Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Kingston’s book falls within the category of works attempting to interpret Chinese culture and behavior to the West. In the twentieth century, such writings take any of several forms. Lin Yutang, for example, in his My Country and My People (1935), attempted to explain the fundamentals of the great traditions of Chinese civilization as filtered through his Westernized, twentieth century scholar’s consciousness. Dennis Bloodworth, married to a Chinese wife and father of three Chinese-American children, wrote of his personal experiences with ordinary Chinese life in his The Chinese Looking Glass (1967). In the 1980’s, journalists who lived on the mainland tried to interpret China to America. Examples are Fox Butterfield’s China, Alive in the Bitter Sea (1982) and John Fraser’s The Chinese: Portrait of a People (1980), which focus on the experience of contemporary Chinese under the control of the Communist system.

Much closer to Kingston is Francis L. K. Hsu’s Americans and Chinese: Passage to Differences (1981). Hsu, a professional anthropologist who was born in China, was educated in England and the United States, and enjoyed a distinguished academic career in America, seeks to comprehend the strengths and weaknesses of both Chinese and American culture. His chapters on home, marriage, religion, and the sexes cover much the same ground as do Kingston’s works, though with a different methodology and style.

Kingston’s book is distinguished from all of these by her ability to combine historical reconstruction with the lively imagination of a novelist. Compared to The Woman Warrior, China Men is less flamboyant and fanciful. The daughter of immigrants, but not an immigrant herself, Kingston takes the reader on a rare journey inside the world of Chinese culture and Chinese-American experience. In the process, she captures the profound differences between Chinese and American culture.