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The Ghost of Arthur H. Smith in the Mirror of Cultural Translation

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image of Journal of American-East Asian Relations

Arthur H. Smith’s Chinese Characteristics (1890) remained the most widely read American book on China until Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth (1931). Smith’s collection of pungent and humorous essays, originally written for white expatriates in Asia, was accepted by Americans at home as a wise and authentic handbook. The book was soon translated into Japanese (1896), classical Chinese (1903), and at least three more times into Chinese since 1990. The characteristics Smith identified reflect his conception of the American Way of Life, racial hierarchy, the idea of progress, and the middle-class values with which he was brought up. He used race and “national character” to explain Chinese food, dress, body care, music, art, language, and architecture, as well as politics and religion. Lu Xun, the preeminent Chinese cultural critic of the early twentieth century, pondered why his country had been defeated and came to believe that the character of his countrymen was the key to their future survival. Smith’s criticisms were valuable for this task of introspection but Lu Xun took him to task for misunderstanding the concept of “face” because he did not grasp it in the social context of unequal power. The ghost of Arthur Smith thus haunts both Chinese and Americans.

Affiliations: 1: Columbia University, E-mail:


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