FUSANG: The Chinese Who Built America by Stall Steiner

FUSANG: The Chinese Who Built America

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KIRKUS REVIEW

The author of La Raza, The Islands, etc. continues his amiable buildup of downgraded groups. And the title, in this case, tells only half the story. Before the Chinese arrive to start building America (as Mexican Chinos), Steiner recaps (1) the legend of a fifth-century voyager who ""may have"" crossed the Pacific (but most likely didn't); (2) pioneering Chinese ""explorations"" of the West (i.e., they discovered us, not we them); (3) signs of possible early transoceanic contact, plus substantiated feats of ancient Chinese mariners; (4) the origin and development of ""myths"" about China from Marco Polo (who saw the luxuries he expected to see, and missed the magnetic compass, matches, and printed money), to Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (who, as a rationalist, proclaimed Confucius ""the Prince of Philosophers""), to the Chinoiserie of 18th-century European courts. In demonstrating that these were ""wish-fulfilling images of Europeans' own needs and desires."" Steiner simply and lightly bares the fallacies of ""Orientalism""; and his subsequent account of the opium trade--by which the British, peddling powerful Indian opium to pay for Chinese tea, created the ""passive and sinister"" Chinese--in another job well done. But he must, it seems, overreach: ""the influence of the Chinese upon the American Revolution"" turns out to be that same costly, unpopularly-taxed tea (Boston Harbor, and all that). Treating the Chinese in the U.S. proper, he is at pains to establish--contra the coolie stereotype--that the first wave consisted of merchants, ""skilled craftsmen and technicians"" who paid their own way; that their superiority as miners and railroad-builders excited envy, their refined ways aroused hostility; and as a result they were forced into menial occupations as ""servants to the white citizens."" But here, too, he cannot leave well enough alone, and so we have a chapter on ""The Chinese Cowboys and [mostly] Indians"" based on some possible backwoods contacts, some cultural similarities, and the fact that, ultimately, the Chinese were legally and physically assaulted too. Steiner has a nice way of spot-lighting salient particulars--like the first appearance of a Mao suit on the N.Y. subway--and he has a good case; it would be more convincing, though, if he didn't inflate it.

Pub Date: Jan. 31st, 1978
Publisher: Harper & Row