Progress Is Not Linear, as 'The House of the Pain of Others' Reminds Us with Devastating Effect
Julián Herbert's The House of the Pain of Others is a masterly study that sheds light on the role played by educated elites in fomenting genocide.
The House of the Pain of Others
In 1911, 300 Chinese inhabitants (precise estimates vary) of the Mexican city of Torreón were slaughtered by rebel troops of the Mexican Revolution. They were not aiding federal forces to resist the rebels (in contrast to the conclusions of an early government investigation into the massacre, along with local rumours which persist to this day). Rather, they were sheltering along with other townsfolk from the fierce urban fighting, following the instructions of pamphlets published in Chinese by community leaders prior to the genocide, warning residents to stay inside, remain peaceful, and not to resist armed intruders from either side.
Yet for three days after the town was taken by revolutionary forces, victorious rebels rampaged through the city hunting Chinese, breaking into homes and shops, looting, torturing and killing any Chinese residents they could find (including young children). Prominent citizens locked their doors and ignored the slaughter; political and military leaders of the Revolution looked the other way as the bodies piled up. When order finally, gradually began to be restored, the surviving Chinese – many of whom had been in hiding for three days without food or water, and some of whom were then killed by the very troops sent to protect them – were locked up as prisoners, beaten and coerced into confessions of guilt and blamed for their own massacre.
In his latest work, The House of the Pain of Others, Julián Herbert excavates this horrendous piece of history, and chronicles not only the events leading up to the genocide and its aftermath, but also the complex stories and rationales that have grown over the years to explain it. These range from the notion that the Chinese had aided federal troops resisting the rebels (proven false by the testimony of townsfolk during subsequent investigations), to the idea that it was simply the inevitable violence of the primitive, ignorant poor classes, which comprised the rebel army: "A mass of common people is always dangerous, but when they are armed, and feel they have the support of a mob thirsting for loot, and when circumstances make them masters of their own acts for a period of three or four hours, conscious of their omnipotence and, in the absence of any higher authority, both judge and executioner, the consequences of crime will be fatal," wrote one of the government investigators later the same year.
Herbert, in a masterful combination of archival research and prose elegance, disputes this conclusion. His book traces the broad contours of Sinophobia (anti-Chinese racism) in the Americas, from the early 19th century to the present day. His research suggests that racism first reared its head among the upper classes, in the newspapers, letters and writings of the continent's intellectual, political and financial elites. Even in the United States, newspapers carried articles warning of the purported evils and dangers of Chinese migration in cities that had never seen a Chinese immigrant. Malicious and racist gossip flew with the speed of the written word from one end of North America to the other, carried by the discourse of the upper classes.
Some of this stemmed from resentment: in Torreón itself, prior to the massacre, the Chinese business community and the investment power of hard-working Chinese entrepreneurs showed itself superior to that of Mexican-born businessmen. Unlike the Chinese, however, North America's white and Latinx financial elites could always cheat by deploying their trump card: generating racist resentment against the successes of Asian migrants in order to undermine their position and ultimately steal their achievements (much like the repeated experience of Jews in Europe). This was the case in Mexico, where the Chinese were denounced by Mexican businessmen and blamed for stealing jobs, for refusing to "integrate", and for sending profits overseas. Herbert, by contrast, demonstrates in detail the tremendous contribution Chinese entrepreneurs and workers made to the country which became their home.
Herbert's book is a triumph: an eloquent testament not only to the hundreds of Chinese who were tragically slaughtered during those three days, but also a passionate, remarkable intellectual study in the psychology of racism. His research – thorough in its attention to minutiae, and impressive in its ability to draw on a range of theory, from Slavoj Žižek to Jorge Luis Borges – is complemented by a literary style which at times assumes near poetic qualities.
Significantly, Herbert does not contain his study to the experience of the single generation of Chinese who lived and died in the slaughter. His book offers equal balance to Mexican and Chinese history alike, and explores the historical and intellectual developments in China which spurred mass migration to the Americas, as well as the rich political debates which flourished within the expatriate community. As a result, the Chinese protagonists in The House of the Pain of Others come alive not merely as victims but as active agents in the construction of the Mexican nation.
All too often in western histories of Chinese migration – even those sympathetic to their subjects – Chinese migrants are portrayed in superficial manner as either hard-working simpletons struggling to build a life for themselves and their families, or poor victims of white racism. By fleshing out the lives of the genocide's victims in much greater detail, Herbert portrays an entirely different image of Chinese migrants. These are heroic, intelligent, sympathetic protagonists in their own right: cowboy-hat wearing adventurers and philosopher-intellectuals whose innovative genius and expansive social conscience not only built America's railways but also turned villages into cities; expanded financial empires; brought medical care to rural communities, and played a catalytic role in the political development of North America.
Herbert's study is as much a history of the present as it is a history of the genocide of 1911. Patterns of violence, and the role of elite and intellectual discourse in creating the space for racism to flourish, are remarkable for their persistence and their seemingly intransigent repetition. There is a riveting quote early on from a letter published in a Mexican newspaper in 1907, from a Chinese resident asking readers to refrain from using racial slurs against their community. The progressive-minded letter could have been written today, a century later; the editors' response was to angrily refute the letter with all the caustic dismissiveness of our present social media era. Human progress is not linear, as Herbert's book reminds us with devastating effect.
For many of us today, Nazi Germany holds a position as the high water mark of genocidal racism. We struggle to understand how so many Germans – as well as residents of occupied or collaborationist territories -- could look the other way as the Nazi madness gripped their country and as millions of Jews and other marginalized communities were slaughtered. Yet the genesis of such attitudes can be seen in localized horrors such as the Torreón massacre (which, as Herbert observes, was not really localized: violent racist outbursts punctuate North America's history, even if this was the largest documented instance of anti-Chinese violence).
As the slaughter unfolded, prominent citizens (including the US consul) turned their gaze away and stayed behind locked doors. Other everyday Mexican townsfolk chided the murderers – not for killing the Chinese, but for doing it so publicly, urging them to take away their prisoners and torture them out of sight. Some townsfolk eagerly participated: not a few of them were known for making passionate anti-Chinese speeches, and here was the opportunity to turn their racist policy into action. All of these types, no doubt, had their parallel in Nazi Germany, and in other cases where racist genocide emerged as systemic regime policy.
Yet everyday heroes emerged as well. A professor hid 20 fleeing Chinese residents in his house at the risk of his own life. A tailor and his wife also offered refuge to 17 Chinese; when armed bands of soldiers arrived demanding the Chinese be handed over, they resisted with astonishing bravado, plying the bloodthirsty soldiers with beer and cake to distract them. Such stories were tragically few and far between, but they offer some hope, at least.
Following a series of investigations by both the Mexican and Chinese governments, the Mexican government eventually agreed to compensate China in the form of three million pesos (which sparked a virulent, racist series of articles in the Mexican press, dismissively mocking the worth of a Chinese life). The compensation was never paid, as the Mexican government took advantage of political turmoil in China to delay and then ignore its commitment. While of course payment can never compensate for a life lost, there is a metaphor to be found here, in the manner in which the Americas more broadly have failed to face up to their racist legacy against Asian immigrants. Where Europe has struggled with its repeated historical outbreaks of anti-Semitic violence, so the Americas have been characterized by a sorry legacy of violent and racist outbreaks of Sinophobia and anti-Asian racism, which continues to shape political and social discourse into the present.
Just as significant is what Herbert's book says about the role of elite discourse in creating and maintaining spaces and opportunities for racist violence. The Mexican government, aided by intellectuals and other elites, dismissed the racism as an expression of class-based ignorance, and therefore not a reflection of the essence of Mexican society and nation. This rationale – of racism as a characteristic of poor and ignorant classes – likewise informs political discourse in the United States (and elsewhere) today, where Donald Trump's supporters are written off as backward, ignorant rednecks. But that's not the whole story, and Herbert reminds us of the important – and perhaps foundational – role of elite 'influencers', from the business community to the press and media, in generating the space for racist discourse to flourish.
The House of the Pain of Others is not for readers who want simple, straightforward reporting. It's a more complex, yet ultimately more rewarding journey; Herbert's stylistic literary technique and Christina MacSweeney's masterful translation provide an intellectually provocative study that unfolds with elegant, narrative grace. The result is a brilliant, breakthrough study which reminds us that the lessons of history are essential to learn and re-learn, if we are to steer our troubled present toward a more hopeful future.
Photo of Julián Herbert by ©Germán Siller (courtesy of Graywolf Press)