In the new study of America’s relationship with China Fateful Ties, there’s something acutely relevant about Gordon H. Chang’s inability to organize the vast amount of information at his disposal with much coherence. He writes on a topic so freighted with historical exploitation that the two audiences the book addresses have little sense of the sweep of history. On the one hand, as an educated American public we are taught textbook geopolitical metanarratives inflected by whiteness, Eurocentrism, and American exceptionalism, not to mention armchair poli-sci alarmisms over “Red China” directly descended, as Chang informs us, from yellow peril and Orientalism. On the other hand, specialists drill into the fine details of history and historiography, believing that therein lies the truth of cultural transformation over time.
Given the incredible divergence in area knowledge among its intended readers, Chang laid out a difficult project for himself with Fateful Ties, one which renders the book a record of the project’s difficulty. He wants to intervene simultaneously into the “China” of America’s contemporary cultural imagination — uncovering its roots as a glimmer in the American colonizer’s eye and trace the development into today’s sense of it as a free-market competitor — and the esoteric, pointillistic “China” of the academic archive. However, this work is so concerned with atomized research that it cannot account for the long-view of the relationship between the US and China. Given the constraints of his mission, it’s probably no surprise that Chang’s success is qualified, at times debilitatingly so.
Chang navigates these two audiences by side-stepping with some vigilance any postmodern hang-wringing over intention or narrative. He reads letters, speeches, articles, and novels with a willful conviction in the alliance of letter and spirit, such that the detail of his politics is, by any casual metric, inaccessible. The book takes no space for sitting with a primary source and thinking through it at length. He dances from relevant figure to relevant figure, giving each about three or four pages, beginning with their historical relationship to China, continuing through their pertinent work and associations, and concluding with their relationship to China at the time of their death. Of the dozens and dozens of primary sources cited, he quotes almost all of them with a critical distance that, over the course of the book, does little more than situate each source along an axis of paranoia to optimism.
Further, there is remarkably little variance in the tenor and intention of the speaker. That America’s political, economic, and social stance toward China is and has always been deeply racist, if not in outwardly aggressive ways then with condescending paternalism, becomes quickly and unrelentingly apparent. Every source agrees that China will shape America’s destiny, a nation-building axiom repeated so often that it’s a wonder people bother to say it anymore. In a sense, it is Chang’s greatest accomplishment to show that people keep repeating a fact of international relations like they’ve uncovered a secret, even though the history of fact predates the very country voicing it. The destiny was self-fulfilling from the beginning.
By the end of the book, I found it very difficult to consider the repetition, the superficiality, or the generally stunted discourse as an authorial issue, even if it does mean that the book is obsessive drudgery. Chang makes a convincing case by these very tools that China has never held a particularly thorough, concretely realized place in popular American thought, political or otherwise. Fateful Ties is a showcase for a static fantasy of China, summoned over and over in the literary acts of American self-actualization, that is maybe most remarkable for the divergence between its insistent power and lack of detail or complexity.
A word cloud of Fateful Ties would feature “intertwined” quite prominently, but the reasons given for such a claim range from geomystical (to wit: for a while, the biologically modern human was believed to have originated in China, and so humanity’s westward expansion to Europe, across the Atlantic, to and through the Americas, had, it was thought, a logical, harmonious, and transcendental endpoint in China) to crassly market-exploitative (China is “400m customers”). Fateful Ties could be considered compelling evidence that “China” might be the most inefficient fantasy ever to grip the US sociopolitical imagination.
Unfortunately for the non-historian reader, Chang’s project rarely finds time for China as understood by Chinese people. Almost all of the sources are white men and women, missionaries, capitalists, journalists, and politicians trying to make sense of a vast and heterogenous country whose cohesion for western nation-building narratives remains a problematic fantasy. The goal of Fateful Ties is not to provide an antidote-China to the US’ constructed Other, but rather to provide the fairly straightforward but exhaustively researched fact that everything we (Americans) as a country know about China is actually nothing much at all. Imagine it as an optical illusion: a country, hazy like a mirage but close, drifting away and dissipating in the swirl of voices trying to call it forth, from a well of knowledge that no one bothered to dig too deeply. America is intertwined with this.