A Century of American Dreams and Nightmares of China

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at University of California Irvine and author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, an updated edition of which was published in 2013. His research ranges from revolutions and student protests in China through the politics and problems of globalisation to popular culture in China and America. Besides academic publications, his articles, commentaries and reviews have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (including Time, Newsweek, the Nation, Foreign Policy, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times). He can be followed on Twitter here. In February this year, as Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’ rhetoric gained force in mainland public culture, we published an excerpt from William Callahan’s important book China Dreams: 20 visions of the future. In the essay below, Professor Wasserstrom reflects on a different set of dreams: those that have haunted and shaped Western and, in particular, American imaginings of China.—The Editors


Communist Party spokesmen in Beijing have been talking a lot lately about the ‘China Dream’, President Xi Jinping’s call for national goals befitting China’s era of economic prosperity. Yet dark events — from food and pollution scares early in 2013, to July’s beating to death of a watermelon peddler, to the start of yet another crackdown on activist lawyers and bloggers critical of the government — have led to cynical online chatter  about the ‘China Nightmare’ as better capturing the experience of many citizens of the People’s Republic. The currency of this ‘dream’ and ‘nightmare’ rhetoric in China makes this a good time to reflect on a different set of fantasies originating outside China. I mean what might be called the ‘Western China Dream’ (they’re about to buy our goods and convert to our ways!) and the recurring ‘Western China Nightmare’ (they’re so different and there are so many of them!).

These spectral visions of hope and dismay have roots stretching far back into the past. They continue to hinder clear-eyed views of China today, albeit taking different forms in different parts of the West, depending on everything from specific economic relationships to proximity to or distance from Asia. They are also now gaining traction, again in distinctively localised forms, in places such as Africa, where China’s economic influence is surging and more Chinese have moved in recent decades than at any time in the past.

Fu Manchu in The Mask of Fu Manchu, a film released in 1932. Source: www.toutlecine.com

Fu Manchu in ‘The Mask of Fu Manchu’, a film released in 1932. Source: www.toutlecine.com

The Western China Dream can be traced back at least to Marco Polo’s day and to Enlightenment thinkers who sometimes used Chinese phenomena as a foil to criticize the Catholic Church and autocratic rule in Europe. It assumed its modern form, though, early in the 1800s when missionaries sought to save heathen souls and traders grew dizzy with the prospect of selling their wares to customers across the massive empire of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). The counterpart Western China Nightmare, while building on fears dating back to tales of Genghis Khan, found its most important modern expression in ‘Yellow Peril’ rhetoric. A century ago, its most significant personification took the form of Dr Fu Manchu, who first appeared in a novel in 1913 and whose ability to inspire horror was magnified by a series of famous — and infamous — Hollywood films.

Many publications helped keep Western dream and nightmare images of China alive throughout China’s Republican period (1912-1949) and during the Mao years (1949-1976), but no one did more to burnish at least the distinctively American versions of them than the magazines of Henry Luce (1898-1967). The China-born child of missionaries initially used vehicles such as Time magazine to boost a dream of China’s religious conversion to Christianity. Then, after 1949, as Yellow Peril imagery merged with visions of a Red Menace, he put the same periodicals to equally fervent use to promote the nightmare of Communism. Two Time covers, which were published a quarter-century apart — exactly seventy-five and fifty years ago, respectively — capture this about-face well.

Cover of Time magazine, January 3, 1938.

Cover of Time magazine, 3 January 1938.

Time started off 1938 with a cover story celebrating Chiang Kai-shek and his Christian, American-born and Wellesley-educated wife Soong Mei-ling as ‘Man & Wife of the Year’, the magazine’s first-ever break with singling out a single ‘Man of the Year’ for attention. The cover showed Chiang, then head of the Nationalist Party and China’s paramount leader, posed with Soong, both looking serious, as befitted the ‘First Couple’ of a country at war. The accompanying story, like many others of the period in Luce publications, presented the pair as poised to convert China to Western ways, much as Soong had converted Chiang to her faith.

Some twenty-five years later on 11 September 1963, a very different cover of Time appeared titled ‘Red China: The Arrogant Outcast’. The image on the magazine this time showed a dragon-headed ship, with Chairman Mao and three colleagues perched atop the angry monster’s head and a faceless crowd filling up the vessel below. Some of the individual figures on the deck carried banners with slogans, some hoisted up portraits of Soviet leaders, and one held a match near a missile.

Cover of Time magazine, September 13, 1963

Cover of Time magazine, 13 September 1963

The illustrated fantasies of China represented by these two Time covers indicate different dangers of misinterpretation. When the Western China Dream is ascendant, the risk is that rising discontent in the country will be downplayed or overlooked. In the 1930s, for example, many Westerners did not realise how many Chinese intellectuals, including those more influenced by Dewey’s brand of liberalism than by Marxism, were thoroughly disgusted with Chiang’s authoritarian ways, nor did they realize how many more would be alienated from the Nationalist government in the 1940s.

Conversely, when the Western China Nightmare is dominant, the risk is that observers and the general public lose sight of how varied the Chinese populace is and instead grow accustomed to demonised images of China. As the Time cover from fifty years ago shows, the boat appears filled not with flesh-and-blood Chinese individuals but a horde of soulless mannequins.

What is the state of play now? It varies across the West, due to economic, diplomatic and other factors, but in the United States at least, it seems fair to say that dreams of imminent conversion are not as potent as they were in 1938, nor are tendencies to demonise as strong as they were in 1963. This doesn’t mean, though, that the Western China Dream and Western China Nightmare have lost their ability to distort American thinking.

We still see the lingering influence of the dream when US commentators are eager to conclude, as soon as a new Chinese leader speaks vaguely of the need for ‘reform’, that China is finally about to move in a political direction ‘we’ like. We see this, for example, in a 5 January 2013 commentary in the New York Times by Nicholas Kristof. He expressed the expectation that Xi Jinping would ‘spearhead a resurgence of economic reform, and probably some political easing as well’, citing as one reason for his optimism the fact that the new head of the Party was ‘one of the first Chinese leaders to send a child to the United States as an undergraduate’ and had a clear ‘admiration for American education’. This type of language is reminiscent of the cheerful and positive rhetoric used in Luce publications about Chiang Kai-shek despite his authoritarian rule.

As for the distorting influence of the nightmare, we see it on magazine covers featuring fearsome dragons, some of which are only slightly less egregious than the Time cover from 1963. Stories that dehumanise China’s population tout court are also periodically published, though only rarely do they do so as overtly as a 1999 Weekly Standard article which described the Chinese people as prone to ‘Borg-like’ group-think conformity.

The China Dream and China Nightmare are always picking up and shedding elements. We now hear much less in America about China’s potential to convert to Christianity, for example, than to democracy. US anxiety over Chinese national wealth has only recently become part of the nightmare rhetoric of the harm that China’s wealth could do to ‘us’.

Still, it is the continuity more than the variations that stand out most to me in looking back over a century to Fu Manchu’s debut, seventy-five years to Chiang and Soong’s Couple of the Year nod, and fifty years to Time’s dragon-headed ship cover. And just to complete the march through quarter centuries, though I could not find a perfect magazine cover for 1988, that was the year when Deng Xiaoping was often described, as Chiang sometimes was before him and Xi was earlier this year, as someone who would prove a liberalising moderniser rather than another authoritarian leader. After the June Fourth Massacre of 1989, it was harder to find Americans ready to bet on Deng as the man who would finally make the happy China Dream of converting Chinese people to our ways a reality.

If Kristof’s commentary is a useful 2013 reminder of the long half-life of the American China Dream, what recent text reflects the spellbinding power of the American China Nightmare? There are lots of choices, but a good one is the book Death by China: Confronting the Dragon and its accompanying documentary film. The book begins with the claim that the ‘world’s most populous nation and soon-to-be largest economy is rapidly turning into the planet’s most efficient assassin’, a statement it is easy to imagine Fu Manchu creator Sax Rohmer writing exactly a century ago.