06 September 2011

Oz as China?

Years ago Martin Blythe sent me a link to his web essay titled “Oz is China: A Political Fable of Chinese Dragons and White Tigers.” Blythe, formerly top publicist for Paramount Pictures, makes an enthusiastic case that L. Frank Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as an allegory of Chinese politics, but not a convincing one.

Giving illustrator W. W. Denslow the first name “Frank” is obviously an error of carelessness rather than misunderstanding, but it doesn’t bode well for accuracy in detail. Similarly, Blythe writes, “In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s friends all end up with territories to run: the Scarecrow gets to rule Oz from Beijing, while the Tin Woodman calls himself emperor of the Winkies (just like the Kaiser, who decided to open a brewery there).” In fact, the word “emperor” never appears in that first book. The Tin Woodman adopts that title in later books, but Blythe's essay never acknowledges those.

“Oz Is China” repeatedly makes factual statements without offering support for them. For example, “Baum read the newspapers avidly and he was consumed with news from China.” As a former newspaper publisher and occasional journalist, Baum undoubtedly did read the papers, but what evidence suggests news from China “consumed” him? Did his pseudonymous Boy Fortune Hunters in China show an unusual level of knowledge about that country? (Check out its recent reissue as The Scream of the Sacred Ape.)

The essay lacks citations. The claim that Pearl S. Buck “would come to see The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a gentle satire on Western imperialism and the Christian civilizing mission in China” is not augmented by any quotation or reference to writing by Buck. Nor does it help that the essay says Buck was “exactly Dorothy’s age (6 years old)…when The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written”; the book never states Dorothy’s age, and Buck was seven when Baum wrote the book in late 1899.

This is an example of the circular reasoning that spirals through the entire essay. Another:
Anna May Wong...discovered during her heyday in the 1930’s that part of being American means coming to terms with your “inner Dorothy.” So we could say, and should say, that Dorothy was also Chinese American.
The quotation marks might tempt one to think that Blythe is quoting Wong. But his essay offers no evidence that Wong ever read Baum’s book, much less saw herself in Dorothy.

Even when the essay does offer a citation, its claims go well beyond that evidence, as in these two paragraphs:
When Baum writes: “The Wicked Witch was angry to find them in her country,” the illustration shows her dressed in Manchu pigtails, her imperial regalia and her Golden Cap—the Empress Dowager in all her glory.

Many people spotted this when the book came out. The Boston Beacon wrote, in September 1900, that “the Scarecrow wears a Russian blouse, the fierce Tin Woodman bears a striking resemblance to Emperor Wilhelm of Germany, the Cowardly Lion with its scarlet beard and tail tip at once suggest Great Britain, and the Flying Monkeys wear a military cap in Spanish colors.”
Yet that quoted passage says nothing about the supposedly obvious resemblance between the Wicked Witch and the Dowager Empress, even as it proposed links between other characters and European figures.

“Oz Is China” resembles similar attempts to argue that Baum based Wizard on US monetary policy, the King James Bible, or Gaelic—I’ve read all of these. They all rely on:
  • carefully selecting details from the books, movie, and/or Baum’s life and overlooking many contrary facts.
  • ignoring how Baum had no idea that this book would be his major work and cared very little for storytelling consistency.
  • overlooking how the “obvious” symbolism went entirely unremarked in Baum’s own time and every other time until the theorist’s revelation. 
  • imagining that Baum was entirely devoted to that cause or area of knowledge, yet chose to keep its significance secret for the last twenty years of his life.
In sum, those are classic conspiracy theories, albeit harmless ones.

A little more convincing, because they don’t claim intent on Baum’s part, are arguments that the book could be interpreted in certain ways, such as Bird Brian’s reading at GoodReads that focuses on Japan instead of China. Of course, that review still refers to Dorothy as an “Aguished midwestern teen,” and appears to suggest that the 1900 novel reflected western concerns following the Russo-Japanese War of 1905.


saintfighteraqua said...

I've read that site too and found it silly if somewhat amusing.
These conspiracy theorists can come up with some crazy stuff and though i like reading it if it pertains to something i enjoy...like Oz, i think they take this stuff way to seriously.

I do not think Baum had any such agenda.

I've even thought up my own after reading about various things...such as how the Four Royal Stars of Persian lore divide up into four sections that correspond to South as Red, East as Yellow, West as Blue and north as black (purple?!) Sounds a lot like a map we all know, huh?
It's too easy to apply this stuff to a story as deep as Oz.

But really, these people that try to convince us Oz is about money, China, Illuminati and such are just silly...or are they? ;)

I still have people argue with me that the book is an allegory for money and that there is a Munchkin hanging in the movie...twice apparently.

J. L. Bell said...

Any theory that Baum wrote a complex allegory runs up against the fact that he changed Oz greatly over the succeeding books, and added a lot of inconsistencies. He just wasn’t a systematic thinker, and one has to be to embed a complex secret system inside a story.

Anonymous said...

I've read all three and agree that the Money and China are pretty foggy. But the Gaelic... he was a Theosophist wasn't he, so a Theosophist background is not all that far fetched. Gaelic language... if I recall correctly over a 100 words and names that sound precisely like 19th century Gaelic and the meanings fit right on. And I think most of the inconsistancies were explained as part of the Theosophist background. Your objections don't seem to me to cover the Gaelic thing. It was touted as the first american fairy tale during his lifetime wasn't it? Selling point that? Good reason to keep his lip zipped?

J. L. Bell said...

The Gaelic theory is as unconvincing as the other conspiracy theories of Oz, Anonymous. The anonymous proponent of that idea has offered no evidence of Baum’s deep knowledge of multiple forms of Gaelic, no plausible explanation of why Baum would create such an elaborate system and hide it, and no suggestion of how such a systematic approach fits with Baum’s inconsistent world-building. The supposed Irish roots of Oz managed to escape the notice of such Irish-Americans as publisher Frank Reilly, illustrator John R. Neill, and scholar Michael Patrick Hearn.

The Baums explored Theosophy in the early 1890s, and such terms as “Adepts” in Glinda of Oz almost certainly came from that milieu. But Theosophy is an inchoate and malleable mass of ideas that a credulous person can link to nearly anything. I don’t see how Theosophy makes the Gaelic theory more tenable; has anyone documented that Blavatsky knew Gaelic or Irish culture?

The sole proponent of the Gaelic theory picked and chose from alternate pronunciations of Baum’s character names and from various forms of Gaelic to find his “matches.” As I and others have pointed out in online discussions, that approach offers a lot of fudge factors. To my knowledge, no independent linguist has assessed the claimed similarities, nor has there been any comparable search for “matches” in other languages as a control. The proponent asked people to trust his unspecified expertise in linguistics, all the while misspelling the word “grammar” and slipping into a sock-puppet alternate persona. I wasn’t convinced.

That proponent initially suggested that Baum hid the Gaelic roots because of anti-Irish prejudice, citing mythical “No Irish Need Apply” signs from the period. In fact, Baum’s first play was set in Ireland (even though its source matter has a Scottish setting), with himself playing the part of the “Irish Boy.” Far from feeling that an Irish origin for a story was a problem, Baum made it a marketing feature.

Anonymous said...

Really good points. I went back to the site and reread. The Theosophy is unconvincing. Not totally foggy but pretty dependant on perspective. The Irish though, appears to be from two dictionaries and thus not especially various. As Irish Americans of the time - much less now - are pretty much non fluent in Irish of the 19th century (pointed out on the site) I wouldn't expect anybody you mentioned to notice it. I did listen to the Irish in Quiet Man and it does appear to fit the phonetics of the site. Apparently Maureen Ohara grew up in an Irish speaking family. As far as other languages - I'm certain it's not German, my other language. And the site does mention the Blavatsky version of the settlement of Ireland. I think there might be less fudge in the linguisticals than you think there is. Now that I'm retired I've got a lot of time to screw around so I'm thinking of making the effort to look into it rather more than just casually. I ran into the site by accident while looking for something else entirely and look forward to reading the Oz books.

J. L. Bell said...

It appears, Anonymous, that you haven’t yet read the Oz books, but have now twice read a long web essay about the characters’ names. That seems backwards, but I assure you the books offer better stories.

As I wrote before, “The sole proponent of the Gaelic theory picked and chose from alternate pronunciations of Baum’s character names and from various forms of Gaelic to find his ‘matches.’” Those various forms included not just Irish but also Scottish, Manx, and terms obviously derived from English, and for individual terms the anonymous proponent took his choice of case, tense, and other grammatical qualities. His website’s Bibliography lists more than twenty dictionaries, not just two. He picked and chose among definitions on either end of the “match.” Another skeptic noted all those as “fudge factors,” which I thought was apt.

The website proposing the theory would be more convincing if it offered some independent authorities for its statements about pronunciation in 19th-century Ireland. I’m not sure what Maureen O’Hara said or taught to her American costars in The Quiet Man (1952) would have to do with that thesis. According to its anonymous proponent, the language of 20th-century Ireland (O’Hara was born in 1920) was significantly different from that of the 1800s, and should be disregarded.

Someday, perhaps, someone will endorse the theory of Gaelic influence on Oz under his or her real name. But I haven’t seen that yet.