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Family Genealogies

Scott Tong travels to China with his mother to track down their family history.

February 24, 2018

Scott Tong travels to China with his mother to track down their family history.

I never expected my mother to ever return to China to help me track down her mother’s story. Sure, I spent hours probing her memories over the phone and in person in the States.

But going back to the mainland—that would replay too many memories that are uniformly bad: War and death, barely outrunning the Communists, starting over in a Hong Kong squatter village, losing her father at the age of eight. “I’m not ready,” she often said.

There is an irony here. As much as I’ve been drawn to China for opportunity and history, she has spent her adult life leaving it behind. The state took away her family’s property, and then her father.

Reconnecting with the outside world

But her adult life kept bringing her closer to the mainland. In 1978, as China began to reconnect to the outside world, my father’s engineering job at IBM transferred us to Hong Kong for two years.

In 1980 we shipped off to Taiwan when he was recruited to help start up the island’s first science and technology development park. Later he was asked to lecture at business schools on the mainland. Surprising to me, my mother joined him on one of these trips.

They met my father’s younger brother, Tong Bao, who was left behind on the mainland and later punished for the political sins of his father (my grandfather). “Every family has a story like this,” he told her, recounting the famine, the exile, his mother’s torture. “This is just ours.”

This unlocked something inside her. As she describes it, she came to a sort of solidarity with so many others haunted by history. “My family is not the only victim,” she told me. So she agreed to join me in 2013 on a sleuthing trip.

“Welcome to Hankou,” a sixty-something man greets us at the train station of the Wuhan tri-city’s most international city. His driver takes our bags rather forcefully but with good intentions.

Our host, Liu Xuechao, is a distant cousin of my mother’s. He has offered to take us to the Sun family village on her father’s side, a couple hours outside Hankou (also Hankow).

“How was your hotel?” Liu Xuechao asks from the front seat. These initial meetings require a specific small talk that allows the host to speak and demonstrate authority.

The Chicago of China

How much did you pay for your room? You overpaid. Here, have a bottle of water—from Tibet, so it’s not polluted. Have you visited the Yangtze riverfront? Chairman Mao once swam across it. Did you know Wuhan is considered the Chicago of China?

The protocol demands we play along, at least for a few minutes. Wow, Chairman Mao swam here—all the way across? Yes, surely that’s a true story. The subway lines are impressive. As is your Citroën car. No, I did not know it was assembled here. I agree, Wuhan is the Zhijiage (Chicago) of China.

The pride of Hankou is its comparison with Chicago, though I wonder why. After all, a “foreign devil” journalist coined the phrase. Perhaps it is Chicago’s reputation as a vital inland city, a proud river-and-rail crossroads.

More likely, it’s Chicago’s status as a brand-name city in the world, with bragging rights to one Chicago Bulls legend known here as Mai-ke-er Qiao-dan. I didn’t hear much about Wuhan during my posting in China. A few auto industry friends came to visit parts facilities, but they referred to it as more as a backwater than a Zhijiage.

It no longer has its past luster. “Wuhan suffered under the Guomindang,” retired historian Yuan Jicheng told me when we later visited him at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law.

Investments were not made, and the city never returned to its industrial status of the 1920s and ’30s. Today, its economy relies on stodgy, state- owned companies that make things like alcohol and cigarettes.

Fool the people GDP

To goose GDP numbers, Yuan said, the city digs up roads and paves them, and then repeats the process. “Pianren GDP,” he said. Fool the People GDP.

We set off the next morning to the village of my maternal grandfather. Both our guide Liu Xuechao and my mom confess they aren’t sure how they’re related.

“My mother didn’t tell me much about the family,” he says, taking a swig of Tibet Water, Unpolluted. “So she could protect me.”

“Protect? How?” I ask.

“My grandfather was a landlord before liberation.” If a child knew this and blabbed it around, this status could come out later and hurt the family. Best to keep incriminating information under wraps.

Liu’s grandfather tried to flee by boat to Taiwan to escape Communist retribution. “But they didn’t let him in” to Taiwan, Liu says. “He didn’t have the right papers.” The grandfather returned and was later publicly beaten and shamed during the land reform campaigns. “So he committed suicide.”

Comfortably talking about tragedy

The car goes quiet for a moment. I’ve grown eerily accustomed to how comfortable people can be talking about tragedy. Quickly, though, Bureaucrat Uncle Liu fills the silence.

“Now it’s the government officials who are the rich ones,” says this government official.

“They’re the new landlords. Drink some water.”

The driver jumps in. “What do you think of China? Of Wuhan?”

“The party took my father away,” my mother says. This is the first time I’ve heard her mention this in a public way. “But I look around here, and see the party has made people’s lives better. Look at the buildings, the airports.”

The things you can’t see

The driver does not take the compliment. “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.”

I jot it all down. He articulates this better than I can when trying to describe China’s challenges. It’s the things you can’t see.

“What do the people think of the party?” my mom asks.

“Seventy to eighty percent of the people are dissatisfied,” the driver says. That seems an awfully high number to me.

Bureaucrat Uncle Liu jumps in. “But we don’t want another party in charge either. It’s too luan.” Too chaotic. Americans can have a romantic attachment to luan—a messy process of change, disruption, creative destruction, failing fast. Perhaps you crave these things if you have lived too long without any luan.

The highway turns into local paved road, and then gravel. We’re following villages along a Yangtze tributary known as the Han River, with cotton and corn crops surrounding us. In all, this trip will take less than two hours.

Stealing rice

“Growing up, if I went to Wuhan from the village, it took twelve hours by boat,” Liu says. “Now it’s so fast. During the famine in 1959, I was just a child. I would steal rice from home during harvest, and then get on the boat and carry it to my family in the city.”

We stop at the house of the one known relative still in the Sun village. My mother has always referred to this place as Mianyang, though now it’s incorporated into the city of Xiantao. There’s nothing visibly urban about this place. A white concrete outhouse features a hand-painted character nv for “women.”

We get out, duck under a few clotheslines, and step over a pile of broken bricks to approach. It doesn’t take long to see the disparity. Six houses are connected in a row, but they don’t match.

The units on the far left and right stand three stories high, topped with Spanish-style shingles. These are the wealthier families. In the middle are two older, single-floor
houses that look dark and squat.

This is the house of Maozi, my mother’s second cousin. “My father worked with yours,” Maozi tells my mother as we walk in, “in the family honeybee business.”

I don’t know all the details, but after World War II, their business involved a large population of bees on a boat that floated from one pollination site to another. After the Communist liberation, authorities arrested and jailed Maozi’s father for working with my grandfather, whom the regime deemed a counterrevolutionary.

“He died in prison. They said natural causes, but I’m not so sure.” Maozi offers a cigarette to Bureaucrat Uncle Liu. “After he died, we received his ashes and his bedding mosquito net. It was stained with blood.”

Maozi has a crew cut and is wearing a faded blue T- shirt and cotton shorts. One of his flip-flops has a broken strap, making it easier to see his thick, yellowed toenails. Everything about his body strikes me as weary except for his youthful eyes, which greet a female cousin with energy.

Sun Clan genealogy

He hands her a navy-blue hardback book, thicker than a dictionary (I’d later learn it contains 828 pages). The title reads: Sun Clan Genealogy. This is why we have come.

The genealogy was written in classical Chinese, a style that went out with the May Fourth modernization push in the early twentieth century. A rough analogue might be Latin, or perhaps King James English.

No one in the room can read this very well. But one thing is clear upon flipping it open: This is not a simple family tree.

Hundreds of pages of introductory sections precede the actual names. There is a history of the Sun clan travels (across China, then Jiangxi, then Hubei). There are rules to address different relatives (your father’s paternal great-grandmother shall be referred to as gao zeng zumu).

There’s a set of clothing dos and don’ts for funerals (wear coarse hemp fabric without a hem, for three years). Respect the elderly. Do not steal. Violators are deleted from the Sun book of life.

Political witch hunts

I start to realize why people set genealogies on fire during political witch hunts. All these lineage connections can be used as incriminating evidence if powerful people deem one of your relatives a bad actor.

Journalist Frank Ching writes about this in his own family history, Ancestors. One scholar in the family wrote a glowing history of the Ming Dynasty that its successor, the Qing, frowned upon.

The new leaders sought to kill the writer, plus nine generations of kin, plus the book printer, plus book buyers. “Whole clans have been slaughtered because of the wrongdoings of only one member,” Ching writes.

There’s even an intro written by the most famous Sun in Chinese history—Dr. Sun Yat- sen, the founding father of modern China.

There is no suggestion he had direct ties to my mother’s clan. Rather, this passage seems more of a celebrity cameo. It’s as if an American family surnamed Robinson asked Jackie Robinson to put in a word or two. Or perhaps Smokey.

“Here it is.” My mom puts her finger on a page of her generation. It’s her father’s name.

Editor’s note: This feature is adapted from “A Village with My Name: A Family History of China’s Opening to the World” (University of Chicago Press, 2017).


Scott tong travels to China with his mother to track down their family history.

I never expected my mother to ever return to China to help me track down her mother’s story—that would replay too many memories that are uniformly bad.

To goose GDP numbers, Wuhan city digs up roads and paves them, and then repeats the process -- Fool the People GDP.

Today, Wuhan’s economy relies on stodgy, state-owned companies that make things like alcohol and cigarettes.

I realize why people set genealogies on fire during political witch hunts. Lineage connections can be used as incriminating evidence if powerful people deem one of your relatives a bad actor.