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  • American Life: A Chinese Historian's Perspective by Cho-yun Hsu
  • Jing Li (bio)
Cho-yun Hsu. American Life: A Chinese Historian's Perspective. Translated by Carissa Fletcher. Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 2021. 370 pp. Hardcover $60.00, isbn 978-988-237-210-8.

A renowned scholar of Chinese civilization, Professor Cho-yun Hsu has written this book about the United States, which has been his adopted home for over half a century. Originally published in Chinese in 2018, this volume of personal observations and scholarly reflections on America's national experience makes rewarding reading for anyone interested in the fate of the United States and what it augurs for the world.

Born in Mainland China in 1930, Hsu went to Taiwan along with his parents as Chinese Communists rose to power in 1949. He came to the United States in 1957 and studied for his doctoral degree at the University of Chicago, thus launching a long and lustrous academic career in America. While at Chicago, he lodged in the dormitory of the university's Theological Seminary and befriended students in the school, whose idealism and progressive advocacy he, a foreign student with born physical disabilities, appreciated and eagerly shared. As Hsu recounts, what he witnessed in Chicago during the late fifties and the early sixties greatly fostered his expectations for the United States as a land of freedom and justice.

Yet, sixty years later, it is with a heavy heart that Hsu writes about America.

Looking back, when I first arrived in the United States, I held its founding ideals in such high esteem. Over the course of my six decades as a sojourner in this land, it has undergone many changes, and I have often lamented at the [End Page 205] sight of a country with such a beautiful national landscape and such a diverse population gradually inching toward destruction.


What happened? How? Hsu shares his observations and understanding, drawing from both scholarly knowledge and personal experience. The consideration is comprehensive, covering the economy, politics, culture, and social life of America. As Hsu notes, after World War II, the U.S. economy, which had been based on highly productive agriculture and powerful manufacturing, turned into one centered around financial operation. "[C]ommon sense tells us that this system is unsound. In the age of economic globalization, economies elsewhere are moving toward enrichment through growth, yet the United States is on the road to being hollowed out" (p. 154). Such economic changes led to the concentration of wealth in the hands of few, impoverishing average workers, severely weakening America's middle class in particular. The gap between the rich and the poor continued to widen, and it became ever harder to overcome class differences. As this happened, American politicians, and to a certain extent the U.S. political system itself, beholden to money, failed to take action to reverse the downward slide.

Economic hardship and political negligence, along with some other factors, led to the fragmentation of American society, heightening the tension among different social groups formed along the lines of class, ethnicity, gender, and religion. Some cultural attributes that used to rationalize and legitimize American life, such as moralized individualism, lost much of their ethical core to emerge as unbridled quest for profit, with devastating effects on communities and families.

In his representation and assessment of American affairs, Hsu often refers to Pittsburgh, PA, as a case study, Pittsburgh being the place where he has resided for fifty years. His evocation of life in the city, presented from various thematic angles, well exemplifies the larger story he tells. For instance, Pittsburgh as a major base and transit point for the American movement to the western frontiers; the critical rise of the city's steel mills as the U.S. industrialized; the dramatic decline of businesses; and the reinvention of the city as a high-tech and educational center over the past three decades in hopes for rejunvenation. All these events shaped and reshaped life in the region, just the way it happened, on larger scales, across America.

To be sure, Hsu's account of American life is not simply one...