Egon Erwin Kisch
Author: Egon Erwin Kisch
Title: China geheim. [Secret China.] Time: 1932
Length: 3 months
[Note: The edition I am reading has been illustrated with old photographs from China by a German businessman called Wilhelm Thiemann, who had nothing to do with EEK. The photos are interesting, but not overly exciting.]
The story: It is the year 1932, we are reaching the bitter end of the Weimar Republic, and EEK is a German-writing journalist from Prague who embarked on a fact-finding mission to China. He is widely known in Germany for being a „raging reporter“, because of his rash persona and his witty writing style. And he is a communist.
In this book, he chronicles his 3-month trip around China. He gets there by train, visits Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing and travels around in their vicinities. He talks to people (apparently through interpreters), he visits factories, witnesses an execution, and he shares his observations and his personal thoughts about what he sees.
Egon Erwin Kisch sees imperialism everywhere
The book is interesting, especially after reading Ernst Cordes, who wrote about the exact same time period in China, but from a very different perspective. Unlike Cordes, EEK does not speak Chinese at all, nor does he have any intimate understanding of Chinese culture. His fieldwork does not include getting drunk with „coolies“ or smoking opium with prostitutes. Instead, EEK focuses almost exclusively on the issue of European, American and Japanese imperialism in China, and on the effects of social injustice they have brought down on the Chinese people.
He sees child labor and death, he sees the Nationalist government sucking up to foreign powers, and he sees the League of Nations watch on powerlessly as Japanese troops are laying waste to a Shanghai suburb.
And he is angry. His writing is constantly dripping with sarcasm, and he even adds a short play at the end of the text, a farce designed to further expose the imperialist hypocrisy that has been hinted at over and over in this book.
Lu Xun and the problem of humiliation
I am not sure if EEK’s particular view on China can be seen as representative, though. After all, we are reading the thoughts of a foreign radical who stayed in China for only 3 months and most likely got shown around by people from his own political faction. But then it’s not like other books can be read with less caution just because the authors leave us more in the dark about their political attitudes, is it?
And the insights that EEK manages to present are very interesting one way or another – even more so if we accept the rumor that one of his informants was apparently the acclaimed writer Lu Xun!
Anyway, the most eye-opening thing about this book is the feeling of collective humiliation that EEK manages to capture. Sadly, the way things work is that no matter what the reality around you is really like, once you feel humiliated, then you have been actually and effectively humiliated. This goes for individuals as well as groups.
And the reality of Republican China as seen by EEK (and, to a much lesser extent, by Cordes and other writers as well), indeed provided a fertile soil for a long-lasting feeling of humiliation among the people of China.
Makes you wonder.