R. Mayer u.a. (Hrsg.): Trans-Pacific Interactions

Trans-Pacific Interactions. The United States and China, 1880-1950

Mayer, Ruth; Künnemann, Vanessa
New York 2009: Palgrave Macmillan
224 S.
€ 65,68
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Felicity Jensz, Exzellenzcluster Religion und Politik, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster

As Alejandro Portes, Luis E. Guarnizo and Patricia Landolt noted in their 1999 review of the then emerging field of transnational studies, an „individual and his/her support networks comprise the most viable point of departure“ in transnational studies as the actions of individuals are often „developed in reaction to governmental policies and to the condition of dependent capitalism fostered on weaker countries.“[1] The individual is, as a number of contributors to the book under review here demonstrate, a fruitful starting point from which to examine the formation and transformation of Chinese American identities, representations of the Other, and the „cultural, socioeconomic, and political connections across national borders that Chinese Americans have maintained through their history“ (p. 23). The introduction begins with a 1903 quote from Liang Qichao, a Chinese historian and public intellectual, who after a trip to the United States of America during which he met with Theodore Roosevelt and the financier John Pierpont Morgan, noted that the twentieth century would be a century in which world affairs would concentrate more on the Pacific. The editors of the volume, Vanessa Künnemann and Ruth Mayer, utilize this quote to demonstrate the ways in which Chinese intellectuals of the time imagined the political and economic progress of China in the new century, yet how the imperialist ambitions and economic strength of the United States of America also had the ability to shape the future of both China and the United States. Through the musings of this individual, the book introduces its major theme of the construction of a multi-faceted relationship between China and the United States from the end of the nineteenth to the middle of the twentieth century.

The edited volume, consisting of an introduction and three sections of three chapters is, as stated in the introduction, the first book resulting from a four-year research project entitled, „Diasporic Self-Fashionings: Exchanges of Chinese-American and American-Chinese Identities,“ funded by the German Research Foundation (p. 14). And indeed, considered as a whole, the book betrays a feeling of presenting initial and cautious results, despite the sophistication of some of the individual contributions. Künnemann and Mayer anticipate their audience to be American, to whom they will introduce European, and more particularly, German scholars. Yet the language that they use is laborious to read, and often contains illogical phrases, such as suggesting that something was both „mutually exclusive and intersecting“ (p. 8), unnecessary neologisms, or ungrammatical phrases. The point that they labor is that things do not occur in a vacuum. Events in the United States of America had „human and cultural implications“ (p. 2) in China, and vice versa. This is an important, albeit somewhat banal, point. Subsequent chapters of the book demonstrate that interactions between the countries affected actual people, and also the construction of images of the Other in both China and the United States. Why the United States is listed before China is also not made clear, for although an American audience is envisaged, many of the articles are situated in a Chinese context, such as Klaus Mühlhahn’s insightful article into how the field of National Studies within China at the beginnings of the twentieth century was not only shaped in reaction to international scholarly interactions, but also how this field of scholarship contributed to nationalist discourses within China itself.

The book is divided into the three sections of: „Part One. Nationalism and Configurations of National Identity in China and the United States“, „Part Two. Chinese America, Citizenship, Nationality, and the World“ and „Part Three. Missionary Interventions: Cultural Mediation in China and the United States“. Each section offers varied insights into the relationships between the two countries, whether in terms of academic exchange, the experiences of Chinese migrants in the United States, or how American missionary discourses of the Chinese affected identity construction within the United States. Thematically the chapters within each section tie together well, and despite – or perhaps because of – some overlapping content, a broad spectrum of China-US interactions is presented within the confines of the three areas focused upon in the book. The first section, and in particular Yong Chen’s chapter, provides an overview of the development of the conceptualization of China’s place in the world, and the place of Chinese in America. Through the stories of Ah Quin and Chen Yixi, Chen maps out the „importance of transnationalism in the lives of Chinese Americans, who created and navigated their own trans-pacific spaces, continuously searching for economic opportunities and constructing their sense of belonging“ (p. 21-22), yet the chapter goes beyond the two individuals and provides theoretical and methodical insights into developing „a transnational approach to Chinese American history“ (p. 25), one that encapsulates the dynamic nature of the interaction between international and domestic situations.

The period under consideration, 1880-1950, includes the beginnings of a stricter immigration policy on behalf of the United States of America against Chinese nationals and ends in a period in which Chinese Americans were beginning to be perceived in a favorable light as the so-called „model minority“ within the U.S. (p. 3), yet it was also a time when the political relationship between the two countries was becoming increasingly strained due to differences in the political ideologies of the two countries. In 1882, the United States Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which „banned Chinese immigration and denied Chinese immigrants the right of naturalization“ (p. 26). This historical moment is examined in a number of contributions within the book. For example, Madeline Y. Hsu in her chapter „Befriending the Yellow Peril: Student Migration and the Warming of American Attitudes toward Chinese, 1905-1950“ compellingly argues that the exclusion of Asians from the United States through the 1882 act was not only based upon racist ideologies, but also upon expectations placed upon different classes of Chinese. With the introduction of Boxer Indemnity scholarships from 1909, some 1300 Chinese university students were able to travel to the United States. As they were able to communicate to U.S. Americans in English, these students acted as cultural bridges between the two nations, and upon their return to China also spread a positive image of the U.S. within China. The notion of individuals acting as cultural mediators is also taken up within the section dedicated to missionary activities within China. Thoralf Klein, for example, notes in his chapter „Christian Mission and the Internationalization of China, 1830-1950,“ that missionaries were cultural mediators who played a role in the asymmetrical process of the internationalization of China. Dominika Ferens further examines the mediating capacities of missionaries in her article on the construction of an image of Chinese as a „deserving heathen“ (p. 186) within the writings of American missionaries for a United States audience.

The book provides insights into how national and individual identities within both China and the United States were influenced by processes, perceptions, and activities in the other country. There is, however, an absence of editorial control, which leaves the book reading like nine separate essays tied only loosely together. Whether the book will make a contribution to broader arguments beyond those of China-United States interactions remains debatable despite some excellent individual contributions.

[1] Alejandro Portes / Luis E. Guarnizo / Patricia Landolt, The Study of Transnationalism. Pitfalls and Promise of an Emergent Research Field, in: Ethnic and Racial Studies 22, no. 2 (1999), pp. 217-237, here p. 220.

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