By Xinxian Cynthia Zheng GS
In the first post in this two-part series about a file of 72 “Chinese New Year cards” I found in the Princeton University Library Records (AC 123), I wrote about the Christmas and New Year’s greetings sent by sent by missionaries and non-profit organizations to Dr. Nancy Lee Swann (1881–1966), one of the first female scholars of Chinese history who served as the curator of Princeton’s East Asian Library between 1931 and 1948. In this post, I will examine how scholars who sent cards to Swann appealed to shared literacy in Chinese historical anecdotes between senders and recipients to strengthen ties among colleagues.
One example comes from an undated card sent by Yang Liansheng (1914–1990), who is now widely known as a pioneering Chinese-born historian in the United States. Judging from the dates of this collection, when sending the card, Yang probably had just started his career in America despite his earlier accomplishments in China (he was pursuing his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees at Harvard between 1940 and 1946). The cover illustration of the card, which comes from a work entitled “The Search for the Plum Forest” by a contemporary painter named Shen Yibin, implies a subtle metaphor inspired by a historical anecdote with Cao Cao, the founding father of the Jin dynasty (265–420). In his rise to great power as one of the three major warlords, which foreshadowed the creation of the Jin dynasty, Cao was said to have once consoled his army with the false hope that a plum forest existed ahead, when his men and horses were exhaustively searching for water supply in an expedition. This anecdote became a Chinese idiom “wang mei zhi ke 望梅止渴,” which literally means “Quenching Thirst by Watching Plums.” By reinventing Cao’s anecdote, the illustration interweaves Yang’s respect for Dr. Swann, an established scholar in the field at the time, with his aspiration and resolution for his scholarly pursuits. The illustration also nicely addressed the shared passion between the two historians in Chinese economic history and the history of early China. In the greeting message, Yang addressed Dr. Swann by her Chinese name “Sun Nianli” 孫念禮, which means “thinking of the rituals.”
This manner of appropriating Chinese elements as a way of socializing with colleagues can also be found among other cards Dr. Swann received. A Chinese archeologist named Wu Yunwen sent a four-character message “Xin xi bai fu,” which was written in traditional calligraphy and means “one hundred blessings for a New Year.” Against the background, Wu designed a special watermark with the ancient jade-like stone to praise the virtues of Dr. Swann. He also included his personal seal to the left side of the note, and to the bottom he wrote: “Wu Yunwen jungong,” which literally means he was “bowing” to Dr. Swann.
The cards also indicate the sender’s personal tastes and revealed their social status (as professors and collectors). One example comes from a Chinoiserie card by Harley MacNair, an American historian of modern China and colleague of Dr. Swann, with his wife Florence. On this 1936 card, the MacNairs used their Chinese-styled cabinet of curiosities at their home in Chicago, which included a Buddha statue among other Chinese art pieces, as the card background. On the front, the posture of Mrs. MacNair, who was sitting and only showing the profile of her face, highlighted her flower-patterned Chinese qipao dress, most visible below her waist. The dominant color of the card was black, which made the Buddha statue and the qipao dress, both in lighter shades, stand out.
If you are interested in seeing more Chinese greeting cards, stop by Mudd Library to see a display of cards from the Princeton University Library Records (AC123), which will be on exhibit in the lobby through the end of January.
Xinxian Cynthia Zheng GS is a Ph.D. candidate in East Asian Studies at Princeton University.
For additional reading:
Perushek, D. E. (1985) “Nancy Lee Swann and the Gest Chinese Research Library,” Journal of East Asian Libraries: Vol. 1985: No. 77, Article 5.