The Alliance That Shook the World
In the early 1940s, in between performing classics like “Ol’ Man River” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” the African American singer, actor, and activist Paul Robeson liked to surprise concertgoers with the somber melody and defiant lyrics of “Chee Lai!” — or “March of the Volunteers.” Singing in flawless Chinese, Robeson hoped to show solidarity with China in its struggle against Japan.
Robeson began singing “Chee Lai!” at the apex of his fame, after being introduced to the song by Liu Liangmo, a Chinese musician and journalist he met in New York City in 1940. The two men became fast friends, forming a musical partnership that culminated in the release of the album “Chee Lai: Songs of New China” the following year.
The story of Robeson and “Chee Lai!” is just one of the Chinese-African American encounters explored by Gao Yunxiang in her new book, “Arise, Africa! Roar China: Black and Chinese Citizens of the World in the Twentieth Century.” A professor of history at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, Gao has spent the last two decades teaching and researching modern Chinese social and cultural history from a transnational perspective.
Gao’s first book, “Sporting Gender: Women Athletes and Celebrity-Making During China’s National Crisis, 1931-45,” examines how Chinese female celebrity athletes navigated rapidly shifting gender norms amid the war against Japan. In her new book, Gao shifts her focus from gender to race, tracing the intertwined lives of five global citizens of the 20th century: three African Americans — W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, and Langston Hughes — and two lesser-known Chinese — Sylvia Si-lan Chen and Liu Liangmo.
All five traversed the world, expanding their networks and nurturing a sense of shared destiny among the millions of people living under colonialism and imperialism, even as they struggled to navigate the increasingly muddy waters of trans-Pacific politics. Together, they form the missing link between China’s crusade for national liberation and Black freedom struggles in the African continent and diaspora.
In an interview conducted over email, Gao shared the details of her research process and of the lives of the central figures of her book. The first part of the interview covers the book’s genesis, the engagement between intellectuals of African American and Chinese descent, and how these engagements altered perceptions on either side of the Pacific. The second part of the interview, to be published tomorrow, will explore the challenges of trans-Pacific solidarity and how her subjects’ stories are relevant to contemporary Sino-American relations.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Liu Zifeng: How did you get interested in the ties between Chinese and African Americans? What inspired you to write “Arise Africa! Roar China!”?
Gao Yunxiang: While conducting research on my first book, “Sporting Gender,” I came across laudatory articles on W. E. B. Du Bois and Shirley Graham Du Bois in The People’s Daily. They reminded me of some things I read in my childhood: specifically, an old newspaper article and a propaganda poster.
In my childhood home in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, our ceiling was a flat lattice of wooden boards pasted over with old newspapers purchased in bulk. After I learned to read and write, I was confronted every night by a headline pasted right above my pillow — until it was covered by a new layer of old newspapers the following Lunar New Year. Since I read those words daily, they were inscribed in my brain: “Robert Williams and Madam Du Bois Fervently Acclaim Chairman Mao’s Statement Supporting Black Americans’ Struggle Against Violent Repression.”
That title is in turn connected to the memory of a poster that hung in our little classroom for 18 students between grades one to three. Advocating solidarity in the liberation struggle, the poster featured indignant men and women of various ethnicities, all dressed in vibrant clothing and charging forward, with a muscular Black man holding a gun at the center.
“Sporting Gender” was released in 2013. Around the same time, I published an article in the journal Du Bois Review that explored how W. E. B. and Shirley Graham Du Bois’ endeavors in Maoist China added new dimensions to Sino-American relations and Black internationalism. Working on that article, I naturally came across Paul Robeson, a close ally of the Du Boises. Then, while researching the fascinating yet unknown dynamics between Paul Robeson and China, I came across his Chinese allies: Liu Liangmo and Sylvia Si-lan Chen.
Of course, I was immediately curious about who they were. While looking into Chen, I learned that Langston Hughes was her lover. So, I traced these figures just like interlocked chains.
Liu: What attracted African American intellectuals, artists, and activists to China? How did they encounter Chinese and China? What were their impressions of these encounters?
Gao: Solidarity between people of color globally and their shared destiny of anti-racism and anti-colonialism attracted these figures’ attention to China. As a minority facing overwhelming state-imposed systematic racism and white supremacy, Black intellectuals and activists looked toward the similarly oppressed China for inspiration and strength.
These figures’ ties with leftist Chinese and China were built on a profound emotional and intellectual foundation. They shared a faith in Sino-Afro racial, linguistic, philosophical, and artistic kinship. Hughes observed Chinese to be “a very jolly people, much like colored folks at home”; Du Bois lauded Chinese as “my physical cousins.”
Both Du Bois and Robeson consistently articulated the linkage between African and Chinese civilizations and cited famous Chinese cultural giants such as Confucius and Laozi to argue for the sophistication of African civilization, counter negative stereotypes associated with perceived African “primitivism,” and debunk white supremacism.
Cultural kinship necessitated a political alliance. By embracing China’s revolutions as vehicles for the social and economic uplift of nonwhites, Black intellectuals directly linked the struggles of African Americans with those of nationalist Chinese. Hughes’ 1933 journey to “incredible” Shanghai made him the first Black intellectual celebrity to set foot on Chinese soil. He was profoundly sympathetic to China’s suffering under colonial oppression, especially Japan’s latest aggressions. Hughes would pen a passionate poem, “Roar, China!” following Japan’s full-scale invasion of China in 1937, lionizing China’s resistance.
The Communist victory in 1949 made China a pillar of nonwhite peoples’ revolutionary struggles and a model for millions to beat colonialism. Robeson romantically imagined that the nonwhite world would view the rising China as a “new star of the East… pointing the way out from imperialist enslavement to independence and equality. China has shown the way.”
During his epic China trip in 1959, Du Bois repeatedly proclaimed Chinese and African dignity and unity in the face of Western racism, colonialism, and capitalism: “Africa, Arise, and stand straight, speak and think! Turn from the West and your slavery and humiliation for the last 500 years and face the rising sun ... China is flesh of your flesh and blood of your blood.” He predicted that the “darker world” would adopt socialism as “the only answer to the color line,” and that the status of African Americans would thereby be elevated.
Despite withdrawing from radicalism due to anti-Communist hysteria in the United States, Hughes nevertheless remained confident of the power of the People’s Republic of China. His suppressed inspiration, drawn from the Chinese Communist Party, resurfaced in his fury at the brutal racial violence African Americans suffered. “Birmingham Sunday,” Hughes’ eulogy to the four Black girls killed in the dynamiting of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on Sunday, September 15, 1963, connected his rage with the rage one once felt by oppressed Chinese.
Liu: How about the Chinese intellectuals and activists you profile? Who were they? What prompted them to reach out to African Americans and what did they do to build Sino-Black solidarity?
Gao: The Chinese intelligentsia had, through literature and drama, long connected the shared “enslavement” of the Chinese nation as a semi-colony state and the enslavement of African Americans. In the introduction to their 1901 translation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Lin Shu and Wei Yi argue that the tortures “yellow” people faced were even worse than those endured by Black Americans. Chinese people needed to read the book, Liu and Wei write, because “slavery is looming for our race. We had to yell and scream to wake up the public.”
In the face of harassment by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, as well as racial terror and segregation, Liu Liangmo’s and Sylvia Si-Lan Chen’s brave journeys to the United States brought Sino–African American cultural alliances into new historical settings. Liu was a talented musician, prolific journalist, and Christian activist who initiated the trans-Pacific mass singing movement for war mobilization during World War II. He was a pioneer among Chinese for his close collaboration with African Americans, lauding Black greatness without reservation and later facilitating the reception of the Du Boises and Robeson in the People’s Republic. Among the numerous areas in which Liu and Robeson collaborated, they helped to globalize the signature piece of the mass singing movement: “Chee Lai” or “March of the Volunteers.”
In 1941, Robeson, Liu, and the Chinese People’s Chorus, a group Liu had organized among members of the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance in New York City’s Chinatown, recorded an album for Keynote Records titled, “Chee Lai: Songs of New China.” Liu’s liner notes for the album relay that he saw the collaboration as “a strong token of solidarity between the Chinese and the Negro People.”
Robeson’s notes read: “Chee Lai! (Arise!) is on the lips of millions of Chinese today, a sort of unofficial anthem, I am told, typifying the unconquerable spirit of this people. It is a pleasure and a privilege to sing both this song of modern composition and the old folk songs to which a nation in struggle has put new words.”
The song would be adopted as the national anthem of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
Chen was the world’s first “modern Chinese/Soviet dancer-choreographer” with an international reputation, according to contemporary American media accounts. She was a daughter of Eugene Chen, China’s foreign minister in the 1920s, and his French Creole wife. She was also a cousin of Dai Ailian, the acclaimed “mother of China’s modern dance.”
The Chens and Dai were all born in Trinidad and barely spoke Chinese. Chen encountered Hughes romantically in Moscow, fanning his interest in China, connecting him with the international Communist network, and helping to propel him into Shanghai’s leftist cultural circles. Chen captured the fanciful imaginations of Hughes and Robeson, who saw her as personifying the “perfect” union of Black and Chinese. Meanwhile, her own journey to choreograph and dance ethnicity, war, and revolution around the globe illustrates the complex racial and political twists of such an interracial union.
Liu: How did the African American intellectuals profiled in your book shape Chinese perceptions of Blackness and visions of the world order? And how did China’s engagement with the Africana world, at least in the cases of Liu Liangmo and Sylvia Si-Lan Chen, inform African American understandings of Chinese politics and culture and Black radical thought more generally?
Gao: W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and Paul Robeson’s presence in China and their alliances with Chinese sojourners helped facilitate a shift in the dynamics of Pan-Africanism and Pan-Asianism and ultimately inspired the “color line” of Mao Zedong’s Third World theory.
The transformative process started with gradual changes in the images of Blacks in the Republic of China (1912-1949). Stung by its humiliating reputation as the “sick man of Asia” and alarmed by Nazi racism and Japan’s imperialist ambitions, China was acutely frustrated by the repeated defeats of Chinese athletes at the 1932 and 1936 Olympics. Thus, Chinese media celebrated the “natural” physical prowess of the boxer Joe Louis and track-and field athlete Jesse Owens on behalf of the world’s people of color.
The front cover of an issue of China’s leading cartoon magazine, Modern Sketch, devoted to the 1936 Olympics, drew inspiration from Owens’s triumph. The magazine’s back cover featured a drawing of a muscular Black woman resembling the American chanteuse Josephine Baker, clad in a banana skirt, captioned, “Victory of Colored People at the Olympics.”
Those two images exemplified Chinese portraiture of African Americans. Du Bois, who visited China around that time, announced that the race “must be represented, not only in sports, but in science, in literature, and in art.” Jazz musicians in nightclubs, who were dismissed as “foreign musical instrument devils” — yangqin gui — or else caricatured in advertisements for toothpaste and white towels, dominated Black representation in Republican Chinese media. The presence of Du Bois, Hughes, and Robeson, whose intellectual capacities Chinese critics described as “genius,” started to alter such stereotypes.
During his trip to Shanghai, Hughes was quickly embraced by the city’s leftist cultural circles, led by the author Lu Xun. Their magazines hailed him as the “first established Black revolutionary writer,” who was “howling and struggling for the oppressed races.” Hughes’ visit triggered ongoing interest in his work and Black literature in China.
The final step of connecting Blackness with revolution occurred during the People’s Republic of China. The narrative on the globally famous Robeson was quickly transformed from that of an exotic entertainer to a heroic model and inspiration for the country’s socialist citizens. He was introduced in state media as “the Black King of Songs” for the oppressed masses in the world, who “embodied the perfect marriage between art and politics.”
After Du Bois shifted his favorable gaze from Japan to the People’s Republic of China as the new pillar of the colored world, he was treated as an icon by a China aspiring to leadership in the “Third World.” During their visits, he and his wife received unprecedented state hospitality. The couple frequently rubbed shoulders with China’s top leadership, became the first Westerners to grace the Tiananmen Square podium during the country’s National Day celebrations, and frequently occupied the front pages of major newspapers. Du Bois’ birthdays were celebrated as major state events.
Liu and Chen, meanwhile, linked the burning issues facing Chinese Americans and African Americans — such as the poll tax, the Chinese Exclusion Act, Jim Crow laws, and the lynching of African Americans — while urging their abolition.
The second half of this interview will be published tomorrow.
Editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: W. E. B. Du Bois with Mao Zedong in a garden in Central China, March 1959. From the W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312), Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries)