Foreign memoirs of China: An interview with Amy Sommers

Travel | by China Travel
Posted: March 5th, 2010 | Updated: July 25th, 2012 | Comments
Amy Sommers is a Partner in the Shanghai office of law firm Squire Sanders, and a frequent speaker on various China-related topics. She's appearing at the Shanghai Literary Festival this weekend (Sunday 7 March, 2pm), where she'll be giving a talk entitled China's Literary Legacy: Forgotten Memoirs; Outsiders Looking In. Here she talks to about what these tales of old mean to her. What sparked your own interest in these “forgotten memoirs”? Amy Sommers: My initial foray into this genre was by happenstance - in leafing through various old books in the China section of the university library, I came across a little worn red-bound volume called "House of Exile" from the 1930's that started out by recounting how the author had become entranced by the idea of China as child rifling through old trunks in her grandparents' attic. Her Philadelphia based family had had schooners engaging in the China trade with Canton in the early 1800's and had struck up a relationship with one of the Chinese families serving among the 13 trading houses authorized by the Emperor to deal with the foreign traders. She became fascinated by China, studied Chinese, re-established contact with that family and eventually went to live with them in their courtyard house in northern China. Do you have a personal favorite? A story or detail that you think deserves a wider audience? My favorites are probably still this first memoir I read, by Yunnan and wrote a lovely memoir about the various minority groups there, their social/religious practices, his entry into their society and the tremendous physical beauty of the Yunnan. It's still a wonderful read. What's your overriding sense of what these early expats thought of China? Were they happy here? There's a sea of China memoirs out there and so far as I can discern, there seems to be a close connection between how much the author liked Chinese culture and people and how happy the person was here. If the culture and language intrigued the expat, it sounds like the process of learning and observing more about China created a real dynamism to their life here. Conversely, if they didn't connect, they sound quite unhappy. Not surprising I suppose. How do you think attitudes might have changed since then? Do any particular criticisms or complaints endure? In some ways yes, attitudes have certainly changed. For example, many memoirs written about the period prior to 1949 are charged with conflicting views or feelings about China's status as a bullied, weak country that couldn't protect itself. Some writers were outraged by the injustices perpetuated by foreign powers - others were more inclined to take a patronizing attitude. That attitude no longer seems prevalent, as in fact, people are awed and amazed by China's achievements in the three decades since it opened up for economic reform. But, that said - yes, there are some consistent complaints about the prevalence of corruption and the lack of transparency in how government/political matters are handled. Are these accounts actually well-written, or simply interesting because they describe a time gone by? It really depends. I've selected eight that I'll be discussing at the Literary Festival, which I think are well-written and extremely interesting. Most of these eight memoirs were in fact written by professional writers who were either in China specifically to write or who became writers after their stint in China. There's another group of China memoirs that were written by expats about their experiences in China as a one-off work. They found their China time fascinating and perhaps life-altering, so wanted to share it, but they were not experienced writers. These works have some interest because they do describe a day-to-day life that is quite different from ours today in Shanghai or elsewhere in China, but I can't say that I find them terribly enjoyable to read and re-read. How do you think you'd have coped back then? I love living in China and like the authors whose works I'll discuss at the Festival, I think I would have loved it then as well. That said, I confess that I'm not sure I would have coped terribly well with some of the rugged conditions that they describe outside of major cities like Shanghai. It sounds like inns for example were dirty and all around unpleasant for the traveler (bed bugs, rodents, absence of washing facilities). No thanks! Of all the writing now appearing about China, how do you think we can tell what will stand the test of time? My suspicion is that to the extent today's observers of China are recording their observations about what 'is', those works will continue to be relevant and interesting in the decades to come. To the extent works purport to predict what will be - particularly in the political realm - I suspect many will end up seeming trite or ill-judged. Emily Hahn [pictured right]'s memoir, "China to Me," is an example of this tendency. When she writes about how people behave, she's marvelously entertaining. When she condescends about the liberal journalists who are beating the drums for the Communists and how they have not a prayer of ever taking power, while the KMT leadership is so worldly and capable, she comes across as naive at best and ill-informed at worst. So, we'll see! *** For more of's coverage of this year's Literary Festivals in China, click the links below: China Literary Festivals in March: Programs, ticket info, and travel-related highlights Writing a guidebook to China: An interview with Rough Guide author David Leffman Queer Culture in China: An interview with Professor John Erni New speaker at Shanghai Lit Fest: Paul French The History of Photography in China: An interview with Terry Bennett Shanghai International Literary Festival Preview: Andrew Field
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