Who gets to speak for China? During the interwar years, when American condescension toward “barbarous” China yielded to a fascination with all things Chinese, a circle of writers sparked an unprecedented public conversation about American-Chinese relations. Hua Hsu tells the story of how they became ensnared in bitter rivalries over which one could claim the title of America’s leading China expert.
The rapturous reception that greeted The Good Earth—Pearl Buck’s novel about a Chinese peasant family—spawned a literary market for sympathetic writings about China. Stories of enterprising Americans making their way in a land with “four hundred million customers,” as Carl Crow said, found an eager audience as well. But on the margins—in Chinatowns, on Ellis Island, and inside FBI surveillance memos—a different conversation about the possibilities of a shared future was taking place.
A Floating Chinaman takes its title from a lost manuscript by H. T. Tsiang, an eccentric Chinese immigrant writer who self-published a series of visionary novels during this time. Tsiang discovered the American literary market to be far less accommodating to his more skeptical view of U.S.-China relations. His “floating Chinaman,” unmoored and in-between, imagines a critical vantage point from which to understand the new ideas of China circulating between the world wars—and today, as well.
[A] lively debut…[H. T.] Tsiang’s eclectic writings and unusual life provide a great deal of grist for Hsu…Hsu writes in a graceful manner about Tsiang and the people he considered rivals…Tsiang comes across as a fascinating and sometimes maddening figure.
[A] smart new book.
Hsu frames [H. T.] Tsiang’s marginal status as a deliberate act of rebellion. His incomprehensibility staked out the boundaries of the possible. Americans were eager for a white woman [Pearl Buck] to tell them about the rural China of yesteryear; they were not so ready for a prickly Chinese immigrant to spell out the limitations of their own political system.
This tome documenting the race between historians competing for the title of America’s foremost expert on China is an absorbing read that transcends the stuffy corridors of academia…A Floating Chinaman is destined to become required reading.
Hua Hsu gives us a playful, colorful, formidable book, overflowing with archival research and without a single dull moment. A complex weave of authority and knowledge is presented here through many self-appointed spokesmen for China, all unforgettable. The stakes of rediscovering China, over and over again, have never been higher, or more absorbing to read.
It’s no secret that Hua Hsu is one of the finest cultural critics writing today. Now, in the barely-remembered Chinese-American H. T. Tsiang, Hsu has found a fascinating, unruly figure worthy of his own prodigious gifts. I loved reading A Floating Chinaman, and I wonder what Tsiang—that fame-seeking outsider, literary hustler, and New York ghost par excellence—would have made of this book, which informs and surprises on every page.
- 288 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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