Compared to the Great Mughals or the European Wars for nation-states, Chinese history is often relegated to one semester of a central university’s syllabus. The other is devoted to the Japanese. Together, they adjust themselves into a single module titled History of Modern Asia. As academic papers, students even face a significant adjustment period because of the complicated names, the utterly alien culture of the regions and the general lack of knowledge about their societies. In this scenario, Somerset Maugham’s On a Chinese Screen is a part-foggy and part-pretty mirror reflecting European nationals’ lives vis-a-vis the native Chinese population. It is a fascinating yet flawed account – a peek into the frustrations, lifestyle, and emotional ethos of foreign nationals in China.
In 1919, immediately after the First World War, Maugham spent his winter travelling 1500 miles up the Yangtze River. Along this journey, he met a motley of people – missionaries, ex-pats, managers, government officials, and bankers, who were culturally and philosophically out of their depths in China. He also brushed shoulders with the more impoverished Chinese population sections such as steersmen, farmers, coolies and rickshaw-pullers.
However, for most of this journal-like collection of 58 vignettes, we see China through the eyes of majorly European (British and French) characters. They are people who have not visited their home countries in a long time, up to nearly 50 years. Do they love China? Do they hate China? Do they want to return or have their lives been moulded in the quaint Chinese urns till the day they die? Have they managed to adapt themselves or still live under a garb of being the better ones in an outlandish civilization? Maugham’s astute observations attempt to shed light on each kind of outsider who has supposedly made their homes and fortune in China. An unmistakable tinge of superiority tints the narrative.
For me, On a Chinese Screen is an inconsistent experience. Just like any other anthology of short works, I thoroughly enjoyed select stories. Whether it was Maugham’s descriptions of the rain in the countryside or his notes on traits like hypocrisy, adjustment, and longing, they create a lasting impact. However, some others felt tepid. Sadly, a few did not elicit a reaction at all and felt out of place. The book was a mixed experience, and my thoughts remain divided. First, I’ll describe the pieces that I admired the most.
Servants of God is a conversation between an old French missionary and a younger English one. While they are not similar, the author describes them as sharing a common attribute of goodness. They speak for a while and prepare to leave. The Englishman and Frenchmen are both heading home. However, each is unaware of what home means for the other. The Frenchman, living in China for half a century, is leaving for his town that he never plans to leave. The British missionary is thinking about his home in Cheshire, where his family have dwelled for three centuries.
Henderson is a commentary on western hypocrisy in China. Henderson is a pompous junior partner who upon his arrival in China was revolted by the rickshaws. As a socialist, it aggravated his sense of personal dignity that another human would be carrying him around in a vehicle. But as he began to encounter the scorching Shanghai heat, Henderson frequently uses the rickshaw. However, he maintains that the puller is like his brother and friend. On a particular ride, when the author accompanied Henderson, the latter remarked how their rickshaw-puller was sweating profusely and they ought to let him go for the heat will only get worse. Henderson answered that one must not pay attention to the Chinese for the British were the ruling race. As the rickshaw-puller missed the turn he ought to have taken, Henderson kicked him and called him a bloody fool. All while discussing Bertrand Russell’s Road to Freedom.
The Opium Den is a unique take on the nature of opium addiction in the country. China had been in the midst of massive and illegal opium trade that destroyed vast segments of their population and caused two major wars in the 17th and 18th century. The author always imagined opium dens to be dingy, squalid places. His idea is like a set from a play where young men driven by addiction behave like frenzied lunatics while the poorer lot begs the evil owner to let them enjoy a smoke for free. Finally, when he is taken to an opium den, the real picture is entirely different. The property was neat, brightly-lit and divided into cubicles where people were experiencing a quiet time with their long pipes, chessboards and newspapers. The den was like a Berlin bar that men visited after work. Studying the scenario, Maugham remarks, “Fiction is stranger than fact.”
The Nun is a short conversation between a nun and the author. Mother Superior has been in China for 20 years and dearly misses watching the Pyrenes mountains from her window. However, she is fond of the Chinese whom she believes to be hardworking and understanding. She remembers when a few soldiers she nursed to health transported her heavy bags in their car. The author asks why the men did not give her a lift instead of only carrying her bags. The nun’s reply is poignant. She says, “A nun in their eyes is only a woman. You must not ask people more than they are capable of giving.”
The Consul is the funniest of the lot. It’s about Mr. Pete, a man who is employed in the consular service. In his long career, the only case that eluded a solution was Mrs Yu. A British citizen who married a Chinese man against her mother’s wishes, Mrs Yu arrived in China only to find out that her husband has a wife, and she was his second. Since the revelation, she regularly harasses Mr Pete by seeking legal remedies but disregards his suggestion to return to England. In a fit of rage at her stubbornness, he asks her why she refuses to leave her husband. Mrs Yu answers, “There‘s something in his way his hair grows on his forehead that I can‘t help liking.”
Maugham’s writing has a strangely mixed quality. He can make searing statements but simultaneously, dazzle the reader with his fluid and poetical descriptions of the smallest moments. The latter is evident in Night has Fallen, Arabesque, The Painting and A Game of Billiard. They are not rich in material. Only wonderfully writte, a drawback shared by many more stories in the collection.
On a Chinese Screen is not a compassionate account of Maugham’s travel in China. Neither is it harsh. It is a cross between matter-of-fact observations and free-flowing ruminations. Moreover, the stories do betray a considerable white man’s lens. There is casual racism. Maugham is more interested in the life of Europeans and how they battle or adjust to China. The indigenous population works as the backdrop, but that backdrop is rather dull in itself. He paints a much brighter picture in front of the grey curtain. It is incredible how the same man can paint a sensitive word-picture of a plum-blossom (The Picture) and in another story, describe a Chinese woman as a “little yellow wife” (Sullivan).
Maugham is part aggressive, part beautiful. However, to his credit, Maugham sufficiently reveals European ignorance. He remarks how high-ranking officials can barely understand a Chinese word for they consider the language to be beneath them. In fact, Maugham’s idea of China is best received by readers who share the same socio-economic background. For example, the Los Angeles Times described the book as “Evokes a nostalgic China replete with rickshaws and sing sing girls.” This is a simplistic statement, borderline cliched. It is like Coldplay’s Hymn for the Weekend video where India was represented with peacocks and Holi.
Coming to the principal question: Do I recommend On a Chinese Screen? There are two ways to look at it. I will not suggest the book to be a reader’s first brush with Somerset Maugham. He has far more powerful and memorable works. However, if you are a seasoned Maugham admirer, you will enjoy the travelogue as “another Maugham down.” As a reader in the first category, I think of my experience as a fascinating glimpse into the realities of a specific niche of the population in a far-off land. But I read On a Chinese Screen knowing that it is imperfect.