Author's School

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Author's Department/Program

East Asian Languages and Culture: Chinese Language and Comparative Literature


English (en)

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Chair and Committee

Lingchei Letty Chen


Chinese Spirit, Russian Soul, and American Materialism: Images of America in Twentieth-Century Chinese and Russian Travelogues This study is concerned with the process of understanding and representation of the Other in travel narratives and the role of the traveler's cultural tradition and ideological beliefs in this process. I explore the images of the United States in some of the most influential twentieth-century Chinese and Russian travelogues. There are deep cultural differences between China and Russia, yet their relationships with the West show certain similarities. The first important parallel is that the contacts with the West was a catalyst in the modernization of both countries. The second is that the West in general and the United States in particular is portrayed in comparable ways. The West is perceived to be a land of technology and materialism, whereas China and Russia are both depicted as old civilizations of superior spiritual, moral, and artistic achievements. The third important similarity is that at the beginning of China and Russia's links with the United States, it was seen as different from the other Western countries. With the development of their relations, the United States gradually became the country symbolizing the West, and the paradigm of Materialistic West versus Spiritual China and Russia was used in describing America in China, Russia, and the Soviet Union. The Chinese travelogues I consider are Fei Xiaotong's First Visit to America: Chufang Meiguo 1945) and Glimpses of America: Fang Mei lüeying 1980), Wang Zuomin's The American Kaleidoscope: Society, Landscape, People: Meiguo Wanhuatong: Shehui, fengguang, renwu 1985), Liu Zongren's Two Years in the Melting Pot: Da rong lu liang nian 1987), and Ding Ling's Random Notes from a Visit to America: Fang Mei sanji 1984). My central Russian travelogues are Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov's One-storey America: Odnoetazhnaia Amerika 1937), Vassily Aksyonov's In Search of Melancholy Baby: V poiskakh grustnogo beiby 1987) and Non-Stop Round the Clock: Impressions, Meditations, Adventures: Kruglie sutki non-stop: vpechatlenia, razmishlenia, prikliuchenia 1975). Fei Xiaotong, Ding Ling, Ilf and Petrov, and Vassily Aksyonov are among the most popular twentieth-century authors in their countries. Liu Zongren and Wang Zuomin are journalists whose travelogues about the United States became bestsellers in China. Therefore, all these books played a substantial role in creating images of the United States in China and the Soviet Union. The travelogues were written before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 when socialism was seen as a viable alternative to capitalism, and the American cultural Otherness was reinforced by the ideological antagonism between capitalism and communism. I analyze how the Marxist paradigm molded the travelogues and to what extent it is embraced, circumvented or vehemently negated by their authors. The communist writers tend to represent the United States as an aggressive imperialist state using democratic demagogy to cover its greed and exploitative practices, whereas the anticommunist writers see it as a democratic stronghold and the freest country on Earth. In addition to examining the ideological beliefs through which the authors of the travel books filtered their impressions of the United States, I concentrate on the influence of the most popular paradigm in the East-West exchange, namely, the "Spiritual East" and the "Materialistic West." The idea of spiritual, cultural, and ethical superiority of China and Russia in contrast to the material affluence of the United States is traceable in all travelogues. The theoretical framework of my thesis is based on the ideas of the relations between the Self and the Other and cross-cultural communication created by Tzvetan Todorov, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Hans-Georg Gadamer. I utilize Todorov's suggestion of three levels on which the problematics of alterity can be located. The axiological plane includes value judgments, the praxiological permits rapprochement to or distancing from the Other, and the epistemic is the level of an endless process of better understanding. My goal in analyzing these books is to discover whether these authors are capable of associating with alterity on the epistemic level, that is, of listening attentively to the otherness they encounter, and of creating an image of the American Other that is relatively free from ideological projections and inherited concepts. Both Gadamer and Bakhtin's principles of communication exclude the rigidly constructed image as an epistemological tool. Instead, they think that the Self should constantly check and change its images of the Other in order to open a space for a true dialogue. Approaching the Other on axiological or praxiological levels excludes the implementation of Gadamerian hermeneutics because on these levels Others are manipulated or controlled by the Self. The images of America in the travel books are complex, controversial, and multilayered, yet there are some common characteristics among them. First, ambivalence is a common stance in both Chinese and Russian travelogues. Both Chinese and Russian authors vacillate between admiration for American people on the one hand, and criticism of American political system on the other. Moreover, the fascination with American technological and economic power is paired with indignation over the social problems plaguing the richest country in the world. Second, all writers underscore the natural beauty of the United States and the innovative genius of its people. Third, ideology plays equally significant roles in both Chinese and Russian books.Yet there are differences among the travelogues that determine the prevalence of the epistemic or the axiological level in their presentations of the United States. Although the concept of Materialistic West versus Spiritual China and Russia has been used to describe America in both China and Russia, its influence is more visible in the Russian books. The continuity with the long tradition of presenting America as a land devoid of culture and spiritual life revealed in the Russian travelogues determines the dominance of the axiological level in approaching alterity in these books. The axiological level of presentation is less prominent in the Chinese travel books. With the exception of Ding Ling all other Chinese writers demonstrated a desire to understand the foundation of American wealth and power, and to use this understanding as a model for the amelioration of China. This genuine drive to learn undergirds the predominance of the epistemic level of presenting the American Other in the Chinese travelogues.


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