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A True-Life Story of David Versus Goliath

Jun 30, 2008
My book, RETURN TO THE MIDDLE KINGDOM: One Family, Three Revolutionaries, and the Birth of Modern China, is non-fiction, but in order to bring the history alive, I had to bring the characters and places alive. I've given some idea of how I wrote three-dimensional characters previously, and now I want to say how important it is to know the places the protagonists had been to.

According to the family lore, Eugene undid what the Allied Powers, led by Woodrow Wilson, had done to China at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919. They agreed to transfer the defeated Germany's colonial interests in China's Shandong to Japan and forced China to accept the Peace Treaty they had drafted, although China had fought with them and so was, also, a victor in the war. This was a true-life story of David versus Goliath, but if I could not find solid documentation, readers might suspect it was family adulation.

From Jack and his siblings, I learned that Eugene, as the legal adviser to the Chinese delegation to Versailles, got hold of a copy of the secret pact signed by Wilson's Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, and the Japanese diplomat, Baron Ishii. But who gave it to him? Something happened in Paris. What? Jack told me that the two cities Eugene loved most were Peking (Beijing) and Paris. The City of Light, according to Eugene, was lit by Prometheus himself.

I journeyed to Paris. When I walked in the halls of the Versailles Palace, I could not help trembling with awe, as the grandeur overwhelmed the tiny mortal me. Versailles, in 1919, was the Olympus of its time, where the gods gathered to decide the fate of nations, but Eugene wanted to steal their thunder and he did. In the evening I returned to my humble room in a small hotel. I opened the window and looked out. I saw what Eugene had seen, according to what Jack once had told me. "There was a unique light bathing the whole city ... it even made magic out of some not-too-attractive streets, lanes, and corners."

Paris inspired me as it had inspired Eugene. I came home, determined to find out the truth. I found it in John Powell's MY TWENTY-FIVE YEARS IN CHINA (Da Capo Press, 1976). The exposure of the secret pact in both American and Chinese Press stirred up such a furor that for the first time the Chinese diplomats refused to sign an unequal treaty since China had been defeated in the Opium War by Britain in 1840s. The exposure also gave the Republican Senator, William Borah, added ammunition to discredit the Versailles Peace Treaty and Wilson's pet project, the League of Nations Covenant, and to contribute to the defeat of Democrats in the election year.

Equally important, the exposure ignited the passion that swept China in the May 4th Movement, which the American scholar, John Dewey, lecturing in Peking in 1919, had seen first-hand and wrote: "We are witnessing the birth of a nation and birth always comes hard."
About the Author
Yuan-tsung was born in China, and immigrated to USA in 1972. Her first book, THE DRAGON'S VILLAGE, (was published by Pantheon, and) its Penguin paperback sells an average of 3,000 copies per year since 1981. Her latest book (nonfiction), RETURN TO THE MIDDLE KINGDOM, is now available through the Union Square Press of Sterling Publishing. Visit Yuan-tsung Chen.
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