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.
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.