'A Village with My Name' blends family stories with 20th-century Chinese history

An NPR reporter tracks his family roots and comes to see China in a new way.

A Village with My Name By Scott Tong University of Chicago Press 272 pp.

Scott Tong’s immensely readable new book, A Village with My Name: A Family History of China’s Opening to the World, underscores in the most personal terms the sheer amount of brutal, fast-paced history that China has experienced within living memory.

Tong is working for “Marketplace,” the economics-focused radio program produced by American Public Media, when he’s tasked with starting a full-time bureau in China. He moves to Shanghai and turns his journalistic attention to China, the country of his family, “a society built on status and avoiding shame,” as Tong puts it. “You can line-dry your undershorts in a busy alley, but family dirty laundry stays discreetly inside.”

Family is at the heart of Tong’s book, family as it plays out against the intense stories of China’s past century.

The book takes its title from the ancestral village of Tong, which the author’s paternal great-grandfather, Tong Zhenyong, left in order to study politics and indulge in political muckraking in Tokyo, where he took a Japanese wife (as Tong dryly puts it, “this apparently came as a great surprise to his Chinese wife upon his return”).

The story broadens to include Tong’s maternal grandmother, Mildred Zhao, who attended an American-run boarding school, studied piano, and read widely and enthusiastically until, as Tong writes, the political winds changed and Mildred and her husband, Tong’s grandfather Carleton Sun, ran afoul of the Communists (he was arrested; she escaped).

The narrative moves on to include his uncle Tong Bao, his aunt Qi Menglan, his cousin Tong Chengkan (who works at a General Motors plant), and his own wife and adopted daughter.

The uncovering of these dozens of intriguing and interconnected family stories brings Tong unexpectedly into what he calls “a history fight.”

“To ridiculously simplify,” he writes, “there are two competing ways to understand change over time: the dominant ‘rupture’ camp focuses on big turning points” or, “In the opposing corner sit scholars of ‘continuity.’ ”

The stories of Tong’s immediate family ancestors exemplify both schools of history. Their narratives stretch from the fall of the Qing monarchy through Deng Xiaoping’s gaige kaifang reforms and the adoption of the one-child policy, offering a broad yet also very personal view of the social and economic upheavals that have characterized China’s emergence into the modern world.

Tracing the generations of the Tong family, finding the names of long-gone ordinary men and women, and piecing together their stories allows Tong to bridge the divide between those two camps of understanding and to observe change over time.

“This book seeks to take a long view of how China opened up to the outside world,” Tong writes, and through the adventurers, misfortunes, and perseverance of his family’s recent generations, that long view compresses to the sometimes heartbreaking proximity of a name in an old registry or fading photos in an album.

The result fleshes out Tong’s book into something remarkable, making it less than a comprehensive history but more than a memoir.

Tong is working in these pages against what he refers to as “instant China,” the tourist-friendly reduction that’s all most outsiders ever know about one of the world’s most powerful nations or its more than 1 billion inhabitants.

Instant China, Tong writes, makes snappy travelers’ tales. “If you’re reading this, there’s a reasonable chance that you, like me, have parachuted into the mainland for a few days and heard a memorable life story of a cabbie, bond trader, or grubby dumpling seller.”

“A Village with My Name” takes readers well past “instant China” into a world of nuance and potential that’s refreshingly free of simple answers.

As Tong is told at one point by the former manager of an adoption agency, “You cannot say the system is all good or all bad.... A system that is opaque, flawed, and even corrupt has also managed to deliver benefits to baby girls who would have been abandoned and discarded not long ago.”

Readers of this book will find their views of China deepened and expanded, and will discover that they can never look on the China in the Western news headlines the same way again.

Steve Donoghue regularly reviews books for The Christian Science Monitor.

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