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  • Fateful Ties: A History of America’s Preoccupation with China by Gordon H. Chang
  • Brian Su-Jen Chung (bio)
Gordon H. Chang. Fateful Ties: A History of America’s Preoccupation with China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. xi, 314 pp. Hardcover $32.95, isbn 978-0-674-05039-6.

Gordon H. Chang explores how “China has been a central ingredient in America’s self-identity from its very beginning and in the American preoccupation with national fate” (p. 8). Beginning with the late eighteenth-century aspirations for independence from Britain to the Barack Obama administration when then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton claimed the United States and China’s futures were inevitably interdependent upon one another, Chang traces American “destinarian attitudes” toward China and Chinese people to show how everyday Americans envisioned American national identity and future growth as a nation-state—culturally, economically, and politically—through their real and imaginary relationships with China.

Recent travelogues about China’s capitalist modernization, and even Tom Clancy novels and video games centered on fictional stories of US wars with China, which Chang cites, are just a few of the American cultural representations from the twenty-first century that relays how “China simultaneously fascinates and repels” and “intrigues and infuriates” in the American imaginary (p. 7). Although media and political discourse on China focuses on “yellow peril” anxieties of China’s alleged threat to America’s sense of self as the world’s preeminent superpower, Chang argues that this logic captures just a sliver of what Americans think and have thought about China in their assertions of their national identities within the contexts of US imperialism, industrialization, and globalization. For more than four centuries, Chang argues, Americans have also simultaneously looked toward China as a model of state building, cultural values, and even revolutionary and leftist politics. Chang writes, “Unlike formal documents and diplomatic archives, the creative imaginings of China by entrepreneurs, political commentators, missionaries, academics, artists, and political activists (right and left) reveal far more of the rich texture and mental underpinnings of relations” (p. 6). The focus of Fateful Ties is what Chang calls the “mentalities,” which reflect the “images and perceptions that Americans hold in their minds” that shape public discourse of American national identity and their place in the world (p. 5).

In tracing the “mentalities” of Americans across a broad spectrum of professions, institutions, and political ideologies, Chang suggests that America’s relationship with China inspires references to America’s destiny. Whereas other European, Latin American, and Asian countries have represented friends and/or foes to Americans at home and abroad depending on foreign policy, none, according to Chang, has continuously across epochs remained in the American public imaginary the way China has. For Chang, this makes the rhetoric of destiny a distinctly American story worth sharing. [End Page 126]

This book is divided into seven chapters, including an introduction and an afterword, organized chronologically with the aim of grounding cultural history within specific political contexts. The breadth of voices that Chang draws from convincingly demonstrates the depth to which China seeped into the cultural lexicon of what it meant to be an American. Each chapter aims to show the shifting discourses and policies of US–China diplomacy and its connection to the “mentalities” that took shape in the United States. For example, the chapter “Physical and Spiritual Connections” focuses on the role of Christian missionaries in China and the ways they envisioned themselves within a broader project of manifest destiny. In “Grand Politics and High Culture,” Chang explores how American writers, scholars, and art collectors in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries embraced Chinese art, fashion, and philosophies for diverse reasons with a broader intent of forging new American cultural and intellectual traditions.

Chang tackles a different set of people, institutions, ideologies, and cultural representations in the chapter “Allies and Enemies,” which chronicles the changing racialization of Chinese and Chinese Americans when China became an ally of the United States during World War II and, then later, an enemy when China established the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The chapter “Transformations” explores how Americans, such as academics, black intellectuals, and revolutionaries...


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