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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Rural Transnationalism: Food, Famine, and Agriculture in U.S. and Chinese Literature, 1898-1955

  • Author(s): Nowak, Alexei
  • Advisor(s): Carruth, Allison
  • Kaufman, Eleanor
  • et al.

This dissertation addresses an unexamined history of literary and academic exchange between the United States and China that shaped agricultural modernization in both countries, a project that speaks to the concerns of American Studies, Chinese Studies, ecocriticism, and critical food studies. The project is bilingual and cross-cultural, analyzing fiction and nonfiction writing together with agricultural surveys and policy documents, showing that writers in the U.S. and in China have articulated linked visions of problems in the countryside in elaborating a moral case for rural transformation. While transpacific studies have sometimes evoked circulation across the ocean and into the treaty ports, “rural transnationalism” brings into view the transformation of the inland continents themselves through agricultural development—and the multiple articulations of national identity in reference to the other.

Chapter one analyzes food politics at the turn of the twentieth century, reading Frank Norris’s empire of food exports in The Octopus (1901) against literature popularizing the 1905 Chinese boycott of American goods. Many of these texts, receiving little scholarly attention, used agricultural and alimentary metaphors linking the racist treatment of Chinese immigrants in the U.S. with American food exports to China. Chapter two analyzes The Good Earth (1931) in the contexts of the transnational agricultural network that Pearl S. Buck participated in with her husband, and contemporaneous Chinese writing about the countryside. Following Arif Dirlik, I argue that the idea of “traditional” Chinese agricultural society was collaboratively produced by this Western Orientalist and Chinese self-Orientalist writing. Chapter three examines another joint U.S.-Chinese project, the Mass Education Movement led by James C. Yen, and fiction by his collaborator Lao Xiang, some widely read in English translation in the 1940’s. Unlike the American technical experts, and the Chinese Communists, Yen and Lao Xiang provide an authentically-local vision extending from the village out into the world. Chapter four argues that competing visions of rural modernization the U.S. and China advanced during the early Cold War each drew on their collaborations before WWII. I show how Eileen Chang’s English-language propaganda novel The Rice-Sprout Song (1955) illuminates and subverts the modernization discourse common to both sides.

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