Return to the Middle Kingdom by Yuan-Tsung Chen

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Return to the Middle Kingdom by Yuan-Tsung Chen

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Category: History
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: The story of three generations of revolutionaries as told by the widow of the last fills gaps which other histories have left. Parts of it make harrowing reading.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 464 Date: June 2008
Publisher: Union Square
ISBN: 978-1402761843

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Yuan-Tsung Chen's family have lived through momentous times in China and been as close to what was happening as any one family could be. Chen Guixin, born in 1830 in the time of the Manchu government and just before the beginning of the Opium Wars was her husband's grandfather. He was a part of the Taiping Rebellion but it was his son, Chen Youren who was hailed as a hero when he marched into two former British concessions and reclaimed the land for China. He was the first foreign minister of modern China to have taken back land from the colonial powers. The author married Chen Youren's son, the journalist and artist Jack Chen, who was arrested by the Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution and who later continued his work in the USA.

The western powers are beginning to seem rather old hat these days and the emerging superpowers would seem to be China and India, so a look at how China has been shaped over the last 150 years is to be welcomed. It's an ambitious book – perhaps overly ambitious given the momentous changes which followed the ending of four thousand years of dynastic rule – but with its personal perspective it fills gaps which a more conventional history would leave unfilled. Comparisons with Jung Chang's Wild Swans are inevitable, but Return to the Middle Kingdom suffers from inclusion of more political detail and much of it being written from research rather than experience or word of mouth.

An obvious attempt has been made to make this easy reading for the west by use of westernised names wherever possible. Chen Guixin is called Joseph Chen and Chen Youren is Eugene Chen. Admittedly many other sources refer to Chen Youren as Eugene Chen but I do find westernising a name for our own convenience slightly offensive.

The book is honest and certainly not a hagiography. In places it's also harrowing and it's certainly not a relaxing read. The research behind the book has been meticulous – occasionally the telling of how the information came to light gets in the way of the story – and the book is a valuable resource for those wanting to know more about how China has been shaped.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

For a more historical look at China we can cautiously recommend The First Emperor of China by Frances Wood but for a more modern look at the country and particularly Sichuan it would be difficult to better Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-sour Memoir of Eating in China by Fuchsia Dunlop.

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Marjorie Short said:

I was interested to see your comment that the fact that Yuan-Tsung Chen often uses the name Eugene Chen for Chen Youren as being offensive.

Eugene Chen was born in the British colony of Trinidad and Tobago. As was the custom of Chinese families there the children were given an English name and used Chinese names at home.

For most of his life, before he left for China as an adult, Chen was known by his name Eugene . It was only until he went to China that he was given the name Chen Youren. His command of the Chinese language was poor.

Eugene was pure Chinese ( his parents came from China) and his father was known as Joseph Chen in my home town of San Fernando. Eugene married a woman of mixed race ( French/African) Jack Chen was his youngest son. Eugene became a lawyer and lived for a time in England and then returned to Trinidad.

Eugene was my grandmother’s first cousin. His mother and my great grandfather were siblings…All these individuals were known by their Christian English first names and Chinese last names..Originally the family name was Leong but having first landed in Martinique it was changed when they were all baptized to Longchallon . Eugene was raised as a Roman Catholic.

Marjorie Short

Formerly of Trinidad and Tobago now living in Canada