Book Review: The China Mirage by James Bradley

Author: James Bradley
Title: The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia
Publication Info: New York, NY : Little, Brown, 2015

This is a book I read with my colleagues at work, as the early parts of the book relate to some of the collections in our archival depository.  Bradley’s work is a sweeping account of the flawed policy of American government toward China from the mid-19th century until the rise of Mao Zedong to power in the 1940s.  The early part of the book focuses on the American merchant class who set up trading posts that the were deliberately isolated from the ordinary Chinese people by the Chinese government.  The American merchants all made wealth in the opium trade creating an opiate crisis in China (It made me realize that the Sackler family were not the first Americans to get people hooked on opiates while also acquiring Asian art).

Among these merchants were Warren Delano, the maternal grandfather of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  The foreign policy of both Theodore Roosevelt and FDR are key parts of this book as they operated on false assumptions of China as a place where the Chinese peasants were eager to be Americanized and convert to Christianity.  This view was promulgated by what Bradley calls the China Lobby, lead by influential and wealthy businessmen like the publisher Henry Luce.  Key figures in the China Lobby were the Soong Family, Charlie Soong and his daughters Soong Ai-ling, Soong Ching-ling, and Soong Mei-ling who were American educated and Christian converts. Soong Mei-ling married Chiang Kai-shek and together and gained power by deluding the China Lobby and American government for financial support while in fact creating a cruel but ineffectual dictatorship over China.

I found this book very illuminating about the history of China and Chinese-American international relations.  Bradley also has a lot of suppositions about how a more realistic approach to China by the US government could’ve prevented the severity of the Pacific theater of World War II as well as the wars in Korea and Vietnam.  He certainly makes a good point that the US could’ve responded positively to calls for alliance from Mao, a more effective fighter against Japan than Chiang, and someone who was no less a communist or tyrant than America’s World War II ally Josef Stalin.  On the other hand I am very turned off by Bradley’s snarky tune and frequent use of jokey nicknames for the figures in this book. For all I know,The China Mirage may be 100% factual, but Bradley’s writing style makes me doubt it.

Favorite Passages:

“On the American side, generations of missionary dreams about New China created an assumption in the United States about a reality that never existed in Asia. The China mirage took hold in the nineteenth century, affected U.S. foreign policy and domestic politics in the twentieth century, and continues to misguide America. Perhaps the cautionary tale revealed in this book will motivate people in both countries to strengthen that bridge across the Pacific before it’s too late. Again.”


“…a procession of American sea merchants made their fortunes smuggling opium. They were aware of its poisonous effects on the Chinese people, but few of them ever mentioned the drug in the thousands of pages of letters and documents they sent back to America. Robert Bennet Forbes—a Russell and Company contemporary of Delano’s—defended his involvement with opium by noting that some of America’s best families were involved, ‘those to whom I have always been accustomed to look up as exponents of all that was honorable in trade—the Perkins, the Peabodys, the Russells and the Lows.'”


Certainly some missionaries knew that Chiang was a one-party despot with legions of Blue Shirt thugs terrorizing the populace. They also knew that Chiang’s government was still a weak collection of warlord states held together by Ailing and Chiang through financial payoffs. But for reasons of either blind faith or strategic amorality, these men of God overlooked Chiang’s shortcomings. The Missionary Review of the World wrote, ‘China has now the most enlightened, patriotic and able rulers in her history.’”


Recommended books:

Rating: ***