History professor and author Jeffrey Wasserstrom highlighted a century of American impressions of China—and Chinese impressions of America—in the 29th Annual John Fisher Zeidman Memorial Lecture on March 15.
Wasserstrom discussed the continual ebb and flow of China’s place in the American imagination, starting with the Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the 20th century. In an hour-long talk to an audience of nearly 400, he charted the rise and fall of the Chinese dream and the Chinese nightmare.
“Being fascinated by and fearful of China isn’t new,” Wasserstrom said, “and the U.S.-China love-hate relationship goes both ways.”
China’s image in American minds is also affected by popular culture, starting perhaps most prominently with NBA player Yao Ming and continuing through the 2008 Olympics and today. Yet negative images of China—often symbolized by an angry, fire-breathing dragon—persist, and fear of China replacing the United States as the world’s dominant superpower is rampant.
These contrasting messages are why Wasserstrom argued that we are in both the best of times and the worst of times in our relationship with China, though he also stressed that the Eastern country holds a special—and up and down—fascination with us, as well.
Jeffrey Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine; the editor of the Journal of Asian Studies; and the author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know. His other recent publications include Global Shanghai, 1850-2010, and China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance, which he co-edited. Wasserstrom is a co-founder and regular contributor to The China Beat: Blogging How the East is Read, and he has written for a variety of general interest periodicals and websites.
The John Fisher Zeidman Memorial Lecture series is named after John Zeidman, a 1979 graduate of Sidwell Friends School, who forged a new perspective of the world and his life through study of China. He died in 1982, not long after embarking on his college junior year abroad at Beijing Normal University. After his death, John’s family and friends established the John Fisher Zeidman ’79 Chinese Studies Fund to perpetuate John’s belief that Chinese-American relations will thrive if students begin to study Chinese language, history, and culture at the secondary level.