A Village with My Name: A Family History of China’s Opening to the World, by Scott Tong. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 272 pages, 2017.
Each of us lives through a series of events and then packages them in a particular way.
Finding one’s ancestral past seems to be trending. I see commercials daily encouraging me to take a simple DNA test that will unlock the secrets of my heritage and familial bloodline. As I started reading A Village with My Name by Scott Tong, I feared I might be on one of those TV-fabricated DNA journeys, but found myself pleasantly surprised. While Tong started his research in order to find his personal family story, he has ultimately given us an account of China’s treasured historical biography and helps answer the question, “Where did today’s China really come from?” (p. xiii)
To me this was an impossible task, considering the amount of hidden, lost, or top-security documentation unavailable to non-governmental officials that would be necessary to trace his family lineage from the pre-communist era to the present day. Through his travels, interviews, and interactions with family members and people he met along the way, Tong succeeds in sharing the raw spirit of China’s people through a period of history that is in many ways better left alone. He captures the hopes, joys, sufferings, losses, fears, present realities, hardships, and dreams of the Chinese people. Tong had conversations with local Chinese that I could only dream of having when I lived in China, conversations that even he confessed would not have happened if not for his search for his lao jia, hometown and ancestral past.
Without being a heavy historical text, this book provides something for everyone interested in China.
Having spent years learning the language in order to live in China, I found myself smiling at the start of the book. In the midst of good story-telling, there were language insights and definitions that brought back endless memories of interactions I’d experienced in China myself. Throughout the book he uses Chinese terms to express the value of social engagements (guanxi), familial ties, and nuances of daily life in China. These interjections of language lessons would enlighten any new language learner and perhaps save hours of wondering why people say, “bu tai qing chu,” “not so clear” (p. 5) or “ni chi le ma?” “have you eaten?” As one no longer living in China, Tong’s sharing these stories were like a warm blanket reminding me of good times gone by.
Culture Class 101 Student
Hand in hand with language learning is cultural education. This book doesn’t leave out the explanations of the cultural nuances necessary to navigate and know one’s place in society. Though a journalist on a mission to dig “into the past because so many in [his] family want to bury it.” (p. 7) Tong remains sensitive to his filial piety while staying true to the heart of the story.
Due to the nature of digging into one’s family past, Tong gains access to recesses of stories untold. This genealogical story follows a family’s history through pivotal changes in China’s past. Topics from the end of foot-binding, women’s suffrage, Japan’s invasion and control, foreign missions, the Kuomingtang and early Communism, anti-foreign regulations, Taiwan relations, the Great Leap Forward, and the present age of Communism are interwoven into the delicate stories of his ancestors, lost family members, and those Tong meets along the way.
Present Day Lover of China
Tong’s story doesn’t end with the stories of people past. As he meets living uncles, cousins, co-workers and his adopted daughter, Tong delves into equally painful, present day issues still facing China’s families. He observes that China’s young middle class are like a ducks, “smooth and graceful on the surface, yet paddling madly underwater to stay afloat.” (p. 174) Tong gives great social, political and economic insights into the difficulties China’s young people face as well as repercussions of abortion, pollution, and as he learned through his adoption story, child trafficking. Having adopted a child while living in China, I resonated deeply with his sentiments on adoption, when he said, “…how naive and trusting [we] were as we entered the process, and how cynical we emerged after it.” (p. 223)
The Many Haiwai Guanxi, "Overseas Relations" Still Seeking Their Ancestral Stories
Journalists become good at their job by seeking the truth no matter how painful. Tong gracefully shares the pain of China’s history through his family’s ancestral past. He tells their stories, long hidden in hopes of denying that they had happened, which end up bringing hope and healing to their family. He takes the secretly packaged and hidden histories of his family and reworks them into this beautiful story filled with both good and bad endings in order to leave a legacy; a legacy for all Chinese families who understand the disconnect between China’s past and its current modern age.
Image credit: Beth Forshee
Beth Forshee studied journalism and public relations at Baylor University in Waco, TX and has been serving in various aspects of ministry to China for over 13 years. Her love for China’s culture and people started on her first short-term trip in 2001. Later Beth and her family served in... View Full Bio
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