José Clemente Orozco, “Table of Universal Brotherhood,” one of five fresco panels from the 1931 New School mural cycle, Call to Revolution and Table of Universal Brotherhood, The New School Art Collection.
Among the challenges facing the New School in the coming years will be navigating the increasingly charged relationship between the United States and China. Links with students and partners in China are a significant part of the life of the New School, but not our institutional storytelling. To counter likely political pressure to change our engagement with China, it is useful to appreciate that the New School’s history with China is decades-old. Although not in great numbers, from its first decades The New School has drawn and supported scholars and artists from China who shared its ethos.
A good place to start telling that story might be H. T. Tsiang, a radical Chinese-born writer belatedly enjoying critical appreciation today whose experimental 1935 novel The Hanging on Union Square has just been canonized by Penguin Classics. During a crucial period of his life Tsiang claimed the New School as part of his identity, and the New School claimed him.
When the New School opened its first dedicated building at 66 West 12th Street in 1931, New York was introduced to an endeavor simultaneously American and internationalist in outlook. Austrian Joseph Urban’s path-breaking international-style facade opened to art exhibitions featuring the work of international modern artists, as well as “industrial domestic art” designed for a “modern American interior.” Murals painted in the building included Thomas Hart Benton’s “America Today” and José Clemente Orozco’s prophetic spectacle of a revolution in East and West that led to a “Table of Universal Brotherhood.” Just a few years later, however, the institution’s halls and stairwells would fill with the voices of refugee scholars and students from Europe, carving out a long-lasting transatlantic role and identity for the New School. Recovering Tsiang helps refresh our appreciation of that original global vision.
A native of Zhejiang province, H. T. Tsiang (蒋希曾 1899-1971) came to the U. S. on a student passport in 1926, his brief career in politics cut off by political factionalism in the Chinese pro-democracy movement following the death of Sun Yat-Sen. He spent his first years in America registered as a student at Stanford, although he was active editing a Chinese-American newspaper. On being driven out of California by right-wing supporters of General Chiang Kai-Shek, Tsiang moved to New York, where he initially continued his studies at Columbia. Student visas were one of the few loopholes in immigration laws, and Tsiang would remain officially a student until the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943.
It was in New York that Tsiang self-published Poems of the Chinese Revolution (1929), many of which had appeared in the Daily Worker and New Masses, and two novels, China Red (1931) and The Hanging on Union Square (1935). By the time of his third novel, And China Has Hands (1937), Tsiang had left Columbia. He described himself as “a student of the New School for Social Research” on the dust jacket. Another newspaper column reported he signed copies of this book in pencil:
I hope these royalties pay the second instalment of my tuition at the New School for Social Research. I’m signing this in pencil, frankly, because I haven’t got enough to buy myself a pen.
Tsiang was active in theater as well as writing, in 1938 writing the anti-imperialist play China Marches On, incidentally the first modern retrieval of the figure of Mulan.
Historical evidence about Tsiang’s life is limited, and traces of his connection to the New School scarce. Yet they establish that he matriculated and maintained a deepening relationship with the institution, and in 1941 the New School helped to save him from deportation. A gossip column from 1940 reported that Tsiang, who had run afoul of the immigration authorities for unspecified “visa trouble” before, was remanded to Ellis Island for a second time. “Tsiang came to America with a student’s visa,” the article recounted, “which permitted him to remain here to pursue his studies. That was 14 years ago. He now has a scholarship with the New School for Social Research . . . And for 14 years H. T. Tsiang[,] author of three books, has been going to school here, preserving his status as a ‘student.’” Tsiang spent a year and a half on Ellis Island before a campaign by artists and literary luminaries let him resume his “studies.”
We don’t know what classes Tsiang was taking at the New School but at a time when the communist-sympathizing American Artists Congress had meetings there, the school would have proved congenial, in class and out. I imagine Tsiang sitting in the Orozco-muraled cafeteria with Ruth Crawford Seeger, who had set two of Tsiang’s poems to music in 1932, “Sacco, Vanzetti” and “Chinaman, Laundryman.” The writer Waldo Frank, who had long taught about modern fiction at The New School, and had helped to spearhead the letter-writing campaign which led to Tsiang’s ultimate release from Ellis Island, would have been a friend and mentor. And once free to resume his studies, Tsiang returned to the New School, this time to the recently-established Dramatic Workshop.
Erwin Piscator’s Dramatic Workshop was the most progressive and internationalist part of The New School, and the main locus of the institution’s efforts to address American racism. China, a victim of Japanese aggression and in the midst of a civil war, was in its sights. The Dramatic Workshop’s second big production had been The Circle of Chalk, the “Chinese fantasy” which inspired Bertolt Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle.
Tsiang arrived too late to be part of that production but had a small part – “Yakoff, a waiter” – in Piscator’s next epic production, War and Peace , in May 1942. More significantly, Tsiang presented a staging of Hanging in Union Square for the Playwriting Directing Laboratory in March of that year. Dramatic Workshop promotional materials the following year touted the production: “Mr. Tsiang, a member of the class, also directed the play. Actors were students of the Dramatic Workshop. Produced for an invited audience. Favorably received.”
For at least five eventful years, Tsiang claimed the New School, and it claimed him.
Tsiang adapted one of his novels for the stage, also called The Hanging on Union Square, described by one scholar as “proletarian burlesque.” Theatrical in its structure, it chronicles the radicalization of a down and out (Caucasian) Everyman named “Mr. Nut,” who spirals around Depression-era Union Square over twenty-four hours, encountering starving workers, gay poets, con-men, evicted families, kinky capitalists and an androgynous young communist with whom he fancies he’s in love. The novel’s climax involves the spectacle, complete with corporate sponsors and marching bands, of unemployed men – starting with Mr. Nut – hanging themselves from the flagpole at the center of Union Square for a paying audience.
What fun to think of the New School as part of this explosive mix.
After the Dramatic Workshop experiment, Tsiang performed his dramatic adaptation of Hanging two nights a week in a small studio on West 44th Street, along with a play by another Dramatic Workshop, named Julie Follansbee. A review, entitled “He’s a One-Man Theater: Writes, directs, stages, acts,” gives a taste of Tsiang’s trickster-like genius.
Mr. Tsiang has a naïve oriental wit – and I don’t believe this story any more than you will. But he told me, as serious as a cat playing with a ball of yarn:
“You know,” he said with gestures, “I do what the director tells me when we are rehearsing. Everything he says I do.”
Then he grinned slyly, and shrugged his thin shoulders. “But once I am on stage, I forget all of the instructions and do what I want.”
Tsiang took this production with him when he moved back to California shortly afterwards. This time he landed in Los Angeles, where he pursued an acting career, playing the gamut of stock “Oriental” roles in films like “Tokyo Rose” and “Ocean’s Eleven;” and in television shows like “Bonanza”. While he directed new performances of Hanging on Union Square with Asian American theater companies, in Hollywood he was notorious for another play he brought from New York, a one-man version of Hamlet performed for a decade of Friday nights under the name “Wedding at a Nudist Colony.” Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth and Alfred Hitchcock were among those who came to see the show.
Tsiang’s memory disappeared for decades, along with his books and plays. The Penguin Classics edition of Hanging confirms a belated revival for Tsiang as a pioneer of Chinese-American American literature. “Chinaman, Laundryman” is regarded as the first literary protest about this invidious stereotype. And China has Hands (its protagonist was also a laundryman) has been praised as the first literary description of an American Chinatown by a Chinese writer.
Tsiang is now fêted for his derring-do in self-publishing at a time when popularly recognized authorities on China – like his nemesis Pearl S. Buck – were all white, and for his daring literary experimentalism. His novels, which articulate a distinctively Asian American “double consciousness,” are celebrated as post-modern avant la lettre. Tsiang himself appears as a character in Hanging, hawking his earlier books, and has a more significant role in And China Has Hands, a disheveled challenge to Chinese American respectability. One recent interpretation argues that the conversion to communism of the male protagonist in And China Has Hands was triggered by an erotic encounter with the fictionalized Tsiang.
The traces of H. T. Tsiang’s relationship with the New School in the 1930s and early 1940s suggest affinities worth celebrating. Beyond the transatlantic nexus which came to define its image, the New School was a haven for restless spirits and a platform for radical artists. Tsiang’s existence on the margins of established institutions resonates with the New School’s rejection of convention and reminds us of its role as a site for imagining new communities and identities. The “social research” that the New School made its own in the 1920s and 1930s included experimental and political art like Tsiang’s poetry, fiction, and drama.
As Orozco’s mural suggests, the New School aspired to bring the whole world to its table (and to include more genders than Orozco did). A New School history which included Chinese figures like H. T. Tsiang would be true to its internationalist origins, and help articulate a global vision for the future true to its genre-bending and convention-defying provocations.
Mark Larrimore is the Program Director of Religious Studies in Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at The New School.