Performativity in Black Internationalist Poetics as Exemplified in Robeson and Hughes.
This article explores the signs of Afro-orientalism and fantasies about the early twentieth-century peasants' movement in China as evident in Langston Hughes's "Roar, China!" (1938) and Paul Robeson's rendition of the Chinese national anthem "Chee Lai!" (1941). It argues that black radical art in the Jim Crow era has unexpected roots in Russian Constructivism. The author traces the writing of the two texts, including Russian and Chinese influences on them, as well as their eventual circulations. The article analyzes how both works actively exhort and recruit their audiences and readers to be part of a global anti-imperial revolt.
The Coup, an Oakland-based hip-hop group, began their 1991 hit "Dig It!" this way: "Presto, read the Communist Manifesto." The remainder of the rap exhorts listeners to subscribe to the ways of Chairman Mao as response to US white supremacy: "So grow cause the lynching brothers might get hung/Better rip through 'em from the tip of my mouth/Mao, say/Tse-Tung/ tongue." Becoming Maoist, per The Coup, is African Americans' path to salvation from the slow death of living under white hegemony in the United States. On the surface, the quarter-century-old Afro-Asian political affinities articulated in "Dig It!" might seem to have little to do with radical politics in the contemporary United States. But although the notion that communism might provide a means of deliverance for African Americans has receded from the center of African American political thinking, the possibilities in the communist ideologies espoused by thinkers like Marx and Mao are very much a part of contemporary black radical political thought, as "Dig It!" shows. This article will further detail, black internationalism has long been present in US culture, and hidden beneath the narratives of the dominant white culture.*
Marc Gallicchio defines black internationalism as the principle that provided African Americans "a comprehensive explanation for world affairs that place their own experience during darkest moments of their history into a global context" (3). He traces its beginnings to the publication of Richard Wright's monograph The Color Curtain (1956). Wright wrote his analysis of post-colonial, post-WWII global politics based on his experience at the Bandung Conference in 1955 in Indonesia, a gathering which brought together leaders representing the major countries of Africa and Asia, as well as African American cultural figures and activists. According to Wright, Bandung marked the dawn of a new era for black and brown people from "Third World" countries that did not align with either the United States or the Soviet Union. The unprecedented assembly of African and Asian peoples, united by their common pursuit of a more autonomous post-colonial future, provided a third model for the then-colonial world in the process of de-colonialization that was neither Stalinist communist or US capitalist. Within that Afro-Asian axis, the People's Republic of China under the direction of Mao Zedong was looked up to as the beacon of the Third World order. The wide circulation of Wright's Indonesian travelogue within the American Left shows that not only Third, but also First World countries took stock from Mao's anti-imperial and anti-capitalist tactics. In the United States, excitement about the possibility of a communist future organized by people of color reached new heights in underground activist groups. Quotations from Chairman Mao were upheld as bylaws in organizations like The Revolutionary Action Movement (1962-1969) during the civil rights movement.
Though black Maoism eventually waned due to the systemic persecution of black radical groups by, among other institutions, the FBI, Robin D. G. Kelley and Betsy Esch note that Mao nonetheless "gave black radicals a non-Western model of Marxism that placed greater emphasis on local conditions and historical circumstances than on canonical texts" (147). In their article "Black Like Mao," Kelly and Esch add that "at a moment when African nationalists tried to plan for a postcolonial future, when southern lunch counters and northern ghettoes became theaters for a new revolution, there stood China--the most powerful 'colored' nation on earth" (147). During this period, China's revolutionary politics shone like a beacon.
The Maoist dimensions of Afro-Asian solidarity are widely known, but what is less understood is that even before the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, China was an inspiration to black radicals searching for a reprieve from the confinement of segregation. This article will examine the pre-PRC history of the black internationalist imaginary, more specifically through the lens of two pieces of black literature from the 1930s and 1940s, namely, Langston Hughes's "Roar, China!," which first appeared in Michael Gold's journal The New Masses on February 22 1938 and Paul Robeson's album Chee Lai! (1941), which he recorded in collaboration with the Chinese musician Liu Liangmo [phrase omitted]. Like the other poems Hughes published in the thirties, "Roar, China!" is not widely anthologized. Similarly, Robeson's bilingual records like Chee Lai! are not as well regarded as his Broadway productions--in both cases because the pronounced ideologies of resistance in these works were incompatible with Post-World War II "Red Scare" of McCarthyist culture. An examination of the production histories, receptions, and socialist aesthetics in these works, allows us to understand the operation of performativity in Robeson's song and Hughes's poem. I argue that "Roar, China!" and "Chee Lai!"--though unpopular--carry out important revolutionary labor by catalyzing a black and brown insurgency through the activation of its audiences' imaginations of a global resistance. Despite the Orientalist fantasy at work in the image of an abject China in these texts, "Roar, China!" and "Chee Lai!" not only lent force to the cause of China's anti-colonial campaigns, but also permitted African Americans (artists and audiences) to reframe the manifold injustices they experienced as related to the worldwide corrupt and racist capitalist system.
In his monograph Afro-Orientalism, Bill Mullen wrestles with the burden that "Orientalism" carries in "Afro-Orientalism." While acknowledging the fantasy involved in Afro-Orientalism, Mullen holds onto Afro-Orientalism as an "anti-essentializing" (xxxii) "counter discourse" (xv) that allows African Americans to identify "with alternative modernities that have been suppressed by capitalist modernity" (xix). My article shares Mullen's aim in that it is invested in tracking how traveling artists from both sides of the Pacific gave rise to a black internationalist aesthetic whose goal was not necessarily to realistically represent China but rather to use the image of an abject China as a means of stoking the American audience's desire for a different world order.
This article is especially concerned with the way this political maneuver operates aesthetically. I argue that in both Hughes's and Robeson's texts, this was possible due to the Russian aesthetic that the artists acquired from the founding cohort of Russian Constructivist artists, including Sergei Tretyakov (1892-1937) and Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), with whom the American authors came into contact at different points. (1) When read side by side, Robeson and Hughes similarly move "Chee Lai!" and "Roar, China!" across cultural and linguistic borders as they adapt and adopt these pieces' originals from Russian performances and Chinese songs into African American art. This observation will guide the following analysis as it re-approaches black imaginations of Asia as something more than just pieces of Afro-Orientalist fantasy, which scholars like Jang Wook Huh have criticized as "trivializing" the specificities of Asian countries and the living realities in Asia writ large (202). Robeson and Liu's free translation and editorial syncopation of the "Chee Lai!" in Chinese--just like Hughes's comparison of China to a variety of things (from a lion to a dog to a collie boy to a red generation) in "Roar, China!"--are instances of dis-alienation, a strategy that is part of the socialist realism to which the black artists have subscribed. (2) Through such aesthetic gestures as de-individuation, Hughes and Robeson in their poem and song locate the source of the global working-class's pain in the imperial system's domination of the world. When Robeson's song and Hughes's poem aurally exhorted the Chinese people to "arise" and China to "roar," they acted as a summons, ideologically positioning their American listeners and readers as members of the Chinese peasant revolution, probing them to identify with a foreign subject position through which they could better see their own subjugation under Jim Crow laws within the larger scheme of the world.
In describing the ways the socialist aesthetic in "Roar, China!" and "Chee Lai!" fostered Afro-Asian cross-identification for the black audience's dis-alienation, this article will first focus on the histories around Paul Robeson's collaboration with the Chinese musician Liu Liangmo. The latter was a lyricist who wrote "Chee Lai!" (which became the PRC's national anthem in 1949) with the musician Nie Er [phrase omitted], student of Russian violin teachers Podushka and Tonnoff (J. Liu 155). This is intended to better contextualize the significance of the addition and adjustment that Robeson made to his English version of the song as he translated the original from Chinese for his 1941 album and concert performances.
Against the backdrop of performative studies, the second section of the article will turn to Langston Hughes's "Roar, China!" (1938) which Hughes wrote under the influence of Russian literary giants, specifically Vladimir Mayakovsky and Sergei Tretyakov's play Roar China! (1926). By positioning "Roar, China" as part of the same black internationalist genealogy as "Chee, Lai!," I argue that Hughes's poem is just as performative as Robeson's song. Kristin Grogan discusses how the poetry in Hughes's pamphlet A New Song (1938) can be read as theatrical pieces. I draw upon Grogan's reading in my analysis of "Roar, China!" to assert that Hughes's poem--just like Robeson's song--bears the artistic labor of organizing a counter-public by turning the ostensibly passive and perceptive processes of listening and reading into interactive experiences that connect the audience and readers to a larger world with the aid of socialist realism in their works.
Beyond its unveiling of the occluded history of black internationalism, this article aims to capture the shift of mood in black leftist poetry and performance from 1930 to 1946 which should be of wider relevance to the studies of American modernism. As James Edward Smethurst tells us, the mood of these genres during the period turned from the "weariness" (121) of the Harlem Renaissance to anger directed at the United States-led capitalist system which ignored black lives during and after the Great Depression; this shift in mood is crystalized by Robeson's and Hughes's Afro-Orientalist imaginings, which represented their anti-essentialist strategies in response to the Jim Crow era's reification and alienation of black people. Although long-ignored, Hughes's poem and Robeson's song ultimately position black internationalism in the 1930s and 1940s as the precursor to late twentieth-century black counterculture's "red dream" in which the imagination of China offers African Americans deliverance from the reality of racial and class disenfranchisement.
Paul Robeson's "Chee Lai!"
Paul Robeson visited Russia multiple times but never went to China. His imagination of communist China is mediated through his understanding of the Soviet Union, and through the history handed down to him by his music collaborator Liu Liangmo. Liu is known in China as a pioneer of the National Salvation Song Movement. Not hailing from a musical background, Liu first came into contact with the orchestra through his involvement with the YMCA in China. With the permission of the General Secretary of YMCA in Shanghai, Liu first established a mass singing club of grassroots workers consisting of "clerks, doorkeepers, office boys, and elevator operators" (Howard 250). Liu's perspective of music as something that is quotidian, non-elitist, and politically practical is highly influenced by Nie Er, whose "Chee Lai!" he later brought to Robeson's attention. Nie Er, of whom Liu was a big champion, first studied the violin with the Russian teachers Podushka in 1931 and later in 1932 with Tonnoff. From them, Er picked up the elements of Russian Constructivism, a school that deliberately departed from the decadent European tradition to re-conceive art as a means to achieve a political purpose. Musical and theatrical performance in the Constructivist tradition is two-dimensional in that actors in performing troupes interact with, and receive feedback from, their proletariat audiences. Later, that interactive performance became known in Russia as "agit brigade," or performing collectives who agitate the crowd as a means towards inciting revolution. By the end of an "agit brigade" performance, the fourth wall is supposed to be broken, having extended the revolutionary spirit from the stage to the audience. Nie made music with that practical goal of revolution in mind. He first advocated a reformation of traditional Chinese drama, which he deemed as "obscene with elements of illicit sexual relations," suggesting that it should be replaced with "new drama" (Howard 245). The "mass songs" that Nie made, which he speaks of as "sharp weapons of social education" (qtd. in Howard 245) and contain accessible lyrics and memorable rhythms, is the sub-genre of "new drama" that gained wide acceptance during the Chinese New Culture Movement in the 1920s. These songs were then incorporated as musical material in Liu Liangmo's National Salvation Song Movement.
Though not immediately apparent, Liu's philosophy of art owes a debt of influence to Russian Constructivism (via Nie). Similar to Nie's view, Liu believed that all useful arts must be socialist and realist in nature so that they can "meet the demands of China's revolution and national crisis" (Howard 240). As if compelled by a Constructivist spirit, Liu wrote in 1935, at the peak of China's resistance against Japanese invasion, that "[i]f we Chinese people want to break free of imperialism's iron shackles ... if we want China to exert itself, our people must be able to loudly and vigorously sing powerful songs full of spirit and vitality." He vows to expand the anti-Japanese Invasion base to "each province, city, county, and countryside" in China (qtd. in Howard 250).
In 1940, Liu surprised himself when he brought the campaign outside of China to the United States, a trip that ended up setting the stage for his 1941 collaboration with Paul Robeson in the album Chee Lai! Songs of China. Whether or not Robeson was conscious of his participation in Liu's socialist realism, the African American writer spelled out the project's utilitarian and reflexive essence in the liner notes on the record jacket: "Chee Lai! (Arise!) is on the lips of millions of Chinese today, a sort of unofficial national anthem, I am told, typifying the unconquerable spirit of this people." The original "Chee Lai!" gained recognition as the theme song to the film Children of Troubled Times (1935), and--due to its thunderous melody, magnificent crescendo, and identifiable story--the song eventually became a hit that Liu's "people's songs movement" sang (1935-1936) during the Anti-Japanese War (1937-1945). In 1982,6 years after Robeson's death, "Chee Lai!" was eventually chosen to be the official national anthem of the People's Republic of China.
Perhaps Robeson would not be surprised by this development. During his lifetime, Robeson continuously attributed certain songs' global appeal to a pseudo-scientific theory he created and called the "human stem." The theory posits a unity between African and Eastern cultures in which black and brown peoples share a universal and timeless "superstructure" that transcends linguistic, regional, and temporal differences, shaped by a genealogy of oppression after "centuries of serfdom" (qtd. in Duberman 175). In his notes, Robeson describes the pentatonic scale in "Chee Lai!," which can also be found in other anthems from Asian and African nations, including Cambodia, Kenya, and Ethiopia, as the "universal scale" manifesting the "human stem" sonically (So 91).
However, when taking into consideration the anti-Japanese history that led up to Liu's dissemination of the "March of the Volunteers" (the anthem's original title) across China and the United States--which Robeson supported by recording a version of the song in Mandarin and English for broadcast in the United States--it becomes clear that the making of "Chee Lai!" is in fact a case of "reciprocated fantasy." Although seeming to confirm his theory of the "human stem," Robeson's participation in Liu's project was a direct result of the latter's attempt to win white American allies, a maneuver that obscured the significance of the song's socialist realism in rhythms and lyrics, the elements that made it accessible as a piece of music to working-class resisters worldwide.
According to Liu Liangmo's journalistic writings, his goal of coming to America was to expand the communist guerilla troops' financial base, a profit-oriented purpose that inflected his American journey. Liu's claims about the comprehensibility of Robeson's recording, arguments which he repeated to both Robeson and his American audience, were shaped by his desire to please them. In reality, Robeson's Chinese language proficiency was limited, but Liu did not acknowledge it as a barrier. Instead, echoing Robeson's talk about the "human stem," Liu held up Robeson's recording of a Chinese anthem as a miracle performed by the mystic origin of the Chinese and African peoples. In a column written for The People's Music in 1982, Liu recalls his encounter with Robeson with fondness, describing his voice as the spirit that breathed a new life into the old tune of "March of the Volunteers":
I sang all the anti-Japanese songs to Robeson; he liked Nei Er's "March of the Volunteers" the most. When he tried out the song's first line "arise, ye who refuse to be slaves" his baritone conveyed not only the Chinese people's determination for liberation but also that of all oppressed populations, including the African Americans. Robeson picked up the song very quickly. In addition to English, he also sang it in accurate Chinese. (Liu, "Anti-Japanese-Invasion" 64; my translation)
Whether Robeson's Chinese is as accurate as Liu said is up for debate. Tamara Roberts, quoting a colleague's evaluation of Robeson's Chinese pronunciation, writes "my colleague found herself unable to make out what he was singing, even with the lyrics in front of her" (50). Though I would not go so far as to say that Robe son's Chinese in "Chee Lai!" is unintelligible, 1 would also not say that he speaks "perfect mandarin" as Liu argues (qtd. in Roberts 50) because Robeson did have difficulty pronouncing certain words, such as [phrase omitted] (shi), the word for time that begins with a dental-alveolar fricative on top of a retroflex articulation, an initial consonant that many non-native speakers of Chinese have trouble pronouncing.
In offering these anecdotes, I hope to illustrate how Liu's political agenda may have fed into Robeson's "human stem" hypothesis and to exemplify the fictional dimension that made the reality of Afro-Sino solidarity. Bill Mullen writes that "[C]hina and the chinaman represent an imaginary third way out of the crushing oppositional hierarchies of the American South's peculiarly brutal history" (xii). The same can be said for black America, which, due to its physical distance from China, held a certain Utopian attraction to China as a long lost peer in the age of insurgency against imperialism. More interestingly, these psychological identifications and affective projections left aesthetic marks such as Robeson's mispronounced Chinese words uncorrected in the album Chee Lai! and the various revisions by Robeson and Liu on the original text of the song. Rather than read these marks as errors or elisions, I follow Mullen's lead to read them affirmatively as what Henry Louis Gates Jr. would call "signifying] rhetoric," a task that facilitated a "counter-discourse to a modernity which simultaneously threatened blacks and Asians with subjugation, exploitation and division" (xv). Indeed, these marks are ephemeral traces of a transpacific socialist realism where free translation and audio syncopation are the lubrications of empathy in the de-individuation of the African American and Chinese experiences.
Robeson's English lyrics and new musical re-arrangement might have estranged Chinese citizens from a familiar song, but reviews like that of Madame Chiang Kai Shiek, first lady of the Republic of China, quoted in the liner notes on the CD, prove that the song persuaded a Chinese listener that the Chinese working class belongs to a larger population of freedom fighters:
I am happy to learn that some of the finest songs are being made available to Americans in the recordings of Paul Robeson, voice of the people of all lands, and our own Liu Liangmo, who has taught a nation of soldiers, guerrillas, farmers and road-builders to sing while they toil and fight. May our old folk tunes and our new songs that blend the harmonies of East and West be another bond between free peoples.
The bridging effect that Madame Chiang expected Robeson's music to have on the rest of the Chinese audience accurately predicted the exotic allure that most of them found in Robeson's music: Even though he sings in English--and mispronounces words when he sings in Chinese--Robeson's foreignness imparts the song with an aura of coalitional Utopia that gives universal validity to the lived and living reality of the Chinese people. Although this fantasy can be a pure projection from a listener's part, Robeson's voice concretizes such fantasy and dis-alienates Chinese peasants' suffering by reminding them that their efforts are known and recognized in a different part of the world.
As for the African American audience, a foreign song like "Chee Lai!" may not have been the tune that attracted them to Robeson's concerts (and, in fact, Robeson rarely advertised "Chee Lai!" on his programs), but the song nevertheless offered important opportunities. Its emboldening rhythms and defiant lyrics created an aesthetic space for African American listeners to identify with Chinese peasants, opening up a sonic passage that led them to discover that struggle for freedom and liberty has echoes beyond the United States. When fitting messages that would appeal to the English-speaking audience into a piece of music composed to be sung in Chinese, Robeson and Liu revised and torqued the words from Tian Han and the 2/4 time signature of Nei Er in "March of the Volunteers." For example, in the translated lyrics, words that are specific to the Chinese context, such as "the great wall," are generalized into universal democratic ideals like "liberty and true democracy" to render the song more relatable to an American experience. Additionally, certain beats are syncopated or lengthened to accommodate an extra syllable or to compensate for an omitted one. For instance, in line two [phrase omitted] there are 14 syllables; in order to accommodate the 15 syllables in "Let's stand up and fight for liberty and democracy," Robeson and Liu clipped the duplet for [phrase omitted] into a triplet for "democracy." In another instance, a note is omitted from the D-triplet-[phrase omitted] (seven syllables), which resulted in an elongated D-duplet for "torch of' in "wield the torch of freedom" (six syllables). Furthermore, as opposed to the chorus in "March of the Volunteers," "Chee Lai!" is performed by Robeson solo, a re-arrangement that transformed the nature of the piece from a "mass song" that invites people to sing along to a trance performance in which Robeson asks his audience to follow the "torch of freedom" as if he is Moses shepherding the Israelites across the Red Sea. This biblical allusion (in effect) together with the revised lyrics and music score sublimate "Chee Lai!" into a song about the struggle of people of color as a movement towards the Promised Land, rendering this foreign tune into a familiar hymn for God-fearing members in the American audience.
Therefore, despite the fact that Liu and Robeson may have created "Chee Lai!" out of sympathetic projection and (mis)identification, the song itself carried out the concrete task of solidifying an Afro-Sino coalition across the Pacific in the 1930s and 1940s. The Afro-Asian solidarity that the production and performance of Robeson's song brokered becomes more apparent when one looks at the material impact that "Chee Lai!" made. The Chinese laureate Hu Shih was an honorary sponsor for Robeson's Uline Arena Concert organized by the NNC (National Negro Congress) on April 25, 1941; Shih endorsed Robeson particularly for his assistance in relaying aid to China during the country's resistance against Japanese invasion (United States 2368-76). Robeson's later performance of "Chee Lai!" in New York's Lewisohn Stadium was similarly acknowledged by Chinese media in the United States. New China, a newspaper run by the US-China Peoples Friendship Association noted Robeson as a "friend of China" (Childress 40). More noteworthy is the September 20 statement jointly released by the All-China Art and Literature Worker Association and All-China Association of Musicians of Liberated China condemning the Peekskill Riot of 1949, where anti-civil-rights provocateurs protested Robeson's Uline performance and attacked his audience (Foner 38).
Given this history of reception, "Chee Lai!" is a performance that keeps on performing, specifically doing the labor of coalition making. Even beyond its initial recording in 1942, "Chee Lai" continues to facilitate the exchange of financial aid and political support between African Americans and Chinese peasants: an anthem that continues to break the fourth wall, calling upon the audience to bond with "slaves" in their long "march" towards "liberty and democracy."
Langston Hughes's "Roar, China!"
Another piece of black art that is as influenced by the Russian constructive aesthetics as Robeson's "Chee Lai!" is Langston Hughes's "Roar, China!" Though the poem itself is not a piece of performance art strictly speaking, the narrator's call for a response from an abject personified China lends it a performative air to be read as an exhortation for the reader's participation in a people's revolt. According to Hughes's friend, the writer Edwin Rolfe, Hughes was very proud of "Roar, China!" and called it his "best yet" (qtd. in Nelson and Hendricks 31). But Hughes's good feeling about the poem is not reciprocated by the Jewish-American Rolfe, who writes in his diary: "I don't [think it is Hughes's best] but it isn't bad" (qtd. in Nelson and Hendricks 31). Just like most of Hughes's poetry of the 1930s, "Roar, China!" was received lukewarmly, lacking the interiority that his earlier poems were prized for. The narrator of "Roar, China!" is nameless, and readers do not know whether the speaker is supposed to be read as Hughes, or him speaking on behalf of a Chinese person. But it is precisely this anonymity that allows this piece to be read as performance, one that agitates.
Kristin Grogan makes a similar argument, focusing exclusively on the mode of address in "Chant for May Day," a poem that Hughes published in the pamphlet The New Song. Grogan identifies traces of Vsevolod Meyerhold's plays in Hughes's work of the 1930s, plays which, according to her, Hughes watched during his time in Russia. Situating Hughes's poems and plays side by side, Grogan argues that "many of the poems Hughes wrote in the 1930s take as their form script, recitations, or performances" (601). Using "Chant for May Day" as an example, Grogan argues that the form and content of Hughes's constructivist poem meld together, since the poem seeks to unify the people's revolution, a goal reinforced by the poem's circulation in pamphlet form. Though "Roar, China!" was published separately from The New Song in the journal The New Masses, it performs a similar revolutionary role. In fact, the link between Meyerhold's constructivism and "Roar, China!" is more salient than those links between Meyerhold and The New Song, since Hughes wrote "Roar, China!" under the influence of Sergie Tretyakov's play Roar, China! directed by Vsevolod Meyerhold.
To show how "Roar, China" (the poem) inherited its performativity from Roar, China! (the play), I first illustrate the way Tretyakov's play (directed by Meyerhold) is emblematic of socialist realism (which developed in place of constructivism as a more general term for all socialist factographic arts in Russia during the 1930s). I then show how Hughes's 1938 poem performs the same type of artistic role as the theatrical piece in its attempt to expand a global revolutionary base.
Tretyakov was a pioneer of the socialist literary genre of "factography." Factographic cultural work is straightforward in expression and utilitarian in nature as it aims to replace the decadent tradition of bourgeois European art. Taking his cues from journalism, Tretyakov's factography is partly reflexive of reality and partly performative in making new realities. According to Marxist literary critic Glyn Sal ton-Cox, Tretyakov's factography can be best described as "a fluid category open to the shifting demands of revolutionary social transformation and rapidly rising literary rates" (470). Given its ideological divergence from bourgeois art, the content of factography is distinctive too: Rather than the development of a single character's interiority, the emphasis of factographic work is removed from the "sovereign human subject" and replaced by the "collectivization" of individuals to bring about a "proletarianizing zeal" (470). Tretyakov made clear his view on art as a type of work in his theoretical writing about the theater wherein he says that art, as epitomized by the performative genre, is "socially justified" when it begins "to carry out a certain useful labor and meets the ongoing daily tasks of Revolution" (qtd. in Raunig 30).
Conceived in such aesthetic light, the interiority of characters in Tretyakov's plays is flat since they are nothing more than stand-ins for types of populations in the social strata. Socialist realism, the brand of art that is supposed to reflect and promote state ideals in socialist countries, is fully exemplified by Tretyakov's factography. Tretyakov's school of socialist realism is best encapsulated by his 1931 factographic play Roar China!, which was gifted to Hughes when the African American artist was about to leave the Soviet Union for China (Hughes, I Wonder 197). Given the play's influence on Hughes's imagination of China, it is worth mulling over the features of socialist realism in Tretyakov's Roar China! for a better understanding of the aesthetic dimensions of Afro-Asian solidarity in Hughes's poem.
Roar China! is a brief nine-scene play reenacting the oppressed lives of Chinese coolies working "over 1000 miles up the River Yangtze" from a collective point of view (Tretyakov 7). The play follows multiple coolies' reactions to a British commander's demand to hang three Chinese boatmen in exchange for the death of an American trader who fell into the river during a bargain with a Chinese boatman for a lower fee after a ride. The revolutionary essence of the play is articulated early in the English version by the translator's note. The note is penned by the British actor and director B. M. Nixon who speaks sympathetically about Tretyakov's socialist realism, claiming it to be the "new method of expression shown to contain great possibilities for both scenic designer and producer" (3). Nixon goes on to say that the play "is based on actual incident" about foreign imperialists strangling Chinese boatmen, which is a daily spectacle that took place in the Chinese concessions (3). Furthermore, heeding the spirit of de-individuation prevalent in Tretyakov's factographic work, Nixon adds that Tretyakov's characters are "types rather than personalities" (3).
Indeed, characters in socialist realism arts are constituents of a bigger population of proletariats. In Roar China! particularly, the working mass--rather than individual characters--is the focal point of the performance. The uniqueness of the Chinese mass in Tretyakov's theater, however, is that they are portrayed to be chained to the exploitative capitalist system, an inhumane institution that is not very different from chattel slavery. In Tretyakov's play, the word "chain" is used multiple times in material and metaphorical senses to describe the way wage labor shackles down Chinese coolies and boatmen. "Chain" is used the first time as a verb to describe how the boatmen are glued to their "oars," transporting the white imperialists, businessmen, missionaries, without being properly compensated for their time and effort (7). "Chain" is then evoked a second time to encapsulate the abjection of a chain gang of "blind men" being passed up and down the deck as coolies (10). By the end of Roar China's translator's note, Nixon declares that the play to unfold constitutes nothing but "facts" typical of settler colonialism in Chinese harbors (6).
In his attempt to represent the typicality of colonial oppression, Tretyakov gives up single characters' specificity. For instance, none of the Chinese characters in Roar China! have a name. The particularity of the 2nd Boatman who is involved in the play's main action of altercation with Ashlay (the American businessman) is downplayed by his shared name with three other boatmen who go by the names of 1st Boatman, 3rd Boatman, and the old boatman. Given these exchangeable names, the boatmen constitute an oppressed class with a collective identity assigned by their mutual subjugation under capitalist exploitation and racist prejudice from western imperialists. This group representation reflects the socialist definition of solidarity, by which one boatman's humiliation is a violation of the rest. The play's undifferentiating treatment of the individual and the community is ultimately punctuated by the end of Roar China! in a scene of vengeance when "the crowd" that witnessed the execution of the 2nd Boatman stirs a munity. Working in cahoots with "militiamen and commissars" from Canton (84), the crowd chases the white seamen out of the harbor. During the scene, a white captain points a gun at a Chinese stoker, who says in defiance, "I may fall, but ten will rise in my place" (87). The worker's revolution is rendered a longue duree by the rhetoric of de-individuation here. As stated by the stoker, revolt against the Captain (and by extension, imperialism) becomes an unstoppable undertaking once it takes on a collective life in the larger working class of the concessions.
The last lines of the play from this scene are particularly notable as they are chanted by the chorus: As a group, they shout "Out! Out! Out!" urging the foreign ships to get "Out of our China" (89). The crowd's exhortation manifests the essence of Tretyakov's factographic aesthetics as it (as well as the rest of the play) operates to fan the fervency of resistance in the peasants and proletarians among the audience to overthrow capitalist exploitations and encroachments.
Though different in genre, Hughes's "Roar China!" reads very much like an adaptation of Tretyakov's play. Taking the form of a poem, Hughes's vivid description of scenes of subjection on and off the Chinese coasts lends it to be read as a piece of ekphrastic mediation on Tretyakov's factography. Inheriting socialist realism's utilitarian principles, Hughes's poetics is ethnographic, on the one hand, as it provides information about the Shanghai International Settlement, and performative, on the other, as it goads the audience to effect social and global change. In terms of its language, "Roar, China!" is replete with alliteration and anaphor, which are two literary devices that are popular among the socialist arts for their accessibility for oral recitation. The poem's use of dialogues and onomatopoeias, moreover, hints at the possibility that it is a vernacular piece for performance. Even though the poem's eighty lines flow uninterruptedly without stanza breaks, its twists and turns allow the piece to be read as a three-act narrative.
The first act of Hughes's poem retains some of the Orientalist stereotypes from Tretyakov's Roar China!, such as referring to China as an "old lion of the East!" and "yellow dragon of the Orient" (249) These troubling images are there to serve the establishment of a familiar mise en scene for an American reader to delve into the poem's second part, which is a narrative journey that slowly changes the reader's position from a spectator to a participant in the anti-capitalist, anti-imperial revolution which Hughes saw China and black America to be part of. The second act presents an ethnographic narrative of Japanese imperial violence in China, beginning with: "Even the yellow men came/To take what the white man/Hadn't already taken/The yellow men dropped bombs in Chapei/The yellow men called you the names/The white men did" (249). As indicated in his autobiography I Wonder as I Wander, this narrative is a condensation of what Hughes learned from Tretyakov's play and what he saw during his trip to Shanghai in early July of 1933, a time when the city was an international settlement torn by the English, American, German, French, and Japanese under a series of unequal treaties. These treaties legitimized settler colonialism in China, underwriting foreign powers' rights to demarcate lands where they were free to erect churches, factories, and trading ports. Hughes writes that he was horrified to witness slavery alive and well in a foreign-owned factory where two hundred indentured child laborers stood along the production lines monitored by a supervisor with bamboo canes in hand. He further states that he "was amazed in Shanghai at the imprudence of white foreigners in drawing a color line against Chinese in China itself' of which he was a victim at the "YMCA in Szechuen Road" where he was rejected accommodation because he was black (250).
The haunting sights of segregation, child slaves, and Christian missionaries uncannily reminded Hughes of African Americans' lives under chattel slavery and Jim Crow laws. In "Roar, China!," he repurposed these images as sites for forging coalition. In the last section of the poem--which functions as a pep talk to incite China to fight back against colonial oppression--the narrator exhorts "little coolie boys," "child slaves in the factories," and "red generals" to "Smash the iron gates of the Concessions !/Smash the pious doors of the missionary houses/Smash the revolving doors of the Jim Crow YMCA" (250-51). These incitements, at the same time, encourage African American readers whose minds and bodies are colonized by a Euro-centric socio-economic apparatus to break off the shackles of subjugation. Although the imperial atrocities that the poem portrays took place an ocean away, its many allusions to chattel slavery and segregation made the situation in China accessible to an African American reader. By making a foreign experience relatable, it therefore de-individuates settler colonialism in China and racism in Black America as the poem works to connect the expansionism in settler colonialism taking place in China to the systematic racial disenfranchisement in Jim Crow laws. To put it differently, the images that Hughes draws upon in the poem were either already familiar to his African American readers or made familiar to them in the reading of the poem through the de-individuating language that was intended to open up a position for African American readers to identify with the oppressed populations in Shanghai. In this way, the narrative progression of Hughes's poem may well have allowed his readers to see China transformed from a stereotypically signified "Oriental" civilization to a complex locale determined by many imperial power-relations, including the euro-centric capitalist nexus that linked up settler colonialism in China to chattel slavery and its afterlives in the Americas.
By tracking the trans-pacific histories and aesthetics of black internationalism in the 1930s and 1940s, this article has attempted to shed light on the anti-capitalist and anti-imperial chapter of socialist realism in African American literature as it sublimates visual and aural representations of an abject China into part of a political exhortation to make impacts on existing national and global orders. The creative significations of China in "Roar, China!" and "Chee Lai!" connected the solidarity between African Americans and the Chinese people with the wider postcolonial world, and disrupted what Tamara Roberts would call the "body-culture determinism" (199), a type of nativist nationalism that has isolated and compromised many an insurgent sociality and subject. With their song, Robeson and Liu labored to subvert American capitalism and imperialism by raising money for grassroots organizations like the United China Fund to subsidize foreign troops--notably the peasant guerillas fighting against the Japanese Invasion of Manchuria; Hughes's contribution to the journal The New Masses, which though less financially significant, is in no way less important, shifted the black literary imagination from insular to coalitional, putting racial issues in conversation with "controversial literary discussions (on proletarian literature and Marxist literary criticism)," in the words of literary historian David R. Peck, culminating in the production of "some of the best radical literature to come out of the thirties" (qtd. in Simkin n. pag.). This long-obscured chapter of black arts and international politics ultimately calls attention to the affordance of poetry and performance as agitators for an alter-global movement.
[Please note: Some non-Latin characters were omitted from this article]
* I would like to thank Dayo Gore, Ira Dworkin, David Lloyd, and Andrew Harnish for their generous feedback on early drafts of this essay. The writing of this article was partly supported by a Graduate Student Research Grant from the UC Consortium for Black Studies in California.
(1) According to Hughes's memoir I Wonder As I Wander (1956), he be came acquainted with Tretyakov during his stay in the Soviet Union from 1932 to 1933. As for Paul Robeson, he was introduced to Tretyakov by their mutual friend Sergei Eisentein (Hughes, I Wonder 206).
(2) In contrast to literal translation, the practice of free translation is more liberal in the sense that general meaning is prioritized over faithfulness to the syntax, word choice, or organization of the original text.
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|Author:||Cheang, Kai Hang|
|Publication:||Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2019|
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