1915 to 1918 was a tumultuous period of Chinese history. In 1912, the 250-year-old Qing dynasty had been overthrown and powerful generals and political leaders were vying for power. Warlords and rebel armies were ranging the countryside; there was no effective central government, and foreign businessmen and missionaries were walled in well-defended compounds.
In the midst of this chaos, a twenty-four-year-old college graduate named James Archibald Mitchell, landed in Shanghai to teach English at St John's University, the so-called Harvard of the East.
Mitchell was an avid diarist, a skilled photographer and an acute observer of local customs, and whenever he had time off he set out to explore the country, the presence of warring armies and travel difficulties notwithstanding.
Arch, as he was known, was brought up in Centreville, Maryland, the son of a popular Episcopalian minster, and was educated at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He was essentially a country boy, a dyed-in-the wool American with no international experience, and the storied Orient was both an inspiration and a shock to him. But as he makes clear in an early journal, his intention was to record what he saw with an objective, eye --- not an easy task for one so deeply schooled in Christianized Western culture.
What emerged over the course of three years, is a very personal account of his time in China during the Warlord Period in both words and photographs, a record of peasant life, boat families, climbing and hunting expeditions, and above all, exquisite images of the Chinese people and their land.
Apart from being a good, entertaining read, and visual documentation, Travels in a Vanishing Empire is record of everyday Chinese life, an aspect of history that is not well covered in books about this period.
It is also, although unstated, an account of the moral growth of an individual. Mitchell's travels reinforced his earliest feelings about people different than himself. He told one of his nephews after he returned home that he would now look at a person and see only another human being. After his return from the East, he joined the ministry and went on to become an early civil-rights activist.
"The 'Art Mitchell' of this charming, other-worldly book, was "Reverend Mitchell" to me in my grade school years, the dignified, slightly distant father of a rascally son who was my good pal, and who, like me grew to be an author.
As a Jew from a Left-wing family I knew little of the family and religious customs he supervised, but there was a quiet dignity to Rev. Mitchell I found appealing. Had I known that, like my family, he was a strong proponent of integration and had integrated his church we would have had more to talk about. Had I known that, like my family, he had suffered the persecutions of the McCarthy period, I would have considered him a hero. I mention both these political events because the young "Art" of this story is of a different time and place--a time when Western Imperialism and superiority was taken for granted; a time when our cultural norms were the measure of all others.
Despite these unreflective beginnings, the young man who emerges from these pages is open hearted, fearless, and a fair-minded reporter in a truly strange land. Reading this book is like opening a sealed time capsule revealing the intimate secrets of a previous era, not all of them as democratic and fair-minded as we might like, but having known the man he became, and having had the opportunity to review the young man as whom he began, I am filled with admiration and awe at the immense distances, psychic and geographic that he traversed and I can recommend that any reader follow his footsteps, wholeheartedly."
Rev. Hosho Peter Coyote, Zen Buddhist priest, actor, author.
James Archibald Mitchell's travel notes and rare photographs transport us to the colorful, but desperate, world of China in the throes of warlordism. We enter the thought process of a person curious to learn what Chinese society was really like. His affectionate, although somewhat imperialistic, observations of Chinese people at the grassroots--coolies and villagers--are poignant and frank; his descriptions of traveling to remote places by boat, train, or donkey, quite humorous. Despite the ragged state of affairs at that time, Arch recognizes the immense dignity and beauty of China's ancient civilization. Arch's sons John and Hugh should be congratulated for making this honest narrative available to a wider audience.
Shelly Drake Hawks, PhD
Author: The Art of Resistance. Painting by Candlelight
This book is pure gold for both old China hands and readers who just want a good adventure in a bye-gone world. James Archibald Mitchell's fresh and lively observations of his travels in warlord China, 1915-18, are witness to a China closer to the middle ages than the industrial era.
Mitchell shows us the smoky reds and golds of a Medieval funeral in the "gaudy semi-foreign brazenness of Shanghai," the magnificent distances of monumental Peking, and the spirituality of mountain temples on a donkey journey through northern mountains where crowds gathered to see foreigners. In a vast country in perpetual revolution after the end of the Qing Dynasty, readers will see the environs of Shanghai when its riverbanks were still verdant and the rivers flowed with graceful sampans. Darker truths are told as well: the suspected pirates summarily marched off to be shot, the dead infants found in sacks stuffed with straw, the villagers filthy and tattered if always warmly welcoming. How fortunate we are to be able to take such an earnest journey through the very different, but very familiar, old China that became the new China of today.
GARY MOORE, playwright and author of Burning in China
About the Author
John Hanson Mitchell is an American author with a list of ten books, five of which concentrate on a single square mile of land in eastern Massachusetts known as Scratch Flat. He has visited some of the sites mentioned in this book.
Hugh Powers Mitchell is a former social worker and an environmental activist. He was head of the New York Sierra Club and is a published poet. He also lectures on Warlord China.
- Publisher : Komatik Press (August 1, 2017)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 192 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0998711330
- ISBN-13 : 978-0998711331
- Item Weight : 14.5 ounces
- Dimensions : 6 x 0.5 x 9 inches