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Misreading China: It's time to move beyond old stereotypes

China has outgrown 'The Good Earth' and so should the rest of us.

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Three-quarters of a century ago, Americans often viewed China through one of two distorting lenses, both of which can be linked to famous works of popular culture of the 1930s. One was a patronizing lens that can be associated with the 1931 Pearl Buck novel "The Good Earth," and the popular 1937 film it inspired. The other was a demonizing lens that can be associated with a 1932 horror film, "The Mask of Fu Manchu." China today, of course, is a very different place.

And yet, as a look at recent American bestseller lists reveals, lenses of the "Good Earth" and "Fu Manchu" varieties continue to distort our view of the world's most populous country.

"Scratches on Our Minds: American Views of China and India," a masterly 1958 study by the journalist and later M.I.T. professor Harold Isaacs, was the first book to analyze those lenses in detail. Isaacs argued that two "sets of images" bedeviled American understanding of China. A positive set "identified in our own generation with the people of Pearl Buck's novels," presented the Chinese as "solid, simple, courageous folk staunchly coping with the blows of fate." And a negative set that encouraged us to think of China as a place that produced power-mad sadists (such as the diabolical Dr. Fu Manchu) and faceless hordes ready to do their bidding. One set of images kept alive the fantasy that, if only given the chance, the Chinese would embrace our ways and buy our goods; the other kept alive yellow peril visions of a China threat.

Isaacs would later write prefaces to two follow-up editions to "Scratches on Our Minds," in which he noted the continued hold of these images and fantasies up through 1980. Were he still alive, bestseller lists might convince him that though we are in a new century, we remain trapped in these old patterns.

"The Good Earth" was recently back on these lists in 2004. Why? Because talk-show host Oprah Winfrey selected it for her book club. A much newer book also enjoying popularity is Jung Chang and Jon Halliday's "Mao: The Unknown Story." This does not present Mao as a complex figure who was responsible for causing enormous suffering at certain points (the most common view among scholars), but as from start to finish a sadist without redeeming features, a sort of Fu Manchu with totalitarian characteristics - and a mass following. President Bush, according to The New York Times, thinks it a great book.

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