- Interview by
- Faisal Ali
In 1959 an aging W.E.B. Du Bois, then still living in the US, visited Beijing University, China’s most prestigious institute of higher learning, where he gave a powerful and provocative speech to a large audience. “China, after long centuries, has arisen to her feet and leapt forward,” he said. In a breathtaking and earnest expression of solidarity he implored Africans to follow in China’s footsteps, turn away from the West and to “stand straight, speak and think!” “China is flesh of your flesh and blood of your blood”, he dramatically declared. The speech, part of a national celebration of Du Bois’ birthday, was hugely impactful not least because Beijing Radio broadcasted it globally.
Du Bois was known for his sympathies with East Asia’s great powers. He believed the “color line” was the main cleavage in world politics and that European racism and colonialism were a common blight that Africans and Asians should unite to confront. He wrote enthusiastically in support of Japan during its early 20th century war with Russia, viewing Japan’s victory as one that belonged to all non-white people.
He was initially an ardent believer that Japan would lead what he called the “darker world” to freedom from colonial rule, but following its defeat in World War II he anointed Beijing despite the fact that he sometimes whitewashed and at other times supported Japan’s violence in China during the war. But his belief that China could lead the Third World chimed well with Chairman Mao Zedong as well as Premier Zhou Enlai, who worked to position China as a leader and lighthouse for former colonies seeking liberation.
Socialism, Du Bois believed, was the remedy to the dreaded “color line” and he wasn’t quiet about it, despite the fever pitch of Cold War politics that often got him into trouble. In 1951 he was arrested for his vocal and dedicated activism for the USSR and China following allegations that he was spying for a foreign country. His efforts didn’t go unnoticed and when he was arrested China vigorously protested. Chinese officials would also fete him during his many visits between 1959 and 1962. Such was his standing that upon his death Mao sent a letter to Shirley Graham Du Bois, his wife, offering his condolences. He was a “great man of our time”, wrote Mao, whose friendship would “forever remain in the memory of the Chinese people.” A prominent activist in her own right, Graham Du Bois would go on to settle in China after his death.
Du Bois’ life was one among a handful of examples according to Professor Yunxiang Gao’s new book, Africa Rise, China Roar, which examines the “intertwined lives” of a group of activists, artists and intellectuals “who strove in their own ways to create a politicized transpacific discourse” by linking up with their Chinese counterparts. Whilst many of the key characters in her book, such as Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois are by now household names, Gao’s book also sheds light upon their China-based collaborators, as well as their spouses and partners, who played important roles but for the most part were consigned to the “dustbin of history.”
Robeson often dedicated his music to furthering the cause of labor, but one particular song called Chee Lai, which he recorded with Liu Liangmo, a Christian activist and journalist, would go on to inspire millions across China for generations to come. The Chinese Communist Party would rename the song “March of Volunteers” and make it the anthem for the Peoples’ Republic. In Moscow in 1934 Robeson would meet Si-Lan Chen, a popular revolutionary choreographer and committed anti-imperialist of Sino-Afro-Caribbean descent.
Though Chen didn’t initially enjoy the approval of her contemporaries, who said her work contained no “proletarian ideology,” she later enthusiastically reinvented herself as the Communist answer to Josephine Baker. Her brother, a journalist, would describe her as “the new woman of the awakened East.” The Herald dubbed her and Madame Sun Yat-sen (wife of Chinese nationalist intellectual Sun Yat-sen) the “two most prominent women in China.” Despite her fascinating life and the impact of her performances and musicals, when Chen attempted to write a memoir, one publisher took interest in the people she’d enjoyed the company of but said it might be more interesting if she could provide “new information or closer views of the famous persons you mention.” The book apparently wasn’t that interesting because it was mainly about her.
In addition to meeting Robeson in Moscow, Chen also met Harlem poet Langston Hughes who visited the Soviet Union to film Black and White, a movie about race relations and labor disputes in the American south. They had a brief but passionate affair, regularly exchanging letters and poetry, which this book doesn’t overlook. She was like a “delicate, flowerlike girl, beautiful in a reedy, golden-skinned sort of way” Hughes said of Chen, “Si-lan was the girl I was in love with that winter.” Despite his insistence that she come to visit him in the US, Chen wasn’t convinced they could build a life together. “We’d live together, maybe a day, a week, I go east and you go west” she wrote to him, “I guess we’d have a good time while together, I suppose that’s as much as one can demand from this life of ours.”
Chen encouraged Hughes to visit China, which he eventually did, heading to Shanghai in 1933. According to Professor Gao Yunxiang, he said it was “incredible.” The warm welcome he received surprised him despite the fact that he was warned against entering Chinese quarters of the city. “I found the Chinese in Shanghai to be a very jolly people, much like colored folks at home,” he wrote in his memoir. He wasn’t the only African-American in Shanghai at that point, as Black Jazz bands dominated the city’s clubs, which Hughes said had a “weakness” for African-American culture.
Following his brief but entertaining sojourn, he threw down the gauntlet, writing a poem which incited China against the West: “Roar China, roar old lion of the east. Snort fire, yellow dragon of the Orient, tired at last of being bothered… You know what you want! The only way to get it is to take it!” This defiant solidarity was a common thread running through the art and activism of these personalities during their time in a China suffering because of its asymmetric relationship with Europe. They saw in China’s helplessness an echo of their own experiences as African-Americans in the US, and found a coterie of sympathetic Chinese counterparts with whom they could collaborate.
Du Bois and Hughes recognized and resented the presence of “Jim Crow” treatment against Chinese on their land. Chen noted with dismay how a people could be “so brutally excluded from a part of their own country.” They projected their own hopes onto China, encouraging it to break with its shackles and demonstrate the feebleness of the racial prejudices which had bound it to other colonized peoples by charting a path that they could follow.
In this interview conducted by Faisal Ali, Professor Yunxiang Gao speaks about her new book:
A reasonable amount has already been written about the connections between African Americans and China. What does your book aim to do differently?
Arise, Africa! Roar, China! reveals much earlier and widespread interaction between Chinese leftist figures and Black ones than the familiar alliance between Black radicals and Maoist China. It expands the scholarship on Sino–African American exchanges by illustrating how three African-American cultural giants, W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, and Langston Hughes, were perceived, studied, and critiqued among the Chinese, and by introducing Liu Liangmo and Sylvia Si-lan Chen as significant new subjects in this discourse.
This book examines the intertwined lives of people usually perceived as inhabiting non-overlapping spaces. It is about individuals who strove, in their own ways, to create a politicized transpacific and enable global communication between African Americans and Chinese. While situating each of the five figures in a complex and shifting political context, this book formulates an account of the personal, artistic, cultural, and political networks they established. It illustrates their formative effects both on Chinese views of the Black diaspora and African-American views of China’s place in an emergent imaginary of anticolonial and racial liberation. Directly comparative works about the three famed African Americans are somewhat rare among current studies; discussions of individual Afro-Chinese relationships are even harder to find, and narratives of interactions between Chinese and African-American women are even scarcer.
What did these activists, intellectuals and artists see in China that attracted them to it?
Overall, solidarity of the colored world in their shared destiny of anti-racism and anti-colonialism attracted these figures’ attention to China. As a minority facing overwhelming, state imposed systematic racism and white supremacy, these black figures looked toward the similarly oppressed China for inspiration of resistance and strength.
These figures’ ties with leftist Chinese and China were built on a profound emotional and intellectual foundation. They shared faith in Sino-Afro racial, linguistic, philosophical, and artistic kinship. Hughes observed Chinese “a very jolly people, much like colored folks at home;” Du Bois lauded the Chinese as “my physical cousins:”
That Sun which burned my fathers ebony,
Rolled your limbs in gold,
And made us both, cousins to the stars!
Both Du Bois and Robeson consistently articulated the linkage between African and Chinese civilizations and cited famous Chinese cultural giant, such as Confucius and Laozi, to argue for sophistication of African civilization, counter negative stereotypes associated with perceived African “primitivism,” and to debunk white supremacism.
Cultural kinship necessitated political alliance. By embracing China’s revolutions as vehicles for the social and economic uplift of nonwhites, these figures directly linked the struggles of African Americans and those of nationalist forces in China. The Communist victory in 1949 placed China as the pillar of colored peoples’ revolutionary struggle and model for millions to beat colonialism. Robeson romantically imagined that the colored world could view the rising China as a “new star of the East . . . pointing the way out from imperialist enslavement to independence and equality. China has shown the way.” During his epic China trip in 1959, Du Bois repeatedly proclaimed Chinese and African dignity and unity in the face of Western racism, colonialism, and capitalism. He predicted that the “darker world” would adopt socialism as “the only answer to the color line,” and that the status of African Americans would thereby be elevated.
What impressions did they gather during their trips in China of the country and its revolution?
These figures’ impression of China evolved within the shifting transpacific political and ideological landscape. When they traveled in the 1930s to semi-colonial China—facing a worsened national crisis stemming from Japanese military aggression—they inevitably noted China’s humiliation, frequently citing the cliché story of abused rickshaw pullers as the symbol.
Yet, their focus and reactions varied. Back then, treating imperial Japan as hope of “the darker world,” Du Bois saw Chinese nationalists under the despised Chiang Kai-shek as “Asian Uncle Toms,” likening them to willing Black menials of white racism in the US. Du Bois witnessed a shocking racial incident in Shanghai in 1936. “A little English boy of perhaps four years of age ordered three Chinese children out of his imperial way on the sidewalk on the Bund; and they meekly obeyed and walked in the gutter.” It reminded him of Mississippi.
In contrast, witnessing Japan’s aggression during his 1932 trip to Shanghai, Hughes would pen the poem, Roar, China! and, although he never visited China, Robeson was acutely aware of China’s suffering, helping to globalize the future national anthem of the People’s Republic of China, Chee Lai.
Robeson’s wife Eslanda was among the first to receive the unprecedented state hospitality in the People’s Republic of China in 1949, followed by Du Bois and his wife Shirley Graham a decade later. Feeling honored and enlightened by what they saw, they served as enthusiastic messengers to the American public, lauding a happy, egalitarian, and prosperous socialist China “rising over the entrails of dead empire,” when official ties between the two nations were suspended.
State feminism particularly inspired the visitors to understand the new China as a strong nation inhabited by robust men and women. Testifying China’s industrial development, Du Bois recalled watching in astonishment as “a crane which moved a hundred tons loomed above” in “one of the greatest steelworks of the world” in Wuhan and commenting to his wife, “‘My God, Shirley, look up there!’ Alone in the engine room sat a girl with ribbon braids, running the vast machine.” All three visitors insisted that Chinese women were more liberated than their Black and white sisters. As Du Bois put it, “the women of China are becoming free. They wear pants so that they can walk, climb and dig; and climb and dig they do. They are not dressed simply for sex indulgence or beauty parades. They occupy positions from ministers of state to locomotive engineers, lawyers, doctors, clerks, and laborers.”
The couple also witnessed and benefited from the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) expanded African contacts, renewing their connection with Ghana by meeting its representatives to Beijing, who would, in turn, enable Du Bois’s long-delayed visit and eventual immigration to their country.
This book looks at the personal stories and relationships of these figures as much as the ideas they championed. Why was that important to you?
The personal stories and relationships of these figures are integrated with their ideas. Du Bois, Hughes and Robeson all had expansive ideological and artistic visions before they encountered Chinese and China. Yet, those contacts powerfully shaped their philosophical and personal perceptions of life and the future. For W.E.B and Shirley Graham, the trips to China and comments on China and Asia within the context of race, colonialism, capitalism, and socialism or communism enlarged the story of their lives and thought. Du Bois’ famous dictum that the question of the 20th century is that of the color line is incomplete without the Chinese perspective and the crucial class dimension.
For Robeson, China became a joyful expansion of his left views. His long-term alliance with the leftist Chinese artists who sojourned abroad, including Liu Liangmo and “the King of Peking Opera,” Mei Langfang, led to his eventual embrace of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the PRC, which promoted him to the unprecedented status of a heroic model for China’s socialist citizens.
The wandering Hughes found comfort and celebration in the Soviet Union and China. He shared with Du Bois and Robeson a renewed leftist political commitment, along with material for his writing. Hughes’s romance with Sylvia Si-lan Chen was impacted by the shift of his ideology, peaked as fellow self-claimed revolutionaries in Moscow and ebbed with his withdrawal from radicalism.
Why did China court African-American artists and political figures, how successful and what did it hope to gain?
The Chinese intelligentsia had long connected—through literature and drama—the shared “enslavement” of the Chinese nation as a semi colony and that of African Americans. In the introduction to their 1901 translation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), Lin Shu and Wei Yi argued that the tortures “yellow” people faced were even worse than those endured by Black Americans. Chinese people needed the book because “slavery is looming for our race. We had to yell and scream to wake up the public.”
However, the Chinese state did not always court the friendship of African-American figures. To the contrary, the mainstream media in the Republic of China (1911-1949) barely covered Black celebrities. While it made an exception for Robeson, due to his global fame, his singing and acting ultimately put him in the denigrated category of musicians and entertainers, where the “primitive” stereotype was reinforced and celebrated. Robeson’s enthusiasm for Chinese civilization, his friendship with leftist Chinese cultural and political celebrities, and his activism on behalf of China’s resistance failed to earn him respectability and recognition from conservative Chinese.
The Sino-Afro alliance was underlined by their shared leftist intellectual and artistic tradition, as illustrated by Robeson’s collaboration and friendship with leftist Chinese sojourners and Hughes’s embrace by Shanghai’s leftist cultural circle as the “first established Black revolutionary writer,” who had been “howling and struggling for the oppressed races.” Such leftist legacy portraying African-American figures as the true revolutionaries facilitated the PRC embrace of them as heroes and models who supported the CCP during China’s civil war and Korean War.
By the late 1950s, the PRC had immediate reasons to welcome public support from the African-American cultural giants. The disastrous Great Leap Forward called into question the CCP’s leadership and policies for the first time since 1949. The CCP needed a new domestic perspective to reinvigorate the revolution and socialize the nation. In addition, it required new diplomatic defenders and tactics as it contested Soviet dominance of world communism and aspired to leadership of the Third World that bound the destinies of China with former agricultural colonies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The CCP was already reaching out to Africa for friendship, but newly independent African states met Chinese overtures with caution and reserve. The stature of these African-American figures among the African diaspora helped open doors for alliances there. Du Bois’ preeminent reputation and endorsement particularly meant a great deal. China’s outreach to Africa through diplomatic exchanges, aid, and propaganda soon peaked following his 1959 visit. For diplomatic and economic reasons, China continued to maintain a large presence in Africa, which the W.E.B Du Bois and Shirley Graham helped to foster.
How was the relationship between these figures and Communist China received by the American establishment?
The American establishment reacted with hostility and has never fully reckoned with such an alliance. While Hughes’s radical writings, inspired by his journey to the Soviet Union and China, earned him great reputation across the Pacific throughout the 20th century, they won little support in the US. Carl van Vechten and Blanche Knopf, two key figures in Hughes’s publishing career, strongly disapproved of his new style.
Most significantly, the US State Department canceled the passports of both Du Bois and his wife, as well as Robeson, preventing them from visiting China. Robeson continued accepting invitations from China, even though there was little hope that he could attend, in order to keep his passport issue alive. The CCP repeatedly expressed outrage over the US government’s treatment of Du Bois and Robeson, viewing this denial as a violation of the freedom of travel and communication guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
After the Supreme Court of the US ruled that the State Department lacked the authority to deny passports to citizens who refused to sign the affidavit that they were not communists, the Du Bois, Graham and Robeson immediately secured their new passports. Yet, these precious documents were “not valid for travel to or in communist controlled portions of China[,] Korea [and] Viet-Nam[,] or to or in areas of Albania [and] Hungary.”
But Du Bois felt that he would like to revisit China “because it is a land of colored people.” Thus, “this risk [of being jailed for ‘trading with the enemy’] I thought it my duty to take.” When the Du Bois and Graham arrived in China in 1959, border officials asked if they wanted to keep the visit quiet to avoid irritating the State Department. Du Bois defiantly responded that his wife and he were honored to be invited to China and that the officials could let the whole world know. While his words received rapid and universal approval in China, the New York Times commented that Du Bois had no authorization to be there. The FBI took note and prepared to cancel the couple’s passports upon their return to the US. The couple’s home at 31 Grace Court in Brooklyn was ransacked for incriminating evidence. During Robeson’s transition through Budapest, the State Department considered invalidating his hard-won passport, pending whether his intended visit to China materialized, which deterred Robeson from heading there.
Not surprisingly, Du Bois expressed profound appreciation of the “universal goodwill and love, such as we never expected,” that he and his wife had received in the PRC, in contrast to the “insult and discrimination on account of our race and color” that “all our lives have been liable to.”