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  • Fateful Ties: A History of America’s Preoccupation with China by Gordon H. Chang
  • Michael Sheng
Fateful Ties: A History of America’s Preoccupation with China by Gordon H. Chang. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2015. 314 pp. $32.95 US (cloth).

This study offers a sweeping overview of America’s relations with China in the last 400 years. Uniquely, the book’s focus ‘‘is on those Americans whose creative imaginations considered what China meant’’ for the United States (6). Although the use of previously unknown archival materials is limited, the author’s argument is powerful. He contends that the American preoccupation with China from the seventeenth century to the present day has been so fateful that it deeply affected the formation of American identity. Manifest Destiny and the Open Door policy were two of the most important concepts that shaped US foreign relations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and both stemmed from American preoccupation with China.

While the US inherited the ‘‘China mystique’’ from Europe, China was not just a marketplace to Americans; ‘‘the Far East was the reason to reach the far west,’’ to fulfill the nation’s Manifest Destiny. To Americans, China was a matter of ‘‘mind and spirit more than of the pocketbook.’’ To prove his point the author considers ‘‘ways of thinking, values and attitudes, and cultural assumptions rather than the particulars of diplomacy and the politics of policy’’ (3–6). Thus, the book is filled with direct and indirect quotations from prominent American politicians, missionaries, merchants, writers, philosophers, and entertainers; from George Washington and Alfred Mahan to Shirley MacLaine. The impression the reader is left with is that America’s lasting preoccupation with China was almost a romantic infatuation. According to Gordon H. Chang, while Western Europe remains the fulcrum of American foreign policy, ‘‘in terms of the perceived future of the nation, no other country looms as importantly as China’’ (258).

Early Americans, such as Benjamin Franklin and Amasa Delano, initially praised China as a place of wealth, culture, and wisdom, which could be emulated by their young nation. This perspective changed, however, around 1840 during the First Opium War and caused China to appear backward, idolatrous, and resistant to change. Nevertheless, Chang argues that China and the US continued to have a special relationship or ‘‘spiritual connection’’ as well as a power over the American imagination (47–51). The US maintained its official position of neutrality during various conflicts between China and the Western powers until the turn of the twentieth century, when Washington’s Open Door doctrine intervened and prevented the realization of threats to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity from Western powers and Japan. When Japan invaded China in the 1930s, America consistently and firmly sided with China, a position that led [End Page 430] to the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The author writes with obvious sentimentality that ‘‘[f]or many, the war and its aftermath confirmed the conviction that the fates of America and China were intimately intertwined’’ (170).

Chinese immigrants in the US, however, were singled out as the target of racial discrimination, leading to the passing of the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Americans not only inherited the China mystique from Europe but also ‘‘Yellow Peril,’’ a racist and alarmist sentiment that perceived Chinese people as an inferior and debased race whose tenacity and migration to the US would doom the future of the nation. Anti-Chinese sentiment spread nation-wide by the early twentieth century, yet Chang believes that Yellow Peril ‘‘was a mirror image, the flip side, of the view that held the Chinese in esteem’’ (82). If, as Chang suggests, the infatuation with China and Yellow Peril were two sides of the same coin, the author’s treatment of them seems heavily tilted toward the former. He states that ‘‘American views of China have always been quixotic’’ (261), dedicating only approximately twenty pages to the discussion of the Yellow Peril phenomenon surrounding the Chinese Exclusion Act, as if it were an unfortunate isolated incident (78–89).

Following the Korean War and the Vietnam War, American leaders and the general public came to view Communist China as the greatest...


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pp. 430-432
Launched on MUSE
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