From the Archive #1: Portraits From a Chinese Scroll

My main intention in starting this blog all of, oh, a few days ago was to read and focus on more new fiction and other books about China. It’s a strange time to start – I’m cooped up at home thanks to That Virus, but unlike most people (on Twitter at least) with a toddler and a key worker job I suddenly have a lot less time for reading new fiction than I did before!

Something I have finally achieved is putting my book collection on shelves after a recent house move. Between the good lady historian and me this was not a small task, and I realised what an enormous about of slightly random second hand books about China I’ve picked up over the years, mostly from trips to Hay-on-Wye, other booksellers, library collection sales and so on. Most of them I’ve barely opened, let alone read.

So consider this the first in an occasional series of… ‘From the Archives’, chosen at random from the depths of a packing box.

Elizabeth Foreman Lewis – Portraits from a Chinese Scroll

Published: George G Harrap & Co, 1939

It’s a bit battered now, but this is a lovely book to hold – well-bound, good quality paper. There’s an embossed taijitu on the front (‘this book is about China!’), but a quick Google tells me the US first edition had a rather elegant paper cover. It’s inscribed: “Kathleen Godfrey from Christina. Motts Down Christmas 1943.”

There is a Motts Down near Groombridge in the Sussex Weald. Just picture that wartime English country Christmas at which this was a (I hope) treasured present – the wine, the cheer, the almost-certainly-not-snowy walk to the church. It’s curiously cheering in this period of isolation. Opening my copy a business card fell out for the magnificent Arthur Probsthain shop, opposite the British Museum – that must be where I found it. I have no recollection of buying this book, but I have spent many hours and a good few pounds sterling at Mr Probstain’s hospitality.

Foreman Lewis was a product of the missionary boom to China in the early twentieth century. Unlike Pearl Buck, Foreman Lewis wasn’t raised in China but moved to China in 1917 as a Methodist missionary, meeting her husband in Nanjing where she taught. She doesn’t appear to have written while in China but on her return to the US, her first novel Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze winning several awards for children’s books. This was clearly a significant release when it was published: the fourth book from an award-winning writer. A couple of columns in the 27 November 1938 New York Times greeted its publication.

There’s room for an enormous great tangent here about the missionaries to China in this period. I will resist, but I generally have a lot more time for the output of this missionary generation than most seem to – with (pretty heavy) reservations. The graduates of the early twentieth century Chinese missionary complex includes some fairly impressive people in all fields (Pearl Buck, Eric Liddell, Gladys Aylward, John Leighton Stuart). While there are doubtlessly countless less palatable works that haven’t passed down the generations, missionaries’ writing about China between the Boxer Rebellion to the Civil War is much more compassionate than other travellers or foreigners in China. Pearl Buck might be one of the more unlikely Nobel laureates, but I can’t help but admire her work – Hilary Spurling’s Burying the Bones is an excellent biography.

Nevertheless, Portraits from a Chinese Scroll fits quite squarely in what I would expect of a book with this history – well-meaning, elegantly produced, but deeply patronising if not outright uncomfortable to modern readers. It’s a curious tone – kind yet unkind, knowledgeable yet ignorant. It is rather school ma’am-ish.

Technically this is children’s literature, but it has little in common with modern children’s literature.

There are ten portraits of Chinese people as ‘types’, consisting of clinical but effective drawings, short factual descriptions of the ‘type’ and their role in Chinese society and history, and a short story about them. In a fantastically un-modern turn, ‘The Woman’ and ‘The Child’ are distinct portraits; we also meet ‘The Merchant’, ‘The Scholar’, ‘The Foreigner’, ‘The Clerk’, ‘The Coolie’ and so on. Lewis is attempting to interpret the world of these ‘types’ in their own eyes for Western children.

The language is unashamedly orientalist, with needlessly literal and unwieldy translations of ideas and phrases. She is trying to educate and entertain children, but sees exoticising as an appropriate way to entertain and explain. An infant isn’t a ‘baby’ or ‘girl’ but a ‘girl-child’; characters aren’t ‘merchant Wang’ or ‘Lin the scholar’ as would be natural in English, but ‘Wang Merchant’ and ‘Lin Scholar’. Characters don’t die but they ‘ascend the Dragon’. China isn’t ‘China’ but that laboured old favourite the ‘Middle Kingdom’; the Han Chinese are the ‘sons of Han’. Yet despite the language the stories are engaging and kind, even if this kindness to her characters is expressed in a way few modern readers would recognise and in a stodgy style few modern children would enjoy (although I did like her use of words like ‘tatterdemalion’). Witness Clever Eel, the young beggar. All Lewis’s descriptions of his life, his clothes, his food, his family are tinged with disgust as they collect filthy rags and run after foreigners with sob-stories. And yet she has sympathy for his plight and writes with something approaching tenderness at times: Clever Eel has an aesthetic appreciation of a flower’s beauty, and has a desire to learn. By the end of the story he has finally had a good meal and feels ‘like an early Ming emperor’.

Later, belching loud appreciation of food, the apprentice fitted the sliding panels to the shop-front and joined his master in the task before them. At the Hour of the Pig Wu Wife came into the quiet room and extended one palm on which lay a carved ivory button seemingly little the worse for having travelled so unusual a journey. “Did I not say it was Nature’s way?” she asked her husband; then without waiting for a reply added, “The children sleep; now let me help a little.”

The Artisan: Insects do not Bite Busy People

The stories exist in that exciting confluence of the recently post-imperial China of the 20s and 30s – traditional trades and social structures, but with Japanese bombers overhead and foreigners in the streets. She appears to have a fatalistic view of these tropes – the Clerk, the Beggar, the Merchant have existed throughout the entirety of Chinese history and will not ever change (but, I infer, for the intervention of the enlightened Methodist missionary).  Lewis clearly absorbed China during her time there: her archetypal portraits are rooted in an understanding of Confucianism and Chinese society which informs this context, even if it can tend to be patronising and overly simplified. At worst, there is a particularly uncomfortable interest in racial characteristics that seeps through every now and then: merchants go about their trade ‘exercising the racial flair for dramatics’ (eek); all Chinese women apparently possess ‘in full measure the racial characteristics of initiative and ingenuity’ (all of them?), and Soong Mei-ling is here described as ‘typical of her race’s womanhood in greatness of spirit’ (very little about Soong Mei-ling is ‘typical’). No doubt Lewis means well, but that patronising strain is never far from the surface.

So: a lovely book, but not one I’ll be reading to my toddler any time soon. Back to the archive it goes.

A postscript

I was so taken with the image of Kathleen Godfrey having a wartime Christmas at Motts Down I decided to have a little burrow into the internet. I do a lot of family history work so know where to find out more about people in this time.

I can’t be certain, but it seems Kathleen was a more significant owner of this book than I had expected. There’s no guarantee I’m right of course, but this site contains a moving account of the Second World War written by a Kathleen Godfrey in 2004:

Kathleen talks about her ‘house in Kent’ (Motts Down is just over the border in Sussex, she may well have moved around in the area, or perhaps it is where Christina lived); and her father Admiral Godfrey, allegedly the model for Ian Fleming’s ‘M’, commanded ships on the China station. That would account for the address and potentially for the interest in China. Kathleen, only sixteen when the war broke out, trained as a radio operator and worked at Bletchley Park during the war. In October 1943 her grandfather through her a 21st birthday party at the Savoy; she doesn’t talk about Christmas 1943 but if she is indeed the first owner of this book, it would have been gifted to her shortly after.

Who knows how many Kathleen Godfreys there were in Kent at this time – but it’s a pleasant thought that this book might once have been owned by this one.

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