The U.S. And Its Long History With The 'Middle Kingdom' Journalist John Pomfret has written extensively about U.S.-China relations throughout history. NPR's Robert Siegel talks with Pomfret about his book, The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom.

The U.S. And Its Long History With The 'Middle Kingdom'

The U.S. And Its Long History With The 'Middle Kingdom'

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Journalist John Pomfret has written extensively about U.S.-China relations throughout history. NPR's Robert Siegel talks with Pomfret about his book, The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom.


There's a recurring theme to John Pomfret's new book about the history of U.S.-China relations. Pomfret, who was The Washington Post's Beijing correspondent, writes about recurring cycles of enchantment and disappointment. Americans, going back to the 1700s, have been convinced China would become more like us. Merchants thought so. Missionaries and diplomats thought so. Advocates of free trade, the rule of law and open internet thought so.

In "The Beautiful Country And The Middle Kingdom," Pomfret documents the great influence the U.S. has had on China, but not the result of a modern democratic society that so many Americans have wished for. John Pomfret, welcome to the program.

JOHN POMFRET: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And I'd like you first to explain the title "The Beautiful Country And The Middle Kingdom."

POMFRET: So the Beautiful Country is what the Chinese call the United States - Meiguo. The Middle Kingdom is what the Chinese call themselves - Zhongguo - which is the country in the center of the world.

SIEGEL: So the title is another way of saying America and China.

POMFRET: Yes - somewhat literary.

SIEGEL: Let's start at the beginning. How big was the China trade in the early days of American independence?

POMFRET: At its maximum, it was about 15 percent of U.S. global trade. But that said, it was incredibly important, actually, in the founding of the United States as a commercial power. And the profits from the trade created the first great, rich families the United States, who then in turn invested those profits into the Industrial Revolution in America.

SIEGEL: One of those families was Delano.

POMFRET: Yes. Franklin Roosevelt's grandfather was a very prominent China trader. And Chinese objects were littered throughout the Roosevelt mansions in upstate New York.

SIEGEL: There seem to be two impulses that Americans have when it comes to China. One is to make money there, and the other is to convert the Chinese to our way of life. First, how important were American Protestant missionaries to China?

POMFRET: They were incredibly important. They brought some of the foundational ideas of Western technology, Western medicine, Western scientific principles, Western law and Western education. And missionaries were actually the first advocates for human rights, if you will, in China. So they were very important, for example, in convincing the Chinese to begin to unbind women's feet. So that was a huge human rights advance at the time.

SIEGEL: If you'd explain that for people who are unfamiliar with the binding of feet.

POMFRET: So the Chinese from the Song Dynasty had been - many Chinese, not all of them - had been binding the feet of their little girls, which involved a horribly brutal process of crushing the smaller toes and folding the feet inward to create what they call a lotus flower foot. They found that very sexually alluring. And, of course, it had the knock-on effect of completely ensuring that the women couldn't be mobile - a very literal way of keeping women down.

SIEGEL: So there's a dynamic relationship between missionaries and China, but one measure of that dynamism is not the number of Chinese who are converted to Christianity.

POMFRET: No. In 1949, when China had its communist revolution, in a country of 400, 500 million people, there were only several million Christians. So in terms of missionary - actual missionizing - they didn't do a very good job. But in terms of providing China with a huge amount of education and ideas about the West, they were, for a time, the most important conduit from the West to China.

SIEGEL: You must have come across many figures in your research who - whom you hadn't known that much about before. I'm just curious about a couple of the people you came to learn a great deal about who fascinated you in writing this story.

POMFRET: So one is a missionary by the name of Adele Fielde. And she came of age in the 19th century when the feminist issues of that era were at the forefront. So it's post-Civil War. Women demanded the ability to go to school, to go to college. She was college-educated, and then she was engaged to be married to a Chinese missionary. She came all the way out to Hong Kong, where they planned to get married, and finds when she lands in Hong Kong that he actually had died in the interim of typhoid fever.

And so she stuck on the shores of Asia, and she decides to soldier on. And she becomes a single American woman missionary in China, and she opens the first literacy program for Chinese women in modern Chinese history. She becomes basically a pioneer. And that idea that American women could go to China then and really be all that they could be - I mean, the job of being a single American woman missionary was a great job for a woman who in the United States were denied - often denied opportunities. They could get education, but they couldn't get a good job.

And so that basically began this pattern whereby Americans could do things - specifically American women could do things in China that they couldn't do at home. So they could become chair of university departments. They could be surgeons when effectively they were banned from operating rooms in the United States. And that's - flash forward to today, and you see - for example, in the 1980s, a lot of American women were very successful lawyers in China, very successful consultants in China when it was more difficult to do that in America.

SIEGEL: The many pages of your book are littered with the stories of people who were disappointed in what didn't come of their efforts - the Chinese democracy that didn't result from greater trade or greater aid or missionary trade - whatever it might be. What is it that Americans fundamentally don't get about China that should lead to so much disappointment?

POMFRET: I think that there is a huge emotional investment that the United States has made in China and in the other direction, as well - the Chinese have made in the United States. And I think that that's part of the passion play of two nations who believe that they are both the apex of the West in our case and the apex of the East in the Chinese case. And so that idea that the melding of the two cultures will create something better is something that has been a pattern in our relationship.

So it's not that we don't get. It's that we continue to pursue this idea of some type of what the Chinese called datong, which is great harmony. And that is very difficult to work given the - at the same time, sort of this yin and yang. We have these great expectations. We also have these great fears about each other. How that works - it creates a lot of tension in the relationship.

SIEGEL: You know, one thing I realized in reading your book was that personally, having been born just after the Second World War and grown up in the 1950s and '60s when the U.S. did not deal with mainland China - with the People's Republic of China - I came up during what must have been the biggest - if not the only - real blank spot in America's relationship with hundreds of millions of Chinese. That is it - this was incredibly unusual for the country not to be deeply engaged in China.

POMFRET: Exactly. And that's actually what prompted me to write the book. So I grew up in a later generation when we began engaging with China. And so I went there in 19 - the early 1980s to study. I got tossed out of China in 1989 when I was reporter covering Tiananmen Square, then I returned there in the 1990s. I met my wife there. We had our first child there. And so I've lived this relationship, but, you know, in truth, as you said, we've been interacting for more than 200 years. And so I really have this powerful desire to kind of understand the backstory. So in my journey to learn this intertwined history - it was that - that's what really brought me to write this book.

SIEGEL: John Pomfret, thanks for talking with us about your book "The Beautiful Country And The Middle Kingdom."

POMFRET: Thanks so much for having me, Robert.

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