Book review: The Second Tang Dynasty - The 12 Sons of Fragrant Mountain Who Changed China, by Mark O'Neill

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 December, 2014, 10:39pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 December, 2014, 10:39pm

The Second Tang Dynasty: The 12 Sons of Fragrant Mountain Who Changed China
by Mark O’Neill
Joint Publishing

During a visit to his mother-in-law, author, journalist and South China Morning Post contributor Mark O'Neill listens to a recollection of life growing up in Tangjiawan township in Guangdong during the Sino-Japanese war.

His mother-in-law mentions that there seemed to be a lot of important people living around the city now known as Zhongshan, but previously called Xiangshan, or Fragrant Mountain.

A little research confirms her suspicion: the area produced the first Chinese to study in the US, the first Chinese doctor of Western medicine, the first president of Tsinghua University, one of the first admirals of the modern Chinese navy, and some of the most important businessmen of the late Qing and early Republican eras.

So how did this small corner of China, far from Beijing, produce so many of the people who would go on to shape the future of the country?

O'Neill endeavours to answer this question through a series of 12 mini-biographies of men who helped to lay the foundations for the 21st-century re-emergence of the Chinese nation.

We hear the story of Yung Wing, the first Chinese graduate of Yale, who was also responsible for sending a further 120 Chinese students to study in the US during the 1870s and 1880s.

And then there is Huang Kuan, who studied medicine at Edinburgh University in Scotland before returning to China to practise.

The biographies are conducted with historical rigour, although it is clear there is limited source material for some of the lesser-known figures; for instance, more detail on the life of Tang Qiao-qing would have been welcomed. The so-called "king of tea" established China's first tea export company, breaking a foreign monopoly which had stood since the Opium Wars, and his life seems to have been deserving of more than the seven pages that he's allocated here.

And a little more time could have been spent linking the lives of these "12 sons" and answering the question established in the introduction.

Instead, the biographies stand alone on the whole.

The strongest tie O'Neill can muster is to conclude that these were men who thought nationally and internationally, at a time when "the vast majority of Chinese lived and worked in the same village and the same community".

But regardless, these are still fascinating overviews of 12 men who looked beyond the social and political boundaries of their time, and helped create the more outward-looking China that we see today.