“At the Edge of Empire: A Family’s Reckoning with China” by Edward Wong

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Thirty years ago, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn published their first book, China Wakes, to critical acclaim. The couple wrote of their five years reporting about China for The New York Times from 1988 to 1993. Other journalists reporting on China have followed suit and we’ve seen books by Jan Wong, Mike Chinoy, Frank Langfitt, Dori Jones Yang, Rob Schmitz, Lenora Chu, and Karoline Kan, among others. There is also the Peace Corps cohort of Peter Hessler and Michael Meyer, who went on to become journalists and write about China. These books have brought China to readers who are both familiar with the country and who are just starting to learn about it, and in most cases, these journalists chose to write about a certain city, region, or period.

Now Edward Wong, a former New York Times Beijing bureau chief, has written a sweeping history of modern China alongside two personal narratives: his and his father’s. At the Edge of Empire: A Family’s Reckoning with China is both ambitious and unusual: Wong has more history and family connections to China than past NYTimes Beijing bureau chiefs. And in writing such a comprehensive history of 20th-century China, he tells a story that for many will be little known, of places and times passing out of memory into the past.

 

At the Edge of Empire: A Family’s Reckoning with China, Edward Wong (Viking, June 2024)
At the Edge of Empire: A Family’s Reckoning with China, Edward Wong (Viking, Profile, June 2024)

Wong grew up in suburban Washington, DC, where his father Yook Kearn worked for decades at Chinese restaurants. As Wong grew up, he started learning more about his father’s early decades in Hong Kong and China and about the history not only of China, but his father’s illustrious past, building a new China after the Communist party victory in 1949. Wong arranges his chapters around sections named for the four different directions—south, north, west, east—which allows him to trace both his father’s and his time in different regions around China and Hong Kong.

War is present throughout much of the book and it’s during Wong’s coverage of America’s war in Iraq for The New York Times that he meets his future wife, Tini Tran, also a foreign correspondent, before they both move to Beijing and marry there. Wong continues this theme of war when he writes about the Opium Wars in the late-Qing dynasty and his family’s Taishan and Hong Kong origins. His father leaves his home in Hong Kong during World War II to escape Japanese occupation. Everyday life is safer in the family’s ancestral village Taishan, which is not under Japanese rule. But peace doesn’t come to China at the conclusion of WWII as the Chinese civil war resumes. For readers familiar with the history, it’s fascinating to see how Wong’s father and his family viewed these upheavals. Yook Kearn decides to join the military of the new Communist government in China while his brother Sam moves to the US to study. Sam’s move to the US will affect Yook Kearn’s military career in China, but it will be many years before he understands why.

After a failed attempt to join the Chinese air force during the Korean war, Yook Kearn is sent to Xinjiang to join the PLA. When he arrives in the west, Yook Kearn fears this will be it. He will be in Xinjiang for the rest of his life.

 

Exile. That one truth. It was inescapable. Beyond the town stretched the vast reaches of Xinjiang, the realm of banishment. Behind them lay Gansu and the corridor home. They were in Central Asian lands conquered two centuries ago by the Qing armies. The crossroads of the continent. There was no question now of their fate… For Father, this was the final break with his earlier life, with his childhood and teenage years in Hong Kong, Taishan County, and Guangzhou. Those lay far behind him, the memories of them fading in the harsh light of the northern desert.

 

Wong is thorough in his narration of Chinese history and mentions more than once that the issues with Xinjiang and Tibet reach back to before the founding of the PRC and the Nationalist government of the Republican era. He also discusses Xi Jinping’s father throughout the book. Xi Zhongxun governed in the northwest in the early years of the PRC and wrote a memo back then, stressing that the Chinese government should not take land from the locals and their religious institutions. Xi Zhongxun later administered southern China and had believed the government should treat Hong Kong as a model for developing the mainland. Rather than tangents, tidbits like these are part of Wong’s greater narrative.

Yook Kearn grows disillusioned with his service in Xinjiang, yet he still idealizes his years in the northwest. When he is accepted to university in Xi’an in 1956, he figures he can now see his family in Hong Kong. It’s not easy, but Yook Kearn can travel to southern China after more than eight years in the north and northwest.

 

Trains traversed the lower deck, beneath the cars. His train hurtled south, through the provinces of Hubei and then Hunan, where Mao had spent his childhood, the landscape became greener, more lush. Out of the window, Father soon saw the familiar rice paddies and banana trees of Guangdong Province.

 

Wong’s own time in China begins on a graduate school trip to Beijing in 1996, another period that now seems almost like ancient history. He visits his father’s birthplace of Hong Kong just days before the 1997 Handover, but has to leave before 30 June that year for a family obligation in California. He still sees enough of Hong Kong to feel the many emotions—including the great unknown—felt by locals and expats at that time.

Wong leaves Beijing in 2016, a bittersweet departure. He has been back to China and Hong Kong since, including just before and after the pandemic lockdowns, and had always hoped he could retrace his father’s past alongside him. But he realizes his father is too old to make that trip and that those places are different now.

 

After I left Hong Kong in the year of the protests, I knew none of that would happen. Father was too old for the long flights. His body and mind were slowing. Even outside of that, the cities, the country, the land had all changed. The time for those journeys together had passed. He had his memories to share, his stories that had yet to fade into oblivion, and for now that was enough.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.