It’s been three months since I’ve made any progress towards my goal to read all the Newbery award-winning books since the dawn of Newbery award-winning books. Admitted, I’ve been avoiding the 1933 winner, which I had read before and didn’t like. Two years later, I can say it’s actually worse than I remember. I don’t think I have the stamina to address all the indignities in this book, but here’s the lowdown:
Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze, by Elizabeth Foreman Lewis, chronicles thirteen year old Fu Yuin-Fah’s life after he and his widowed mother move to the city of Chungking (one of the big five in China) to make his fortune as an apprentice coppersmith. In a Ragged Dick manner, Fu learns to climb the ranks of Tang’s workshop and navigate city life during a tumultuous time of political upheaval, instability, and modernization. Lewis doesn’t state when, but with mentions of Dr. Sun Yet-sen and someone with vaguely Communist ideas, I’d say Young Fu’s story takes place about the same time Lewis was in China as a missionary and teacher, 1917.
When Lewis writes, she has a habit of telling, rather than showing. As a result, the story is a tedious mishmash of dialogue and exposition. Also, her characters tend to be caricatures and stereotypes: the nagging mother, the superstitious peasant, the wise unworldly scholar. And she has a habit of suddenly switching points-of-views during the narrative, effectively halting the flow to go into the mind of a side character we’ll never meet again. Worse, their perspectives don’t offer anything new, but echo the superstitious and pessimistic mentality expressed by almost every character in the book.
To Lewis’ only credit, she tried to be what she considers authentic. For example, she had the narrator quantify amounts using “a hundred times ten thousand,” rather than one million, as is the case with the Chinese counting system. But I also got the sense Lewis was trying to show off how her knowledge of Chinese language and culture. Instead of having her characters say “don’t worry,” she attempts her own translation of 放心: lay down your heart. Even Google Translate spits out “rest assured.” (I prefer Google’s language skills over hers a hundred times ten thousand.) Maybe she thought “lay down your heart” had a more exotic touch, but it just made everyone sound insane.
But my biggest problem with Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze is that Lewis uses a fictional Chinese character to describe the China she saw as a Western woman and an outsider. With this incongruous lens, there are a lot of unflattering details about Chinese culture that she hones in on and magnifies. While it bothered me to read all these flaws, some of them true, it offended me much more that Lewis doesn’t offer any historical context for inhumane or unusual practices like foot binding or Taoist worship. Superstition, racism, misogyny, pervasive negativity, selfishness and a dog-eat-dog mentality; it’s all there, even things Young Fu wouldn’t pick up on or be bothered by.
On the flip side, Lewis writes with a 100% positive, indulgent view towards white characters and the presence of foreign powers in China. Both of her white characters are sympathetic. One is a patron at Young Fu’s master’s shop who gets fleeced during the haggling process. Another is a brave, capable lady who runs a hospital and befriends Young Fu. Both are on the receiving end of racist and ignorant remarks, but they rise about it and prove themselves to be very admirable people. That’s great. I like that they’re not power hungry colonial imperialists.
But, it’s historically irresponsible of Lewis to present only the positive things white foreigners were doing in China. China circa 1917 was so messed up partly because of empire-building foreign nations. Her one paragraph explanation of the history of opium addiction says that opium came to China by way of India, but not that it came through the East India Company. She also writes that China and some foreign powers fought a war over the stuff, but glosses over the fact that China wanted to make opium illegal and the foreign powers, who were making huge profits from the trade, didn’t. And she omitted that when China lost, they had to sign away huge tracts of land as concessions to these foreign powers. Um, remember Hong Kong? In short, I sensed massive whitewashing on Lewis’ part.
All in all, Lewis should have written a book from her perspective, rather than Young Fu’s. Already, I suspect the hospital lady was a stand-in for herself. That story–her story–would have been truly authentic and interesting: an outsider’s experience in a vastly different culture. And she would have been free to discuss everything she disliked about China as freely as she wanted. Instead, Lewis hid her views behind that of a fictional Chinese boy, and ended up making an entire society come across as outsiders.