© The Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy
John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
Research funded by a grant from The Ford Foundation
June, 1992


How one culture comprehends another is one of the most fascinating questions in modern history. All ideas and images are "cultural productions" in that external events must be filtered through certain conceptual frameworks and reproduced in some comprehensible vocabulary. In looking at another society--its people, history, current affairs--one is, therefore, also trying to understand it in terms familiar to oneself.

Since the late eighteenth century when Yankee clipper ships began visiting canton, Americans have been trying to understand China. The Chinese, for their part, have watched developments in the United States with intense interest since the 1840s. An intriguing question suggests itself: do the two peoples today have a better understanding of one another than in the past? Is their mutual knowledge cumulative, or does each generation develop its own view of the world? Do most mutual images persist over time, or do new perceptions emerge from time to time?

Journalists have been the principal providers of information about China for the outside world. At the beginning, to be sure, that role was mostly assumed by missionaries and merchants who wrote home stories about their encounters with Chinese. Although there were a few American newspaper correspondents here and there in Asia in the nineteenth century, they were outnumbered by European journalists who provided the bulk of information on Chinese affairs until around the turn of the century. From then on, however, an increasing number of American writers visited China and often stayed for many years, soon coming to distinguish themselves as among the foremost reporters on that country.

People like Thomas F. Millard and John B. Powell in the first three decades of the century, followed by Edgar Snow, Harold Isaacs, Agnes Smedley, Arch Steele, Theodore White and many others in the 1930s and the 1940s, were the main sources of information Americans had about China in those tumultuous decades. This mode of communication was abruptly severed when the Communists seized power in Beijing and the two countries fought a fierce war in Korea shortly thereafter. No direct media coverage of China was possible, and with the exception of Snow, virtually no American correspondent visited China for nearly two decades, until 1971 when close contacts began again between Beijing and Washington.

The American journalists who went to China in the 1970s were, therefore, separated from their predecessors by two decades of non-intercourse between the two countries. Most of them represented the younger generation, products of postwar education and training, whose prior knowledge of China was derived from books and other indirect sources of information. This did not make them less prepared to report on China than the earlier generation of reporters; indeed those stationed in Beijing from the late 1970s in general knew the Chinese language better than the pioneers. At the same time, however, they could not count on the kind of support system the latter had enjoyed, namely a well established foreign community in China and a large number of Chinese contacts free to speak their minds, those who used to serve as middlemen between foreigners and the native population.

The pioneering journalists were products of what may be termed the American reformist tradition. "Americans inherited from the missionaries," said the veteran journalist Stanley Karnow, "the belief that the Chinese were perfectible." Most of the prewar American writers on China came out of a political culture that was liberal, democratic and idealistic. It was no accident, then, that their reports out of China emphasized developments in that country that resonated with these themes. Taken collectively, the China they depicted was outwardly underdeveloped and even backward but not without genuine strivings for change. And change meant a growing alignment with forces elsewhere in the world--above all in the United States--that were pushing humanity to a better realization of itself. At bottom it was a progressive view of history that went back to the Enlightenment but that also incorporated the American Progressivism of the Wilsonian age. In such a framework one looked for signs of change and for evidence that various countries of the world were coming together in an increasingly interdependent international community.

China was taken as a prime example of the Progressive faith. More than Japan or other Asian countries, perhaps even more than the advanced nations of Europe, the Chinese appeared to be susceptible to American reform attempts. This was in part because the Chinese seemed to need American support, but it was also because Americans needed success in China to reassure themselves of the vitality of their national mission. The fate of the two countries appeared to grow more and more intertwined as decades went on, so that this faith in Chinese-American interdependence and approximation reached a climax during the Second World War because it was believed that the bilateral relationship was but one aspect of the worldwide struggle against tyranny and poverty, a struggle in which democracy and justice would ultimately triumph.

Just as frequently, however, these hopes would be dashed by events in China that did not conform to the visions entertained by Americans. Earlier in the century, provincial warlords appeared to stand in the way of the New China movement aimed at democratizing the country. During the Second World War news about corruption and inefficiency on the part of the Nationalist authorities disillusioned Americans who had looked to them as the new instrument for reform. And after the Nationalists were in turn replaced by the Communists, even those Americans who had pinned their hopes on the latter had difficulty fitting Communist dogmas and practices into their reformist conceptions. The resulting sense of disillusionment and disappointment was all the greater because of the very depth of the Progressive faith. Often such disappointment would lead to a reassessment of the Chinese condition, producing a post mortem that combined an image of China's traditional backwardness with an optimism that despite temporary setbacks, reform and change would eventually resume.

One can see, then, that prior to the Deng Xiaoping era that began in the late 1970s, there existed a rich legacy of American reporting on China with certain enduring themes. One of them was the dichotomy between the despotic state and political reform. The starting point was the image of an authoritarian state, going back to the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-221 A.D.) and even beyond, which had been in place for centuries. The state, in such a perception, was characterized by a centralized bureaucracy and the emperor's autocratic rule which established a superstructure over a people with no direct role to play in the system. The picture was one in which the state predated the nation in the sense that there was a Chinese state long before there was Chinese national consciousness. The mass of people, in such an image, were apathetic, parochial and oppressed. When some of then did decide to challenge authority, the only means for rectifying the status quo was through an uprising. Thus political changes would only take the form of dynastic cycles, namely uprisings against the established authority, with successful rebels establishing themselves as the next rulers. But that did not change anything fundamentally, and so Chinese history could be represented as a series of political events without a constructive impact on the ways in which the mass of people lived.

At the same time, however, the Progressive faith mandated that one did not condemn China to eternal sameness. Change was bound to come about, but since it could not be generated by the despotic state system itself, it had to be brought about through some agents of reform, whether indigenous or foreign, which would propose alternative visions and seek to move the country out of its traditional ways. They would do so by arousing political consciousness among those hitherto deprived of power and by promising them moral and material support from the outside.

How the two images (the traditional state and the new consciousness) were related in such a formulation was not always clear, but the existence of these images in American writings on China since the late nineteenth century suggests a reformist agenda which in turn reflected a conception of history that was progressive and optimistic. There could not be any progress without backwardness. The traditional Chinese state system was seen as an epitome of the latter, but for that very reason reform possibilities in China appeared all the more exciting.

The key role of intellectuals in bringing about change in China is another enduring theme in American writings. Traditionally, it was assumed that, since the state was helplessly conservative, intellectuals in China had to be counted on as potential agents for change, for they, by definition, were more likely to be in touch with, and be aware of, alternative visions. They were guardians of traditional civilization, but this meant two things: they would transmit the given culture from generation to generation, but at the same time they would seek to prevent its decay from within. Generations of American observers had noted that this latter legacy was as important as the former, and that from time to time in Chinese history the literati would become quite outspoken against what they considered to be the corrupting influences of power at the expense of traditional verities. In modern times, as an increasing number of foreigners arrived to report on conditions in the country, it was not surprising that it was the intellectuals who impressed them as the most promising force against the established order.

Western observers had become aware of this reformist tradition in China since the mid-nineteenth century, but it was toward the end of the century that they gained a sense of the strength of the tradition. By then some reformers and radicals were seeking out foreigners to communicate their views, and there developed a symbiotic relationship between domestic reformers and foreign correspondents. Not that all foreign journalists fell in with China's anti-establishment intellectuals. Many observers stayed close to the seat of power and saw things from the government's perspective. But as the central authority weakened and reformist movements grew, especially after the Boxer Rebellion fiasco in 1900, it was easy even for a casual observer to note that important developments were taking place in China through the initiative of intellectuals--senior scholars and young students alike--who were eager to change the country, to reform the state in order to create a modern nation.

One could term this phenomenon nationalism, though what the reformers proposed was to go beyond ethnic nationalism and reconstitute the country in such a way as to make it comparable to the modern nations of Europe, America, or Japan. They turned in all directions for inspiration and guidance and succeeded in impressing foreigners with the genuineness of their commitment. They may have conveyed an exaggerated notion of their strength. In reality, the reformers, whether of the late Qing dynasty variety (before the First World War) or of the New Youth generation (during and after the war), proved to be numerically insignificant and were no match for the court officials and provincial warlords who controlled military power. Still, it was through them that foreigners became aware of the newly aroused Chinese nationalism.

Of all foreign observers in China, American journalists were perhaps the most explicitly in sympathy with this nationalism, and so it is not surprising that their writings should have stressed the role of Chinese intellectuals as reformers. This was a reflection, in part, of the increasing number of Chinese students who came to study in the United States and of the equally significant number of private secondary schools and universities in China founded with American missionary support. Graduates of these schools as well as "returned students" constituted the core of China's intellectuals during the interwar period, the time when the influence of American journalists reporting on that country reached an unprecedented height. Writers like Millard and Powell identified with the intellectuals-students, college teachers, journalists--and conveyed this strata's perspectives on Chinese affairs to the outside world.

Even those, such as Edgar Snow and Agnes Smedley, whose reports focused on a particular group of Chinese reformers--Communists, should be seen as part of this phenomenon. They, after all, interviewed, lived with and reported on the Chinese Communist leaders who were relatively educated and articulate and who were fully aware of the role of sympathetic foreign reporters in gaining them support at home and overseas. The Chinese Communist movement was portrayed in their writings as a reformist undertaking carried out by well-informed men and women. That they were committed Communists appeared less significant than that they fitted into the traditional pattern of enlightened leaders proposing an alternative to a corrupt regime.

Chinese history also abounded in instances, however, when a successful revolt by reformers would develop into another authoritarian regime. The erstwhile reformers would now be the power-holders and they would try to perpetuate themselves in positions of authority by using the same means of dictatorship and oppression practiced by those they had replaced. This pattern of political change meant that reform movements might not entirely succeed in reforming the country. The more things changed, the more they might remain the same. An upswing in a reformist agenda would be most encouraging, but there was no assurance that it would continue for long. Not only would those in power seek to suppress it, but even if it should succeed it might transform itself into a new repressive status quo, recreating the arrangement it had presumably fought to overthrow.

Western reports on China over the decades were filled with references to such a pattern of events. There were frequent and quick ups and downs as hopes about change in China were raised and dashed. Optimistic accounts of change would be followed by extremely pessimistic descriptions, or images about an unchanging China might be replaced, almost inexplicably, by a vision of a new China. Stanley Karnow recalled the dual attitude of Henry Luce. "He would reject any suggestion that Mao and the Communists were succeeding," Karnow said of his one-time employer, "with the argument that Communists can't succeed. And with the same passion, he would reject any argument or any suggestion that China was failing with the argument that Chinese can't fail. This kind of schizophrenia helped me in a way as a reporter," Karnow went on, "[and prevented too much intrusion] into my reporting, because I could attribute progress to the Chinese and attribute setbacks to the Communists."

New and old, in many of the journalistic writings, became terms that merely hid an essentially static situation: there was constant motion but at the core nothing really changed. We find instances of this in the literature of pessimism that followed optimistic accounts of the May Fourth movement ("China, the pity of it"), hopeful reports on the Communists that contradicted pictures of China in disarray under the Nationalist leadership in the late 1930s, and the negative portrayals of the Communist regime when it undertook measures to suppress freedom and truth during the Anti-Rightist campaign (1957) and the Great Leap Forward (1958-59). All these twists and turns fitted into an overall image of a society that somehow refused to transform itself even as segments of it were constantly rising against the state.

Although it is difficult to generalize, it may well be that such an image of China was particularly widespread among American reporters because of their eagerness to find evidence of change in that country. Given the American reformist impulse, signs of innovation and renovation in China merited special attention, but by the same token the sense of disappointment was all the greater when hopes for Chinese transformation proved premature. When this happened, one could find refuge in a perception of China in which upturns and downturns were common occurrences without, however, making a lasting impact on society.

Such a fatalistic perception would, of course, conflict with the underlying optimism of American reformism. The former essentially represents a cyclical view of history, whereas the latter assumes a progressive construction of history. There is a tension between the two, and it may well be that this tension has fascinated and challenged the best of the American journalists reporting from and on China. Did things get better, however slightly, following internal turmoil? Or did the country remain essentially the same? Even if the society should undergo change through contact with the outside world, or through domestic pressures, would this mean the power structure or the state would likewise change? or were societal changes not sufficient to alter the nature of the state? When elsewhere in the world transformation was taking place, could China remain unaffected, or would it become part of the global transformation? These are fascinating questions that bring us up to 1989 and beyond, and they ultimately concern the relationship between universalism and particularism--a very "American" issue.

The key question, of course, was what "change" meant in the China of 1989. The journalists of our time may have differed from the old-timers in their predisposition toward change. Less idealistic, less inclined to the crusading adventures of a Snow or a Smedley, they perhaps saw change basically as news, and were less inclined to ask whether the change was good or bad, permanent or temporary--less impressed with the probability of an upward course from darkness toward light. They would say--they did say to us in the interviews and workshop conducted for this study---that they followed the story and went where it took them, and nowhere else. At the same time, an identification occurred between the Chinese students of 1989 and the American media that suggests the American reformist tradition in approaching China may not be dead. It seems to have lived, at least, in the hope placed in it from the Chinese side.

Were the journalists of 1989 in the reformist tradition? Or were they a new breed, as indeed the Chinese students of 1989 were not only in a rich intellectual tradition, but in some ways a new phenomenon? The cycle of optimism and pessimism, hopes rising and hopes dashed, seems to exist not only within American perceptions, but within the fabric of Chinese history itself. And yet no cycle is merely a repetition of a previous one; in the spring of 1989 there were displayed new themes along with old, as well as startling new dimensions of the media's role and new media technologies.

Home | Film/Media | Tour | Themes | Chronology | Readings/Links | Site Map | Chinese
Frontline | ITVS | Center for Asian American Media | PBS

© Long Bow Group, Inc . All Rights Reserved.