A Chinaman's Chance

One Family's Journey and the Chinese American Dream


By Eric Liu

Formats and Prices




$12.99 CAD



  1. ebook $9.99 $12.99 CAD
  2. Trade Paperback $16.99 $22.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around July 8, 2014. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

From Tony Hsieh to Amy Chua to Jeremy Lin, Chinese Americans are now arriving at the highest levels of American business, civic life, and culture. But what makes this story of immigrant ascent unique is that Chinese Americans are emerging at just the same moment when China has emerged — and indeed may displace America — at the center of the global scene. What does it mean to be Chinese American in this moment? And how does exploring that question alter our notions of just what an American is and will be?

In many ways, Chinese Americans today are exemplars of the American Dream: during a crowded century and a half, this community has gone from indentured servitude, second-class status and outright exclusion to economic and social integration and achievement. But this narrative obscures too much: the Chinese Americans still left behind, the erosion of the American Dream in general, the emergence — perhaps — of a Chinese Dream, and how other Americans will look at their countrymen of Chinese descent if China and America ever become adversaries. As Chinese Americans reconcile competing beliefs about what constitutes success, virtue, power, and purpose, they hold a mirror up to their country in a time of deep flux.

In searching, often personal essays that range from the meaning of Confucius to the role of Chinese Americans in shaping how we read the Constitution to why he hates the hyphen in “Chinese-American,” Eric Liu pieces together a sense of the Chinese American identity in these auspicious years for both countries. He considers his own public career in American media and government; his daughter’s efforts to hold and release aspects of her Chinese inheritance; and the still-recent history that made anyone Chinese in America seem foreign and disloyal until proven otherwise. Provocative, often playful but always thoughtful, Liu breaks down his vast subject into bite-sized chunks, along the way providing insights into universal matters: identity, nationalism, family, and more.


Also by Eric Liu

The Gardens of Democracy: A New Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government (with Nick Hanauer)

Imagination First (with Scott Noppe-Brandon)

The True Patriot (with Nick Hanauer)

Guiding Lights: How to Mentor—and Find Life's Purpose

The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker

NEXT: Young American Writers on the New Generation (editor)


Chapter 1: What Confucius Didn't Say

Mr. Robinson

Chapter 2: Mother Tongue

A Guide to Punctuation

Chapter 3: Overseas Chinese

Lius in the News

Chapter 4: Destiny of the Nation


Chapter 5: Letter and Spirit

The Iron Chink

Chapter 6: Performance

Fidelity, Or, the Impossibility of Translating a Poem

Chapter 7: Father Tongue



For Further Reading




My father, who had an ironic sense of humor, took a certain delight from the phrase "a Chinaman's chance." People don't use that nineteenth-century expression anymore, but most of us still know what it means: no chance in hell. Dad sometimes liked to jest, about prosaic situations like getting to the store before closing, that neither he nor I had a Chinaman's chance. Of course, he tried hard all his life here to prove that saying wrong. So have I. So have nearly four million Chinese Americans.

The Census tells us that Chinese Americans today have among the highest incomes and highest levels of education of any ethnic group in America. Our senses tell us that there is more to the picture. There are Chinese American stories of striving and struggle that don't fit the box of a government form or the narrative of the model minority, from families who've been here many generations to lone migrants who arrived yesterday. And the gleaming promise and looming menace of modern China colors the perception of people who look like me—and indeed colors our own self-perceptions.

The great American kaleidoscope of migration and acculturation, the tumbling fractal dance of colors colliding, of fusion and diffusion, has turned for over a century and a half for the Chinese of America. With each generation we have changed this country—its laws and voice and palate and face. The kaleidoscope gyrates still, but now in a world where the Chinese of China also have something to say about what it is to matter and to have influence and to be seen.

What does it mean to be Chinese American in this moment of China and America? It means being a vessel for all the anxieties and hopes that attend the arrival of China on the world scene. It means creating a new template for American immigrant arrival—the Chinese cannot be reduced to new Jews; the history of the Chinese in America is unique, and richer than most know. It means being a test case for some of the great questions of our day: Does Chinese culture somehow confer a competitive advantage? Is it possible for America, the planet's most efficient hybridizer of cultures, to capitalize fully on the talents and passions and character of those of us of Chinese ancestry?

Here, in the pages to follow, are the reflections of one Chinaman on chance: on the role of chance in his own family's journey, and on the chance America still has to be something greater than the sum of its many tinted parts.

CHAPTER 1: What Confucius Didn't Say

The Master said, "At fifteen, I set my heart on learning; at thirty I took my stand; at forty I came to be free of doubts; at fifty I understood the Decree of Heaven; at sixty my ear was attuned; at seventy I followed my heart's desire without overstepping the line."

This passage from The Analects of Confucius (Book II.4) has always stirred in me a mix of aspiration and anxiety—the aspiration to seek ever-greater wisdom; the anxiety of not feeling quite age-appropriately wise. A kind of ethical clock ticks loudly in my brain whenever I read these words of the Master. They remind me of the passage from Ben Franklin's Autobiography in which he describes himself at age twenty making a list of personal virtues (temperance, frugality, cleanliness, humility, and so forth) and keeping a daily chart of his adherence to each. I didn't discover Franklin's regimen of structured self-improvement until I was well into my thirties. The discovery led me both to push myself and to kick myself: I ought to be more like that—but it's too late to become like that!

I am now forty-five. I am not yet free of doubts. In five years I am supposed to understand the Decree of Heaven. I confess to you I do not know the Decree and cannot claim to have mastered it. I do know, however, that the Chinese term for Decree of Heaven—tian ming—translates more accurately to "heavenly fate." And I am beginning, maybe right on schedule, to appreciate the meaning of fate.

"Fate" is another word for "the die is cast." Fate is a set of patterns 99 percent unseen and only 1 percent within our ken—and it's that tantalizing 1 percent that generates our entire sense of free will and of personal responsibility to make or remake ourselves, to change or fulfill our destiny. Perhaps 99/1 is the wrong split. Maybe it's 80/20. Or 51/49. I am not yet free of doubts. But I am old enough now, and have moments enough of wisdom, to realize that many forces unseen and unwitting have bent the strange loop of my identity: my ways of seeing people, refracting the light of situations, facing history, dreaming. For so many years I have imagined myself as the author of my own story. I have imagined identity to be a matter simply of what I choose to identify with. Like so many Americans, I have cherished the liberty of such choice.

I had to claim it early. When my father died, we both were too young. He was fifty-four and I twenty-two. I had no choice but to choose my own way, to start crafting a story of self and place with what I had at hand. And I came to imagine that anything at hand must have been of my own making. Like so many Americans, I imagined myself self-made. But today I stand more than two decades from the death of my father, and fifteen years into fatherhood myself. And now I see myself more clearly: not as the author solely, or even primarily, but more as the page; less the calligrapher than the parchment, absorbing the ink and scripts of others.


When she was eleven, my daughter, Olivia, decided it would be amusing to make up sayings by Confucius. She scribbled on a sheet of loose-leaf paper, giggling as she wrote, leaving chunks of hurried script that looked like graffiti or furtive notes to a classmate:

Birds must live off the bird feeder to survive the harsh winter. I know this because I've seen it happen with my own two buggy eyes.


Simply Xerox.


Confucius does not like to look in the mirror and see any man but Confucius.


If you want a flower to grow, you must wait until springtime, for that is when I talk to the bears around me.


In your pocket, there is pocket lint.


To have tossed off such absurdities—they read like the comedic tweets of someone with the handle @FakeConfucius—she must have come into contact at some point with Confucian epigrams and then later with the fortune-cookie bastardizations of those epigrams. Perhaps she saw, as I once saw when I was her age, a white person on TV or in the hallway at school squint his eyes, fold his mouth into an obsequious grin, and utter in a fake accent and broken English: "Confucius sayyyy. . . ." She must have absorbed the American notion that to be Chinese is to be wise, often inscrutably, and profound, often misleadingly. She must also have picked up on the idea that to be Chinese American in the twenty-first century is to be able to make fun of it all—the Chinese, the Americans, the pictures each has of the other, the eminently laughable self-seriousness of anyone advertised as a "Master," the earnestness of people (like her father) who seek insight from Masters. But where and when these patterns of thought took hold in her I can't say.

Actually, I can—to an extent. Her scribblings poured forth one afternoon when we were sitting at our kitchen nook and she was trying to avoid the weekly Chinese tutorial I give her. I have a pretty high tolerance for her evasions, especially when they are creative, so I went along. After every few of the parody maxims she wrote, I'd add one:

I forgot where I put my toast.


What did you say?


Do you have change for a dollar?


Mine were not as inspired or spontaneous as hers. But they turned her playfulness into a game for us both. To play at being Chinese is, I sometimes think, the most I will be able to do. I don't mean that entirely self-damningly. I have not attained mastery of my cultural inheritance. I remain half-proficient in Chinese conversation, able to understand more than I am able to express. I am half-proficient in Chinese history and ethics and art, not insensate but not fully discerning.

Still, my partial knowledge is greater than that of many ABCs (American-born Chinese, as we of the second generation are sometimes called). I am definitely conveying to Olivia the core elements of the language and the sensibility that hides inside the valence of each character and each grammatical convention. She knows that the translation of an English sentence like "Why did you teach me this today?" is, roughly, "You today why teach me this?" And she senses that this order has meaning, that the logic is not just syntactic but also relational: start with the other person, the larger context. It's enough to fashion something. With a little ingenuity and a spark of improvisation, I may still be able to ignite in my daughter a sense that within our games and our intermittent tutorials and her irreverent appropriations of other people's appropriations of Confucius are the faint outlines of a civilization.


The Master said, "I never enlighten anyone who has not been driven to distraction by trying to understand a difficulty or who has not got into a frenzy trying to put his ideas into words. When I have pointed out one corner of a square to someone and he does not come back with the other three, I will not point it out to him a second time." (Book VII.8)

In recent months I have begun reading The Analects with my mother. Julia Liu was born in Nanjing in 1937, the year of the Rape of Nanjing, though by the time of those atrocities she and her family had already moved on to another city. Her father was a reformist professor of European history, part of the idealistic "May 4 generation" that, fed up with the backwardness and weakness of imperial China, took to the streets in protest on May 4, 1919. Her mother was a restless young student of that professor. Their marriage came at a time when nearly every social and political tradition in China was collapsing, but it displeased both their families so much that they essentially were left on their own. Their tiny family lived an itinerant life, ranging across a landscape of war and upheaval, going wherever there were enough people, and enough stability, to support a university.

Because Japanese and later Communist Chinese troops seemed always to be approaching, they kept moving across China, to Xian to Chenggu to Lanzhou and ultimately, after the Communist victory on the mainland, to Taipei. At home—wherever that was at any given moment—my mother heard her father rail against the stultifying legacy of Confucianism, the suffocating formats of Chinese education. His influence seeped into her childhood imagination. Far more compelling to her than the classical Chinese legends of "The Monkey King" or "The Journey to the West" were romantic tales from the actual West: Wuthering Heights and the novels of Turgenev and the other great Russians, all in translation.

So it is that only in recent years, in her seventies, is she doing her first truly close reading of some of the canonical Chinese texts. She has a group of dear friends, all living in the suburbs of Washington, DC—all, remarkably, alumnae of the same middle school in Taipei—who call themselves the Bon Sisters. The Bon Sisters go to galleries and concerts and parties together. Mom also has a book club with other Chinese friends, and lately they've been working their way through the great texts of the Confucian age.

I read Confucius, in English, when I was a junior at Yale. It was one of the required texts for Modern Chinese History, the survey course taught by the erudite and eloquent Jonathan Spence. He was finishing his book The Search for Modern China that semester, and each week in class we got to read chapters of his typed manuscript, with scribbled edits in the margins. But that meant he never got to go deep with us on The Analects. In my untutored reading as a twenty-year-old the translation struck me as mystifyingly vague or simply banal. The precepts of the Master had neither the crisp utility of Sun Tzu's Art of War ("If your opponent is of choleric temper, irritate him") nor the inspirational quality of, say, Proverbs of the King James Bible. Instead, it was filled with lines that left me cold:

The Master said, "Is one who simply sides with tenacious opinions a gentleman? Or is he merely putting on a dignified appearance?" (Book XI.21)

I could perceive, dimly, that there was more to a line like that than a first reading might suggest. "Gentleman," for instance, is a concept that comes up over and over. To a native reader of English, the word connotes nobility or gracious formality. The word used in The Analects, though, is junzi, for which "gentleman" is really an inadequate translation. "Honorable person" or "moral one" comes closer but still misses the mark, or smudges it. Really, the best way to express junzi is just junzi, in the way that machismo is simply machismo. A second-degree equivalent, like "masculine bluster," just doesn't quite capture it. This gap, between "gentleman" and junzi, reveals how even a universal moral sensibility has to be expressed in the particulars of one culture or another. It reveals too the asymptotically frustrating nature of translation, which can bring you ever closer, but never quite all the way, to the original line. At the time, though, none of this captured my imagination. I was quite uninterested in looking for the other corners of the square. I thought that any translation that used "gentleman" so frequently, that put such a core Chinese idea into such ill-fitting Anglo clothing, must be inherently flawed and not worth taking very seriously.

Now I've returned to the text, newly attentive. My mother and I have made reading Confucius a weekly ritual, and our painstaking bilingual method has many steps. First, I choose some passages in English that intrigue me, from my Penguin paperback. After she's had some time to look up those passages in her Chinese edition, she gets me on speakerphone. She begins by reading the passages in the original, a high-literary, archaic form of Chinese. In this form, Confucius is not intelligible to me. But then she "translates" that classical Chinese into more contemporary and colloquial Chinese (so-called baihua, or "plain white language"). I understand better. Next, she tries her best to translate the baihua version into English. Then I compare her English translation with that of the Penguin edition, published in 1979 (before Deng Xiaoping had set China on the course of renewal) by a Hong Kong academic named D. C. Lau. Along the way, each of us might consult Google Translate—she entering a Chinese character into the text box, I from the other direction. It's all pretty nerdy.

One afternoon we started our study session with the famous passage at the start of this chapter ("At fifteen, I set my heart on learning . . ."). My mom herself had probably been about fifteen when she'd first learned this passage, but it had bounced off her then as yet another Confucian cliché in a boring textbook. Now she appreciates it, at least the parts about being sixty and seventy. Her ear seems attuned. She seems to follow her heart's desire without ever overstepping the line. She always has been intuitive—my father, by comparison, was the one with the analytical bent. Today, though, my mother's intuition has been honed into a full-field awareness, a sense of simple confluence with the laws of nature—which, incidentally, is how she prefers to translate tian ming, the Decree of Heaven. "I just feel I'm with life now" is how she puts it. She adds: "I go through a lot of happiness and tragedy."


My father died in 1991. But what my mother talks about today is not how short his life was or long hers has been without him. She talks of their courtship. She'd had two suitors, Dad and another guy. The other guy was the one her parents preferred. She was torn. She told both that she had to cut things off. And as soon as she did, two things became clear to her: first, she didn't care about ending things with the other guy, and second, when she imagined not being with Dad, she felt "the sky was falling."

The Master said, "There is nothing I can do with a man who is not constantly saying, 'What am I to do? What am I to do?'" (Book XV.16)

In the Chinese original, this sentence is inverted:

The Master said, "The man who doesn't ever say, 'What am I to do? What am I to do?'—there's nothing I can do with him."

I much prefer this original structure. The translation flips it for simplicity, but in the flip is lost the spirit, the intention, the making into an object lesson of that unquestioning, unreflective guy. Of course, in any language, with any inflection, there are still many ways to read "What am I to do? What am I to do?" Is it an expression of indecision, of ambivalence among too many options? Is it helplessness in the face of calamity? Is it inquisitiveness about motives and morals? Pure existentialism? A yowl of futility? In Mom's interpretation, this passage is simply a brief for deliberateness, for thinking clearly about a situation and not being shuibian—"any which way," "careless"—about it. My interpretation pushes further. To me, this passage is essentially the Chinese equivalent of the Socratic claim that the unexamined life is not worth living. It has exactly the same rhetorical assertiveness and moral severity: the unexamined life is not just less good; it's useless. To me, Socrates's statement would have been the ideal "translation" of the Confucian original. For translation is not primarily about lining up each word of one language into a decoded word of another; it is primarily about conveying the essence of meaning.

Meaning, though, changes with time; text with context. What am I to do? There was a time, as in the minutes after we learned of my father's death, when those words or words roughly like them, uttered in panic, escaped my mother's lips. Today, after so many years of lonely meditation, and so many conversations with me that describe but a fraction of those meditations, and so many outings and travels with her Bon Sisters and other friends to explore beyond those meditations, my mother says the words with new meaning. Today she asks the question with what Zen Buddhists call "beginner's mind." A lack of preconception, a reflexive resistance to rutted thinking. A life-sustaining curiosity that takes each moment as a fresh start. What am I to do? has become, for my seventy-seven-year-old mother, What might I do?


I have now lived more of my life without my father than with him. "Unexpectedly" was the adverb we attached to his death in the days immediately after the fact. I wrote it into his obituary. And it's true: the actual moment of his passing, sometime in the deep dark before dawn on July 8, 1991, was indeed not expected. But the possibility of it had loomed over us for many years. In that sense the arrival of the ultimate moment had been long expected, long dreaded, long kept at bay in the fringes of my imagination.

In the years that have since passed, the classic quest for substitute fathers hasn't really been my thing. Instead I have quested for insight, for some grand unified theory of cause and effect and the nature of suffering that could make sense of this riddle: how my father's last moments could be so unexpected when I'd spent all that time anticipating them. I've hoped such a revelation might make life seem less random, or at least more comprehensibly random. That's why I bring a certain interpretation to Confucian precepts like this:

The Master said, "In instruction there is no separation into categories." (Book XV.39)

In English that sentence seems graceful and compact. But consider the Chinese original: You jiao wu lei. "Have teaching no category." That's compact. That explosive concision, that charged latent space between ideas that requires a reader or listener to ignite each word's full meaning, is the hallmark of the Chinese language. It is also the hallmark of poetry, in which, the dictionary tells us, "special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm." It's the reason why Chinese is inherently more poetic than English.

When I first encountered this line, I read it as a cosmic statement about the ethics of interdependence, about how we are webbed into a vast matrix of circumstance and choice and accident. I read it as the Eastern rebuke to the Western obsession with classification and breaking things down into artificial chunks. Our lives are entwined. Karma circulates without end and without regard for our feeble attempts to locate or direct it. There's no splitting your misfortune off from my good fortune. There is no converting the harmful effects of my actions into what economists call "externalities." There is no such thing as externalities. All costs and errors and harms are always, eventually, internalized. There is no separation into categories.

Moreover, I filled in the blanks of You jiao wu lei by interpreting lei to mean "categories of learning." I took it to say that to study at any level of seriousness the student must ignore the disciplinary borderlines between sociology and psychology and history and physics and biology—because they are all the same thing. They are all variations on the theme of how complex adaptive living systems—gardens, rivers, the body—operate. It was thrilling to come upon an axiom that captured my way of thinking about thinking.

Only it turns out my reading was wrong. The baihua version, like Talmudic commentary, explains that the categories in question are not categories of learning but categories of learners: whether a learner is rich or poor, from a royal or a common family. These categories of status should not matter, Confucius is saying; learning is learning, and teaching is teaching. It is an admirable, even democratic, conception of the universal leveling power of education. To my mother, this meaning was obvious. But I insisted on the plausibility of my alternate reading. She refused to acknowledge it. She got a little exercised about it, in fact, as if I were insisting that blue was red.

The difference was simply this: she had background knowledge about how this axiom was taught in China, about how people talked about it in China, about the larger idea of education that it implied; I did not. She read context into the text. I did not. But was my lack of context really a disadvantage? I saw simply an English translation that was ambiguous as to categories and a Chinese original that was as opaque as a koan. I read the calligraphic characters—which are, after all, just a specific type of inkblot—a certain way. My way. Isn't every translation, in the end, a Rorschach test? A translator's job is inherently impossible: no matter how carefully he chooses his words, he can never know what meaning will alight in the reader's mind. To be Chinese American is to sense this quantum overlay of possible connotations, interpretations, and identities. No separation into categories.



On Sale
Jul 8, 2014
Page Count
240 pages

Eric Liu

About the Author

Eric Liu is the founder and CEO of Citizen University (citizenuniversity.us) and executive director of the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program. He is the author of several books, including A Chinaman’s Chance, The Gardens of Democracy, and The Accidental Asian. Eric served as a White House speechwriter and policy adviser for President Bill Clinton. He is a regular columnist for CNN.com and a correspondent for TheAtlantic.com.

Learn more about this author