A Village With My Name

by Scott Tong

The University of Chicago Press

★★★★

The cottage industry in soul-baring, multi-generational Chinese family sagas still turns out the occasional gem. This book, subtitled “A Family History of China’s Opening to the World”, is that, but also more than just a trip through the ancestral archives.

Scott Tong puts shiny new China into context in what he calls his “pursuit of a useful historical perspective”. A “ruling Communist Party in desperate search of legitimacy” claims credit for pulling China out of the pre-Deng dark ages, he writes, before giving a more accurate picture in shades of grey.

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The background to his investigation is his family’s story, which he tells through five people across five generations, beginning with his paternal great-grandfather, who left Jiangsu for Japan in 1906.

The tale is punctuated by heart-rending episodes of anti-Western, xenophobia-inspired separation and imprisonment, educa­tion (against the odds) and political redemp­tion. In “a society built on status and avoiding shame” and on obliterating any trace of histori­cal, erstwhile punishable foreign connections and potentially fatal political views, Tong also faces his own struggle to overcome his relatives’ reluctance to talk.

That makes his achievement all the more remarkable.