To Understand China, Does It Help To Be From Minnesota?

An overcast day over the old and new China. (**Maurice**/Flickr)

There are lots of obvious questions I could use to open my dialogue with Rob Schmitz, China correspondent for American Public Media’s Marketplace, which will take place Thursday afternoon at the University of California, Irvine. I could begin, of course, by asking him to recount for the audience how exactly his high-profile exposure of Mike Daisey's fabrications unfolded. Or I could invite him to talk about the series he’s been doing for Marketplace on the real conditions in Chinese factories. Or get him to expand on one of his stories from the past, such as memorable ones he’s done on an auto showroom in Inner Mongolia and the anxieties that Chinese youth face when gearing up for the high-pressure exam that will determine which university they can go to — if they can go to any at all. By the time we do our Q and A, though, he’ll have just done two other similar events — one at USC and another at UCLA — so I've decided to take an unexpected approach. I'll begin by inviting him to talk about the fact that he comes from Minnesota. More specifically, I’ll ask him: What do you think of the notion that, when it comes to China writing, Minnesota is the new Missouri? That may seem a pretty enigmatic question, so I need to fill in some background information here.

Several years ago, I wrote an essay whose working title was “To Understand China, Does it Help to be from Missouri?” The main theme of it was simple: America's 18th-most populous state has a long tradition of punching way above its weight when it comes to producing important writing on the world's most populous country. In the 1930s and 1940s, three of the most widely-read American journalists writing about China were Agnes Smedley, Edgar Snow and Emily Hahn, a trio of natives of the Show Me State. During that same period, there were also many people not from Missouri but with ties to that state who did good work for American news organs and for China's various English-language periodicals. This is because they were all graduates of the University of Missouri's School of Journalism, which could claim native son Snow as one of its alums as well. It was due to that educational lineage, rather than to details about birthplace, that the term “Missouri Mafia” started being bandied around in commentaries on China coverage.

The piece I wrote didn't stick to just the 1930s and 1940s, which has sometimes been called a first golden age in American writing on China. I also brought the tale forward to the present day, which has seen a resurgence of high-quality books and articles about the country by American freelancers. The person I used to bring the tale into the 21st century was Peter Hessler, who was born in Columbia, Missouri. The piece was a quirky one, to say the least. So I wasn't surprised when the first two publications I sent it to rejected it. Thankfully, the third I tried, the Global Journalist, which fittingly is published in Columbia, where Hessler was born and Snow and so many of his contemporary studied journalism, saw merits in the body of the piece. They weren't as happy, though, with the title, so they gave it a new one: “From the Midwest to the Far East.”

I wasn't sure how I felt about the new title at the time, but I've come to think it was actually a better one. This is because I’ve noticed that there is a lot of high-quality American coverage of China by people with ties to Midwestern states other than Missouri. Evan Osnos, who is currently doing so well in the position as the New Yorker's main China correspondent that Hahn and Hessler both held before him, began his career at the Chicago Tribune. Megan Shank and Michelle Dammon Loyalka, two other current writers on China I admire, are from Nebraska and Wisconsin, respectively. And so on. But then, in a class all its own, there's Minnesota.

Who else is from that state besides Rob? Well, Michael Meyer for starters, the author of The Last Days of Old Beijing, one of the best trade books devoted to China I’ve read in recent years. Another Minnesotan is Mara Hvistendahl, who is the last journalist with whom I did a public Q and A at Irvine.  She has written excellent articles on China covering topics ranging from computer hackers to environmental protests, and her book on gender imbalances throughout Asia, Unnatural Selection, has been nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book Award in the Science category. Last but not least (and there are doubtless others I don't even know about), there's Adam Minter, whose “Shanghai Scrap” is one of my favorite China blogs and who has done lively and provocative pieces for venues such as The Atlantic and Bloomberg on a host of different topics. That’s not a bad line-up for a place that's another three notches below even Missouri in the Wikipedia listing of the most populous states in the U.S.

Of course, there's another way I could go, which would focus not on Rob’s birthplace but on the fact that, like Hessler and Meyer, he first went to China as a Peace Corps volunteer. I could ask him whether he sees any similarity in the way he looks at and reports about China and the way that other Peace Corps vets he knows do — especially those who, like him, have gone into journalism.

That might be the more sensible route to take. After I had to give up on the title of that old article, though, I remain sorely tempted to begin by starting by turning to Rob and saying: “To Understand China, Does it Help to be from Minnesota?”

This post originally appeared on Asia Blog.