- Imperfect Understanding: Intimate Portraits of Modern Chinese Celebrities by Yuan-ning Wen and others, ed. by Christopher Rea
Although it seems that the Republican Era of Chinese history is one of the most examined, and perhaps over-examined, period of time in our field, it is wonderful to discover another aspect of the time that provides a more nuanced, if imperfect, understanding. Christopher Rea presents us with Imperfect Understanding: Intimate Portraits of Modern Chinese Celebrities, which is exactly such a surprising book. The book is a collection of biographical sketches, which, when taken as a whole, provide a refreshing and lively context for the age.
The man behind the sketches was Wen Yuan-ning (溫源寧, AKA Oon Guan Neng), the editor of The China Critic. Wen was raised in a commercial family in the Dutch East Indies and was connected with many of the most influential people in Anglophone Asia. He studied in Singapore and London, graduating in 1922 from King's College, Cambridge with a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Laws, before moving to Beijing to take up teaching at Peking University. He later moved to Shanghai and eventually became not only an editor but also a politician, and he was appointed to the legislative Yuan of the Nationalist government.
This book is a collection of biographic sketches originally published beginning in 1934 in the English-language journal, The China Critic (中國評論周報). The original series, titled "Unedited Biographies," later renamed "Intimate Portraits," became so popular that a collection of seventeen of the biographies was published in 1935 in the book Imperfect Understanding. Rea's book organizes the biographies under these three titles.
The sketches include a wonderfully eclectic range of personalities that reflects the vibrant intellectual melange of a certain set. Based on Wen's background, it is not surprising to find several academics, from the conservative to the dry and diligent. But there are also poets, novelists, musicians, politicians, and merchants. And while Chen T'ung-pe (陳通伯), the Dean of the College of Arts at Wuhan University, might not be a household name today, there are many that are more than recognizable: Mei Lan-fang (梅蘭芳) the opera sensation, Hu Shih (胡適) the intellectual, Hsu Tse-mo (徐志摩) the poet, Wellington Koo the ambassador, and even the former emperor of the Qing Empire Pu Yi (溥儀).
Admittedly, the real value of this book is less in biographical data and more in the style of the sketches. Rea encapsulates this well: "These essays, in short, are no mere caricatures or celebrity roasts, though they incorporate elements of both. They represent an attempt to salvage the aesthetic value of a life and to display it through aphorism" (p. 14). With this as a focus for [End Page 225] reading, the sketches appear as a way of understanding the cultural and intellectual zeitgeist, an attempt to fashion a typology of famous and influential Chinese people, and a deliberate display of a certain style in erudition and wit.
While not all were written by Wen, and at least one was written by one of the most outstanding authors in all of modern Chinese literature, Qian Zhongshu (錢鍾書), there is a consistency to many of the sketches. In the early works, there is a biting and frequently condescending snideness that is striking. This is often entwined with a particularly international, or rather non-Chinese, worldview.
In many cases, these seem to be practiced barbs that say more about the author than the subject. The poet Li Shih-ch'en (李石岑) is ". . . too much a seeker of pleasure to be a lover of wisdom" (p. 208). John Wong-Quincey (王文顯), a playwright and scholar, ". . . almost gives one the impression of a Presbyterian clergyman going through the funeral service" (p. 208). Perhaps one of the best lines is reserved for Pu Yi, who was at the time the puppet emperor of Manchukuo. "May he outlive his usefulness" (p. 119). This note stands out as much for its wit as its subtle...