Before Crazy Rich Asians, there were the Chinese celebrities in the 1930’s. In his latest book Imperfect Understanding: Intimate Portraits of Modern Chinese Celebrities, Professor Christopher Rea (University of British Columbia) takes us into the world of Chinese elites and what they had to say about each other. Louise Edwards, Scientia Professor and Deputy Head of the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of New South Wales, hails Professor Rea’s latest book as “satirical, witty, and compulsive reading.”
So, what did it mean to be a celebrity in modern China? In Imperfect Understanding: Intimate Portraits of Modern Chinese Celebrities, Christopher Rea presents fifty brilliant pen sketches of Chinese cultural and political elites, written and edited in 1934 by Wen Yuan-ning, a Cambridge-educated ethnic Hakka from Indonesia and a master literary stylist. In this interview, Christopher Rea discusses what Imperfect Understanding reveals about the politics fame in China, then and now.
Question: Professor Theodore Huters (UCLA) has called this collection “an extraordinary artifact of Chinese literary and social history.” Could you please elaborate on this and why it was so important for you to edit this book?
Christopher Rea: I got the idea for Imperfect Understanding: Intimate Portraits of Modern Chinese Celebrities while doing a postdoctoral fellowship at the Australian Centre on China in the World at the Australian National University in 2012. Geremie Barmé, the Director of the Centre, invited me to co-guest edit with William Sima a double issue of the e-journal China Heritage Quarterly focused on the Chinese-edited English-language weekly The China Critic, which was founded in Shanghai in 1928. In the pages of the Critic I discovered a column of “Unedited Biographies” of Chinese celebrities, which I found to be often brilliant and consistently entertaining, even when I didn’t know much about the person being profiled. The editor of the column, Wen Yuan-ning, was a favorite professor of Qian Zhongshu’s, a writer whom I’m keenly interested in. I discovered that Wen not only edited fifty celebrity profiles for the Critic in 1934, but that he also released a book of seventeen of them under his own name in 1935 as Imperfect Understanding. His takes on Hu Shi, Xu Zhimo, Zhou Zuoren, Liang Yuchun, Wellington Koo, Gu Hongming and other cultural celebrities are insightful, funny, and often mischievous. In many cases, Wen knew them personally and would try to reconcile their personalities with their reputations. His instinct was to deflate the puffed-up biographies found in books like Who’s Who in China, and the results are refreshing.
As I read more of the essays and started researching the individuals involved, it became clear to me that Wen Yuan-ning is a literary voice who deserves to be rediscovered. His influence on the satirical style of Qian Zhongshu is unmistakable and his essays make good reading in their own right. Like many members of his generation, Wen’s literary career was cut short by war and politics—but in his case it likely had more to do with being elected to China’s legislature and later being appointed Ambassador to Greece. But what he left behind is treasure trove for the essay lover and the historian.
Q: What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
CR: For starters, I hope that they enjoy discovering Wen Yuan-ning’s writings as much as I did. Imperfect Understanding contains much good humor, well-turned wit, and judicious character appraisal, along with flights of arch mockery, physiognomic satire, and poetry. Some pieces are quite touching. I hope that readers enjoy the results of some literary sleuthing that went into this book. For example, one of the best sources on Wen turned out to be writings by the New Yorker journalist Emily Hahn, who worked with him in Shanghai in the 1930s. One essay, the one on George T. Yeh (Ye Gongchao), I figured out was almost certainly written by Qian Zhongshu. I discovered that many of the essays—which were originally written in English—were translated and retranslated into Chinese many times in the 1930s and 1940s. And, as a literary historian, I learned quite a bit about celebrities outside my field, including plague fighters of Manchuria, Manila businessmen, university presidents from Singapore, rubber tycoons, diplomats, physicists, philanthropists, and musicians. Just the selection of persons profiled—the mix of professions, of male and female, living and dead—provides ample material for thinking about the politics of celebrity in in China’s age of print, and in its publishing center of Shanghai. Who was included or excluded from the list, and why? I also hope that this book inspires greater appreciation of how multilingualism has been a part of China’s literary sphere. Apart from some material in the appendices, this book is not a translation; Wen and his co-authors wrote in English. Finally, I hope that readers find useful all of the photographs, summary biographies, and bibliographic material about Wen Yuan-ning and his peers at the back of the book.
Q: What other research do you believe is needed on this topic?
CR: There’s plenty more research to be done on Wen Yuan-ning, besides the material I was able to get from Cambridge, Stanford, Taipei, and a few other places. Next steps might include tracking down his personal papers and archives in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Taiwan. Wen is just one of many talented writers of modern China who could write in English or another language besides Chinese, and much more work is needed to elucidate the multilingual dimension of modern Chinese literary history. We need more treasure-hunters in the archives, as many literary gems remain hiding in old magazines and journals, waiting to be rediscovered. The politics of fame has had a tremendous impact on modern Chinese culture, before and after the extraordinary example of Mao Zedong. Celebrities abound in contemporary China, for example, and our tendency is to interpret them based on the archetypes we’re most familiar with. Yet it’s clear, even before factoring in the latest digital twist, that not all of them fit the mold. Insofar as celebrity is a function of things like money, status, power, time, and attention, its configurations in Chinese contexts deserve our attention too.
Imperfect Understanding: Intimate Portraits of Chinese Celebrities is part of the Cambria Sinophone World Series, headed by Professor Victor Mair (University of Pennsylvania).
About Christopher Rea
Christopher Rea is an associate professor of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia. He holds an MA and PhD from Columbia University and a BA from Dartmouth College. His previous books include The Book of Swindles: Selections from a Late Ming Collection (cotranslated with Bruce Rusk), China’s Literary Cosmopolitans: Qian Zhongshu, Yang Jiang, and the World of Letters, and The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China, which the Association for Asian Studies awarded the Joseph Levenson Book Prize (post-1900 China) in 2017.
About Wen Yuan-Ning
Wen Yuan-ning (1900–1984), also known as Oon Guan Neng, was born into a Hakka family on the island of Banka, and educated in Singapore, London, and King’s College, Cambridge. He taught English literature at universities in Peking, including Tsinghua University, and served as chair of the Department of Foreign Languages of Peking University. He subsequently became a contributing editor of the English-language weekly The China Critic (1928–1940, 1946) and editor-in-chief of T’ien Hsia Monthly (1935–1941), releasing his essay collection Imperfect Understanding in 1935. He was made a member of the Legislative Yuan in 1933 and in 1947 became China’s Ambassador to Greece, a position he held for twenty years. In retirement, he taught English literature at Chinese Culture University in Taipei.