The Bitter Tea of General Yen is one of a number of books I decided to give a try after reading an old piece by James Thurber in which he recommends various short novels to his college-age daughter.
That piece is from 80 or 90 years ago, and I don’t know how well The Bitter Tea of General Yen has aged, how it is regarded by critics today. Maybe no one even reads it anymore.
In its time, I gather it was even better known as a movie (by Frank Capra, starring Barbara Stanwyck). There’s actually a chance I saw the movie. I very vaguely remember a movie with something like this plot from when I was very young—like 6 or 7—a movie that happened to be on TV some weekend afternoon or whatever that my mother praised as a classic and that maybe I watched at least part of with her. I could well be wrong about that.
Set in about 1930, the book tells the story of Megan Davis, a young, idealistic woman who travels to China to join and marry her childhood sweetheart, who is serving as a medical missionary. When she arrives, she finds that he is for the moment inaccessible in some chaotic area of war-torn China. In the meantime, she stays with other Westerners in Shanghai, mostly missionaries who are in the country long term, and gets involved in their adventures, which include trying to get a headstrong woman who runs an orphanage to evacuate an area nearby that is becoming unsafe as the fighting inches closer.
Not enough is said in the book about the political and military context for it to make much sense to anyone not well versed in that period of Chinese history. I have modest background knowledge of that kind, so I was able to decipher that context to a modest degree, but certainly not completely, or close to completely.
Basically, there are multiple parties fighting, negotiating, threatening, jockeying for position, forming alliances, etc., including the Nationalists, the Communists, various Chinese warlords, and representatives of a number of Western countries that control little safe zones within China, including in and around Shanghai where the story takes place. But as far as the details of who is doing what, who is shooting at whom and why, who is taking what territory from whom, etc., I’m fuzzy on a lot of that. But it’s sufficiently chaotic and confusing to where I think a lot of the characters in the book were probably fuzzy on it too, as I’m sure were some of the people in real life who lived—or didn’t—through that period in China.
Returning from an attempted rescue mission to the orphanage, Davis becomes separated from her party when a mob attacks them at a train station. She is captured/saved by forces loyal to General Yen, who controls some of the area around there, and whom she had a chance encounter with earlier in the book. I gather he is a warlord who is for the moment allied with the Nationalists, concerned about being attacked by or betrayed to the Communists (or other Nationalist factions or other warlords I suppose; as I say, it’s a confusing situation).
Davis, who sustained minor injuries in the melee, is nursed back to health in the general’s luxurious headquarters. I don’t know if he considered holding her as some kind of hostage at one point, but he says as soon as it can be arranged to get her safely back to the Westerners she was staying with he will do so, and she takes that at face value (and nothing that happens subsequently—at least that I caught—indicates that it shouldn’t be taken at face value).
Indeed, they become friends of a sort, maybe with a little romantic or sexual tension thrown in. (Apparently this is where the movie most deviated from the book, in turning it into an unambiguous love story—a particularly controversial one for the 1930s, since it was interracial.) He enjoys talking politics and philosophy with the eager young Westerner, bemused by her simplicity and overconfidence, perhaps wanting to justify himself to someone like her while educating her a bit in the ways of the world.
Her observations of China, and her intellectual discussions with the general, reveal to her that she has a lot to learn. I wouldn’t say they alter her basic Christian convictions, but they give her doubt about plenty of the details of her worldview, and of the beliefs and attitudes of most of the Westerners she encounters, who are not so open-minded about their worldviews as she.
I take it that in that sense Davis is intended as kind of a stand-in for the reader. Stone puts her protagonist in situations that are new and provocative to her, and that cause her to think about and question things Stone would like her Western readers to think about and question.
So let’s consider a couple of these challenges to her, or the reader’s, worldview.
I think the book could be read as at least mildly feminist, so that’s one area where it questions conventional wisdom.
After spending only a little time in China, Davis realizes she’s not ready to get married after all. Indeed, that whole storyline about trying to contact and reunite with her would-be husband is pretty much abandoned after the first few pages. It turns out to be a device to get her to China, and is never followed up on.
It’s not spelled out exactly, but the implication is that she cools on this notion of getting married not because of any dissatisfaction with her fiancé as an individual, but because “wife” strikes her now as a decidedly limited and boring job. The married women she meets amongst the Westerners in China certainly aren’t very appealing role models. She discovers within herself a thirst for knowledge, adventure, exploration, and even leadership—not the kinds of things she associates with being a wife.
The women in China who function as concubines are presented sympathetically, their misdeeds excused by their grossly unjust lot in life.
Though the woman who runs the orphanage is criticized by other characters for being pig-headed about remaining in a danger zone, I’d say on the whole she’s presented as a neutral or slightly positive character. She’s a strong, decisive person, and while people might disagree with specific things she does, there’s no generalized rejection of her authority on the grounds of her gender.
So women who function in traditionally male ways—including the protagonist, who travels around dangerous areas in China, debates with the general as an equal, etc.—are presented at least somewhat favorably, and women who are prevented from doing so—most notably the concubines, who are pretty much sex slaves—are portrayed as the victims of injustice.
Certainly a major theme of the book is the clash of cultures, the way Davis arrives in China so confident of the superiority of Western ways in general and Christianity in particular (she and the missionaries seem to be of a vaguely liberal, humanitarian, but still decidedly paternalistic version of Christianity), and then is confronted with a highly articulate, intelligent defender of completely contrary political, social, and religious philosophies in the person of the general.
When she attempts to influence the general toward Christianity, he explains that the Chinese already have perfectly adequate—indeed, arguably superior—philosophies of life and thus have no need of the religion she espouses.
As he explains to her—and Stone could be criticized for being too simplistic here, falling into stereotyping—the Chinese base their ethics on what hundreds and thousands of years of tradition have taught is best for society. Fulfilling your social duties and maintaining your reputation is what matters. Unlike in the West, there’s no focus on individual rights, no glorification of such sentimental values as mercy, forgiveness, and altruism. When she invokes the Christian ideal of loving one’s neighbor as oneself, he responds that that “has always seemed to me a very disgusting injunction…Your tenet, if carried out, would lead to an inconceivable state of disorder. It is possibly the theory most dangerous to humanity at large that has ever come into the world.”
Davis points out to the general that one of his top advisers—a Westerner—is a slimy crook that should never be trusted, and she criticizes him for relying on him, while having shunted aside a truly principled former teacher of his—also a Westerner—who had never been anything but good to him. The general gives an interestingly Machiavellian response.
He is justified in doing what’s necessary to hold on to power, he says, since he is attempting to rule in a just way consistent with Chinese traditional values. Toward that end, while he’d ideally like to have in his service all and only folks who share those values, given a choice between a man motivated by selfishness and a sincere Christian seeking to do good in the world, he prefers the man motivated by selfishness, because he is more predictable. It is easier to know what buttons to push to keep him loyal—you just have to arrange things so that it is in his self-interest to be loyal—whereas the “good” man could end up doing anything based on his individual faith and conscience. He will be loyal to his God and his principles even when those are in conflict with loyalty to the general, and that makes him actually less reliable than the scummy guy.
It’s not clear that as an author Stone is an out-and-out relativist arguing that all cultural traditions are equally valid, or for that matter that she agrees with the general that the Chinese way is superior, but I think it’s fair to say she doesn’t stack the deck by giving the Christian protagonist the clearly better arguments, or by having events play out in such a way as to prove the Western doctrines superior. Perhaps her position, and what Davis is beginning to understand, is that all such traditions deserve a fair hearing, and that you should be open to seeing what each has to offer rather than blindly imposing upon other people whichever one you grew up with and are used to.
The Bitter Tea of General Yen is not among the novels I’d recommend most enthusiastically, but it is a somewhat compelling story, is competently written, intelligently explores some interesting political and philosophical areas, and does not take a particularly objectionable stand on these issues. So there are a lot worse uses of one’s time than to spend an afternoon reading this short novel.