Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1931:
WU TING-FANG IN AMERICA

by John H. Lienhard

Today, Wu Ting-fang looks at America. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

1914: Wu Ting-fang has served eight years as a Chinese diplomat in the West. Now, prodded by an American woman, he's written a book on America Through the Spectacles of an Oriental Diplomat. It makes a disorienting, but useful, look at ourselves, even today.

Urbane and literate, Wu systematically breaks American culture into components: manners, education, government, ... This is no caricature, but an insightful diagnosis of America, long before China started to be a major player on the international stage. It was still feudal and isolationist -- and perhaps, in some respects, we were as well.

Wu's opening gambit is about names. When he met a man named Coffin he was truly revolted. Names are too important. He's not superstitious (he claims) but such a name is surely cursed.

He talks about negotiation: The Chinese are tightly bound by protocol and Americans are hopelessly blunt. While we highly value time, Wu suggests that Chinese circumlocution lets parties feel one another out, establish rapport, and save time in the long run.

He's astonished and delighted by the independent intelligence of American women. They seem far ahead of Chinese women at the time. In 1914, before they could even vote, Wu has been meeting American women in the workplace, the professions -- even running for public office.

Still, he struggles with American independence. He really dislikes the independence of our children from their parents. He talks about a young man and woman leaving his parents household when they marry. The idea that the woman isn't being trained in the role of a wife by her mother-in-law strikes him as bizarre.

Wu watches our entire population voting for a president, and he reacts like a federalist. Why isn't the election left to the con-gress, for heaven's sake? He's appalled at the way we grind to a halt during elections. He thinks presidents should be elected for a single six-year term. (Well, maybe I do as well.)

There's no ambiguity in his views on clothing. Chinese clothing is practical; America's is not. He does a long riff on the fashion of mounting stuffed birds on women's hats. That, he says, demands the attention of the SPCA. (Actually, many American women were already supporting him on that one.)

Wu is astonished to find middle-class women preparing dinner for guests, and then dining with them. In that, he reminds me of the Chinese student who once told me that, "In China, everyone has servants." Still, Wu's surprise is leavened with respect. For Wu is a wise man, looking across a vast cultural gulf and understanding the essential superficiality of the differences. In the end, his study of difference takes him, as it must take us all, to the essential smallness of outward trivia that divide us. He quotes that great Chinese(?) poet William Wordsworth, who says,
Alas! What differs more than man from man,
And whence that difference? Whence but from himself?

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


T-f. Wu, America Through the Spectacles of an Oriental Diplomat. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1914.

Wu Ting-fang


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H. Lienhard.