“A Village With My Name: A Family History of China’s Opening to the World” by Scott Tong

Scott Tong Scott Tong

A Village With My Name sounds unpromising as a title. Could this be one of those “finding my roots” tales of little interest to anyone beyond the author himself? It could have been, but happily Scott Tong uses the family tree that he uncovers to relate a worm’s-eye view of 20th century Chinese history.

As he says, his forbears were


doomed to have front-row seats to history [and some] were in fact thrust onto the stage to play the villains.


Even if you already know the basic story, Tong’s account has a lot to recommend it.

His great-grandfather was one of the first wave of students to study in Japan after the May 4 movement opened up Chinese culture to outside influence in the early 20th century.  His grandfather was caught up in the Japanese occupation and served in the puppet Wang Jingwei administration—a poor choice which led to persecution under the communists and to his dying unreported in a labor camp.

Tong’s father escaped to Taiwan when the communists took Shanghai, and other relatives of that generation ended up in Hong Kong. All have stories to tell which shed some new light on the period, even for those already pretty familiar with the basic history.

For example, Tong is unusual, perhaps unique, in having a few good words to say about the Wang Jingwei regime. Tong’s grandfather, a school principal before the war, held some sort of cultural post under Wang. As one of his other collaborators explains it,


It was actually the collaborators who fed the local people.  They were the ones who traded land for peace and halted the killings. They were the true patriots… not the [KMT and the communists] who retreated like cowards.



A Village with My Name: A Family History of China's Opening to the World, Scott Tong (Chicago University Press, November 2017)
A Village with My Name: A Family History of China’s Opening to the World, Scott Tong (University of Chicago Press, November 2017)

The other reason you might care to spend time with a “search for my roots” story is that Tong is a very good writer. He’s a professional journalist who reported from China for four years.

The last section of the book deals with China today, and it recycles some of the reporting he did between 2006 and 2010.  One particularly interesting example is that he reports in detail on about the baby-trading industry that flourished at that time. Certain orphanages were paying individuals to travel around the country buying up abandoned babies from other orphanages who could then be sold on to Americans seeking to adopt. Tong himself adopted a daughter in that way, and he provides details of the trade you won’t easily find elsewhere.

A Village With My Name is no dry account of history and statistics. Tong writes in a conversational American style that’s a pleasure to read. If you’re interested in modern China, this is a volume well worth your time.

Bill Purves is a Hong Kong-based writer. He is the author of several books, including A Sea of Green: A Voyage Around the World of Ocean Shipping and China on the Lam: On Foot Across the People’s Republic.