Web Exclusives: Rally 'Round the Cannon -- Princeton history
by Gregg Lange '70

October 10, 2007:
A journey back into China's past
At Mudd Library, an arresting exhibit of John MacMurray 1902's photos

By Gregg Lange '70

To our readers: PAW’s online column on Princeton history, called Under the Ivy since 2002, begins the fall 2007 term with a new name: Rally ’Round the Cannon.

Regular classes in Chinese language became established at Princeton in 1956. Yet many alumni, even from years long preceding that, carry the image of a campus highly attuned to global affairs, especially those of the Far East. There are at least a couple of reasons for this.

The first is the great Princeton Oriental Studies Library, which essentially predates its own department by 30 years, a pretty good trick when you think about it. It is built around the Gest Oriental collection, which in one of those quirky early 20th-century archaeo-historical cloak-and-dagger tales (think Indiana Jones meets Marian the librarian) wandered out of China, traveled around North America, and came to rest in a fortuitous place. Its originator, Guion Moore Gest, did much business during the chaos of China in the 1910s and '20s and began by collecting Chinese medical tracts to treat his glaucoma. Then things snowballed. He subsequently lost his shirt in the 1929 crash, and McGill University, where he had piled his idiosyncratic but formidable collection, was so financially strapped it tossed the stuff out, too.

The Institute for Advanced Study accepted it in 1937 but had no place to keep it; thus, Gest and his staff demanded that it be properly administered by the University Library. So through no effort of its own, the 100,000 or so items, including multitudinous unique and ancient manuscripts, were sitting there when the East Asian studies department was formalized in 1969. And it found at last a worthy home in what had been the beautiful old Fine Library, where Einstein, von Neumann, and John Nash *50 previously roamed.

The second image, vivid to undergrads across many departments and many decades, is Princeton in Asia, which began with a flurry of post-graduate intern activity in China – initiated primarily by the students – long before, in 1898. In various places and guises it has thrived ever since and proven a touchstone experience for its many participants, now numbering well over 100 per year in 15 countries. Before 1949, it concentrated in China and gave the entire campus a pronounced flavor of its activities there.

The same expansion of American vision to the Pacific Rim (with the accession of the Philippines in the 1898 Spanish-American War) that gave rise to Princeton in Asia clearly captured the imagination of John Van Antwerp MacMurray 1902, whose matriculation coincided with both. By his early 30s, he was the secretary to the American Legation in Peking, the practical function of which was, if not precisely cat herding, then doing an extemporaneous play-by-play narration of a 12-sided cat-herding derby. The existence of a functional Chinese government, following the inevitable abdication of the last emperor in 1912, was problematic even before things fell apart completely in 1916, with regional warlords scrambling for whatever they felt like when they awoke each morning. (A map of their fluid spheres of influence foreshadows Jackson Pollock.) That this was happening during a cataclysmic European War (with everybody in Asia trying to choose sides) in an agrarian land with prehistoric communications and hundreds of millions of people made it unimaginably confusing.

So MacMurray, in his travels for the legation, took his camera along. The current arresting exhibit at Mudd Library (on display through Jan. 18) shows the results, which can only be described as astonishing. Some of MacMurray's 1913-1917 photos – he took thousands – of the majestic beauty of the land, the otherworldly quaintness of the Chinese villages, and the grandeur of ancient structures, offer a simple contrast to the various bureaucratic trivia and palace intrigues of the day as clearly described in his documents from the University Archives collection. If you want to make any sense of it all, I strongly recommend attending the lecture at Mudd on Oct. 20 by Professor Arthur Waldron, who will explain as much as is explicable.

For novelty's sake, there's also in the exhibit 8mm film footage from MacMurray's subsequent ambassadorial days in Peking in 1928. Clearly a technology first-adopter, he shot home movies of street scenes and a trip down the Yang Tze that leave a modern-day viewer dizzy with the subsequent transformation of that land to an economic and cultural world power in less than a century. P

Lange '70Gregg Lange '70 is a member of the Princetoniana Committee and the Alumni Council Committee on Reunions, an Alumni Schools Committee volunteer, and a trustee of WPRB radio.