Y. Gao: Arise Africa, Roar China

Arise Africa, Roar China. Black and Chinese Citizens of the World in the Twentieth Century

Gao, Yunxiang
John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture
408 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Caitlin Barker, Michigan State University

One of the fundamental challenges in writing transregional history is that the sources available to the historian are rarely equally rich and nuanced across all relevant regions. In the field of Black internationalisms, historians have made excellent use of US sources to study the relationship between Black Americans and China, particularly in the Mao era.1 However, on the China side the sources have tended to be fewer and largely state-produced, often leading to an asymmetric relationship in the literature between richly detailed individual Black Americans and a rather faceless, monolithic “China.” In Arise, Africa! Roar, China! Gao Yunxiang draws on an expansive, bilingual array of documents to bring US and Chinese sources into direct conversation, and, crucially, introduces specific Chinese activists into the story to bring to life both sides of these transpacific exchanges. The book examines the relationship between five artists and intellectuals: well-known African Americans W.E.B and Shirley Graham Du Bois, Paul Robeson, and Langston Hughes, and the less famous activists Liu Liangmo, a Chinese musician and journalist, and Chinese-Caribbean dancer and choreographer Sylvia Si-lan Chen Leyda. Gao documents the networks these figures constructed during the 1930s and 1940s as they sought to enhance communication between Black Americans and Chinese people to create a “politicized transpacific discourse,” thereby bringing rich detail to a previously under-explored period in the history of these relationships (p. 3).

Bookended with a brief introduction and epilogue, the work is divided into five chapters: one for each “citizen of the world.” The chapters are written as chronological stand-alone explorations of each person’s place within global left activism and Sino-American relations and could easily be assigned individually for a course. They also build on each other, however, and the order in which we meet these figures serves to highlight the relationships amongst them. Opening with perhaps the most famous connection between African Americans and China, that of the Du Boises, Gao sets the scene politically. Chapter 2, on Robeson, highlights another well-studied China connection that sets the scene in the cultural arena. By following these with comprehensive biographies of Liu and Si-lan (as Gao refers to her), lesser-known activists of Chinese heritage who both actively engaged with the work of Robeson and the Du Boises, the reader is well-primed to appreciate the connections between them. In the final chapter, on Hughes, Gao is finally able to draw on the examples of all five figures to highlight the different strands of left activism that circulated in this transpacific space despite serious constraints on movement due to racist and anti-communist US immigration policies. This structure works well for readers unfamiliar with the topic, as it introduces the historical actors one by one, but as a result the analysis is thinner in the early chapters and becomes richer towards the end.

The Chinese sources that Gao employs reveal bilateral transpacific flows of knowledge. By examining how the Du Boises, Robeson, and Hughes were “perceived, studied, and critiqued” in China, Gao shows that they were not only influenced themselves by their interactions with China, but that they too exerted intellectual influence on their Chinese counterparts (p. 3). Chapter 1, on the Du Boises, examines how translations of their writings were reviewed in the Chinese press and argues that the visits were mutually beneficial: yes, the Du Boises learned a great deal in China, but Gao argues that they also made a lasting impact on Chinese foreign policy by advocating for alliances between the PRC and postcolonial African states. Chapter 2, on Robeson, makes the argument that even though he never traveled to China himself, his songs and activism made a significant impact there. Due in large part to his close friendship with Liu, Robeson became a revolutionary model in the early PRC. Gao’s attention to this bilateral knowledge exchange with China sets a fruitful example for scholars studying Chinese foreign policy and people-to-people exchanges with several other parts of the world as well.

Chapter 3, on Liu, makes a valuable intervention by bringing to life the often anonymous and monolithic Chinese state via Liu’s biography. A musician, journalist, public speaker, and Christian activist who spent several years in the United States, Liu is famous for introducing mass singing to China and later becoming a high-ranking government official in the PRC. Through a weekly column in the Pittsburgh Courier that ran in the early 1940s, Liu connected the problems facing African Americans with those of Chinese Americans. By closely analyzing Liu’s speeches and writings in both the US and China, Gao examines the interactions between individual Black and Chinese intellectuals, thereby avoiding the unwieldly asymmetries of studying an individual’s relationship to a state.

In the final two chapters on Si-lan and Hughes, Gao engages more explicitly with race and, to a lesser extent, gender. In the introduction she identifies these themes as areas of historiographical intervention, arguing that unlike much scholarship on Sino-American relations she does not treat the United States as “default white” and notes that the spouses of these famous figures influenced their thinking and must be studied alongside them (p. 2). Chapter 4 examines how Si-lan’s family’s mix of Chinese, African, and French heritage “afforded them a host of complex racial and political experiences as they crossed the globe,” and traces their life trajectories to illustrate how these racial identities affected them differently across the world (p. 179). A more explicit gender analysis of Si-lan’s experiences would have enriched this chapter, however, as Gao gives us just a few tantalizing glimpses of this approach. Chapter 5, on Hughes, presents fascinating material on his early and long-lasting relationships with Chinese Americans, a community (and source base) rarely included in studies of African Americans and China. The highlight of these two chapters is the excerpts and analysis from the letters between Si-lan and Hughes themselves, who had a romance and maintained a long correspondence.

Gao writes in a clear and accessible manner that lends itself well to the advanced undergraduate classroom. Speaking directly to US, Chinese, intellectual, cultural, and global history, the book could be assigned in a wide variety of courses and the many images of primary documents further add to its utility as a teaching book. While it certainly makes valuable contributions to the scholarship on Sino-American relations, particularly in its treatment of race, the book also presents important new methodologies and research questions for the growing number of historians who work on China’s relationship with leftists in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Like the best transregional history, the book casts new light on regions beyond the two in focus.

1 See for example Robin D.G. Kelley, Roaring from the East, in: idem, Freedom Dreams. The Black Radical Imagination, Boston 2003; Vera Fennell, A Tale of Two Obits. Reading the Cold War Through the Obituaries of W.E.B Du Bois and Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, in: International Journal of Communication 8 (2014), pp. 301-318; Robeson Taj Frazier, The East is Black. Cold War China in the Black Radical Imagination, Durham 2015.

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