Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Chinese Century

Today's letter in the Chicago Tribune from Huixun Zhang, Spokesman for the Consulate General, the People's Republic of China, protesting the awarding of the "so-called" Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama by President Bush a couple of weeks ago reminds me that along with The New Gilded Age, the phrase The Chinese Century has acquired a bit of currency among print and blog commentators as a descriptor of the contemporary period. According to these commentators, China is likely--or at the very least, has the potential--to dominate world affairs in the 21st century in the same way that the United States dominated the 20th century.

Within the young adult literature that I am reading for this project, the graphic novel American Born Chinese evidences some of the growing influence of Chinese culture, albeit in an indirect fashion. Now, there is a new graphic memoir called The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam that explores directly some of the history of China in the 20th century, and in particular the life of a very talented Chinese magician who made his living traveling the globe and offering vaudeville performances to a lot of people in the early 1900s.

The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam recounts a story told in a film of the same name. Ann Fleming, the author and illustrator, sets out to uncover the story of her great grandfather, partly in response to her own questions about why she has such an internationalist background (Fleming is the daughter of a Chinese mother and an Australian father, was born in Okinawa, and has lived most of her life in Canada). When Fleming discovers that her great grandfather was a vaudeville performer in the early part of the 20th century, and that her great aunt was a part of the show, she decides to learn as much as she can about his life and the circumstances that led to the re-location of most of the family to Canada.

The story that Fleming uncovers is complicated, sometimes contradictory, and full of surprising twists and turns. In addition to describing how her great grandfather married an Austrian woman and owned homes in the United States, Australia, and Europe, Fleming details the larger changes that occured in world affairs over the duration of the first part of the 20th century. More importantly, she highlights the many challenges that Long Tack Sam and other internationalists faced as a result of the rise of fascism and communism--challenges that echo ones encountered today by internationalists as a result of concerns over terrorism.

All in all, this memoir is highly entertaining, extremely readable, and well-documented (via pictures, historical artifacts, and other means). I recommend it for use in middle school and high school classrooms, and in particular courses or units on world history, multiculturalism, and the writing of history. Since it just came out in print last month, you might find this memoir hard to find. However, I've just nominated it for a 2008 award from YALSA under the heading of Great Graphic Novels, and so I hope the book picks up steam and gets more publicity and greater distribution in the future.

The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam doesn't fit neatly into this project here, but it is a nice change of pace and a reminder of the growing importance of China and Chinese culture in the contemporary world. Judging from both this memoir and the letter composed by the spokesman for the consul general of China, there is a good deal of work that needs to be done before the Chinese Century can become reality. But as the video below shows, it's not going to be easy to escape the influence of China in the future (is the woman in this video for real?).

No comments: