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Tuesday, 6 September 2011

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.

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