One family’s Chinese Odyssey

  • Themes: Books, China

The clan saga is a common theme in Chinese literature and, in a new memoir, a journalist returns to his family's homeland and the history of China's turbulent 20th century.

The Great Wall of China and the Yellow River in the Tengger desert at Shapotou near Zhongwei, Ningxia Province, China
The Great Wall of China and the Yellow River in the Tengger desert at Shapotou near Zhongwei, Ningxia Province, China. Credit: robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo

At the Edge of Empire: A Family’s Reckoning with China, Edward Wong, Profile, £25

The Tang dynasty poet He Zhizhang wrote a line which serves as a motto for this memoir of a Chinese family: ‘I left home as a youth and am returning an old man.’

The clan saga is a common theme in Chinese literature – one thinks of the three daughters in Wild Swans, of the three famous Soong sisters and other stories that testify to the enduring bonds of ancestry and origin through revolutionary times.

A key message in Edward Wong’s contribution to the genre is that such traditions are unextinguished. Even Xi Jinping, that ardent Marxist, has erected a gigantic memorial to his father atop an earthen mound not far from the family seat in central China.

There are plenty of China correspondents’ memoirs – at one point it seemed obligatory for Americans to write one – but what makes this book different is the writer’s intimate ties to the people and culture he is writing about.

His grandfather was a trader in herbal medicine, who owned a shop amid streets of apothecaries in the British colony of Hong Kong before the Second World War. His father, Yook Kearn Wong, joined the Communist army after the revolution and served on China’s rough borderlands, eventually making it to the US, where he worked in a restaurant. His uncle Sam, the older brother, avoided the People’s Republic and joined a flood of entrepreneurial migrants who turned America’s Chinese community into a flourishing success story built on education and toil.

The stories of their endurance, shrewdness and survival are woven into the story of a modern China that emerged in the late 20th century. Wong writes with understanding about a diaspora that came from an old civilisation to the New World but never entirely left. ‘No Chinese immigrant I know has ever done that,’ he says.

Combining reportage from his own tour as a Beijing correspondent for the New York Times with a personal quest, he retraces his father’s adventures, finds their ancestral village, pays due reverence to his grandfather’s tomb in Hong Kong and eventually brings his ageing relatives back to the land of their birth.

This makes for a scene-shifting narrative that requires concentration to follow, but readers who may find the clan saga a prolonged one will none the less get a lot of fascinating information along the way.

One sidelight cast on the wartime period is how porous the border was between Hong Kong and the turbulent China that lay beyond it. The two brothers watched bombs fall in December 1941 and the terrified family was held at bayonet point by a Japanese soldier before the boys were packed off to the safety of Hap Wo, their village in Taishan County in the nearby province of Guangdong.

Taishan was a refuge right up to the aftermath of the Communist victory in 1949, when Mao Zedong allowed a tide of fugitives to cross into Hong Kong before slamming the gates of his new utopia closed. The author’s family might have ranked as class enemies because his father and two cousins were well off enough to fly from Guangzhou to Hong Kong at a time when most Chinese had never seen a plane, let alone boarded one.

Wong is particularly good at disentangling sentiment from reality in his portrait of Taishan. It was a place that had to embrace the foreign and the faraway. ‘But it also had this other side to it, one that had been endemic to old China: the need to keep close, to stay within your own clan or family, to shun outsiders and everything they brought with them.’ Village and family were synonymous, he writes, each household tracing lineage to a common ancestor.

There were, in fact, more than 20 million people named Wong in China in 2020. It is the same word as ‘yellow’, denoting a link to the Yellow River, the cradle of Chinese civilisation. In Cantonese, the main language of Hong Kong and Guangdong, it is pronounced ‘Wong’, but in the rest of the country it becomes ‘Huang’. The author is in the 30th generation of one branch of Wongs who can trace their lineage to a founding figure of the Song dynasty.

If this seems a world away from the dizzying highways, skyscrapers and digital industries of southern China today, that is the author’s point.

The Wong family story spans three eras, of civil war, isolation and ‘reform and opening up’. A fourth may be at hand in the new state authoritarianism of Xi Jinping. People who have made it into their nineties have witnessed changes in one lifetime in China that took place over centuries in the West. The effect is dislocating.

While the diaspora conserved tradition as a badge of identity, people inside Maoist China internalised it while conforming to the party’s edicts against superstition, Confucianism, and a host of ills associated with the old order. It has been said that the religion of China is being Chinese; as the older generation of Wongs rediscover their roots and return home to find a new country, the author faithfully records their sense of belonging, yet being estranged.

The book draws on the writer’s own experience as a formidable reporter who had covered the war in Iraq before turning to China. He sketches life in the mainly Muslim region of Xinjiang, which is supposedly ‘autonomous’, like Tibet and Inner Mongolia, and in the distant marches of the new Chinese empire. His reportage feels authentic, without exaggeration or bias. He is, however, moved by the struggle of Hong Kong for freedom as he watches it go down to defeat.

The strongest passages of the book belong to his father, who we see as a young soldier passing from the Han Chinese heartland through the ‘Jade Gate’ into the wastes of the far West and spending years in far-flung barracks. And no reader will forget the image of him wandering, alone, into the Forbidden City in 1951, a beautifully rendered dream sequence that evokes the final scenes of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 epic The Last Emperor.

There is a new emperor in China today whose stated aim is the great rejuvenation of the nation. The experience of this Chinese family, so authentically told, is a warning against the grandiose ambitions of one man. In the words of Professor Andrew Nathan of Columbia University, who was writing about Mao, ‘excessive power drives its possessor into a shadow world, where great visions become father to great crimes’.


Michael Sheridan