Selected Modern Chinese Essays: Ill-Informed US Newsmen

◎ Dong Dingshan

The other day, an editor of The New York Times called me to inquire about“the Yan’an caves”, a phrase he had come across in one of my articles. It struck me immediately, for the young American editor with his ignorance of current affairs and historical events was a reflection of my own old age.

The article I had written was about a recently published biography of Edgar Snow[1]. I pointed out therein that Snow’s Red Star over China, published in 1938, served to spur innumerable aspiring young Chinese intellectuals to make pilgrimages to the Yan’an caves, thus contributing to the success of the Chinese revolution.

The young American editor’s failure to understand the said phrase made me lament the fading out of elderly senior members on the editorial staff of the renowned newspaper.

That the new generation of American newsmen are unfamiliar with modern Chinese history is by no means something new.

Ten years ago, after I sent in an article for the OP-ED page of The New York Times recounting experiences of my first visit to my motherland, the editor phoned me to ask about the meaning of“the French Concession”. My explanation, however, failed to bring him round. He said readers had difficulty understanding it and therefore suggested, for safety’s sake, “the French Quarter”as a substitute for“the French Concession”. I agreed, but with reluctance.

Another time, in the newspaper’s weekly book review, an article on Helen Foster Snow’s[2] My China Years addressed Zhang Xueliang[3]as“Communist Young Marshal. ”How could he be a Communist?

So I wrote them to rectify the mistake and they had my letter published. The New York Times is world-famous for its conscientiousness, but a lack of general knowledge on the part of its editors is nevertheless unpardonable.

Those in charge of the American press are often found ignorant of things in China although the country is said to abound in“China hands”. For instance, they often don’t know how to put Chinese surnames and given names in the right order. TV news broadcasters are even more ill-informed about the current affairs. I’ve more than once found them mix up“the People’s Republic of China”with“the Republic of China”.

US editors born after 1949, the year when the People’s Republic of China was founded, are now in their forties. Some of them have little knowledge of what Shanghai was like in China’s pre-liberation days.

One American editor got into a heated argument with me about the English equivalent of Waitan[4] in Shanghai. He wondered why I should insist on using the word“Bund”, saying that as far as he knew, it referred exclusively to a pro-Nazi organization in the pre-war US. He didn’t know that the word, first used by British merchants in India during its colonial days to mean“an embanked road along a waterfront”, was later also used to refer to Waitan in Shanghai.

He finally chose“the Waterfront”in preference to“the Bund”, which was a misrepresentation giving the picture of a desolate and messy dock instead of the erstwhile thriving Shanghai Bund as I had intended to describe.

Evidently the young have replaced the old to play a leading role in the US press, and ageing newspaper contributors like me seem to have lost, much to our regret, our understanding friends.

[1] Edgar Snow(1905-1972), US journalist and writer known for his book Red Star over China.

[2] Helen Foster Snow(1907-1997), better known by her journalistic pen-name Nym Wales, was the former wife of Edgar Snow. She moved from Utah to China in her twenties to become an author and journalist.

[3] Zhang Xueliang(1901-2001), a native of Haicheng, Liaoning Province, was a patriotic Nationalist general well known as“the Young Marshal”because he was the eldest son of“Old Marshal Zhang Zuolin”, former warlord in Northeast China. In the Xi’an Incident of December 12, 1936, he and Yang Hucheng, also a patriotic Nationalist general, ordered their troops to kidnap and imprison KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek(1887-1975)until he agreed to stop the civil war against the Communists and fight against the Japanese.

[4] Waitan, known as the Bund in English, is a stately street and important landmark of Shanghai located along the Huangpu River.