Arise Africa, Roar China: A Conversation with Yunxiang Gao
May 25, 2023
Arise Africa, Roar China: A Conversation with Yunxiang Gao
Emily Wilcox, Yunxiang Gao
The past two decades have witnessed an explosive growth in historical scholarship exploring African American connections with China during the twentieth century. In their Harvard Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies web resource Teaching China through Black History, Keisha A. Brown, Ruodi Duan, and James Gethyn Evans (2019) document the development of this increasingly vibrant field, which was initiated in English-language scholarship through pathbreaking early work by scholars of African American studies. Gerald Horne’s 1985 and 2002 books on W.E.B. Du Bois and Shirley Graham Du Bois, Penny M. Von Eschen’s 1997 Race against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937–1957, and Robin Kelley and Betsy Esch’s 1999 essay ‘Black Like Mao: Red China and Black Revolution’—all laid a foundation for this emergent field of study by demonstrating the significance of transnational alliances, anticolonial thought, and the Chinese Revolution in shaping African American political culture in the United States, as well as the global struggle for social justice and racial equality.
In these and other works that followed, the Black radical tradition emerges as a space of transnational leftist political thought and practice in which connections between China and the United States play out beyond the reaches of, and often counter to, white-dominated spaces of US national policy and foreign relations. Such efforts to forge cross-racial and transnational alliances through a revolutionary reimagining of global relations threatened the colonial, capitalist, and white-supremacist status quo and thus came with inherent dangers. In this context, relations of international solidarity emerged not only as sources of abstract intellectual inspiration and real or imagined dialogue, but also as concrete places of refuge, exile, and opportunity. Many US Black radicals who were targeted in their home country because of their political work found in China a new space of appreciation and receptivity during times of great need. In this way, relations with China played an important role in the development of the Black radical tradition itself and its ability to sustain leftist ideas despite domestic suppression in the United States leading up to and at the height of Cold War containment.
A recent major contribution to this important area of scholarship is Yunxiang Gao’s book Arise Africa, Roar China: Black and Chinese Citizens of the World in the Twentieth Century, published in 2021 by the University of North Carolina Press. The book has already amassed numerous accolades including the 2022 Academic Excellence Award from the Chinese Historians in the United States, an Honourable Mention in the 2022 Robert H. Ferrell Book Prize of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, and being shortlisted for the 2022 Wallace K. Ferguson Prize of the Canadian Historical Association. Gao’s book is part of a new wave of research that brings close attention to Chinese-language sources of the study of Sino–African American relations. Gao examines the personal journeys and intellectual and artistic contributions of five major individuals—W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Liu Liangmo 劉良模, Sylvia Si-lan Chen Leyda 陳茜(錫, 西)蘭, and Langston Hughes—who contributed in different ways to the forging of Sino–African American relations in the twentieth century.
Emily Wilcox: How do the subjects you investigate in Arise Africa, Roar China relate to your previous research? What made you decide to write a book about this topic?
Yunxiang Gao: While conducting research for my first book, Sporting Gender, I came across laudatory articles on W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the foremost African American intellectuals, writers, and pan-Africanist civil rights activists, and his wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois, in the People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party. This discovery brought back some memories of a newspaper article and a propaganda poster.
In my childhood home in Inner Mongolia, the ceiling was wooden boards on which were pasted old newspapers purchased from the market for insulation. After I learned how to read and write, every day I stared at the title of an article on the spot right above my pillow, until it was covered by a new layer of newspapers on the eve of Chinese New Year. What was the title of that article that has stuck in my head ever since? ‘Robert Williams and Madam Du Bois Fervently Acclaim Chairman Mao’s Statement Supporting American Blacks’ Anti-Brutality Struggle.’ The other interconnected memory is that of a propaganda poster in the little classroom that accommodated me and 17 other students in grades one to three. Advocating united liberation struggles, this poster featured indignant men and women of various colours in vibrant ethnic clothing charging forward, with a muscular Black man holding a gun at the centre.
Roughly at the same time Sporting Gender was released, I published an article on the Du Bois’ experiences in Maoist China (Gao 2013). Working on that article, I learned about Paul Robeson, a world famous African American singer and actor and close ally of the Du Boises. While researching the fascinating yet little known relationship between Robeson and China, I also discovered his Chinese allies Liu Liangmo, a talented musician, prolific journalist, and Christian activist, and Sylvia Si-lan Chen, about whom Robeson wrote:
In Moscow, some years ago  I met three young Chinese, a fellow named Jack Chen and his two sisters. Jack was a newspaperman, one of his sisters was a motion picture technician and the other [Sylvia Si-lan] was a dancer … Jack was a slight chap, medium height and soft-spoken. He spoke beautiful English. He came to my concerts and we sat around many nights and talked of China and its future. This was in 1936 and ’37. Later I met him in London and we often appeared there for China Relief. It was an interesting experience to see and meet a Chinese who was part Negro and felt close to both his people. I believe he is now back in China—the new China—helping to build a better life for his countrymen.
That was the first time I had heard of the Chens. Of course, I was immediately curious about who they were. I came across evidence that Langston Hughes, the acclaimed ‘Poet Laureate of the Negro Race’, was Si-lan Chen’s lover. So, like a detective, I traced these figures step after step.
EW: How did you select these five figures as the case studies for your book? Why did you not include, for example, Robert and Mabel Williams, who also played an important role in Chinese–African American relations in the 1960s? Are there any other figures you thought of including and decided not to, and if so, why?
YG: Although each of these five citizens of the world represents a distinctive domain, their lives and political activism were interlocked. Adopting a longue durée approach, Arise Africa, Roar China focuses on their global interactions throughout most of the twentieth century. They enjoyed friendship based on racial solidarity and shared anti-racism and anticolonial political activism. They interacted with one another in a variety of ways, at times collaborating and contributing to historic alliances, at others falling in and out of love. While situating each of the five figures in a complex and shifting political context, I discuss the personal, artistic, cultural, and political networks they established. The Asia Review of Books put it well: ‘Gao tells a good story, actually five, and tells them very well. That the stories and protagonists are all linked yields a book that is far more than the sum of its parts.’
All four Chen siblings, children of Eugene Chen, China’s Trinidad-born foreign minister during the Nationalist era and his French Creole wife, were truly cosmopolitan with fascinating multilayered stories that deserved to be told. Si-lan fits into this book best, because she captured the fanciful gazes and imaginations of Hughes and Robeson, who saw and portrayed her as personifying the ‘perfect’ union of Black and Chinese. Her mission to choreograph and dance ethnicity, war, and revolution around the globe illustrates the complex racial and political twists of such interracial unions.
Si-lan is not the only woman relevant to my narratives. The wives of Du Bois and Robeson, Shirley Graham and Eslanda, warrant scholarship independent of this book. I have accumulated sufficient materials for a future project on them, which I hope will break new ground introducing extremely rare stories of interactions between Chinese and African American women. Also, the manuscript of Arise Africa, Roar China was initially composed of six chapters. I cut a chapter on actress Wang Yung because her interactions with African Americans were limited to brief encounters with Robeson and his wife, but now I am finishing a full biography.
As for the saga of Robert and Mable Williams, this is certainly well known in Chinese–African American relations. Yet, they were a younger generation who burst on the scene later in the Cold War, which is why I did not include them in the book.
EW: One aspect of your book that I found especially powerful is your detailing of the surveillance, harassment, and suppression each of the figures you write about experienced, especially by branches of the US Government, because of anticommunism. Why did you feel it was important to tell these stories and to highlight this issue at this time?
YG: These five figures had to constantly juggle their devotion and courage with the caution necessary to navigate the treacherous, slippery, and murky transpacific ideological and political landscapes in which they were placed by their race and leftist activism. Surveillance, harassment, and suppression by various regimes, especially the US Government, ensured that their lives and political activism were marked by narratives of survival.
The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) cast a long dark shadow over the lives of all five, as illustrated by the trail of files that recorded their every move. They faced incessant uncertainty about legal residence status, denial of passports over allegations of Communist Party membership, and forced shifting of nationalities. The State Department famously cancelled the passports of Du Bois and Robeson. Out of frustration and anger, Du Bois eventually renounced his American citizenship for a Ghanaian one. Enormously talented, passionate, and politically committed, Robeson soared to great heights as a popular artistic hero but fell from international prominence into an eventual mental breakdown, paying the ultimate price for his unyielding pursuit of political and racial justice. Hughes was forced to retreat from radicalism to safeguard his writing career and meagre livelihood as a ‘literary sharecropper’, as he called himself, from the intensifying harassment of McCarthyism in the 1950s. The double burden of Chen’s race and leftist background forced her to live for over four decades under the nerve-wracking shadows cast by the powerful Immigration and Naturalization Service and the FBI, in collaboration with the Chinese Nationalists. Official persecutions eventually drove Chen and her American husband near statelessness and homelessness. Liu was briefly detained at the notorious Angel Island, fully tasting the harsh treatment meted out by immigration officers. After he and his family left for China under threat of deportation, the FBI and War Department agents who had started to tail him soon after his arrival carried on their spying remotely.
All these administrative actions were linked to politics and exacerbated feelings of otherness and racial discrimination. How the five figures in the book overcame formidable obstacles through their commitment is, in my mind, profoundly inspiring to those who face similar obstacles in their fight for liberation and equality today.
EW: One important theme in your book is the way in which each of the figures you discuss contributed, whether through writing, music, speeches, or performance art, to the circulation of positive images of Chinese and African Americans to one another. Was there an episode that you discovered as you were conducting your research that you found particularly inspiring?
YG: Particularly inspiring to me was Robeson and Liu’s collaboration to globalise the song ‘Chee Lai!’, also known as the ‘March of the Volunteers’—the signature piece of the transpacific mass singing movement for wartime mobilisation, which would later become the national anthem of the newly established People’s Republic of China.
In November 1940, Robeson received a phone call, perhaps from famous Chinese philosopher and writer Lin Yutang, asking him to meet a recent arrival from China: Liu, who had initiated the mass singing movement there. Within minutes, Robeson was in the caller’s apartment. Robeson and Liu became fast friends. Liu recalled Robeson as ‘beaming over me with his friendly smile and his giant hands firmly held mine’. After Liu introduced ‘Chee Lai!’ to him, Robeson was impressed by the opening line of the song—‘Arise, ye who refuse to be bond slaves’—which he believed expressed the determination of the world’s oppressed, including Chinese and Blacks, to struggle for liberation. Soon, Robeson reprised the song at his numerous concerts in the United States and Europe. Meanwhile, Robeson, Liu, and the Chinese People’s Chorus, which Liu had organised among members of the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance in New York City’s Chinatown, recorded a hit album of Chinese fighting and folk songs entitled Chee Lai: Songs of New China. The New York Times lauded the album as one of the year’s best, and Robeson’s version of ‘Chee Lai!’ became the anthem of China’s struggle against fascism.
Liu was a pioneer of Chinese collaboration with African Americans, often lauding Black greatness without reservation.
EW: Do you think the efforts of these figures had lasting impact?
YG: All of them contributed to shape both Chinese views of the Black diaspora and American views of China’s place in an emergent imaginary of anticolonial and racial liberation. On the Chinese side, in Republican China, the intellectual capacities of Robeson, Du Bois, and Hughes were foregrounded over stereotypical images of ‘primitive’ athletic and trivial musical personas and the commercialised exoticism of Blacks. Later, they were promoted as heroic revolutionary models for China’s socialist citizenry, revolutionising Black images there. Their political and cultural legacies persist to this day despite the dramatic changes that took place in the past few decades. For instance, since 2009, the Ministry of Education of China has included a translation of ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’, one of Hughes’ classic poems, in the approved textbook of Chinese language and literature mandated for ninth graders across the nation to learn about the ‘condensed history of the Black race’. Hughes’ work thus continues to have an enormous readership in China, comparable only with that enjoyed by figures as prominent as Mao Zedong.
On the US side, the three African American cultural giants helped to transform the popular image of China from the ‘sick man of Asia’, with the Chinese portrayed as servants and opium addicts, to that of a beacon of struggles for liberation. Soon after Japan launched its full-scale war on China in 1937, Langston Hughes penned the passionate poem ‘Roar, China!’ in embattled Madrid, calling for China’s resistance. Celebrating his ninety-first birthday at Beijing University in 1959, Du Bois harangued his audience: ‘Africa, Arise, and stand straight, speak and think! Turn from the West and your slavery and humiliation for the last 500 years and face the rising sun … China is flesh of your flesh and blood of your blood.’ ‘Arise, Africa!’ and ‘Roar, China!’ as articulated by Du Bois and Hughes, respectively, match the shared struggles of a nation and a nation-within-a-nation. Their power and promise resonate to the present day.
EW: The theme of Chinese–African American connections has received increasing attention from historians and cultural studies scholars in the past decade. What are some works of existing scholarship on this theme that inspired you when writing your book? What do you think your book contributes to the existing scholarship that is new?
YG: Excellent studies have examined African American interactions with China, but these are often limited to Black appropriation of Chinese culture and thought, or only go so far as to indicate that such contacts existed. They include Marc Gallicchio’s The African American Encounter with Japan and China (2000); Richard Jean So’s Transpacific Community (2016); Robeson Taj Frazier’s The East Is Black (2015); Etsuko Taketani’s The Black Pacific Narrative (2014); and Bill V. Mullen’s Afro-Orientalism (2004). In Maoism: A Global History (2019), Julia Lovell powerfully illustrates how international events transformed Chinese politics and how Mao’s ideology was enduringly refashioned by different countries and peoples, including African Americans and Africans.
Arise Africa, Roar China reveals much earlier and more widespread interaction between Chinese leftist figures and Black ones than the familiar alliance between Black radicals and Maoist China. It expands the scholarship on Sino–African American exchanges by illustrating how three African American cultural giants—Du Bois, Robeson, and Hughes—were perceived, studied, and critiqued among the Chinese, and by introducing Liu Liangmo and Sylvia Si-lan Chen as significant new subjects in this discourse.
My book examines the intertwined lives of people usually perceived as inhabiting nonoverlapping domains. It is about individuals who strove in their own ways to create a politicised transpacific and enable global communication between African Americans and Chinese. Directly comparative works about the three famed African Americans are somewhat rare among current studies; discussions of individual Afro-Chinese relationships are even harder to find, and narratives of interactions between Chinese and African American women are even scarcer. In addition, in researching the book, I drew from massive, yet rarely used, sources from multiple archival streams in China, Chinatowns, and the United States, which allowed me to retell the well-known stories of Du Bois, Robeson, and Hughes anew alongside the previously forgotten sagas of Liu and Chen.
EW: What advice do you have for scholars who are interested in conducting further research into Chinese–African American relations? Are there particular issues that you believe deserve more attention in the future? Are there any lessons you learned writing this book that you would like to pass on?
YG: I am glad to report that Arise Africa, Roar China has inspired other scholars to pursue this topic. Roundtables at the 2023 annual meeting of the American Historical Association and the ‘After Bandung: Africa and China in a New Era Conference’ at Yale University have both featured the book.
There are numerous other figures, particularly women, such as Unita Blackwell, Victoria ‘Vicki’ Garvin, and Claudia Jones, who played significant roles in Sino–African American relations. It is worthwhile for scholars to explore their stories from a gender perspective, with depth and subtlety.
Meanwhile, as my book illustrates, Sino-Black interactions were widespread and over a long historical period. I hope scholars will look beyond the familiar Cold War era. I also believe a multilingual approach to comprehensively and thoroughly survey sources is essential to conduct such transnational/transcultural history. Scholars should utilise more the rich and diverse streams of sources in Chinese language.
Brown, Keisha, Ruodi Duan, and James Gethyn Evans. 2019. ‘Teaching China through Black History.’ Blog, 30 January. Cambridge, MA: Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard University. fairbank.fas.harvard.edu/research/blog/teaching-china-through-black-history-%EF%BF%BC.
Frazier, Robeson Taj. 2015. The East Is Black. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Gallicchio, Marc. 2000. The African American Encounter with Japan and China. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
Gao, Yunxiang. 2013. ‘W.E.B. and Shirley Graham Du Bois in Maoist China.’ Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race 10(1): 59–85.
Horne, Gerald. 1985. Black and Red: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Afro-American Response to the Cold War, 1944–1963. Albany: SUNY Press.
Horne, Gerald. 2002. Race Woman: The Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois. New York, NY: NYU Press.
Kelley, Robin and Betsy Esch. 1999. ‘Black Like Mao: Red China and Black Revolution.’ Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Society, and Culture 1: 6–41.
Lovell, Julia. 2019. Maoism: A Global History. New York, NY: Knopf.
Mullen, Bill V. 2004. Afro-Orientalism. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
So, Richard Jean. 2016. Transpacific Community. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Taketani, Etsuko. 2014. The Black Pacific Narrative. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press.
Von Eschen, Penny M. 1997. Race against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937–1957. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.