“One learns soon enough that only a fool understands the Chinese quickly.”
That’s the line that begins playwright Arthur Miller’s book Chinese Encounters, the travelogue that he and his wife, the photographer Inge Morath, published after visiting China in the fall of 1978 during the tail end of the Cultural Revolution.
Up until President Nixon’s historic visit in 1972, China had been off-limits to American visitors for decades, and Miller was one of the first to visit after the travel ban had been lifted.
Inspired by this initial trip, Miller would go back to China in 1983 to stage his play Death of a Salesman entirely in Mandarin with an all-Chinese cast at the Beijing People’s Art Theater. Many, from embassy employees to journalists in town to cover the production, wondered how a Chinese audience would react to Miller’s story of the hapless Willy Loman and the seduction and callousness of American capitalism. Some had wondered if such an alien people could understand it at all, including the American cultural attaché, Leon Slowecki, who felt compelled to explain to Miller, “Everything is China is metaphorical, nothing is what it claims to be. So you have to interpret it for them or all they’ll get is what the papers are going to tell them it means.”
Their questions were answered on opening night when the play received thunderous applause as the curtains closed, bringing, as Miller wrote, tears to the eyes of those in the audience.
What drew out the tears and applause? Afterward, in an interview that was subsequently broadcast in the United States, one young theatergoer explained, “We are moved by it because we also want to be number one, and to be rich and successful.”
I found this response striking, as it made the imaginative leap from a deeply personal reaction to a homegrown nationalist project. Was he expressing a melancholy desire, one rooted in an unattainable dream, or an aspirational one? At the time, the country was undergoing a rapid transformation from a planned economy to what some have called “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, who is famously (if erroneously) attributed as saying, “To get rich is glorious.”
More than 30 years later, that audience member’s dream of economic success seems to have been realized, for today’s modern China is on its way to becoming the largest economy in the world, transforming from a largely agrarian, peasant-based economy to a global powerhouse with a speed and velocity that would have seemed unimaginable even a few decades ago. (China today has more billionaires than any other country in the world, a fact widely trumpeted earlier this year with headlines like “Beijing officially overtakes NYC as the 'Billionaire Capital of the World.’”)
It’s a widely accepted truth that China is on the rise, one we see referenced in headline after headline and story after story. It’s a potentially dangerous idea as well, for along with the ascension of China has come a new form of Yellow Peril — no longer just the fears of hordes of faceless, barbaric Chinamen threatening the purity of Western civilization as it was in the late 1800s, today’s version features those same hordes, still foreign and inscrutable and devious, but with more money. A lot more money, and a lot more power. As scholars John Kuo Wei Tchen and Dylan Yeats have written, it’s no longer “Asian Communism but Asian Capitalism that threatens the American way of life.”
The danger of this new Yellow Peril is personified today in Donald Trump, whose obsession with China is best captured in a three-minute video of him screaming “China” over and over again, spliced together from all the times he’s mentioned the country in interviews and at rallies. The subtext of “Make America Great Again,” after all, is that there’s an enemy who has chipped away at our strength. He’s not the only one who invokes China’s newfound strength as a warning to us all — just check out this PSA from 2010, which features a wily older Chinese professor in the year 2030, explaining to a lecture hall full of students how China came to dominate the United States over the past two decades, a prominent portrait of Mao looming behind him. All the bombast and overblown rhetoric around China is the political expression of an idea that lies at the heart of many Americans’ fears — that one day, perhaps sooner rather than later, our global economic center of gravity will shift from our shores to those of China.
What’s striking is that this is a largely one-sided call to arms that, to date, has been shouted out during our presidential debates and in the business sections of our newspapers. In short, in the realm of geopolitics. It’s remarkably absent in our cultural conversation, a dangerous lacuna in a time when the dominant story is that China is an adversary to be feared. (And when it does become a watercooler topic, it’s typically over something like Calvin Trillin’s recent poem, “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet,” which, as poet Timothy Yu put it, belongs squarely in the “tradition of celebrating Chinese culture while erasing real, living Chinese people.”)
This is partly why I was intrigued when I first spied Kevin Kwan’s debut novel, Crazy Rich Asians, at my local bookstore in the summer of 2013, its glittering gold cover with a blazing hot-pink title catching my eye. A novel written for an English-speaking audience with Chinese characters living in today’s contemporary Asia, by a Chinese person who grew up in Asia? Yes, please! Crazy Rich Asians went on to become an international best-seller, and spawned a sequel, last year’s China Rich Girlfriend.
Characterized as “giddy wealth porn” and a “21st-century Bonfire of the Vanities gone global” by critics, these two novels have generated breathless raves for offering a glimpse into a world that few have entered or were aware of, a “world of opulence so extreme, it’s absurd.” Both depict, often in excruciatingly exhaustive detail, the foibles (Confucian), buying habits (exorbitant), and social world (claustrophobic) of wealthy Chinese families in the former British colonies of Singapore and Hong Kong as well as today’s nouveau riche of mainland China. Think Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous but with abalone instead of caviar and characters who toss off Malay phrases like “Alamak!” instead of “Oh, dear!”
Despite living in a post–Occupy Wall Street and Bernie Sanders world of widening economic inequality, we continue to be transfixed by tales of the super-rich, and much of the appeal of Kwan’s novels lies, I suspect, in the breathless consumption of his characters. In Kwan’s telling, China and Asia at large are playgrounds where the jet set (not the 1 percent but the .001 percent) compete to outdo one another — a private jet can’t just be a private jet, it must be one with a full-service yoga studio decked out as a Balinese temple. A garage for a fleet of luxury sports cars isn’t merely a temperature-controlled paean to the art of Italian design, it’s one that swoops cars up into living rooms. One does not just have a dog — one has three, named Vanderbilt, Astor, and Trump.
What are we to make of these novels?
They’ve been called satirical send-ups of this rarefied world, but Kwan himself seems to have a pedagogical bent, having described Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend as a sort of “Intro to Modern Asia 101,” and has been quoted in interviews as saying, “I want to present a tale of contemporary Asian in a fun and exciting way that people will enjoy” while adding that he hopes he’s “opening up the range of stereotypes so they’re not just the old stereotypes.” Having grown up in the privileged circles of Singapore in which his novels are set, he is simply writing what he knows. And, if he has a mission statement, I suspect it can be found in the earnest footnotes that are sprinkled throughout his novels, which explain everything from Chinese wedding customs to descriptions of the meals his characters enjoy to a brief history of the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen.
Critics seem to appreciate his approach. “Whatever clichés Mr. Kwan may be playing on, they’re not the ones about the mysterious East,” Janet Maslin wrote in her New York Times review. Yet if his books are free of clichés, they’re also free of any sense of their characters as real, breathing, complicated people.
As I read Kwan’s novels, I happened upon a speech that Junot Diaz had given in 2015, in which he had remarked, “People don’t make sense unless you know their world. Don’t you know your friends better when you actually hang out at their houses?” He was speaking to the particular and unique power of fiction, of stories, to close the gap between our own selves and who we consider the “Other,” in ways that can be essentializing and flattening at worst, or expansive at their best. When it’s the latter, we see the world with fresh, and ideally more generous, eyes.
This is where Kwan’s novels come up short (perhaps the fault lies with me in even clinging to this hope when reading what are admittedly at their heart breezy beach reads). Apparently, all we need to know about Kwan’s crazy-rich Asians is captured succinctly in the titles of his novels. He gives us a peek into their homes, but rather than gaining a richer sense of their interior lives, our eyes are merely dazzled by the glare of their interior decorating. In fact, reading these novels, one is struck by how much the narrative recedes into the background and is secondary to the story of their spending habits — if you asked me what happened to Kwan’s characters (many of whom appear in both the first and second book), I would mumble something about a wedding and an assassination attempt. His characters are flat on the page, with none of the interiority and richness that would give them depth and make them live and breathe. But ask me about their stuff, and the rooms filled with Birkin handbags, the multi-carat jewels, and the private jets that whisk you off to Paris for weeklong shopping sprees spring vividly back to life.
His tales are not without moments of wry social commentary — the opening epigraph of Kwan’s first novel quotes the 14th-century explorer Ibn Battuta (“Nowhere in the world are there to be found people richer than the Chinese”), a sly reminder this is not the first time China has been considered the richest country in the world. In another throwaway scene, one of the matriarchs in Crazy Rich Asians chides the younger generation with this admonition: “Aiyoooooh, finish everything on your plate, girls! Don’t you know there are children starving in America?” There are references to the decline of the United States as well as various European countries sprinkled throughout both novels, striking what can only be described as a triumphant note.
But the supposed satire too often reads like an Asian version of Us Weekly, a sort of crazy-rich Asians — they’re just like us! (Or at the very least, not so different from other ultra-wealthy denizens of the world). Unlike previous chroniclers of the super-rich (think The House of Mirth or The Great Gatsby or even the aforementioned Bonfire of the Vanities) who tended to skewer the characters and the world they inhabit, Kwan includes little critique of his characters’ lavish lives of excess, not to mention little discussion of how exactly they amassed their lucre to begin with. And what about the 99 percent? They exist in his world in the form of a coterie of servants that cater to his central characters’ every whim, yet we never hear from them, a missed opportunity to add shades of nuance to his tale. A savvier novelist might have used his story as a springboard to explore the darker underbelly of all of this wealth, but one gets the sense that Kwan is too in love with his protagonists to take that leap.
Instead, he mirrors back to us one of the dominant stories about China that we’re presented today — Red China has become Global Economic Powerhouse China, its comrades turned into the world’s most prolific consumers. Kwan’s novels, while entertaining, end up simply buttressing what writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the myth of the single story, which is an incomplete one — a story of crazy-rich Asians in which they have only one, singular defining facet. To get rich is glorious (subtext: capitalism is, too).
It’s not any novelist’s job to give us the definitive picture of an entire people, and indeed, this is an impossible task, but the best novels do the work of shifting our perspectives of the world, of ourselves, of others. At a time when America’s future is increasingly bound up with that of China and the rest of Asia, and where we too often view each other across a wide gulf of misunderstanding and suspicion, I can’t help but wish that Kwan had found ways to narrow that empathy gap.
Reading Kwan’s novels brought to mind Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth; while it couldn’t be more different on the surface from Kwan’s glitzy tales of the Chinese elite, it too is set in China and told from the point of view of its Chinese characters. For many Americans, The Good Earth, published in 1931, continues to be the only such novel they have or will ever read, and having become a high school lit class stalwart as well as a 2004 Oprah book club selection, it’s still widely read today.
In it, Buck tells the story of a poor farmer, Wang Lung, and his long-suffering wife, O-Lan, a former slave to a wealthy family in their nameless town, and the trials and travails they face as they struggle to eke out a hardscrabble existence with an unsparing, if didactic, realism. For Wang Lung, all he cares about is his land, and by the end of the novel and the end of his life, despite famine and flooding that at one point forces his family to flee for the big city, he’s become the richest landowner in his tiny corner of southern China.
I remember picking it up as a middle schooler, finding it boring and the characters dull, and then discarding it quickly after I’d finished. But The Good Earth was a cultural phenomenon when it was published in 1931, topping the best-seller lists for two years in a row. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932, and played a large role in Buck being awarded the 1938 Nobel Prize (the only other American woman who has won the Nobel is Toni Morrison). It established Buck, the daughter of two white missionaries who spent her formative years in China, as one of our foremost experts on a country that was at the time widely viewed as a hopelessly backwards, exotic land of either Fu Manchu–style villains or clownish caricatures with slits for eyes and a bucktoothed smile.
She (much like Kwan) was lauded for not falling into the stereotype of the Exotic Other; a New York Times review of The Good Earth wrote of Buck, “[S]he portrays a China unfamiliar to the average reader, a China in which, happily, there is no hint of mystery or exoticism. There is very little in her book of the quality which we are accustomed to label ‘Oriental.’”
And yet, the praise lavished upon The Good Earth reveals a different set of assumptions at play — the Nobel Prize committee lauded its depictions of “primordially primitive peasants,” describing its hero Wang Lung as “a man who led the same existence as his forefathers had during countless centuries, and who possessed the same primitive soul.” More telling, many read it as a guidebook to an entire people; in a letter to the New York Times, the iconic entertainer Will Rogers waxed enthusiastic about Buck’s novel, writing, “It's not only the greatest book about a people ever written, but the best book of our generation. … It will keep you out of some devilment and learn you all about China.” It should go without saying that this is a foolish way to read a book — imagine reading Gone Girl and thinking to yourself that it taught one everything to know about relationships and marriage in the United States. Yet this is how The Good Earth was read, and how many continue to read it today.
Buck lived with her family in China during one of the most febrile periods in the country’s history — the first Sino-Japanese War, the Boxer Rebellion, the fall of the Manchu dynasty in 1911, and the tumultuous years before the war with Japan. She was in touch with some of the leading young intellectuals of the day, who were hotly debating how China could and should modernize. But Buck’s sympathies were with the peasants, who at the time made up the overwhelming majority of China’s population.
While she was sneered at by the predominantly male literary set and derided as a middlebrow novelist (William Faulkner once insultingly called her “Mrs. Chinahand Buck”), it’s hard to understate her importance; as one journalist wrote only somewhat hyperbolically of her in the 1950s, “It can almost be said that for a whole generation of Americans, she ‘created’ the Chinese.” This is a role — that of the popular expert on China — that she embraced, and she often spoke of wanting to “help ordinary people on one side of the world to know and understand ordinary people on the other side.” Her life’s work was most realized in The Good Earth. Helen Foster Snow, the wife of Edgar Snow, wrote that Buck “was the first to humanize the Chinese and make them comprehensible.”
What explains the appeal of The Good Earth? American readers, in the early years of the Great Depression and the beginnings of the Dust Bowl, could identify with her story — that of hardworking people struggling to make it, often against forces entirely out of their control. (“The Chinese, they’re just like us!”) Yet reading it today, it too falls flat, its characters feeling like they’re pulled out of a stockroom. She may have refused to fall into old stereotypes, but in some ways (like Kwan) she simply exchanged one set for another, presenting a vision of an agrarian China that was unchanging. As Charles Hayford wrote in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Wang Lung does not need revolution, only hard work, good luck in choosing a wife, strong sons, and rain.” To Buck, the greatest danger facing China’s peasants was not class oppression, but natural disasters. The coming peasant-based revolution, led by the Communist Party and Mao Zedong, would seem to prove her wrong.
Buck’s The Good Earth valorized the humble Chinese farmer. Kwan’s novels depict a world where the Wang Lungs of the world have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Their tales of China, some of the most popular of our day, feel insufficient, for they fail to give us more than a superficial glimpse of the worlds they create.
Perhaps the solution is to broaden our reading list beyond interlocutors like Kwan and Buck. As I read Kwan’s novels and pondered Buck’s influence, I thought back to a different sort of novel of how to make it in today’s China, Murong Xuecun’s Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu, which became a sensation when it was first published on the internet in 2002 for its dark, cynical depiction of three friends who are all hustling to get rich while working dead-end jobs. I had read it while I was living in Beijing in the winter of 2013, when I was hungry for fiction about China by Chinese authors, born and raised and native to the land from which their stories sprung.
I looked for my copy of Leave Me Alone recently to refresh my memory on its plot, yet it was nowhere to be found on my bookshelf. I then searched for it at the New York Public Library, the Brooklyn Public Library, and my local bookstores. No luck. No one had it, and it wasn’t even in the catalog.
You can, however, buy it on Amazon, where this book has amassed, to date, seven reviews.
Yet the possibility of literature, of culture as a form of soft power, in moving us beyond a Trump-esque understanding, remains a wide-open question.
It’s a possibility that Arthur Miller, for one, believed was necessary, writing shortly after returning from Beijing that “America will be needing this country as an enrichment to our own culture one day just as China needs us now.”