Yes, the boys did come to America (in 1872), they did go to school (high school, Ivy League schools), but they decidedly did not revolutionize an ancient civilization. So, Fortunate Sons, by Liel Leibovitz and Matthew Miller, only fulfills two-thirds of the subtitle. We’ll grant that the boys were fortunate enough to go to school in Connecticut, America, but, alas, many of them did end up in a bad way.
Fortunate Sons, more of a little review of nineteenth-century Chinese history than anything else, consists of three parts. In the first, we are treated to the story of Yung Wing, a Yale graduate who returns to China and finally establishes the main point of the book, the Chinese Educational Mission. In the second, and best, part, we follow the many boys who travel to the United States, the plan was for a period of 15 years, to go to school. The main point, and the reason the Imperial Court allowed the mission in the first place, was to gain a knowledge of machines and weapons so that China could stop being pushed around by Western powers. The third part, sort of, gives us a glimpse of the lives of those boys who had been able to obtain that Western education.
There’s no other way to say it, even according to the authors’ presentation and tone throughout, but China was a complete mess at the time. China was pretty much controlled by Westerners, and (you’ve heard of the Opium Wars?) 45 million Chinese were addicted to the poppy by 1850. That was about 10% of the population. China got beat up in these, and most other, wars.
Part of their indemnity to Western powers was used to send our boys to school in Connecticut, America. The boys themselves, and others behind the mission, but not all, came to see the West as greatly superior to China. The battle is posed between Confucianism and America(nism). Interestingly, though, when many of the boys have attained a measure of wealth and status upon their return to China—it took a while—they actually wanted to retain the ancient, Confucian ways of China. Not much of a revolution. In fact, these poor guys instead preside as middle managers/bureaucrats over a crushing defeat at the hands of Japan over control of Korea. Later they have even more status during the debacle of the Boxer Rebellion. Yup, they did a lot of revolutionizing all right.
Much like a Russian novel, the names are quite hard to keep track of, and only a couple personalities are presented memorably enough to sustain the reader’s interest throughout the narrative. Not exactly sure what they want to say overall, the authors seem to think it important to treat us to a history of the Transcontinental Railroad because . . . the boys take the train from San Francisco to Connecticut, America. Even more inexplicable is the short history of farm implements along the train route.
And would authors stop using the phrase “follow suit” already?!
F. Scott, a former prep school teacher and coach, once had the pleasure of working with very fortunate boys from the East.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by W. W. Norton & Company. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.