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1098 words

On the wrong side of history

26 June 2018

Books | Journalist Scott Tong has unearthed an alternative history of China’s twentieth century


Ordinary people: Scott Tong with a resident of the Shanghai street where his mother grew up.

Ordinary people: Scott Tong with a resident of the Shanghai street where his mother grew up.

A Village with My Name: A Family History of China’s Opening to the World
By Scott Tong | University of Chicago Press | $54.99 | 272 pages

In this, his first book, Scott Tong does much to revive the stocks of two genres that have been looking a bit tired lately: China reportage and China memoir. A former correspondent for the US public radio series Marketplace, he argues that the official narrative of Chinese history is frustratingly incomplete, and his gentle and original fusing of the two genres backs up his claims.

The China memoir has been on its last legs for a while. Inspired by Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, entire sections of 1990s bookstores were dedicated to suffering Chinese families, each more hard-done-by than the next. Tales of concubines, foot binding and exotic Cultural Revolution torture techniques filled the shelves, their contents as lurid as Zhang Yimou’s fictional cinematic works. In fact, the sometimes-uncertain line between fiction and nonfiction gave many works — especially tales of backward China from Gran’s day — a cartoonish feel.

Tong avoids this pitfall by going to great pains to make clear that he has failed to uncover vast tracts of his family’s history, despite applying a reporter’s skills and a grandson’s dedication. There’s no embellishment, save for a moving section in which he composes letters that his grandfather might have written to his grandmother while he was slowly dying of cold and starvation in a reform-through-labour camp in the 1950s.

Although he found out precious little about him, Tong’s maternal grandfather, Carleton Sun, is among the most compelling figures in the book. “He died alone in a faraway prison camp, almost entirely forgotten by family members trying to survive and protect themselves…” Tong relates. “In my family certain stories get actively forgotten, wiped from the historical record. Not if I can help it.” Carleton’s crime? Collaborating with the Japanese. When it comes to the wrong side of history, that’s hard to top. Not the stuff of heroic Chinese nonfiction, where plucky protagonists flee arranged marriages and red guards.

Whether or not you agree with Tong’s defence of his grandfather — he cites convicted collaborator Chen Bijun, who argued that it was those very collaborators who fed the Chinese people by trading land for peace and putting an end to the killings, while Nationalists and Communists alike fled like cowards — is almost beside the point. Putting figures like Carleton Sun on the page, a man so thoroughly disremembered that not even the year of his death on the frozen Qinghai plateau can be found, is the point of Tong’s book.

Not all of Tong’s antiheroes are long gone. The book opens with a search for the eponymous village, an unpromising collection of houses along the Grand Canal in northern Jiangsu province. There, Tong Daren, his third cousin, also suffered because of “foreign connections,” after a relative who fled to Taiwan — the author’s paternal grandfather, in fact — was indiscreet enough to attempt correspondence during the 1950s.

The misery of his cousin’s life didn’t end with Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in the 1980s. Forced to live alongside his former persecutors, who still run the village, Tong Daren is allotted the worst land, forced to cremate his parents, and is even excluded from Scott Tong’s welcome-home banquet. Yet the misery is leavened with humour. Tong Daren’s youngest daughter shows the author no respect, and Tong Daren’s eventual funeral leads to a reflection on modern adaptations of mourning rituals: “Big cities provide more upscale offerings to burn: printed bills that look like real currency, paper BMWs, faux Viagra pills, and flammable paper condoms (you never know what can come in handy up there).”

Tong also does much to boost the stocks of China reportage, a genre made grim by Xi Jinping’s new era and its obsession with controlling the message and the messenger. Partly this comes down to the subject of his story: family. The quest to uncover one’s roots turns out to be the one thing complete strangers, even government officials, will help with. Tong explains his surprise:

As a foreign correspondent in China, I reliably got nowhere asking strangers for help: they walked away, hung up, and uttered bu tai qing chu, it’s not so clear. There was nothing in it for them. For this project, there were no quid pro quos for the people who reopened their memories, connecting me with others, flipped through prison records and offered a bed for the night.

Beyond that, he places his stories in thoroughly researched context, having swotted up with fine China scholars from Thomas Rawski to Yasheng Huang. He also brings a reporter’s eye for detail, capturing characters and situations instantly recognisable to anyone who’s made a life in modern China.

There’s the sagacious driver:

“Those are just the things you can see: cars, skyscrapers, railroads. The problem with China is what you can’t see.” He looks at us squarely in the rearview mirror. “Morality. Underground aquifers. Creativity.”

There’s the local government tourism official, commenting on Tong’s grandmother’s obituary photo:

“She looks like a capitalist,” says one cousin with a blue golf shirt and side-parted, sculpted hair. It’s neither an insult nor a compliment, just an observation.

There’s conflict:

I walk in the direction of the long-distance bus station. Part of me anticipates the long bus ride ahead. In my experience, slow, long-distance travel is the best chance to see a fight.

Having myself covered China’s remote western edges for the first edition of a travel guide, this was a delightful I-thought-that-was-just-me moment. Long-distance buses are indeed the home of foot odour, foul tempers and fights. I’ve long suspected the Chinese government poured money into high-speed rail to stop its citizens killing each other.

The focus on ordinary people supports Tong’s main argument — that the official narrative of Chinese history built around 1949 (the revolution) and 1978 (reform and opening) is deeply unsatisfying. Life before the revolution was not just a century of colonial humiliation: members of Tong’s family were transformed for the better by the “foreign connections” they made, whether they encountered missionaries or GIs. Deng’s reforms did not wipe away the violence of the Mao era, nor did the Mao era root out advantages enjoyed by the pre-1949 elites.

We would be well served to be wary of the “instant China” narrative of masculine skyscrapers and bullet trains and 5000 years of history, Tong warns. The real China is far more complex, and plenty of people — like Tong — come from families that were on the wrong side of history. ●

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History seen and felt: a woman signs a wall poster at the site of the September 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. Andy Levin/Alamy

History seen and felt: a woman signs a wall poster at the site of the September 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. Andy Levin/Alamy