Jack London’s brief visit to China

At the Northern California Independent Booksellers Trade Show in Oakland (NCIBA) back in 2010, I stopped at the University of Georgia Press booth searching for a book about Jack London (1876 – 1916).

In fact, Jack London, Photographer (ISBN 978-0-8203-2967-3) by Jeanne Campbell Reesman, Sara S. Hodson and Philip Adam was there, and I have a copy in front of me as I’m writing this post—that’s after I slipped it off my bookshelf where it sat since then.

It’s a beautiful book and proves that London had talent beyond writing stories such as White Fang or Call of the Wild.

London took photos in 1904 during the Russo-Japanese War in Korea and Manchuria.

On page 57, the caption says, “London had his camera confiscated in Japan and was often detained by Japanese officials when he got too close to the front lines, especially as the war spread to the Yalu River, the boundary between Korea and Manchuria.” 

The experiences London had in Korea and China would lead to an essay and a story that ignited a debate that he was a racist.

Jack London, Socialist-Capitalist

He wrote the The Unparalleled Invasion, which takes place in a fictional 1975, when the West decides to destroy China (for no good reason) by using biological warfare. I guess the West couldn’t sell opium to China anymore.

While at the NCIBA, I had two conversations about London. One editor said she had heard that London was a racist and she had trouble believing that.  Later, another editor from the University of George Press also said he didn’t believe London was a racist.

London’s 1904 essay, The Yellow Peril, may have contributed to the claim that he was a racist. Using Google, I found sites that support this theory.

However, after seeing the pictures in Jack London, Photographer (Amazon link), it’s hard to believe he was a racist. There have also been rumors that London committed suicide but there is no evidence to support that theory either.

If London were a racist, why did his Japanese servant Tokinosuke Sekine stay loyal to the end even after London was bankrupt and his “fair weather” friends had abandoned him?


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

His latest novel is the multiple-award winning Running with the Enemy.

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2 Responses to Jack London’s brief visit to China

  1. We’re all so familiar with London’s stories set in the North, but he also wrote tales of the South Pacific. I hadn’t realized that until we were preparing to move to Vanuatu and I started reading up on that part of the world. Now I learn that he was a photographer. Interesting.

    His stories about the South Pacific may have been racist by today’s standards, but so were most of the other stories I found. They have to be understood in the context of the time.

    • You’re right. Everything we read should be understood by the culture and beliefs of the time period.
      For instance, “The Hobbit”. Tolkien wrote a book without any major female characters but in the second installment of the film of this book, they changed the story by including a super Elvin female warrior and they did this because of pressure from today’s outspoken feminists who complained after the first installment was released. I read a piece about it that explained the reason Tolkien didn’t include a strong female character in “The Hobbit” was because in his time women were not seen as equals or warrior types—the cultural and historical stereotype was that the role of women was as sex partner, cook and mother.

      Does this mean that we might see more history rewritten to reflect today’s culture and beliefs on the past when such beliefs and trends didn’t exist. Another rewriting of history.

      I also read another piece recently that some of the classic literature that shows up in school textbooks has been censured—revised to fit the religious sensitives of some powerful groups in the United States that may be found on the far right of the political spectrum because they don’t want their children exposed to this material. Censorship and revising history.

      And that brings me to a US Supreme Court ruling yesterday that all but hands the United States over to the top 0.1% of the wealthiest Americans, who may now legally buy the government. Once the country is divided up between the super wealthy billionaire oligarchs (mostly white men) who own the Congress, state legislatures, governors and the president, will they impose their beliefs on history and classic literature and revise it even more?

      If the Congress doesn’t do something drastic, then the US is no longer a democracy but an oligarchy ruled by Bill Gates, the Koch brothers, the Walton family, Eli Broad, Michael Bloomberg, Hedge Fund billionaires, etc.

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