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Friday, June 5, 2009

He Lived in Interesting Times

After I finished Carpenter's old book on China, I read Through China's Wall by Graham Peck, a 1940 book that had been collecting dust and bugs on my shelf for years. A kind of travelogue, it just spirited me away. Peck, after graduating from Yale in 1935, won a trip around the world as a result of a contest he entered involving some illustrations for the Ivory Soap company. He started and immediately concluded his world tour in China, and went no further. He hung out in Peking for a while and then went off to live, early hippie style, with some Mongolians in yurts for six months and ended up in western China where he wanted to retrace the Long March. The book was so vividly written and beautifully illustrated, I had to find out more about him. No Wikipedia entry, but lots of Google references to his second book, Two Kinds of Time, a 725-page volume on life in Kuomintang China from 1938 through the end of WWII. This one came out in 1950, and before I realized it had been recently reissued by University of Washington Press, I scored a signed first edition on eBay, pricey but worth it to me. He was an artist first of all, and had beautiful handwriting as evidenced by the fountain-penned signature.

Since then I have been having some of those "aha!" moments that I enjoy when I find a piece of music or an album that I really like, and then come to discover quite by surprise, reading the liner notes, that it has connections through production or performance or lyrics, to other music that I have in my collection, confirming the consistency of my tastes and interest. Or maybe it's a little like what happens every 15 years or so, when some prominent person like Ken Burns or Martin Scorsese redicovers blues and roots music (which had already been done quite nicely by Alan Lomax).

This happened when the Wizard (a librarian by training, like all good revolutionaries) brought me back from a recent Mainland trip to a second hand bookstore an original copy of Owen Lattimore's "Mongol Journeys." Along with a lot of great photos of camels which I have been using as painting references, it had a yellowed newspaper clipping taped in it about Lattimore's appearance in 1950 before McCarthy's rather well-named, in retrospect, Un-American activities committee -- you'll never find an interesting clipping or a signature tucked away in a Kindle download. It's also got a personal bookplate; whatever happened to those things? I used to have a little box of nifty ones, a black and white woodcut of Pegasus, that I used to identify my most precious books. Now I am resigned to using free charity address labels slapped across the back cover barcodes.

Peck never got to Lattimore's unfortunate career-changing point, but he did fade into obscurity after 1950. TKT was not well-received because it was not at all supportive of the U.S. position at the time--pro-Chiang Kai-Shek, his charming wife, and the H.H. Kung-supported Kuomintang. Peck had worked for the Office of War Information (OWI) during the war, and was frustrated trying to present the desired image of the KMT to the Americans and Chinese he was to be propagandizing about Chiang's "successes" against the Japanese and Communists. And as has been noted, no one really wanted to read about China in the '50s anyway.

Peck's narratives were always objective and less about himself than the Chinese people and history that was rapidly unfolding around him. They may have been richer, more delicious, because he was not a journalist; he was first an illustrator and a painter, a vivid visual observer, as well as a very gifted writer. So, it was only through reference to another as-yet unread book lurking in my bookcase, Peter Rand's China Hands (1995) about his father, Christopher, and other journalists who were in China before and during the war, that I found out some personal details about Peck, who had befriended the elder Rand when he arrived in Chungking.
In TKT, Peck starts out traveling with social reformer Rewi Alley, something of a folk hero of New Zealand who went to China in '27, and later helped in the organization of the CIC, a sort of trade union effort to uplift peasants into productive industrial coops to support the war of resistance against Japan, a move that was tolerated both by the Communists and the KMT. It was a ultimately a failure, but Graham's connection with the group brought him in touch with with a lot of interesting people and happenings.

Rewi does have a Wikipedia entry, and most recently was the subject of a biography that made big waves because it suggested that he went to China because he was gay, and it was a time and place where he was able to live a life out of the closet, if not actually acknowledging it. Unnecessary controversy about this Lawrence of Arabia of China, who in fact adopted a 14-year-old Chinese boy shortly after he arrived, in 1929. I wouldn't have thought much about it until Rand's book noted that Peck was also gay. No relationship is suggested in anything Peck wrote. None of these things would have been really spoken about then, and besides the prevailing interests in any of these guys later on was like the attack on Lattimore: Were they Communists? Rewi was.

Anyway, I am much more interested in why Peck pretty much dropped out of sight after 1950. He is known to have illustrated some children's books, and also co-authored, in 1968, a third book (which I have just located on Alibris) called China Remembered, about the OSS and Flying Tigers --one would have hoped he had something to say about the subsequent period of "Liberation" in China, but he died in Vermont at just 54 of cancer in 1968. Again not really obvious from his books, he was a heavy drinker and smoker, and lived a rich and colorful life, at least in China. It must have been difficult after those interesting times to move back to 1950s New England, where he had grown up and escaped for a decade from a wealthy and repressive industrialist family that made hair pins; Rand says they lost their fortune with development of the bobby pin.

In any case, reading these books --TCW and TKT --has been the most interesting China study I have done in 25 years. I didn't know it before, but they are regarded as primary texts in serious study of KMT China, although my friend who has a 1960s-era degree in Chinese history and who has at my urging ordered the UW reprint of TKT, never heard of him either. Scratching the surface of this period of Chinese history and culture reveals the elaborate web of connections of names I was familiar with --from Owen Lattimore, to Edgar Snow, Christopher Rand, Theodore White and all the other Western journalists and activists in pre-Liberation China.

In China Hands, Peter Rand quotes someone remarking that "Through China's Wall was one of the two best books ever written about China; the other one was Two Kinds of Time." Even today, they shed a lot of light on current affairs, not only on what is happening in China at this 20-year anniversary of Tiananmen, but also about America's modus operandi in trying to remake countries and always seeming taking the cause of (and then not knowing quite what to do with) the guys from failing side like Chiang Kai Shek, Marcos, the Shah of Iran, Noreiga, Saddam Hussein, etc. Haven't we learned yet? Peck hoped we would. I hope Obama has read these books...or at least Hilary...or the Chinese ambassador.

After all this time, it does well to listen to the likes of Graham Peck, dead and gone, but still captivating and compelling voices of reason in interesting times. It should be no surprise that I finally have a reason to search my New Yorker archival CDs to check out some of Christopher Rand's reportage from the period. To say nothing of a seeking out a collection of his essays in a volume called A Nostalgia for Camels. I love these guys. It's all connected.

1 comment:

Michael said...

Thanks for posting this - I am just nearing the end of TKT and I agree it is one of the best and most insightful books on China that I have ever read. Peck just seems to 'get it' and his observations about life in Chungking and Guilin really puncture the myth of the KMT standing up to the Japanese. Many of his observations about Chinese business methods and love of intrigue (such as how he had to negotaiate to rent his offices and had to evict the previous tenants) would make good material for a book on what to expect in China in 2010!