A Closer Look

Langston Hughes's "China"

Why the previously unpublished poem is a revelation

Selina Lai-Henderson

Image Content Callouts

  • At the time of composition, China was officially called the People’s Republic of China, which was founded in 1949 by Mao Zedong. When Hughes visited in 1933, the country was known as the Republic of China, which was under the rule of the nationalist Kuomintang led by Chiang Kai-shek. Hughes recounts the details of his visit in his 1956 memoir, I Wonder as I Wander.
  • The poem appears to start in medias res, suggesting that Hughes imagined it as being a sequel to his 1937 poem “Roar, China!,” in which he also alludes to China as an “old lion of the East.” The earlier poem was written in support of China in the second Sino-Japanese War (1937–45).
  • The grammatical error, that is, “it” instead of “its” in the second line of the poem, suggests that this is a first draft. No subsequent revisions of the handwritten poem have been found in the Langston Hughes papers.
  • In describing China as an “old lion” being “confined” within its cage, is Hughes reflecting on what continued to be a long isolationist period of Chinese history, which had begun in 1949 with the founding of the People’s Republic? The poem was written shortly before the start of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, during which China’s preoccupation with consolidating its ideological vision among its citizenry and within its national borders would further isolate the country in the international scene.
  • In addition to Paris, Hughes traveled with his secretary George Bass to Marseilles and Venice, followed by a two-week cruise of the Adriatic and the Mediterranean. The ship reached Dubrovnik in Yugoslavia, then sailed to Athens and the island of Rhodes in Greece and the port of Haifa in Israel.

“China” by Langston Hughes, copyright © 2023. Used by permission of Harold Ober Associates and International Literary Properties LLC. Image courtesy Langston Hughes Papers. James Weldon Johnson Collection in the Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Welcome to A Closer Look, a new column at The Yale Review, in which we invite a writer to annotate a piece of art or an archival object. Mouse over the image and click on the blue circles to learn about the object’s history, provenance, and cultural relevance today.

During the summer of 2019, I was wading through the Langston Hughes papers in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale for a book I am writing on Afro-Asian encounters in the twentieth century. I was researching Hughes’s fascinating 1933 visit to interwar China and the impact that Hughes had on the country’s literary scene as the first black intellectual to set foot on Chinese soil. Hughes’s trip elevated African Americans in the Chinese cultural imagination. Among the most unexpected discoveries that I made in the archive was an unfamiliar poem by Hughes, which I soon realized had never been published. Titled “China,” the piece is made up of just six lines that the sixty-two-year-old poet scribbled on August 26, 1963, in Paris during a two-month tour of Europe.

What I find striking about the poem is its deeply transnational context. It was written two days before the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech, and just one day prior to W.E.B. Du Bois’s passing in Ghana. Du Bois had long been fascinated with China, visiting the country in 1936 and again with his wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois, in 1959 and 1962. Hughes, too, kept thinking about China long after his visit to Shanghai—as evidenced by this short poem written three decades later. While Hughes’s absence from the United States during the height of the Civil Rights Movement aroused curiosity at home, his message was clear: the long history of racial struggles would not be resolved until Americans looked beyond their borders for lessons from the global landscape of racial oppression.

Because he had been accused of communist leanings, Hughes in the post-McCarthy era remained publicly ambivalent about China. However, his short poem is certainly supportive of Maoist China’s proletarian effort to empower the globally oppressed—a vision, too, articulated in Mao’s “Statement Supporting the American Negroes in Their Just Struggle Against Racial Discrimination by U.S. Imperialism” issued earlier the same month, on August 8, 1963.

Selina Lai-Henderson is Associate Professor of American Literature and History at Duke Kunshan University. She is the author of Mark Twain in China.
Originally published:
February 1, 2024

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