He looked so scared, standing there at the end of the front row, the smallest of them all, whilst around him older boys stood tall and proud. They were the first of what came to be known as ‘China’s First Hundred’, and their story proved to be a serendipitous discovery for me.
For some time, I’d had a vague idea for a novel, based on the different immigrant experiences of two Chinese women I knew, one who had quickly settled in Australia and loved her new country, the other who didn’t, and yearned for the day she could return to China. This duality interested me, but for a long time all I had was two Chinese characters walking around in my head, looking for a story.
Then I came across the book Boundless Learning: Foreign educated students of Modern China, a beautiful book published by the Hong Kong Museum of History. Boundless Learning celebrates the 150 years [at the time of publication] that China had sent students overseas to study, and is full of photographs of students, artefacts, academic records and letters written by those students. Amongst these is a photograph of the very first group of Chinese Educational Commission students to be sent to the US in 1872, ranging in age from 7 to 13 years old. Whilst the older boys stood heads up, looking straight at the camera, this small boy in the first row on the right , with his chin tucked onto his chest, looked scared and worried – who was he, exactly, and where did he come from? And what must it have been like for him, to be sent across the world at that age? When further research showed that not all of these boys returned to China, and that nothing was known about some who did not return, I knew I had my first character – Chen Mu.
The Yellow Papers [Transit Lounge, 2014] begins when the peasant boy Chen Mu is sent to Connecticut to study the secrets of the West. His experiences in his village, then in Shanghai and later Connecticut mirror those of China’s First Hundred – he cuts his queue, and adopts Western clothes and ideas, but outside the Chinese Education Mission he meets mistrust and violence. Then, as a young man, he flees America for Australia, where a whole new world awaits him.
Chen Mu represents the passage of people across borders, propelled by war, famine and political strife, who adapt to new ways without ever forgetting the old world. Beginning after China’s defeat in the two Opium Wars, and spanning almost a century of China’s formation, right up until the Cultural Revolution, The Yellow Papers is a story about identity and home, and the impact of historical events on individual lives. #AmReading #histfic #WWI #HistoricalFiction #China