James Fenimore Cooper: A Rediscovered American Writer in China

Aiping Zhang (California State University at Chico)

Presented at the Cooper Panel of the 2001 Conference of the American Literature Association in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 14, August, 2001, pp. 10-16.

Copyright © 2001, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Cooper is by no means a stranger to the students and scholars of American literature in China. It has been nearly a century since he was first introduced in that country and over half a century since his masterpiece, The Last of the Mohicans, was translated into Chinese. Although he is not as well-known as Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner among the Chinese readers, Cooper has been consistently taught as a major l9ᵗʰ-century American novelist on most, if not all, Chinese college campuses.

Cooper’s Reception in China

China had its first serious look at Cooper’s life and writing in early 1929. A book, The ABC of American Literature, written by Zeng Xu-bai and published by Shanghai ABC Books, offers a detailed account of 15 leading American writers in the 19ᵗʰ century; Cooper is one of them. 1 Five years later, in 1934, the first Chinese translation of The Last of the Mohicans by Wu Guang Jian Xuan was published. Cooper’s picturesque description of American landscape and realistic characterization of American frontiersmen instantly turned him into a popular American writer among Chinese readers and critics as well. Since then, he has been a standard selection in almost every anthology of and introductory book on American literature published in China. Due to the sporadic stock of academic journals during the years of political turmoil and the lack of a universal Chinese database for periodicals, it is hard to put together a complete bibliography of Chinese scholarship on Cooper. But the number of articles, reviews, book chapters, and monographs on him must be in the hundreds. Even though from time to time Cooper might be overshadowed by other popular American writers who found their way into China, he has never been pushed into oblivion completely.

Two things that I encountered in my research can back up my claim. First, I was surprised by the high availability of Cooper’s works in China. Most of Cooper’s novels have been translated into Chinese, including The Spy and The Pilot. Many of them have multiple versions. The Last of the Mohicans, for instance, has five translations at least (1934, 1959, 1993, 1996, and 1999); the latest was published in 1999. The Deerslayer has two translations (1982, 1996). As a common practice in Chinese translation of foreign literature, each translation has a long introduction to the author as well as the main characteristics of the text, some translations even have other critical reviews and sources attached. Second, I was struck by the fact that scholarly articles on Cooper have appeared not just in mainstream or specialized journals for the study of American literature; they can also be found in a variety of non-literary magazines and journals. Among the Chinese articles on Cooper that I have collected, two are printed in the journals published by two small normal colleges (about the same size and level of our community colleges in America) located in Southwestern China; one, a nice study of Cooper’s contribution to the American war novel, is printed in the journal of the People’s Liberation Army Foreign Language University.

Common readers mostly learned about Cooper through the sensational 1992 movie of The Last of the Mohicans, starring Daniel Day Lewis, and the new translation of the novel in 1999. They know Cooper as the American novelist who wrote extensively and beautifully about adventures in the wilderness, whereas scholars view him as the leader in American Renaissance literature, who established several new genres in American novel writing, such as “sea novel,” “spy novel,” and “frontier novel.” In textbooks and scholarly writings, they lauded him as the pioneering figure who helped steer American writings out of the shadow of the British and European traditions and create a national literature for America. Zeng Yan-ju, a young female scholar of American literature, called Cooper one of the first explorer of the “American Dream” and regarded the Natty Bumppo in The Pioneers who “had gone far towards the setting sun — the foremost in that band of pioneers who are opening the way for the march of the nation across the continent” (436), as the archetypal hero of the “Myth of America” (91). Yao Beng-biao, a young male but influential scholar of American literature, wrote in his article published in 1999, “Led by pioneering authors like Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper, American literature ended its dependence on British and European tradition and produced various works with its own unique national characteristics at the beginning of the 19ᵗʰ century, thus freeing itself from the colonial conventions and setting itself on the course of fresh prosperity” (69). Mao Xing-de, a senior and noted scholar, devoted a long chapter to Cooper in his well-acclaimed book, The History of American Novel (Mei Guo Xiao Shuo Shi Gang), discussing Cooper’s three major contributions to American novel writing:

1. Breaking new and broad ground for the American novel writing; 2. Establishing the Cooperian romantic style in novel writing; 3. Integrating closely novel writing with the development of his time. (51)

For a quite long time after China reopened its door to the world in 1977, the Lost Generation writers dominated the Chinese fascination with American literature. These days, however, Cooper’s fame is on the rise. His popularity has gone beyond the circle of Chinese students and scholars of American literature; he has won more and more fans among the Chinese writers. One can say, “Step aside, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Faulkner. Cooper is back.” Since the mid-1990s, after China announced its ambitious campaign to explore and develop its remote and mostly uncultivated western region, Cooper’s name has been constantly mentioned in reports, essays, and stories related to what has been dubbed as the “China’s Westward Rush.” A trendy theme in recent Chinese literary writing is the celebration of the adventurous “frontier spirit” among the Chinese “Westward Rushers.” Some Chinese stories and novels apparently contain many Cooperian characteristics not only in style, but also in perspective. Since Cooper configured his adventure narratives and conceived his characters, as Henry Nash Smith has pointed out, “in terms of the antithesis between nature and civilization, between freedom and law” (60), “the forces at work within him closely reproduced the patterns of thought and feeling that prevailed in the society at large” (60-61). Interestingly, the same antithesis and representation have already manifested themselves in the early literary interpretations of China’s “Westward Rush.”

Cooper’s Vision & China’s “Westward Rush”

Why could Cooper suddenly find a new fame among Chinese writers and readers? And what is the link between his vision and China’s “Westward Rush”? Despite nearly a two-century difference in time and a world-apart distance in geography, the similarity between China’s nation-wide campaign of developing its western region and the history of American westward expansion is astounding and the difference is revealing. From some Chinese writers’ perspective, the probe into the inter-dependent link between the land, history, self and literary imagination that Cooper had initiated and championed in American literature still seems enlightening to today’s new “frontier writing” in China; what Cooper said about the dichotomy between progress and sacrifice still resonates in the 21ˢᵗ-century western China. 2

It goes without saying that western China is not the same as the western America represented in Cooper’s fiction. It is different in the sense that it is not really “uncivilized”; it is just “uncultivated.” In America, as Cooper has observed in his introduction to The Prairie, “For a distance extending nearly fifteen hundred miles east and west, and six hundred north and south, there is scarcely an elevation worthy to be called a mountain” (v). Unlike the American west, the Chinese west, starting from the upper stream of the Yangtze River, is a very rugged country that has intimidated humans for centuries with its unreachable far distance and its inhabitable climate, interposing a barrier to the progress of China’s economy and society further westward. For years, due to the lack of both capital and technology, any attempt at westward development would be deemed futile. As China maintains a quite high rate of economic growth, especially in the most metropolitan regions along its eastern seaboard, it has realized that it must turn to its vast but basically untouched western region for the space and natural resources needed for further development. Besides, such an initiative will help lift the economy of the western region and bridge the disparity between China’s wealthy east and its far west.

The first move the Chinese government made was to turn the city of Chongqing and surrounding areas into an inland “city state” of 30 million people in 1997, using the city as the outpost for its all-round exploration in western China. In February 2001, the Chinese government announced that it would complete the 1200-mile long Qinghai-Tibet railway, a $2.4 billion project that will extend the line all the way into Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Such an ambitious and costly project has been in the works since mid-1950s, but it has been held up due to the shortage of funding and the lack of technical know-how. Now, this railway line, to borrow Leo Marx’s words, “is becoming a kind of national obsession. It is the embodiment of the age, an instrument of power” that enables the Chinese “for the first time, to realize the dream of abundance” (191-192) by tapping into the rich resources in the Tibetan Plateau and incorporating the vast region into its booming economy. During his speech to the recent “2001 Fortune 500 Forum” in Hong Kong, the Chinese president, Jiang Ze-min, wooed foreign investors to join China’s effort in developing mining, energy, transportation, telecommunication, and agricultural industrialization in western China that has 12 provinces and autonomous regions and is almost as big as Australia.

China’s need for westward expansion is similar to America’s in the 19ᵗʰ century. The mentality of the westward pioneers in both countries is not that different either. A major similarity between Cooper’s contemporary pioneers and the Chinese “Westward Rushers” could be best defined by Cooper’s depiction early in The Prairie, “In the pursuit of adventures such as these, men are ordinarily governed by their habits or deluded by their wishes. A few, led by the phantoms of hope and ambitious of sudden affluence, sought the mines of the virgin territory ... ” (10-11). With the government determined to launch a massive investment into the infrastructures in the western region and promising various kinds of incentives to would-be investors both at home and abroad, people from all walks of life, from college graduates and scientists to businessmen and street vendors, are rushing towards the western provinces of China. Unlike the Bush family and others in Cooper’s novel who traveled in “a train of wagons,” “loaded with household goods and implements of husbandry,” across a “rolling prairie” (11), the Chinese “Westward Rushers” traveled there by planes, trains, and boats seeking an unclaimed niche, if not territory, where they can establish themselves as strong contenders for the rich returns from their capital and industry. Nevertheless, like the Cooperian characters, they have left “the fertile bottoms of the low country” (11) — the developed and often Americanized/Westernized cities on the Chinese eastern seaboard — and have found their way westward, “by means only known to such adventurers” (11), to a factory, a school, and a business in a village or a city, where they can put their money and skills to a better use and make quick fortunes.

Writers are not far behind in this Chinese westward movement. A common practice in Chinese literature since 1949 is that whenever a major movement, or event, is about to start, writers in China would be mobilized into many “writing projects,” reporting the newsworthy happenings and figures, or dramatizing them into various literary writings. A marked difference this time, however, is that, instead of jumping on the wagon to western China right away, writers have jumped into a nation-wide debate over the tremendous impact that the development of western China will incur. Like other people in and outside China, writers have expressed their concerns and frustrations over the same dilemmas that had once confronted Cooper and his contemporaries during the American westward expansion: the advancement of civilization vs. the encroachment of nature, the greed of new “settlers” vs. the heritage of indigenous people. 3

At a series of round-table discussions sponsored by the Chinese Association of Writers last fall, professional literary writers and writers for the media joined forces in arguing over what the ambitious plan for the western development would do, both positively and negatively, for China and the world. The key controversy was: “whether or not this imminent campaign is feasible financially, technologically, and environmentally.” People are still not entirely sure whether or not the government can guarantee that this is a carefully conceived long-term project that, to borrow Lawrence Buell’s comments on Susan Cooper, “valorizes the natural by incorporating it into a vision of society brought closer to nature” (48), rather than destroys it for the immediate but unsustainable gain of profits.

A middle-aged writer who has written several novels and numerous short stories about the life in western regions voiced his strong opposition to any attempt to exploit the western region for industry or tourism. He insisted that such a move would open up the untouched wilderness to uncontrollable and unstoppable forces that will do anything for a handful of Ren Min Bi (the Chinese dollars). To support his view, he even claimed to have read Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales and warned his fellow writers that China would make the same mistakes as the American pioneers did in the early 19ᵗʰ century if it did not stop the westward drive before it was too late.

Conversely, a young writer who has just started his literary career with a couple of short stories and a novel about the city life in Eastern China gave his full support for the government’s plan on two grounds: first, China’s economic boom on the eastern seaboard has reached a bottleneck and it could not sustain any further growth until it goes westward; second, a development of this magnitude would inspire a generation of young writers like him into a new path of literary imagination.

Between the opponents and proponents are the majority of writers who, just like Cooper in the 19ᵗʰ-century America, have seen this all-out economic expansion into western China coming since the mid-1990s. They are at once excited and worried about the rapid and profound impetus of such a westward drive on the life and environment of China. On the one hand, they feel lucky to witness, participate in and write about another history-making endeavor in the country. On the other hand, however, they believe that this expansion is inevitable, and that the vast terrains rich with various badly needed natural resources would soon be, in Philip Fisher’s words, “threatened” and the long native history and culture in the region would be totally “vanishing” (10).

The potential destruction of nature in western China is not the only thing that concerns people. An added loss, which would be equally devastating, is the inevitable elimination of ancient relics, structures, and sites in the vast western region. Cooper describes his character’s westward move as “turning his back resolutely on the abodes of civilization and plunging at each step more deeply, if not irretrievably, into the haunts of the barbarous and savage occupants of the country” (14). By contrast, some Chinese writers call the “Westward Rush” as a self-destructive return to western China, which is by no means a land of wilderness, but rather a place where the Chinese civilization has first originated. In addition to the historical milestones of the Chinese (the Han) culture, there are also many diverse indigenous cultures and ethnic communities in western China. Now, they are all facing the danger of being run over by or transplanted into the strange hybrid of Chinese and Western cultures that has dominated the country since the 1980s.

What is more disheartening is that thousands of families and communities who have lived in those regions for countless generations will soon be forced to migrate to other places. The Three Gorges Dam Project alone, which was started in the early 1990s but is still in its second-phase construction, has already relocated over one million people to other provinces. Such a massive relocation takes a huge financial toll on the country and has a potential to disrupt social stability in the populous country, since some regions, especially Tibet and Xinjiang, have long been troubled by ethnic clash and unrest. Many writers believe that China should not launch its “Westward Rush” prematurely to advance its economic boom and rejuvenate itself into a new powerful player in the world at the expense of environment, traditions and ethnic communities. They fear that the chaos and confrontations dramatized in The Leatherstocking Tales might occur in the already tense regions of western China.

A New Generation of “Coopers” in China

Back in the early nineteenth-century America, as Rochelle Johnson observes, literary narratives by authors like Cooper present “a history shaped by a ratifying of the progress of America, a history destined to a specific and certain end — an end that clearly requires a seriously adapted natural world and the removal, largely, of Native Americans” (43). The Chinese writers of today believe that they have a different role to play in the Chinese westward expansion. They are not going to just “re-present,” let alone, “ratify,” this urgent progress of the country; instead, they will be part of the “history” by joining the army of “Westward Rushers,” sounding alarms of infringement against nature, and capturing the pains, joys, losses and gains in the latest grand drama between nature and mankind.

While describing the Bush family marching forward on the prairie, Cooper made a keen observation saying that “there was no visible sign of uneasiness, uncertainty, or alarm among them” (12). On the contrary, the literature produced on the Chinese “Westward Rushers” so far has repeatedly addressed the widespread frustrations with official bureaucracy and corruption, the deep worries about the gloomy prospect of prosperity, and the constant fear over the unpredictable policy changes. A few writers have expressed their concern with the preservation of nature and indigenous cultures because they believe, as Cooper has warned us in The Pioneers, “There seems to be a tendency in human nature to endeavor to provide for the wants of this world before our attention is turned to the business of the other” (93). They insist that more attention should be given to environment as well as the customs and observances which have been cherished by various ethnic communities for ages.

So far, with its promise of more preferential policies and tax benefits, China’s plan for developing its western region has lured corporations and nations all over the world. Over 30 top Fortune 500 companies have invested in the region, and more are preparing to get into the ring. Among the Chinese themselves, the “Westward Rush” has been the topic for board meetings as well as personal conversations. Furthermore, it has brought Cooper back to the literary circle in China and revived China’s genre of “western frontier writing” again since the early 1960s. All this tells us that the ramifications of the Chinese reading of Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales are worth exploring. Certainly, even a cursory comparison between Cooper’s fiction of the American westward movement and the unfolding Chinese “Westward Rush” helps us see how timelessly prophetic Cooper’s narratives were, and still are, in defining the seemingly endless wrestle between nature and civilization. Critics like Henry Nash Smith once lamented that “the Leatherstocking series might have become a major work of art” if Cooper were able “to explore to the end the contradictions in his ideas and emotions,” but he couldn’t, because “he was at once more strongly devoted to the principle of social order and more vividly responsive to the ideas of nature and freedom in the Western forest than [his contemporaries]” (61). To many Chinese writers, however, the Leatherstocking series is “a major work of art,” which appears to have already asserted its impact upon a new generation of “Coopers” in China.

John William Ward has suggested in his “Afterword” to Cooper’s The Prairie, “We still read Cooper today because he was the first of our authors to seize upon the dramatic possibilities of that unfallen western world that stands at the beginning of our national life” (411). As more and more Chinese college graduates, entrepreneurs, scientists, and writers rush toward the uncultivated west in China and embark on another new “beginning” of their national life, it is my wish that they would take their time to read The Leatherstocking Tales once again and contemplate the prophetic observations, warnings, and visions that Cooper has left us and all the people around the world. And I am sure they will.

Works Cited

  • Buell, Lawrence, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.
  • Cooper, James Fenimore, The Prairie: A Tale [1827]. New York: New American Library, 1964.
  • ------. The Pioneers, or The Sources of the Susquehanna: A Descriptive Tale [1823]. New York: New American Library, 1964.
  • Fisher, Philip, Hard Facts: Setting and Form in the American Novel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • Johnson, Rochelle, “James Fenimore Cooper, Susan Fenimore Cooper, and the Work of History,” James Fenimore Cooper: His Country and His Art (papers from the 1999 Cooper Seminar), No. 12. Oneonta: State University of New York at Oneonta, 2001.
  • Mao, Xing-de, The History of American Novel (Mei Guo Xiao Shuo Shi Gang). Beijing, China: Beijing Publishing House, 1988.
  • Marx, Leo, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.
  • Mitchell, Lee C., Witness to a Vanishing America: The Nineteenth-Century Response. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981.
  • Smith, Henry Nash, Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.
  • Ward, John William, “Afterword” to James Fenimore Cooper’s The Prairie: A Tale [1827]. New York: New American Library, 1964.
  • Yao, Beng-biao, “A Brief Introduction to American Romantic Novel.” The Journal of Guangxi Normal College (humanities edition) No. 2 (1999), 68-71, 80.
  • Zeng, Yan-ju, “The Thematic Variation of the ‘American Dream’ and the Pursuit of the Dream by Generations of American Writers.” The Journal of Xiangtan Normal College No. 1 (1996), 91-93.


1 A more detailed summary can be found in Yao Jun-wei’s article, “The Translation and Introduction of American Literary in Early Modern China” Translation Studies (Summer 2000): 51-62.

2 This has been a frequent subject in the studies of Cooper and the 19ᵗʰ-century American discourse of the frontier experience in America’s Great Plains and Great Prairie. See, e.g., Harry Hand, “Frontiers: Dilemmas of the American Spirit,” Laurel Review 5:1 (1965), 13-17; Sandra Looney, Arthur Huseboe and Geoffrey Hunt, eds., The Prairie Frontier (Sioux Falls, SD: Nordland Heritage Foundation, 1984); Barbara H. Meldrum, “The Land, History, and the Self in Fiction by Margaret Laurence and Frederick Manfred” in The Lizard Speaks: Essays on the Writings of Frederick Manfred, ed. Nance Nelson (Sioux Falls, SD: Center for Western Studies, 1998), 108-23; Robert Thacker, The Great Prairie Fact and Literary Imagination (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1989); Don Walker, “Plains and Prairie: Space, History, and the Literary Imagination in Australia and the United States,” Great Plains Quarterly 14:1 (Winter 1994), 29-48; Paul Witkowsky, “If Prairie Had Trees: East, West, Environmentalist Fiction, and the Great Plains,” Western American Literature 28:3 (November 1993), 195-207.

3 Critics like Philip Fisher, Carolyn Karcher, Lucy Maddox, Leo Marx, and Richard Slotkin, have discussed this dilemma and the writers’ representation of it. For more details on these tensions between nature and civilization, see the comments by Lee C. Mitchell (45).