Excerpted from the Foreword
"I try to write the kind of book that I like to read. That is, tight, with plenty of incident, all of it going somewhere".
—Grace Zaring Stone*
"I want as a matter of fact to see your point of view as far as I can. I believe I can do it better when you don’t argue with me."
—Megan Davis to General Yen Tso-Chong
"There is something about the European eye, I can’t explain the effect it has on me. It gets so—large. . . . But I am glad you are trying not to think too ill of us."
—General Yen Tso-Chong
The Bitter Tea of General Yen was Grace Zaring Stone’s third work of fiction, published by the Bobbs-Merrill Company in 1930, following Letters to a Djinn (1922) and her acclaimed novel of the year before, The Heaven and Earth of Doña Elena (1929; also Bobbs-Merrill); “Admirable; brilliant,” said Louis Golding, prolific novelist, short-story writer, essayist, poet, author of Magnolia Street (a sensation in America). Doña Elena, set in the Caribbean in the days of the conquistadors, was about women of the Church, a Mother Superior, the seventh daughter of a Spanish hidalgo, who is sent to a new convent and hospital in the frontier town of San Juan.
The Bitter Tea of General Yen takes place in a more contem- porary time, the Far East in the late 1920s. It’s about a New England woman of the finest Puritan stock, daughter of a college president, who arrives in a China torn apart by civil war to marry a medical missionary, son of an Episcopal rector. Both have grown up in the same New England town and known one another “always,” gone to dancing class, had picnics together, “indifferent companions until suddenly, [at] seventeen,” they fall in love. Bob, now a doctor, has come to China to serve in Changsha at Yale-in-China. His sole intent: to relieve the suffering of others. Megan sees his calling as being filled with beauty and dignity, and has come to China to be a part of it. She sees her role as being one of bringing happiness to others, showing that evil, sickness, poverty, and injustice can be alleviated in the filling of the heart with love for one’s fellow man.
On arriving in Shanghai, Megan Davis is met at the boat by a missionary couple of the China Inland Mission. Her fiancé has been waylaid in Changsha, caught in the midst of heavy fighting between Republican and Communist forces.
Rebel skirmishes are flaring up at Sunkiang, a mere thirty miles outside of Shanghai. There is no doubt that the rebels will take the city, and Megan, full of boundless energy and restless vitaiity, volunteers to accompany Doctor Strike, missionary, learned scholar, translator of the Odes, on a night foray to Chapei, a “labor-ridden” no-man’s section of the city, to help rescue women and refugee orphans in their charge, all of whom are trapped at a mission school between the lines.
Doctor Strike, a man of power, spiritual as well as physical, sees the Chinese as “the most tragic people . . . For hundreds of centuries they have enjoyed the highest plane of living and thinking. . . . Like the Greeks they have been permitted to miss persistently the one essential truth. . . . the existence of a God of love.”
The whole of Chapei is ablaze, a fiery inferno, and as Megan and Doctor Strike make their way with the women and children, with packs and bundles, through barricaded streets, past bullet-ridden buildings and terror-stricken civilians running for cover, to a rickshaw stand and waiting coolies squatting between the shafts, Doctor Strike lifts the children onto one of the rickshaws and the women onto another. A tall coolie with a bamboo carrying- pole attacks Megan, hitting her on the head. She collapses, is engulfed by a mob of soldiers and refugees, and awakens to find herself being “rescued”—abducted—carried across the country by train, under the protection of the powerful and elusive General Yen Tso-Chong, leader of the Republican forces against the Com- munists, ruler of a province who maintains an arsenal managed by an American. Yen is from one of the oldest Mandarin families, a scholar turned warlord, now considered a gangster, dissolute by the Europeans and the Americans; his troop trains have special cars for his concubines. (“We have to apply our standard to them,” the missionaries say, “and make them accept it.”)
Megan is brought to Yen’s palace, “made for a life which began and ended with the rising and the setting of the sun.”
Yen’s adviser and financial procurer is Mr. Shultz, formerly in “Customs.” He’s lived in China “longer than [Megan] has lived anywhere,” Shultz tells her. He’s a renegade, and brags that he can squeeze “more money out of his province than any man alive.” Megan sees that Shultz, “is dedicated to himself, first, last and always.” General Yen sees it differently. “My interests are his inter- ests. As long as that remains so, I can count on him absolutely. While Doctor Strike would betray me to please his God any time,” Yen tells Megan, “Shultz has all I want of the West. Doctor Strike has nothing.”
Grace Zaring Stone spent most of her childhood “visiting around,” she said, living in many societies. She was born and raised in New York (her mother died in childbirth) and traveled to Australia, Java, France, and England.
Stone was the great-great-granddaughter of Robert Owen, the nineteenth-century Welsh cotton manufacturer, son of a saddler, who revolutionized the modern factory system and was one of the great social reformers of the day, introducing shorter working hours and safer conditions; building schools for children and adults; teaching moral education (at the Institute for the Formation of Character, to help shape “the new character of the rising population”); and doing away with punishment and the fear of penal law. Friedrich Engels described him as “a man of almost sublime, childlike simplicity of character . . . one of the few born leaders of men. . . . Every social movement, every real advance in England on behalf of the workers links itself on to the name Robert Owen.” At the heart of his many utopian ideas were his “villages of co-operation,” based on his own factory town of New Lanark, Scotland, with its one hundred and fifty acres of farm- land and two thousand villagers, and later, in America, with his sixteen agricultural settlements in the Community of Equality, beginning with New Harmony, Indiana, built along the banks of Indiana’s Wabash River. It was Owen’s profound belief that “the character of man is, without a single exception, always formed for him. . . . Man, therefore, never did, nor is it possible he ever can, form his own character.” Man is a creature of circumstance and to believe otherwise, he wrote, “generates and perpetuates ignorance, hatred, and revenge, where, without such error, only intelligence,confidence, and kindness would exist.” Owen believed the three greatest evils of society were the institution of marriage, private property, and religion, and that the church had made people “a weak, imbecile animal; a furious bigot and fanatic; or a misera- ble hypocrite.” With barely any formal education (Owen went to work at a textile factory at age ten, and at eighteen became a partner in a Manchester cotton factory), he was, from the outset, a constant and impassioned reader.
“In all the houses of the Owen descendants,” said Grace Zaring Stone, “there were many books being very thoroughly read and almost everyone kept diaries. Diary keeping, writing in general, was just something one did. Then I married into the Navy and of course that was very, very different. The Navy doesn’t express itself in diaries.”
When her husband, Ellis Stone, was stationed at St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, “the place seemed to get me started,” said Stone, and an account she wrote of a hurricane was published in the Atlantic Monthly, soon followed by a short story. Bobbs-Merrill wrote to ask if she had a novel in mind. “That was a most surpris- ing question to me. I’d had a novel in mind practically forever.”
The Heaven and Earth of Doña Elena was critically admired. “It has a bright direction like a silver arrow in flight,” said the New York Herald Tribune. The Bitter Tea of General Yen, written with the same subtle magic of Doña Elena and the same combination of delicacy and strength, was a more ambitious novel (“Remarkable,” said the Nation of it [Jan 7, 1931]) and was completed during the two years Stone lived in China, when her husband was commander of the US Navy ship Isabel, stationed on the Yangtze River.
Within a few years of its publication, The Bitter Tea of General Yen had appeared in twenty editions.
What interested Stone in the writing of The Bitter Tea, as it did Edith M. Hull in her 1919 novel The Sheik, was the idea of taking a white woman of good standing out of her safe milieu, putting her into a wild, exotic setting, still under the rules of “civ- ilized” society and the protection of men, and then thrusting her into a world where most (white) men would dare not venture, or gain entry: a world beyond white colonial law.
At the heart of the novel are two civilizations, two people who come together from different worlds: an American with a belief in a Christian ethic instilled through generations of teach- ing, brought up to cherish the notions of goodness and mercy and forgiveness, and a Chinese warlord of rarefied tastes—elegant, educated, wise, unsentimental. Each a creation of circumstances, as Stone’s great-grandfather put forth. For three days Megan comes up against Yen’s superior mind. (“Have you read any of our poetry?” he asks her. “Do you understand our music? Do you know that there has never existed a people more purely artist and there- fore more purely lover than the Chinese?”)
Megan is shaken by the violent ways of the unchristian general Yen and at a critical moment in his campaign begs him to forgive, not execute, one of his traitorous concubines, Mah-Li, educated at the Presbyterian Mission School in Soochow and taught there to speak English, embroider, cook, and use a typewriter. Mah-Li pampers General Yen and receives his gifts of luxury and precious jade only to betray him by her revelations of the general’s plans and strategies to her clandestine lover, Captain Li, Yen’s closest aide. For saving Mah-Li (“I must make the General see as I do,” says Megan to Mah-Li, “that you are a child and haven’t under- stood right and wrong any more than a child, that he must forgive you and do what he can to help you.”), Yen asks Megan if what she is after is understanding or changing him, “to make me over into some new image; the image of God, but also, slightly, the image of Miss Davis.”
The questioning of Megan’s Christian ethic and her attempt to make Yen over into a humanist, or sentimentalist, come at little cost to her, but her self-discovery and enlightenment come at a high price for General Yen.
Stone’s novel has no hint of romantic attachment between General Yen and Megan Davis. But the script of Frank Capra’s 1933 movie by Edward Paramore, based on Stone’s novel, is about their impossible love: a sheltered New England woman from the West and a romantic, worldly, “inscrutable” man from the East who briefly shatter the barriers of convention, race, and custom but cannot thrive in a conventional world.
The Bitter Tea was a lavish picture for Columbia Studios. Harry Cohn, the studio’s production chief, had told Capra that the Motion Picture Academy would “never vote for that com- edy crap you make. They only vote for that arty crap.”* Capra set out to make an “arty” film; it was as well a story on the edge of Hollywood acceptability (a picture about a forbidden inter- racial love) that might have a chance of winning an Academy Award.
* Robert Van Gelder, “An Interview with Grace Zaring Stone,” New York Times Book Review, May 3, 1942.