Last fall, students in ART 3663: History of American Art had the opportunity to visit the OSU Museum of Art’s study room in order to get a close look at works from the permanent collection. In small groups, they selected a single object to study together for an hour, and then they wrote individual papers based on the ideas generated in the group. In this post, student Roxanne Beason writes about the 1937 drypoint, Soochow Coolie, by Cyrus Baldridge.
“…Even our limited attempt at thinking in terms of the outer world was unusual to my college generation. Thinkers were Suspect.” –Cyrus Leroy Balrdridge
As an adventurer, Cyrus Leroy Baldridge never shied away from incorporating his personal perspective and the sights of his travels into his prints and illustrations. As a 10 year-old, his talent in drawing landed him the position of the youngest person to ever be admitted into Frank Holme’s Chicago School of Illustration. Without scholarship, he paid his way through his attendance at University of Chicago by taking any kind of work that came his way. While in college, Baldridge gained political awareness that inspired him to join the cavalry and later set forth across the U.S. to document by illustration the diversity of America’s geographical sociology. Baldridge was most famous for the documentary illustrations he created in the throes of World War I for newspapers such as The Stars and Stripes, Leslie’s Weekly, and Scribner’s. In 1920, Baldridge joined up with politically like-minded Californian writer, Caroline Singer, and together they traveled to China, Japan, through the Middle East and Africa. Baldridge and Singer later retired to Santa Fe, NM, where Singer died from Alzheimer’s and Baldridge shot himself with a World War I pistol a decade later.
Cyrus Baldridge (American, 1889-1977), “Soochow Coolie,” 1937. Drypoint, Gardiner Permanent Art Collection, 80-0008.
, a drypoint etching, is a work based on Baldridge’s travels with Singer. It depicts a local man from the city of Suzhou (Soochow), in the province of Jiangsu, China. In this essay, I suggest that Baldridge’s Soochow Coolie
uses a derogatory title to reveal a worldview that negates the weary expression of the Chinese local. Through this contrast, Baldridge’s print offers a moment of perspective and documentation of the turmoil endured by China leading to World War II.
At the heart of China’s central east coast, the city of Suzhou (the more recent accepted Romanization of “Soochow”) was a destination documented in many of Baldridge’s illustrations. Before World War II, Suzhou’s foreign trade suffered because it had very little modernized industry, even within their main export—silk. Disparity between wealthy landowners and the poor working class was apparent in the everyday bustle of the heavily populated city. Referring to many of these hardworking people, Baldridge often uses the term “coolie” to describe them in his writing as well as in the title of his piece, Soochow Coolie.
The word “coolie” is a dated and derogatory slur that the occupying British used to describe indentured laborers in Eastern Asia. Throughout Baldridge’s 1947 book, Time and Chance, he utilizes language that was common for this time period such as “coolie” and “negro” in casual reference to racial identities. Although this sort of racial rhetoric was common, Baldridge was aware of its derogatory effect and used it to elicit sympathy for the man’s weathered appearance.
Baldridge’s Soochow Coolie print shows the weary downward gaze of a Chinese man cast in shadow. With his hair pulled back with a cloth, viewers can see his whole face and the way in which Baldridge uses softened charcoal-like contrast within the crosshatching detail to reveal not only the man’s exhausted expression but also the contours of his weathered skin and sunken cheeks, alluding to his low economic status as a laborer.
Economic disparity, overpopulation and the fight for day-to-day survival were not the only problems occurring in China at this delicate time. In 1937, the same year Baldridge printed Soochow Coolie, the war between the Republic of China and Imperialist Japan had erupted to full-scale proportions. Japanese troops occupied the province of Suzhou, making Baldridge’s association between the melancholic laborer’s portrait and the seizure of the city seem like a blatant political statement about the Second Sino-Japanese War.
December 13th, 1937 marks the day that began the worst part of the Japan’s invasion on China; in the capital of Nanjing (about 134 miles from Suzhou), Japan’s war crime known as The Nanjing Massacre, or “The Raping of Nanking”, was the event where approximately 300,000 non-combatant citizens were slaughtered, and raped, including women and children. Despite such atrocities happening in the world, the U.S. had very little involvement in the events of World War II at this point in time; in addition, many Americans still harbored racist animosity and Sinophobia toward Chinese people. I think there is no coincidence in Baldridge’s artistic decisions in Soochow Coolie. I believe the ambition of this work was to convey the fragile state of Chinese citizens by depicting a weary, war-torn citizen as well as the apathy from the rest of the world by labeling him the racial slur “coolie.”
In Baldridge’s monograph, Time and Chance, he writes about his recollections and experiences in China with a great fondness. In his accounts he explains how Chinese people live together with very little friction and reasonableness because of their teachings from Confucius and their Buddhist principles. In one passage, he explained the fascination that led to the creation of Soochow Coolie, “My models, the coolies, in spite of their hard struggle for survival, were a hilarious, grinning lot, wisecracks… There prevailed among them a live-and-let-live attitude so mystifying to westerners… they tell the story of men surviving by their wits in a land where four hundred million struggle for bare subsistence.” The man in Soochow Coolie shows that, in a moment of confusion and turmoil, empty expressions would reflect the loss and hopelessness of the circumstances at hand. Baldridge’s description in Time and Chance differs greatly from the pain and depletion he captured in Soochow Coolie, which suggests Baldridge’s deeply-felt empathy for his subject in the print.
Throughout Baldridge’s illustrations, he captures beautiful portraiture of the people he met in his global expeditions. During these travels, he managed to see a lot of war and chaos, which turned him towards the non-interventionist liberal ideals of American democracy in the wake of World War II. Recognizing the privilege and opportunities that he was given, he believed the importance was to keep peace between all nations without the use of war. His drypoint etching, Soochow Coolie, was his way of addressing an unseen side of a global issue at the time—reminding viewers to stay aware and remember the effects of war.
Baldridge, Cyrus Leroy. Time and Chance. New York: J. Day, 1947.
“Cyrus LeRoy Baldridge.” Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Gandhi, Lakshmi. “A History Of Indentured Labor Gives ‘Coolie’ Its Sting.” NPR, 25 Nov. 2013.
HSA – Heritage Signature Auction Catalog #6050. Cyrus LeRoy Baldridge Original Artwork for “I Was There”: With the Yanks in France, Sketches Made on the Western Fron 1917-1919. Dallas: HSA – Heritage Signature Auction Catalog #6050, 2010.
Student writing is edited for length and clarity, but the content is not changed.