Of Exports, Envoys, Boxers, and Books — Midwestern Links to the Middle Kingdom

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

The first English language publication to include a detailed profile of Mao Zedong, Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China, was by a man born in Kansas City. The historian often described as the doyen of Chinese studies in America, The United States and China author John King Fairbank, hailed from South Dakota. When Nobel laureate Mo Yan, James Joyce Award-winner Yu Hua, the acclaimed novelist Wang Anyi, and the celebrated poet Bei Dao visited the United States, one place they each spent time was Iowa City, whose celebrated International Writing Program has hosted many other leading Chinese writers as well. And yet, when the topic of historical ties between China and the United States comes up, the tendency is to focus not on states far from either coast, but those that stand beside an ocean. As a result, when Donald Trump announced that he wanted Iowa Governor Terry Branstad to be his Ambassador to China, the coverage occasionally veered in a man bites dog direction, as though tapping someone from the heartland to go to Beijing was a geographically eccentric move. Many journalists found it natural to list reasons — Branstad’s frequent visits Beijing, Xi Jinping’s visits to his state, the millions of metric tons of soybeans that Iowa ships to China each year, etc. — why this Midwesterner was actually a logical choice to represent America in the Middle Kingdom.

This handling of the story was natural enough, since it is certainly true that many of the earliest American historical ties to China were via the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards, and that important contemporary connections between the two countries run through the coasts as well. The first U.S. clipper ship bound for the Middle Kingdom sailed from New York 1783, Boston served as the main American center for the China Trade, and the first important destination for Chinese immigrants was California. In the 1970s, a Californian, Richard Nixon, became the first sitting President to go to Beijing. In the 21st century, the business sections of newspapers carry many stories about trade between the U.S. and China that focuses on West Coast companies, from Hollywood studies to high tech firms located in Seattle or Silicon Valley. Some of the most popular English language novels on Chinese themes of recent decades have been the work of Bay Area-based Amy Tan or Los Angeles-based Lisa See. One of the two most lauded China-born authors living in the United States, Ha Jin, teaches at Boston University, while the other, Yiyun Li, teaches at UC Davis. And so on.

Still, as my comments above about Edgar Snow, John K. Fairbank, and Iowa’s International Writing Program indicated, there are many interesting ties between the American heartland and China. Some of them relate to things very different from crops like soybeans, and go back much further than 1985, the year that Xi came to Iowa and first met Branstad. Here are five contemporary and historical heartland tidbits worth considering as we approach the time (no date for this has been set yet) when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee meets to consider Branstad’s nomination to be Ambassador:

If Confirmed, He Won’t Be the First Midwesterner to Represent the U.S. in China

In fact, he won’t even be the second, third, fourth, or fifth to do so. The first two mid-nineteenth-century U.S. envoys to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) were from Massachusetts, but the third was John W. Davis of Indiana, and late in the 1800s and early in the 1900s, another Hoosier, a Michigander, as well as men from Illinois and Branstad’s own state of Iowa would occupy that post. After the 1911 Revolution toppled the Qing, the first diplomat the United States sent to the newly founded Republic of China was Paul Reinsch of Wisconsin and the second was Charles Crane of Illinois. The first American Ambassador to the PRC, Leonard Woodcock was born in Rhode Island but spent most of his adult life working in Michigan.

The Most Famous American to Go to China in the 1800s Was a Midwesterner

No account of the history of diplomatic trips to China would be complete without a mention of the one that Ulysses S. Grant of Ohio made a century before Woodcock took up his post. His 1879 stop in China, during a trip he set off on soon after moving out of the White House that was chronicled in John Russell Young’s popular book Around the World with General Grant, was ostensibly that of a private citizen as opposed to a representative of the American government. While in China, though, he had an audience with a member of the ethnically Manchu Qing ruling family. He also met multiple times with Li Hongzhang, the most powerful Han Chinese official of the time, who sought his help on a dispute between China and Japan over — and this shows how far back many things other than Midwest to Middle Kingdom ties go — islands that both countries thought were rightfully theirs.

Edgar Snow Is Far from the Only Significant Writer on China With Ties to Missouri

When Snow first covered China in the 1930s, he was part of a group nicknamed the “Missouri Mafia,” a nod to the large number of American writers covering Chinese affairs had been born in that state, attended the famed of journalism school at its flagship campus, or both. Three Missouri-born writers other than Snow penned books on China in the middle decades of the last century that were widely read back in the United States: Agnes Smedley, Carl Crow, and Emily Hahn. They each wrote more than one popular book on a Chinese theme. Three of the best known of these were Battle Hymn of China (Smedley), 400 Million Customers (Smedley), and China to Me (Hahn). More recently, another very widely read American writer on China hailing from Missouri has emerged: Peter Hessler.

Lately, Authors from a Different Midwestern State Have Penned Notable China Books

Minnesota natives now seem even better represented than Missourians in the world of reporting on China. Not all have published books (yet), but the following four have each written one or more dealing at least partly with Chinese themes: Michael Meyer (Last Days of Old Beijing), Mara Hvistendahl (And the City Swallowed Them), Adam Minter (Junkyard Planet), and Rob Schmitz (Street of Eternal Happiness).

Other Midwesterners Have Gone to China at Tense Moments in U.S.-Chinese Relations

The relationship between Washington and Beijing has been on shaky ground lately (though last week’s phone call between Trump and Xi may have eased things somewhat), but they would have to get much rockier for them to be even close to as tense when Branstad gets there as they were when Adna Chaffee of Ohio arrived midway through 1900. That was the year when militants known as “Boxers,” due to their use of martial arts techniques, attacked missionaries and Chinese Christians and then, with the backing of the Qing, laid siege to Tianjin and Beijing, trapping foreigners inside of both cities. An international relief expedition was mustered, which eventually lifted the sieges and then carried out brutal campaigns of revenge and retribution, for in 1900’s conflict both sides committed atrocities. The man President McKinley sent to lead the American contingent within the international force was Chaffee, and he was just one of many Midwesterners involved in what is often called the “Boxer Rebellion” — a misnomer, since the militants, whose goal was to rid China of the foreign creed of Christianity, were loyal to and eventually supported by the dynasty. Some of the first Americans killed by the Boxers, for example, were members of a missionary contingent known as the “Oberlin Band,” which explains why the most important U.S. memorial to victims of 1900’s violence stands on an Ohio campus.

There is also an aspect of the Boxer Crisis that takes us back to Iowa as a state and presidents who went to China as a topic. Among the foreigners held captive in Tianjin in 1900 were two young people from Branstad’s state, Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover, who would later live at the White House. So, circling back to Nixon and Grant, while it remains notable that the first sitting President to go to China was a Californian, it should count for something that both the first former President and the first future President to go to the country hailed from the heartland.

To close on a personal note, I’m a native Californian and, though no stranger to the Midwest having taught at Indiana University for 15 years, I had never been to Iowa until my interest in Chinese history, and more specifically the Boxer Crisis, led me there last summer. I went to check out Lou Henry Hoover’s unpublished account of her time trapped in Tianjin, which is held in the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library. Since that archive is near Iowa City, I pursued the possibility of also giving a talk on China’s past at a famous bookstore near the University of Iowa while I was there. Fittingly, the organization that co-sponsored my presentation at the Prairie Lights Bookstore was the same International Writing Program that gave some of my favorite Middle Kingdom authors their first taste of life in the Midwest.

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