beautiful country.” The full name of America in Chinese is even more flattering: Meilijian, three characters meaning beautiful, profitable, and strong. From the late nineteenth centuiy, when the Qing emperor dispatched 120 young boys to the United States to study for the purpose of bringing home advanced knowledge, America has been valued as the land of possibili­ ties and fulfillment. It is also the land offreedom, science, and unbound challenges. For more than a century, the United States represented what the Chinese wanted for themselves but were incapable of attain­ ing: democracy, and technology. During the ninenteenth and most of the tw entieth century, the United States was a youthful country on the rise, while China was burdened with history and ghosts of the past. Anthropologist social research Voi 72 : No 4 : Winter 2005 935 Fei Xiaotong, who first visited the United States in the 1940s, offered a poignant contrast: “American children hear no stories about ghosts. They spend a dime at the drugstore to buy a Superman comic book.. . . Superman represents actual capabilities or future potential, while ghosts symbolize belief in and reverence for the accumulated past.” Growing up as a Chinese child, I can recall hearing from my grandparents gripping ghost stories that were meant to entertain as much as they were intended to strike fear and respect. Chinese ghosts also help to safeguard the past while shaping the unknown future. Authors David Arkush and Leo Lee were so taken by the imagery that they named their pioneering work on Chinese travelers’ writings on America and its people Land Without Ghosts. The book describes how generations of Chinese visitors from the late nineteen century to the late 1940s found America successively exotic, menacing, flawed, and a model for China. Early Chinese writers who visited the United States marveled at the expansive highways, the skyscrapers, and the bustling cities. While some of the writers commented on the social problems, the loneliness, and inequities, they accepted the ills as neces­ sary evils of a capitalist society in the making. They also found affirma­ tion of their own identity through perceived American shortcomings. “Chinese views of American have mirrored the process of China’s own self-definition during the painful historical transition from tradition to modernity. Not only did they seek in America values and ideals that they hoped to see realized in China, they also felt the need to reaffirm their Chinese identity by means of an implicit contrast with less attrac­ tive American features” (Arkush and Lee, 1989). LOOKING BACK: THE TW O RUPTURES Since 1949, a few historic years serve as markers for a broad overview ofrecent Chinese perception of the United States: 1972, when President Richard Nixon visited China; 1978, when China entered the reform era led by then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping; 1989, when the youthful protesters at Tiananmen Square captured the hearts and the imagina­ 936 social research tion of people around the world; and 1992, when Deng relaunched the aborted reform policies. The year 1999 was another key date; NATO forces bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three people. And in 2001, a US spy plane, flying over China’s southern coast, collided with a Chinese F-8 jet fighter that then crashed, killing the Chinese pilot. These years served as frames...


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