Chinese Literature Dissertation Reviews: Richard Jean So’s Coolie Democracy

“Coolie Democracy”, US-China Exchanges 1925-1955 Dissertation Reviews has posted Nan Z. Da‘s review of Richard Jean So‘s Coolie Democracy: US–China Political and Literary Exchange, 1925–1955. Here’s how it begins:

Literary-critical study of China-US relations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is experiencing an exciting emergence, and Richard Jean So’s dissertation, Coolie Democracy, finds itself at the vanguard of this development in the field. This project combines language expertise with transnational methodologies that emerged from Americanists’ de-centering of the United States to forward a self-consciously comparative study of alternative forms of the democratic discourse from the 1920s to the 1950s. At the macro-level, Richard So makes a literary-historical argument and a political-theoretical argument. He looks at an “in-between” time in American literary history and the history of US-China relations from 1900-1950, a period that current scholarship strings along a series of flashpoints: anti-Chinese sentiments and policies in the late 1800s; the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Acts in 1943; the concurrent formation of Chinese-American immigrant communities and identities; and the official “break” between China and the United States over Communism and political allegiances on the eve of World War II. So recovers a forgotten segment in this period. So reconstructs, through meticulous and creative research, a series of unlikely Chinese-American exchanges and intellectual circles. These exchanges and collaborations coincided with the rise of the Leftist cultural front in the US, a movement So investigates for its transnational figures and their complicated translingual activities in China. This was a moment during which American and Chinese authors actively and directly engaged with each other to think out in literature the possibility of a politically united “Chinese America.” This by-and-large discursive “Chinese America” would be built upon a shared concept of “natural democracy” that comes organically of the texts of both nations, a concept that called upon the figure of the coolie to serve as an example of such democratic principles in praxis and as a cipher of mutual resistance against capitalism.