Through the Looking Glass

Through the Looking Glass: China’s Foreign Journalists from Opium Wars to MaoBy Paul French Hong Kong University Press £27.95, 240 pages

Foreign journalists working in China sometimes feel that their lives have been lived before. The similarities between being a correspondent in today’s China and during the period between the two world wars are too insistent to miss. Piracy of intellectual property, outbreaks of social unrest, government suppression and anti-foreign sentiment were all staples of a foreign journalist’s work, just as they are today.

Paul French’s book is a riveting portrait of the swashbuckling world of the foreign media in China before 1949. It spans the opium wars, the Boxer rebellion, the collapse of the Manchu Qing dynasty, the rise of the warlords, Japan’s military invasion and, finally, the Communist revolution. With so much going on, it is not surprising that China – and chiefly Shanghai – attracted a stream of adventurers, romantics and scoundrels, as well as some of the most talented journalists of their age.

Emily Hahn, a Missouri feminist who called herself Mickey, arrived in Shanghai in 1935 at the age of 30, after writing a book about the art of seduction. She stayed until the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong in 1941 and got to know some of Shanghai’s most prominent figures. She was notorious for taking her pet gibbon, Mr Mills, to dinner parties dressed in a nappy and tiny dinner jacket.

But Hahn’s frivolous side was more than balanced by her work for The New Yorker. Her involvement with Sinmay Zau (Shao Xunmei), a Chinese poet and publisher, gave her an entrée into the world of the Soong sisters, one of whom was married to Sun Yat-sen, founding father of the Republic, and the other to Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Kuomintang. The book that followed, The Soong Sisters, is an enduringly important work.

Then there’s the extraordinary George Ernest Morrison, who became The Times’s first full-time China correspondent in 1897, and was so influential that for a long time the Chinese regarded him as the top British authority in Beijing. He had less luck with his journalism, having been away snipe-shooting when the Boxer rebellion broke out, thus missing the biggest Chinese story in his lifetime. However, his bruised pride was salved when, during a siege of the Legation Quarters, Morrison was reported dead but emerged later to read his glowing obituary in The Times and set the record straight with an account of what really happened.

Morrison was certainly intrepid but there is doubt over whether he wrote all his own copy. Some of his best work is thought to have been ghost-written by the Orientalists JOP Bland and Sir Edmund Backhouse.

In Through the Looking Glass, Paul French holds up a mirror to the interactions of east and west – and to the imperfections of perspective. The book also allows us to relearn how little under the sun is really new.

James Kynge is a former FT China bureau chief and author of ‘China Shakes the World: The Rise of a Hungry Nation’ (Phoenix)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.