Centennial gala in Philly inspired today's China

Posted: July 04, 2011

By Charles Desnoyers

'July 4th is the day on which Washington founded the nation. The evening before, at 7:30 p.m., the vice president and the mayor of Philadelphia attended a banquet with the exhibition officials of various countries, after which they took carriages to sightsee. The lamps of all the streets and thoroughfares lit up the heavens and the sound of guns shook the earth. There were hundreds of amusements on hand, and the exploding fireworks and flags draped everywhere all contributed to the festivities. ... The next three days saw similar scenes of celebration, and it was undeniably a very grand affair."

It was indeed. This was the Fourth of Fourths, America's centennial Independence Day, the continent's biggest celebration yet, held amid America's first world's fair, the Centennial Exposition of 1876. But the description above was not from an American observer. It was instead from Li Gui (1842-1903). His report on his visit to America, A New Account of a Trip Around the Globe, remained a favorite handbook of foreign technology, exotica, and adventure for generations of Chinese readers, including a young Mao Zedong.

The account of Li Gui, the official Chinese observer of the event, provides us with an opportunity to reflect on some seldom recognized Chinese connections with our region that spring from that time.

Perhaps the most interesting of these comes indirectly through last year's Shanghai Expo. While the Expo was not China's first world's fair, it was, like the Beijing Olympics, China's coming out party as the economic colossus of the 21st century. In many ways their model for this was our own centennial, which marked a similar emergence for the United States.

Li Gui's memoir of our city and the fair became the first in-depth treatment of the cutting-edge technologies so eagerly sought by China's first modernizers. Li visited all of the major exhibition halls and most of the lesser ones, and offered astute commentary on the advantages and disadvantages of a staggering number of objects and machines for use in China.

This fascination with our Centennial exposition was echoed by the Shanghai Media Group and Shanghai Television, which sent a TV crew here in 2008 as they put together a documentary on the history of world's fairs. And one of the key events of the Association for Asian Studies conference held in Philadelphia in April 2010 was a trip to the old Centennial grounds and Memorial Hall, based in part on Li's account. Philadelphians today would no doubt sigh with nostalgia at Li's assessment of our city:

"America's richest and most populous areas are concentrated in its northeastern states. Within these, accordingly, are its three largest cities. The first is called 'New York,' the second, 'Philadelphia,' and the third, 'Boston' . . . As for the extent of their respective areas, number of multistory houses, and spaciousness of their streets and boulevards, however, Philadelphia must take precedence . . ."

Since then, of course, Sino-American relations have oscillated between friendship and hostility. Yet beneath this changeable political landscape both peoples have maintained a mutual fascination for each other. Americans are regularly entranced by Chinese history and culture. For their part, Chinese notions of American "otherness" and "newness" - many of which were first brought by Li to Chinese readers - prove continually attractive. As Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong once put it, America is "a land without ghosts": where the past does not prevent people from making themselves anew.

Now China is making itself anew. While its government remains repressive, China is daily forging closer connections to the United States, while bulldozing its own path to prosperity. Perhaps, then, as we celebrate this 235th anniversary of our nation's birth, we might remember that some of the visions guiding China's rebirth were inspired right here as well.

Charles Desnoyers is associate professor of history and director of Asian Studies at La Salle University. His book on Chinese observer Li Gui is called, A Journey to the East (University of Michigan Press, 2004)

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