Reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Shanghai

Turn of the century Shanghai was a hotbed of imperialist engagement, capitalism, revolutionary politics, crime, and intellectualism. Therefore, it is no coincidence that it was in Shanghai that the 1905 anti-American boycott was conceived, and that it was in Shanghai that a work of American literature gave Chinese intellectuals a new vernacular.

The United States Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. This Act prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the country for ten years, and required every Chinese person traveling in or out of the country to carry an ID. In 1888, Congress passed the Scott Act, making re-entry into the United States after a visit to China impossible, even for long term US residents. In 1892, Congress passed the Geary Act, extending exclusion for another ten years, and in 1902, Congress extended Exclusion Act indefinitely while expanding it to cover both Hawaii and the Philippines in addition to the mainland US.

This Act, combined with the humiliating treatment Chinese immigrants and laborers received once on American soil, were met with widespread anger in China. On May 10 1905, the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce called for a boycott of American goods. They sent telegrams to merchant guilds across China urging them to take part. The boycott officially began on July 10, 1905. It received an enthusiastic response as Chinese merchants ceased to order or sell American goods.

The boycott was not merely a creature of the merchant class. People of all levels of Chinese society partook. Students, writers, artists and intellectuals turned to literature to illustrate and find new ways to understand the suffering of Chinese in the United States.

In 1901, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was translated into Chinese and titled “Black Slaves Appeal to the Heavens.” By 1905, “Black Slaves Appeal to the Heavens” was so popular in Shanghai that it existed in multiple reprints, was included in numerous anthologies of fiction, was frequently referenced in other works, was adapted into an opera, and performed by traveling theater groups.

The story gave Shanghai-based Chinese intellectuals a language to use to understand and discuss American imperialism, race-based oppression, and European imperialism. Through the plight of the characters in “Black Slaves Appeal to the Heavens,” they saw the struggle of their countrymen and women. Through the treatment the characters received as a result of their skin color, they saw their own treatment under the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Historian Meng Yue refers to this as “compassionate association.” This association, however, was part of a larger pattern. Chinese intellectuals looked to the experience of Indians under the British Raj, the diasporic Jews, the Poles under Russian rule, and the Cubans under American rule to understand the experience of their own overseas. The boycott lost momentum by September 1905 as the Chinese government feared that it would turn into an anti-government, rather than an anti-American, movement, and it was over by the early months of 1906. However, as the boycott died, the language of compassionate association only grew stronger.

“Black Slaves Appeal to the Heavens” traveled from Shanghai to Japan, where an amateur Chinese theater group performed an adaptation of the story in Tokyo in 1907. Not only was the performance praised by Japanese journalists, writers, and critics, but it was quite possibly the vehicle through which Japan first encountered the story of American blacks. It was through these performances that the language of compassionate association first nurtured by intellectuals in Shanghai traveled outside of China.

It is interesting to note that Japan declared an imperial protectorate over Korea in the same year as the Chinese anti-American boycott, and officially annexed the peninsula five years later. I can’t help but wonder what those Tokyo based writers and critics thought of this imperialist aggression in light of the new language the Shanghai actors introduced to them in “Black Slaves Appeal to the Heavens.”

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