The China Mystique: Pearl S. Buck, Anna May Wong, Mayling Soong, and the Transformation of American Orientalism

Karen J. Leong explores the shift in American attitudes toward China that took place in the 1930s and 1940s, when a long-standing discourse of difference and inferiority gave way to a “romanticized, progressive, and highly gendered image” of China as a modernizing country and fledgling democracy that was following in America’s footsteps (p. 1). Leong traces the emergence of what she calls “the China mystique” through the lives of three extraordinary women from the worlds of literature, film, and politics: Pearl S. Buck, Anna May Wong, and Mayling Soong (better known as Madame Chiang Kai-shek). Together they dominated the American media’s representations of China, as authors and subjects of novels, essays, memoirs, films, celebrity magazine stories, newspaper articles, newsreels, and political pageants. Each woman served as a bridge between China and America and strove to represent the two countries as more similar than different. 

Unlike the many works of discourse analysis that focus primarily on texts, this book takes a biographical approach that allows Leong to grapple with the question of individual agency. Leong shows how Buck, Wong, and Soong each struggled to construct a more positive image of China yet remained constrained, to varying degrees, by the conceptual framework of orientalism. She devotes particular energy to showing how each woman’s power to shape the China mystique was determined by her racial, class, and national identity, arguing that the white, middle-class, and American Buck had a far greater impact on perceptions of China than either Wong or Soong.

The China Mystique participates in a number of scholarly conversations, including those focusing on how to do transnational American studies, on the relationship between popular culture and foreign affairs, and on the historical evolution of American internationalist sentiments. It makes one of its most interesting contributions, in this case to the field of Asian American studies, when it de-essentializes commonsense notions of who is Chinese and who is American and establishes in their place a continuum of Chinese-Americanness along which all three of these women can be located. Leong argues that each of these women was able to represent China to the American public in part because she could claim to be simultaneously Chinese and American, albeit in very different ways. Buck, the Euro-American author of fiction and nonfiction works about China, had grown up in China as a child of missionaries. Wong, the Hollywood actress who represented China on screen and in the media that documented her celebrity, was a U.S. citizen of Chinese parentage. Soong, who toured the United States in 1943 to solicit wartime aid to China, was an English-speaking Christian who had imbibed American values while attending Wellesley College. The dual identity of each woman had powerful consequences for the development of the China mystique, as each represented China in ways that ultimately reflected back to Americans their own ideals of modernity, democracy, and progress. 

Christina Klein
Boston College
Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts