By Gao Yunxiang
Reviewed by Emily Wilcox
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright February, 2023)
Gao Yunxiang’s new monograph Arise, Africa! Roar, China! Black and Chinese Citizens of the World in the Twentieth Century explores Sino-African American relations during the mid-twentieth century through five interconnected case studies: 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. Drawing extensively on archival sources in the United States, published sources in Chinese, English, and Russian, and writings by these individuals, their family members, and their biographers, Gao documents how Chinese and African Americans interacted and collaborated with one other in diverse ways between the 1930s and the 1970s. Moving beyond a state-to-state understanding of international engagement, Gao examines how personal relationships and opportunities for travel and translation that developed in this period enabled forms of intellectual and artistic work and political activism, producing new mutual understandings and forms of transnational belonging across the Pacific.
Departing somewhat from recent scholarship that emphasizes the limitations of Afro-Asian discourse and its imagined intimacies, as well as work that focuses on one side of the China-African American interactions during this period, Gao seeks to document historical instances of connection and engagement through an approach that places equal emphasis on both Chinese and US source materials. As Gao asserts in the final paragraph of her book:
These five citizens of the world interacted with one another in a variety of ways, at times collaborating and contributing to historical alliances, at other times falling in and out of love. Together, their lives stand as powerful counters to narratives that foreground racism and alienation. Their lives offer a view into the power and potential of Black internationalism and Sino-African American collaboration. ‘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 this day. (295)
In Gao’s writing, a systematic exploration of the larger implications of her research is sometimes sacrificed in favor of documenting previously overlooked historical material and maintaining the complexities and contradictions of her subjects and their stories. This makes for a captivating and valuable study that does justice to what they and their collaborators on all sides sought to accomplish despite the enormous difficulty and myriad challenges of attempting to bridge China and the African diaspora. Gao documents these diverse individuals’ singular contributions and struggles within rapidly shifting historical contexts ranging across multiple countries, political systems, and seismic ideological change. Rather than imposing a single argument or analytic framework, Gao allows history to be contradictory. In this way, she presents compelling narratives while intentionally leaving space for further theorization and interpretation.
Several themes come through particularly forcefully in Gao’s account. First, each of the five individuals in her study possessed a commitment to leftist politics and a belief in Chinese and African Americans’ shared goal of overturning colonial racial hierarchies. These political commitments animated the relationships Gao chronicles and the real and imagined intimacies they forged between Chinese and African American communities. The same political commitments, together with racial marginalization, also subjected these individuals and their families to oppressive persecution by the US government, which included but was not limited to long periods of invasive surveillance, limits on freedom of travel and rights of citizenship, public discrediting and blacklisting, and devastating damage to professional activities and careers. US government records produced by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) documenting this persecution and her subjects’ responses to it constitutes an important source material in the book. As Gao writes ominously in her introduction, “The FBI cast a dark shadow over the lives of all five figures” (7). Along with the US government, Gao also documents how the watchful eyes and appendages of diverse international political parties and governments weighed heavily on the lives of these figures, including the Chinese Nationalist Party, the Chinese Communist Party, the Japanese imperial government, the Soviet government, and others.
Second, and related to the persecution discussed above, Gao’s narrative makes clear that Sino-African American engagement in the mid-twentieth-century cannot be understood outside the context of the Cold War. The political environment of US anti-communism was a major force that placed barriers on direct interactions between African Americans and Chinese while also heightening the stakes of these relationships for the people involved personally, politically, and economically. Liu Liangmo and Sylvia Si-lan Chen Leyda’s forced departures from the US under pressure from the FBI and INS, Du Bois’ and Robeson’s US detainment due to passport cancellations, and Hughes’ later disavowal of his own revolutionary writings and relationships in the context of rising McCarthyism in the US all make poignantly clear the extreme duress these individuals faced in their efforts to pursue internationalist lives and leftist political views, as well as the value international connections, such as those with China, provided in times of need. It is heartbreaking to read, for example, how Paul Robeson was unable to travel to China during the height of his fame there in the 1950s because the US State Department voided his passport following his outspoken criticisms of US involvement in the Korean War. As Gao writes poignantly, “Eslanda [Robeson] could visit China, but her husband could not” (97). Interest in Du Bois, Robeson, and Hughes in China was often linked to their outspoken criticisms of US racism and their leftist politics. Gao documents in detail the widespread attention in literary circles and positive media coverage that Du Bois, Robeson, and Hughes enjoyed for long periods in China, often at the very times they faced harassment in the US for their political views. This contrast further underscores Gao’s point that these figures’ engagements with China were not only impactful in China but also meaningful to them personally, since international attention offered validation at a time of increasing danger and lack of appreciation in the US.
One of the major contributions of Gao’s accounts of Du Bois, Robeson, and Hughes is her comprehensive treatment of the circulation and reception of their writings, speeches, music, and other artistic expressions in Chinese-language media. Because of language barriers, the Chinese component of these figures’ legacies has often been overlooked in previous scholarship. In her discussion of Hughes, for example, Gao writes, “Hughes’s journey to Moscow and Japan is well known, but his connection with China has been insufficiently studied. Donald C. Dickinson’s A Bio-bibliography of Langston Hughes includes Hughes’s works in various languages but omits those in Chinese” (241). As Gao shows through her richly documented and exhaustive research on these figures’ reception in Chinese-language sources, the Du Boises, Robesons, and Hughes were all widely published and translated in Chinese and discussed extensively in both the academic sphere and the popular press. Even children in China learned about these important African American icons, as Gao shows in her discussion of a Chinese-language children’s cartoon series about Robeson published in China in 1949 (104) and the Chinese Ministry of Education’s 2009 inclusion of a translation of Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in a nationally mandated textbook for ninth graders across China, which speaks to the continuing circulation of his work into the twenty-first century. “Hughes’ work thus continues to boast an enormous readership in China comparable only to that enjoyed by figures as prominent as Mao Zedong and Lu Xun,” Gao concludes (294). In all three chapters on these figures, Gao devotes significant space not only to discussing the role that China played in Du Bois’, Robeson’s, and Hughes’ work (which was significant) but also to tracing the ways that Chinese writers and artists engaged with their work. In addition to tracking the many translations and publications of Du Bois’, Robeson’s, and Hughes’ works into Chinese, Gao also analyzes the changing interpretation and evaluation they received in the context of shifting domestic politics and aesthetic concerns within China. Although this is not the focus of her book, Gao makes an effort to contextualize Chinese treatments of these individuals and their work within longer histories of Chinese media representations of African Americans and Black people more broadly. She shows how the treatment of Du Bois, Robeson, and Hughes represented a shift toward more positive and less racially discriminatory portrayals of Black people in the Chinese public sphere. Discussing Hughes’ visit to Shanghai in 1933, for example, Gao calls Hughes “the first Black American intellectual to ever step on Chinese soil” and shows how his visit sparked new discussions about race in China’s leftist intellectual circles at the time. Part of this discourse, Gao explains, included what she calls an “apologetic explanation of Blackness,” which was nevertheless still problematic and also persisted, she argues, in some later accounts of Robeson (259). Gao’s discussion of how Chinese state media “fell silent on Robeson” (119) in 1962 after the Sino-Soviet split and then “returned [Robeson] to the pantheon of Chinese heroes” (121) after 1976 illustrates also the fickleness of the Chinese embrace and how these figures, despite their distance and at times romanticization, were also subject to domestic political winds.
While the chapters on Du Bois, Robeson, and Hughes focus on bringing to light previously underexplored aspects of these well-known people’s lives and contributions through the lens of their relationships to China, the chapters on Liu Liangmo and Sylvia Si-lan Chen Leyda are fundamentally different. This is because, in Gao’s words, “journalist and musician Liu Liangmo [ca. 1909-88] and Sino-Afro-Caribbean dancer-choreographer Sylvia Si-lan Chen (ca. 1905-96), have, until now, been consigned to the dustbin of history” (1). Gao’s research on Liu brings forth a fascinating story of contradictions and surprises. In the captivating chapter devoted to him, one learns that Liu was largely responsible for promoting the mass singing movement in 1930s China; that he emigrated to the US in 1940 to study theology at the same school later attended by Martin Luther King Jr; that he “frequently visited Camp Wo-Chi-Ca, a communist interracial summer camp for workers’ children” (140), a hub for African American and left-wing white intellectuals and artists; that he published a 123-week column in the Pittsburgh Courier, the US’s largest Black newspaper; that he travelled across the US giving speeches and singing in major events for sometimes tens of thousands of people, including African American, whites, and Chinese Americans (155); that he published widely in US popular media and was featured in Reader’s Digest and Time magazine; and that he eventually became what Gao calls “somewhat of a household name in the United States” (124). Liu’s successful career as a high-ranking Baptist government official in the PRC after 1949, treated in the final ten pages of the chapter, is no less intriguing. Relevant to the larger themes of the book, Gao highlights how Liu played an important role in “[i]ntroducing racial solidarity into Chinese politics” and “hailing the greatness and achievement of African Americans” (170), including Robeson, Du Bois, and others, for Chinese readers. He also helped lead China’s delegation to the Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Conference in Cairo in December 1957 (175). Gao’s chapter on Liu is one of the most groundbreaking in the book and makes a convincing case for the importance of this largely forgotten figure in Chinese-African American relations.
Sylvia Si-lan Chen Leyda, a professional dancer, is the only woman among the five key figures examined in the book, as well as the only person of mixed Afro-Chinese descent and the only individual born and raised in neither the US nor China. Daughter of former Chinese minister of foreign affairs Eugene Chen (Chen Youren 陳友仁, 1878-1944), Sylvia Si-lan Chen Leyda was born in Trinidad and educated in the UK. After the death of her French Creole mother, Alphonsine Agatha Ganteaume, in 1926, Sylvia travelled briefly to China with her father, then a leader in the left wing of the Chinese Nationalist Party in Wuhan. Following the collapse of the Wuhan government and Chiang Kai-shek’s anti-communist purges in 1927, the Chen family fled to Moscow together with Song Qingling. While living in the Soviet Union between 1927 and 1936, Sylvia established herself as an influential modern dancer, had a brief romance with Langston Hughes, and married American film scholar Jay Leyda, with whom she relocated to the US. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act and later anti-communist political persecution, Chen Leyda never gained US citizenship, though she lived in the US for most of her adult life. Although Gao’s chapter is not the first English-language scholarly study of Chen Leyda, it is the most comprehensive to date in its treatment of her immigration battles and experiences of FBI surveillance in the US, her relationship with Langston Hughes, and the role race played in media coverage of her family in China. Gao makes effective use of Chen Leyda’s memoir Footnote to History, articles about the Chen family published in Chinese periodicals, and the Leydas’ personal archives held at New York University, which include extensive private correspondence and legal documents such as passports, immigration papers, and other sources. Some important early English-language secondary scholarship on Chen Leyda regrettably goes unmentioned in Gao’s discussion. Additionally, some details about Chen Leyda’s dance career, such as the date of the performance of her ballet Hutong in Beijing, are incorrect (it was premiered in 1962, not in 1963 as Gao states ). Nevertheless, Gao’s significant original research on Chen Leyda and her contextualization within a larger consideration of China-African American relations is innovative and marks a major contribution to the study of this previously neglected figure.
Arise, Africa! Roar, China! is ambitious in its scope and inspiring in its subject material. Gao’s provocative book demonstrates the importance of transpacific and translingual approaches in modern Chinese and African American history. It offers a new perspective on Sino-American relations through five compelling case studies that have rarely been examined side-by-side. The texture of historical detail and organic interweaving of thematic and biographical connections across the five body chapters make Arise, Africa! Roar, China! a pleasure to read and a layered work of scholarship that invites further rereading, revisiting, and reflection.
William & Mary
 See, for example: Yuh-Jen Lu, “Wrestling with the Angels: Choreographing Chinese Diaspora in the United States (1930s–1990s),” Ph.D. Diss. New York University (2002); Elizabeth E. Sine, “The Radical Vision of Si-lan Chen: The Politics of Dance in an Age of Global Crisis.” Small Axe 50 (July 2016): 28-43.
 Emily Wilcox, “Convergent Transnationalisms: Leftist Dance Networks in Cold War East Asia.” In Mia Yu and Nikita Cai, eds. “Constellation of Intimacies” special issue, “On Our Times,” digital Journal of Guangzhou Times Museum (2021), https://timesmuseum.org/en/journal.