On Becoming Curious about China: A Personal Story

By Wilton S. Dillon, senior scholar emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution and former president of the Institute for Intercultural Studies at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Excerpted from Smithsonian Stories: Chronicle of a Golden Age, 1964-1984, published in January 2015.

Everybody has a story about how China—or any other nation—enters one's consciousness. How are images and stereotypes formed? How does one’s personal experience influence curiosity to learn more about a society other than one's own? The Smithsonian offered me a great "on-the-job" opportunity to extend that curiosity beyond earlier experiences. I arrived in 1969 from the National Academy of Sciences just as the academy was trying to open up scholarly communications with Mainland China. But before that, my curiosity was piqued by childhood exposure to returned missionaries in the 1920s. Eventually, Margaret Mead's work on "national character" led me to ask a question that could be asked about any society: "How does one learn to be Chinese, or, say, Indian, Tibetan. Ethiopian, or American?

Here are some takeaways from this story: Chinese civilization is where you find it. Chinese art, though rooted in Chinese history and politics, is transcendental. Person-to-person encounters with other nationals lead to unsuspecting insights, such as one finds in Chinese fortune cookies. Seek out strangers. Learn from them.

Though we were not professional museologists, our tower office became an impromptu ex officio Chinese art pavilion for two fleeting periods in the 1970s. The Ripley regime was not sticky. He liked the French understanding of amateur. I did not have to ask permission. He encouraged staff to be hospitable to strangers, to connect the Smithsonian with a larger universe. Before describing how we played like a Chinese art gallery, I will explain how I was predisposed.

I have been fascinated by Chinese civilization since I was five years old. My Baptist grandmother took me to her church in Yale, Oklahoma, my birthplace, to hear a family of returned missionaries describe their encounter with that ancient land. On a communion cable, I saw an array of artifacts: a peach seed carved into intricate floral designs, brocades and sashes, an incense burner, an ivory vase,. and, above all, tiny silk slippers for women with bound feet. I remember nothing about "ancestor worship" or "Western imperialism." But these bits of material culture remained fastened in my image of China up through my later reading of Pearl Buck and the movie made of her, Oil for The Lamps of China. Few Oklahoma towns in the 1920s and '30s could boast a Chinese restaurant.

While soldiering in the Philippines in 1945, I found evidence of centuries of Chinese trade, and Chinese genes in many of the "ruling class," including President Osmena. Chinese merchants were vilified in Philippine politics for "taking unfair advantage" of the less mercantile Filipinos. The Yamashita war climes trial exposed the to gruesome details of Japanese atrocities in China. I met in Manila Edgar Snow, author of Red Star Over China. I have Proustian memories of green onions in the won con of Ongpin Street.

Eventually, during my three years working on MacArthur's education and information staff in Japan, I sailed for a week's vacation in Shanghai in August 1947. The Revolution was well under way. Though Shanghai was still under the control of Chiang Kai-shek, I saw refugees from Red-controlled villages: peasant mothers with scrawny babies sucking their breasts. Nevertheless, I still wanted co use my GI Bill to study Chinese in Beijing at the end of my civilian contract in Tokyo. The Red Army dashed that hope. Would l ever find more direct experience in China, a cultural mother of the highly distinctive Japanese?

I picked Asia-oriented Berkeley as an alternative to the inaccessible Beijing. I much enjoyed courses in Chinese poetry in translation, logical-positive philosophy courses alluding to China's rejection of supernaturalism, and sociology courses on agricultural and nomadic societies taught by a German sociologist, Wolfram Eberhard. I heard Joseph Needham lecture on the history of Chinese science. San Francisco's museums and art galleries abounded with Chinese sculpture and painting. Ducks hung in sidewalk markets in Chinatown.

By 1966, a remnant of Chinese civilization was vibrating, since 1949, through aboriginal and Japanese imperial Taiwan. I was lucky to be invited lo Taipei for a conference on the social sciences and humanities at the Academia Sinica. Frederick Burkhardt of the American Council of Learned Societies chaired the gathering of Chinese and American scholars. The hot-button issue of a two-China policy was not on our agenda. Still, the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) was demoralized by "losing the Mainland" and sought cosmopolitan recognition via contributing to Western social sciences and humanities.

We had high tea with the generalissimo (1887-1975) who had been routed by Mao. He was alert and welcoming. At the Taipei museum, we admired treasures that accompanied his Nationalist armies on the long escape route. Each conferee received handsome sets of books illustrating art from the National Palace Collection. That red and gold boxed set brightened a cable in our Smithsonian tower.

In British Crown Colony Hong Kong, I met James Wart, a Chinese art historian later to become Douglas Dillon (no kin) curator of Chinese art at the Metropolitan Museum. in New York. He introduced me to a new university museum of art in Kowloon on the Mainland. He showed me the harbor where a Chinese artist painted a picture of Commodore Pen-y's Black Ships paused on their way to open up Japan. That painting hangs in the White House. (My wife's ancestor Washington Gwathmey was one of Perry's officers.)

So l had good reason to be predisposed at least to hear an offer from a recent Washington arrival from Hong Kong. The glamorous Sara Larkin hoped the Smithsonian would sponsor an exhibition of contemporary Chinese art. She was an artist, a gallery owner, and a new widow. She came to me through John Larkin, her TV personality brother who sometimes interviewed Smithsonian people for a local talk show. From the outset, I explained that I knew of no venue where this could happen. The Freer Gallery had a charter restriction: to exhibit art only from its own collections. Our International Gallery was not in operation. But when Sara called at the South Tower, she exclaimed, "This is the perfect spot." I demurred.

Ours wasn’t public space, rather a working office with no mandate to hold exhibitions. She insisted that her collection looked best in the ambience of a home, and that our salon was better than a gallery. Besides. the paintings would be up for only a week after a reception for dignitaries. This was to be her debut in Washington. Sara heard that under no circumstances could the "show" be considered as "Smithsonian sponsorship."

Art Transcending Territoriality

With all these caveats, I accepted Sara's dare. Some of our own artwork came down to be temporarily replaced by some dazzling Shui-mo (water and ink) paintings. To people who think only geopolitically, the paintings might seem remarkable because the artjsts came from Hong Kong, the Mainland, and Taiwan. Who has a monopoly on deciding what is Chinese? Twentieth-century Chinese painting took inspiraction from aesthetic traditions common to wherever Chinese culture is transmitted. Sara's earlier studies and work in Thailand and Japan gave her even wider appreciation of commonalities in Asian art. She and her late husband, Richard Lacey, organized in 1974 for the Hong Kong Arts Festival the first exhibition of contemporary Chinese art. Our tower became a visual echo chamber for the Hong Kong show.

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The reception and the semiprivate display of the Larkin collection coincided with a lot of Bicentennial buzz in Washington. It was party[y time to celebrate our republic's two hundredth birthday season. My cluttered desk was cleared to become a buffet. Happily, Sara hired a professional caterer. I forget if he served Chinese dumplings. I remember the wines would have pleased the poet Li Po. Sara and I greeted guests at the door. Most of them came at her invitation; I invited colleagues from the Smithsonian art museums. One of the first arrivals was Martin Agronsky, highly visible as the host of the WETA political discussion TV program Agronsky & Company. Senator Edward Kennedy once observed, ''Everybody who is in public life watches Agronsky." The TV celebrity covered the trial of the Nazi war criminal Eichmann and later interviewed Texas governor John Connally shortly after President Kennedy's assassination. I told Agronsky that Connally, as secretary of the treasury, had wanted to use this very office as his headquarters when he was host to a Smithsonian summit meeting of economic ministers to devalue the dollar. He took space closer to the meeting in the Castle.

New York senator Jacob K. Javits (1904-1986) soon followed with an entourage. Sara provided an embrace and immediately pointed to paintings she through he would like. A public servant in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive Republican movement, the senator shared with Nelson Rockefeller an interest in the arts. He supported the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts. After all, New York City was promoted as "the art capital of the world." Washington was home to some creative artists, but the main practitioners were engaged in the alt of politics.

A "derivative" celebrity was the nephew of Iranian ambassador Ardeshi Zahedi, the Utah-educated Kappa Sigma. The shah's diplomat was much in the news as the man who introduced Elizabeth Taylor to Senator John Warner at one of his opulent spreads of caviar and champagne. The young nephew exhibited his own diplomatic charm by inviting some of us Americans at the reception to be his guests at a grand Chinese restaurant in Washington. "I want to be with Americans on the birthday of your independence." We spoke of what I had learned from Professor Eberhard in Berkeley about the migration of Chinese folk tales through Persia to Europe.

Sara spoke to the diverse audience about the painting of her Hong Kong teacher Lui Shou-Kwan and her debts to Lawrence Tam of the Hong Kong Museum. Her narrative about the paintings anticipated a 2009 Solomon Guggenheim Museum exhibition on Asia, Zen and Abstract Art. Abstract expressionism was linked to Chinese and Japanese calligraphy through such artists as Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, and David Smith—all using the idea of the brush as an extension of the body.

Little did we know then that Sara would gain national attention for her "Spacescapes" paintings celebrating space achievements. I think Henry Adams, born in a very different century also in Quincy, Massachusetts, would have been fascinated by this hometown girl. Her education embraced time and space in a world far beyond his own.