- Messengers from the US-Chinese Past
What matters in accounts of shared history? Whose stories should be included and count as history? The four books under review in this essay speak to these questions in distinct ways, but often refer to the same people, events, regions, and places. These studies differ in their analytical scope, subjects of inquiry, and sources, yet follow a similar research trajectory, focusing on informal contacts, marginalized experiences, and familial relations linking the United States and China. [End Page 441] Through the analysis of people-to-people relations in particular political contexts, the books show how political discourses and agendas in the two countries marked and shaped human experiences relating to citizenship and rights, law, identity, and social values.
Relations between China and the United States changed during the late nineteenth century. In China, a growing interest in Western learning and technology preceded the antiforeignism of the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. In the US, until antimiscegenation laws and the Chinese Exclusion Act were passed in the 1880s, curiosity, fascination, and openness to a different culture and philosophy of life dominated national sentiments toward Chinese. This is the historical juncture at which the analyses in the four books start.
In Chinese and Americans, Xu Guoqi examines newly discovered private letters and documentation tracing the legacy of personalities and cultural and educational initiatives that shaped the historical trajectory of the US and China’s bilateral relations. Emma Jinhua Teng’s Eurasian traces the life stories of mixed-race couples and their families across the Pacific. Madeline Hsu’s The Good Immigrants looks at the changing status of the Chinese student immigrant population in the US from their relative exclusion to their celebration as a “model minority.” Island assembles the poetic and oral-history legacy of Chinese migrants detained on Angel Island off the coast of San Francisco, which served as an immigration processing facility during the early twentieth century.
The Fragments of Chinese-American History
In Chinese and Americans, Xu explores “cultural internationalism” as a theme in the history of the US and China through the life stories and legacies of prominent individuals. He is interested in popular exchanges in the context of formal interstate relations, with a focus on “shared dreams, hopes and frustrations, excitements and disappointments” (p. 2). He distinguishes his approach from the state-centered accounts of US-China relations that dominate the field of diplomatic history. Through an account of people-to-people relations in the areas of cultural and educational exchanges, he paints a nuanced history of [End Page 442] US-China relations, reaching the conclusion that China’s strong desire for internationalization has been countered by the determined efforts of the West to “shut out” the Chinese (p. 206).
If there is one central figure whose life and work left a significant mark on the joint history of the US and China—and thus created space to tell the stories in these four books—it is Anson Burlingame, one of the characters discussed in Xu’s Chinese and Americans. Xu meticulously takes the reader through the main events of Burlingame’s career and his lifelong efforts to serve as an envoy between the two states. After the violent opening of China to the world following the Opium War—at a time when the Qing court refused to send resident ministers abroad—Burlingame became China’s first...