Saturday, August 28, 2010

Kansas City and China

I came across a hilarious quote while reading The China Fantasy the other day:
"With God's help, we will lift Shanghai up until it is just like Kansas City."
- Senator Kenneth Wherry of Nebraska during the era of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist China (in the 1940s).
It's funny how misguided people often sound after history plays out.

Photo of Kansas City from

Photo of Shanghai from

While talking about Kansas City, my hometown, I'm going to feature an article I found while searching for information on that quote from Senator Wherry. From
Missouri and China do not ordinarily go together in people's minds. One tends to think of China as most closely tied to parts of the U.S. that either sit by the Pacific (like California) or were early magnets of Chinese migration (like New York)-and neither is true of the Show Me State. Still, dig around a bit and a host of connections between Missouri and the Middle Kingdom emerge. Some are merely interesting historical tidbits. For example, the fact that a nephew of the Chinese emperor attended the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904, or the fact that the plane that launched the missiles that hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999 set off for Serbia from a Missouri airfield. Other China-Missouri links are more significant, such as that a native of the Show Me State, Harry S. Truman, was President when Chinese and American forces fought each other in Korea. Still others are just bizarre. In this category, I would put the presence of the “New Shanghai Theater,” which hosts year-round performances by the Acrobats of China performing group, in Branson, Missouri (aka the “Las Vegas of the Ozarks”). And the infamous 1940 statement by a U.S. Senator that has often been quoted in the past to epitomize a certain kind of recurrent American hubris concerning nation-building projects: “with God's help we will lift Shanghai up and up, ever up, until it is just like Kansas City.”

Probably the single most intriguing connection between the two places, though, is a literary one, which was brought to my mind by the recent announcement that a National Book Award nomination had gone to Oracle Bones: A Journey between China's Past and Present. Peter Hessler, the author of this elegantly written book, which mixes elements of travelogue and memoir with reportage and political analysis, grew up in Columbia, Missouri-and he is just the latest in a long line of writers with ties to that state to emerge as an influential shaper of American images of China. The originator of the lineage can even be said to be none other than Mark Twain, the first Show Me State citizen to gain global renown as an author. Though he never made it to China on his travels, Twain was fascinated by the country, and he wrote everything from an epistolary tale about a Chinese immigrant (“Goldsmith's Friend Abroad Again”), to a newspaper editorial denouncing the “unequal treaties” that the West had forced upon the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) in the mid-1800s, to essays sympathetic to the anti-Christian Boxer insurgents (since, in his mind, any foes of missionaries couldn't be all bad).

The highpoint of China-writing by people with ties to Missouri came a bit later than Twain's day, in the early-to-mid 1900s. This was when Edgar Snow and Agnes Smedley, both Missouri-born journalists, published famous books on the Chinese Revolution. The influence of Snow's Red Star Over China (1936), the book through which many Americans got their first close look at the previously mysterious figure of Mao (presented there as a very sympathetic, indeed heroic figure), is hard to overstate. Smedley never wrote a book that had as big an impact, but her writings introduced American readers to new topics, such as the role that women played in the Chinese Revolution, and her Battle Hymn of China (1941) was one of the most widely read accounts of the country published in the United States during World War II.

Read On
I'm not sure if I've talked about it much on this blog, but the reason that I ended up going to China is the Kansas City/Xi'an's sister-city organization. A group of people in Kansas City and a group of people in Xi'an have a relationship and work together to promote friendship between the US and China. Hardly anyone in either city has even heard of their sister city, but there are groups of people passionate about the relationship on each side. When I was looking for an opportunity to go abroad back in 2005 after graduating from college - I was looking at Japan, Taiwan, and Chile - I was introduced to someone in the friendship organization.

The foundation of the KC/Xi'an connection is largely based upon Edgar Snow who is mentioned in the article above (the geography of KC and Xi'an is quite similar too... gateways to the west). Snow was born in Kansas City and ended up spending a significant amount of his later life in China. He's most famous for his book - Red Star Over China - where he embedded himself with the Communist rebels in northern Shaanxi Province (Xi'an's province) in the mid-1930s.

I read Red Star Over China years ago. I wrote a review of the book on my old blog here. The book is a bit tedious at times, but it's something someone interested in China should read.

Overall, Snow's legacy is not a positive one. He's credited for deepening our understanding of Mao in Red Star Over China. But he was used badly by Mao throughout much of his life. I blasted Snow in a recent post for the things he wrote about the Great Leap Forward. He really was a pawn being played by Mao at that time.

Conceding that I, and many others, have major problems with Snow and his work, I do appreciate Snow's life. Growing up in Missouri in the early-1900s and then going to China during a tumultuous time in its history, Snow's life was a unique one.

I know it's not the same at all, but I like to think that the journey I took to China has at least some elements of his adventure. I also appreciate Peter Hessler's story (a writer who I have the utmost respect for), which took him from Columbia, Missouri to China. I take pride in the fact that middle-America, my home, has such a strong legacy in the Middle Kingdom.

1 comment:

Shepherd Snapshots said...

Love the quote at the beginning. A good laugh!