Staging America’s First Contact with China

In this blog entry, John Haddad, author of America’s First Adventure in China, writes about The Empress of China, a play about an American voyage to China, that he saw in Hong Kong.

In 1784, the Empress of China sailed from Philadelphia to Canton, becoming the first American vessel to reach China.  This commercial voyage, undertaken mere weeks after the end of the Revolutionary War, marked the beginning of the Sino-U.S. relationship.  In 2011, the Hong Kong Reperatory Theater staged The Empress of China, a dramatic rendering of this historical journey.  The play was a big deal.  The Theater commissioned a production from Joanna Chan, a successful script writer and director of historical movies and television dramas.  In anticipation of the show, the city was festooned with banners and posters advertising the production.  After finishing its run in Hong Kong, it moved to New York for its American premiere.

Haddad_America's First Adventure_082112I was not only living in Hong Kong at this time, I was writing a book specifically about Americans in China – America’s First Adventure in China.  When I saw the performance, I had recently finished writing a chapter on the very same voyage.  I knew as much of the actual history as anyone, and was well-equipped to compare the play with the historical record.  You may think I am one of those historians who takes pleasure in pointing out the factual inaccuracies in historically-themed plays and films, but that is not my aim here.  I understand that Joanna Chan had to take liberties to ensure that her production appealed to today’s audience.  That said, I do think that a comparison is meaningful.

Though Chan mostly stuck to the historical record, she made two big additions.  First, there is a scene in which the Americans demonstrate fencing to the Chinese, and the Chinese teach the Americans about Kung-Fu.  The scene is thrilling, funny, and acrobatic…but it never happened.  Second, the play includes a forbidden romance between Samuel Shaw, a dashing American, and the lovely daughter of a Chinese merchant.  This also never happened.  Why do I point out these additions?  Trust me: my purpose is not to say either “you want history to be exciting, but I’m here to crush your hopes by informing you the past was dry” or “you want meaningful cultural exchange to have taken place, but the truth was neither side showed any curiosity in the other.”   Actually, deep personal relationships and cultural exchanges did really happen – they just did not happen during the very first Sino-American encounter.

In the 1800s, Americans in China formed close relationships with the Chinese and engineered meaningful exchanges of culture.  Examples are plentiful, but I’ll share just a couple.  In the 1820s, Nathan Dunn, a merchant from Philadelphia, forged friendships with Chinese merchants and government officials.  Why did they like him?  Along with being affable, Dunn opposed on moral grounds the opium traffic that was making his peers rich.  These friendships came in handy.  When Britain’s East India Company tried to force Dunn out of the China trade, his Chinese friends stood by him and protected his business.  These friends also appreciated Dunn’s fondness for Chinese art and culture – though “fondness” does not adequately capture the obsessive nature of Dunn’s collecting.  Mania is more like it.  With the help of Chinese friends, Dunn amassed thousands of artifacts, which he shipped to Philadelphia.  This massive collection became the first serious exhibition of Chinese culture in America.

Another example involves  Anson Burlingame, a former congressman from Massachusetts, as U.S. Minister to China appointed by Abraham Lincoln in 1860.  When Burlingame arrived in Beijing, China was in turmoil: the Qing Government had lost the First Opium War to England, was losing the Second Opium War, and was trying to quell a rebellion.  An ardent opponent of slavery, Burlingame saw China’s foreign affairs through the lens of America’s great debate over slavery.  Just as Southern whites unjustly used superior force to enslave blacks, so too did Britain use its superior military to bully the Chinese.  After befriending Chinese and European officials, Burlingame sought the unimaginable: to replace the West’s “gunboat diplomacy” with what he called the “Cooperative Policy.”  In a nutshell, the European powers and China would settle disputes not with warfare but rather by developing mutual trust, engaging in dialogue, and abiding by treaties.  Though the “Cooperative Policy” did not last, it did define Sino-Western relations during the 1860s.  As Burlingame prepared to return stateside in 1868, the Chinese fêted him with farewell banquets.  At one affair, they blindsided him with a remarkable request that shows the deepness of their trust.  Would Burlingame agree to represent China’s interests in Europe and America?  Burlingame agreed, was given an official Chinese rank, and embarked on an amazing diplomatic odyssey.

I will close by making one last observation about The Empress of China.  That the play exists at all shows that we in the twenty-first century are highly interested in – or concerned about – U.S-China relations.  Yet Chan’s additions suggest something else.  Our desire for this relationship to be about friendship, trust, and cultural exchange is so strong as to compel us to project these things onto the past.  But do we in the present really need to enhance the past so it can offer hope for the future?  If we look not at this single voyage but at the first 100 years of Sino-American interaction, we see much to encourage us.

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