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  • Transpacific Community: America, China, and the Rise and Fall of a Cultural Network by Richard Jean So
  • Helen Hok-Sze Leung
So, Richard Jean. Transpacific Community: America, China, and the Rise and Fall of a Cultural Network. New York: Columbia UP, 2016. Pp. 206. $60.00 US hardcover.

Transpacific Community: America, China, and the Rise and Fall of a Cultural Network tells the compelling story of a pre-Cold War cultural scene in which a group of American and Chinese writers and artists, fueled by mutual fascination with each other's political and aesthetic insights, collaborated on and circulated projects on both sides of the Pacific. The book is meticulously researched and written with keenly observed details about this short-lived cultural network. Forged through bonds of friendship, admiration, and political affinity, this "transpacific community" did not survive the Cold War when the rigid ideological division between the two nations effectively severed avenues for further relations during the ensuing three decades. Author Richard Jean So is concerned not only with recovering this relatively overlooked piece of cultural history, but also with its relevance as "a lesson for the present" (217). The book demonstrates an analytical approach that views creative collaboration as a "coeval" process that mediates conflictual political investments and cultural differences. It also contends that literary histories of the twentieth century must be understood as "histories of media" (xxv). Paying particular attention to the effects of emerging communication technology, the book shows how the period's "new media," which include the telegram, gramophone, and radio, inspired aesthetic possibilities, facilitated political and philosophical dialogues, and expanded avenues for the transnational circulation of creative works.

The book consists of five interconnected case studies, each focused on a protagonist who was active in the cultural network. Chapter One reassesses writer Agnes Smedley's significance in the history of the American Cultural Front through a study of her role in the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)'s campaign to free Chinese writer Ding Ling from imprisonment during the 1930s. The chapter documents Smedley's budding internationalist leaning, already nascent in her early work Daughter of Earth, which took her to Moscow, Berlin, and eventually Shanghai, where she became deeply involved with prominent Chinese leftist writers including Lu Xun, Hu Feng, and Ding Ling. Ding Ling's arrest in 1932, during a period of brutal "White Terror" when the Nationalist government (KMT) routinely censored, [End Page 678] kidnapped, and executed leftist writers, motivated Smedley to push for the ACLU's involvement. The chapter shows how the telegram, an emerging form of media at the time, facilitated not only an effective transnational campaign to free Ding Ling, but also a lively debate between members of the ACLU and leftist Chinese writers over notions of "rights" and "democracy." Furthermore, the chapter shows how an aesthetic style most suited for transmission through the telegram, which So dubs "long-distance realism," facilitated the successful transnational circulation of Ding Ling's fiction. Chapter Two examines the work of Pearl Buck, whose novel The Good Earth was a literary bestseller both in the US and in China during the 1930s and early 1940s. The chapter explores the influence of Buck's childhood in China, her familiarity with Chinese literary classics, and her bilingual ability on the style of her fiction. So characterizes her style as a hybrid blend of realism influenced by both the modern American novel and vernacular Chinese fiction. This hybrid style creates a "shared discursive space" between readers who are familiar with either tradition, allowing issues that are specific to one cultural space to become issues of another during the process of reading. The popularity of Buck's novel amongst literary publics in both the US and China was further aided by a Pacific book trade that made full use of new communication technology to market the book rapidly and simultaneously across distance. Chapter Three recounts African-American musician Paul Robeson's collaboration with Chinese folk musician Liu Liangmo during the 1940s, when they produced a recording of Chinese folk songs performed by Robeson. This chapter makes a thoughtful contribution to recent scholarship on Afro-Asian cultural history and studies of the...


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