[After a mild start, it ended up being a long, cold, very wintry winter. But all winters end, metaphorically as well as seasonally, and in this week’s series I’ll be AmericanStudying a few cultural and historical such American thaws—leading up to a crowd-sourced weekend post on what Spring means to you in literature, culture, history, and more!]
On two ways to better contextualize and AmericanStudy an undeniable turning point.
By any measure, President Richard Nixon’s February 1972 trip to the People’s Republic of China was a stunning moment in American and international history. It wasn’t just that no prior president had visited the PRC since its 1949 founding, but more that the two nations had barely recognized each other’s existence over that quarter century, at least outside of stereotypical narratives of evil enemies and occasional wartime foes. Moreover, the broader Cold War contexts add at least two more layers of stunning to the mix: the U.S. was still entrenched in a prolonged Southeast Asian war against “Communism” at the time; and that political concept, one tied nearly as strongly to the PRC as it was to the USSR, remained the nation’s most significant and terrifying boogeyman (and would for at least another decade and a half). For a leader who had come to prominence as a crusader against Communism, and one who had recently deepened the war in Vietnam to boot, to make this historic trip was, again, nothing short of stunning.
Yet we can recognize a moment’s truly unexpected nature and still find ways to contextualize it, to connect it to longstanding and ongoing histories and narratives. For one thing, if for the quarter century leading up to Nixon’s visit the U.S. had had no diplomatic relations with China, that period marked a turning point from the prior century’s worth of exchanges and encounters between the two nations. The individual identity and story of Yung Wing, the 19th century Chinese American student, diplomat, soldier, and educator about whom I’ve written at length in multiple places (and on whom part of my next book will likewise focus), offers a particularly salient starting point for engaging with those long-term US-China relationships. Over the course of the nearly eight decades between Yung’s 1840s arrival to the United States and his 1912 death “at his home in Hartford” (as his New York Times obituary put it), Yung experienced and exemplified numerous stages and shifts in those diplomatic and political relationships: from the most friendly, as illustrated by his Civil War-era mission to secure American arms for Chinese military needs (during which he also volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army); to the most hostile, as illustrated by his exclusion from the United States after the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the concurrent threats to his life he faced in China because of his prior American activities. To treat Nixon in China as a starting point for a relationship would be to forget these prior centuries of history.
Across the same centuries that those histories were unfolding, however, a longstanding and multi-layered narrative of bigotry and discrimination toward the Chinese was also developing in America. That narrative is best summed up by the phrase “Yellow Peril,” as it consistently depicted the Chinese as a threat to the United States in a variety of ways: physically, through diseases, drug addictions and other vices, rape and sexual dangers; economically, through everything from low-wage workers to the destruction of communal businesses and neighborhoods; internationally, through the image of an alien foreign power hell-bent on taking over the world; and more. (I imagine that China had its own, perhaps parallel developing narratives and stereotypes about America over the same years—I just am not familiar with them, and would welcome any thoughts in comments.) It’s important to note that the Cold War fears of “Red China,” despite the color shift, strongly echoed and extended the Yellow Peril narratives—and that those fears and narratives continued after Nixon’s visit, and indeed have endured into our present moment in many ways. Which is to say, stunning and transformative as Nixon’s trip was, there are longer histories to which it must be connected, contexts that help us understand the moment and the two nations far more fully.
Guest Post this weekend,
PS. So one more time: What do you think? Other thaws you’d highlight?