Of Surface and Depth: Agnes Smedley’s Sketches of Chinese Everyday Life

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Tydal, Fredrik
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This article focuses on American author Agnes Smedley’s creative non-fiction writings on China, seeking to recover her as an important transnational figure in light of an uneven reputation. For while Smedley is known and read in China – even the subject of a major biopic – she is virtually forgotten in the United States. To reassert her relevance, and to balance her reputation, I employ the 1933 work Chinese Destinies as a case study to discuss Smedley’s interest in everyday life as a site of socio-political analysis, a mode of inquiry that anticipates later methodologies in the social sciences. I begin by establishing how Chinese Destinies maintains a surprising focus on everyday life, despite the wartime setting. Emphasizing her background as a novelist, I then explore how Smedley is able to thematize everyday life in two different ways: first as a site of trauma, and then as a space of resistance. In this way, I argue, her work has historiographic implications, and I go on to situate her engagement with everyday life within a broader debate about historical agency and causality. As part of my conclusion, I speculate as to why Smedley’s creative brand of literary non-fiction is not as recognized as similar work by her contemporaries.
Agnes Smedley, China, Non-fiction, historiography