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young fu of the upper yangtze

1 january 2011

American children's literature of the mid-20th century had a strongly multicultural component – though not in a sense that 21st-century multiculturalists would recognize. Highbrow U.S. children's literature from 50-90 years ago included stories from a wide range of world cultures: almost all of them written by white, upper-middle-class, Establishment Americans.

Elizabeth Foreman Lewis is typical of such authors. She was part of "the American experience in China." She came of age as a Methodist missionary in early-20th-century Chonqing, and her expatriate experience in China would become her stock in trade as a children's writer. As Pearl Buck did for adults, Lewis interpreted Chinese culture for American youth.

Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze is her first, and most famous, interpretation. Lewis grafts a Horatio Alger story – poor young man serves rich old man well, makes good – onto the stock of Chinese culture. Her method is one of defamiliarization. Much of Young Fu is taken up with perceiving Americans through Chinese eyes, and letting Chinese bewilderment at American customs teach American readers about cultural differences.

The method is harder than it looks, and Lewis handles it skillfully. Most of the narrative remains immersed in Chinese values and assumptions – or at least, in Lewis's approximations to them. Chinese people talk obliquely, ironically, and in self-deprecation. They have a strict sense of gender differences, and young people respect their elders. We learn these values partly by immersion, but partly by reference to "foreigners," mostly Americans, who do not share them.

Occasionally Lewis will gloss a term parenthetically, or step out of her limited-perspective narrative to clarify a detail that Young Fu or his master Tang Coppersmith cannot understand. But for the most part she carries out her task consistently. When Young Fu buys a cheap radium-dial watch, or directs a friend to the "foreigners'" hospital to be saved from appendicitis, we watch the scene unfold from Fu's wondering perspective, until perhaps a final explanatory detail needs clinching.

In the process, of course, a certain amount of patronizing goes on, and I guess it depends on your perspective whether you find the patronizing insufferable or not. We are a long way from the Holland of Hans Brinker, where the Dutch characters are idiots and their customs relentlessly silly. Lewis's default attitude toward Chinese culture is one of respect. But she can't help but betray some sense that China is essentially backward and insular. Chinese people don't understand modern medicine or automobiles; in a famous scene where Young Fu capitalizes on his increasing sophistication, city folk pay good money for a bucket of snow that he schleps down from the highlands. Young Fu understands marketing and moxie, the two inseparable American qualities that define a go-getter economy. And by marketing himself in an audacious way, he gains the respect of his traditional coppersmith master and a foothold in a modern economy. "The foreigners fear no Dragons—nor do I," Young Fu announces (179).

Young Fu's overall arc of apprentice-succeeds is so formulaic that Lewis can dispense with any true plot. The construction of the novel is excessively episodic. Fu solves this problem and that, at times behaving like a boys'-series hero (leaping onto a rooftop to put out a fire) and at times like a junior detective (clearing a fellow journeyman from charges of opium trafficking). Fu foils a gang of Communist thieves. Many of the these episodes are calqued onto American concerns of the early 1930s: Depression, Prohibition. There's also a sense that change is in the air, and that our young apprentice must not only grow up but ride the wave of progress. (In this way, Young Fu is the precursor of another apprentice metalsmith at the helm of a Newbery Medal book, Johnny Tremain.)

Is Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze still readable after 79 years? Its publishers banked on that notion when issuing a 75th-anniversary edition in 2007, newly (and nicely) illustrated by William Low, and including a testimonial by fellow Newbery Medalist Katherine Paterson that the novel remains "a really good read" (x). But the fact that I found great stacks of the new edition lading the remainder shelves at Half-Price Books this winter suggests that they overestimated its appeal. I read the whole thing, so by definition one can get through it, though I'm driven by professional, antiquarian interests. Perhaps the verdict is this: Lewis, given the limitations of her own literary and political culture, did a pretty good job of interpreting China. She may have done a better job than her more celebrated compatriot Pearl Buck. Buck's stories are fairly turgid reads anymore, while Young Fu is a brisk book with energetic dialogue that foreshadows the rawness of later American novels about Chinese people, like Louis Chu's Eat a Bowl of Tea. And I get the sense that Buck knew that. She survived Lewis by many years, and wrote an introduction to a 1972 reprinting of Young Fu that is reproduced in the 2007 edition. Buck says almost nothing about Young Fu; her paragraphs are entirely about herself and how well she knows China. I wonder if she was trying to deflect attention from how well Lewis knew both China, and the craft of writing about it for an American audience.

Lewis, Elizabeth Foreman. Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze. 1932. Seventy-fifth anniversary edition. Illustrated by William Low. New York: Holt, 2007.