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Book Review: Return to the Middle Kingdom by Yuan-Tsung Chen

Sep 1, 2008
I have always considered myself reasonably well read and reasonably well versed in modern history. As soon as I started to read Return To The Middle Kingdom, I realized just how little I really knew about the birth of modern China. We all have seen pictures of the remnants of the great Dynasties that ruled for thousands of years, the magnificent wall that was erected to keep their enemies out, the fabulous terracotta armies to protect the dead, and the priceless ornaments and works of art.

We also think we know a little about today's China, we have all seen the National Geographic style photos of downtrodden workers wearing drab unisex outfits and peddling their rattley bicycles through the smog laden cities. Having never been to China I cannot comment on whether this is the way it is, or the way it is portrayed by western eyes, though one thing is clear, China has a less than stellar reputation in the areas of free speech and human rights.

The question is, How did this Country move from one system to another? Author Yuan-Tsung Chen has taken a very unique approach, her book covers three generations of the Chen family, and this was three generations that each in their own way helped forge the country and the politics. By following the Chen's the veil is lifted.

Most of us in the west have heard the names Mao Zedong, Chaing Kaishek, and Zhou Enlai, but how many can explain the delicate, and on occasion not so delicate interplay between them? Who were these men, and what drove them?

Author Yuan-Tsung Chen explores almost 150 years of tumult, her story begins with the Birth of Ah Chen, roughly translated Grandfather Chen in 1830, a peasant farmer, carpenter, and even on occasions barber, who became involved in the abortive Taiping rebellion. This resulted in him becoming an indentured laborer in order to make his hasty escape to Trinidad. As famous as the following two generations he may not be, but it is clear where the revolutionary gene comes from.

His son Eugene Chen became the first Chinese lawyer in Trinidad, and although he became very successful the call of his mother country was too strong, and in 1912 he journeyed to Peking and into the murky waters of politics he went. Eugene Chen's story is worthy of a book by itself, and indeed there is at least one. Eugene rose to the lofty position of Foreign Minister in Sun Yatsen's Kuomintang party and was a key figure in trying to broker peace between both the internal and external interested parties. In many ways China was in the midst of a civil war, and at the same time its sovereignty was being threatened by Europe on one front, Japan on another, and Russia on the third. Interestingly enough it was Russia that Eugene turned to for support, yet Eugene was far from enamored with the Russian style of communism feeling that it could not be made to work within the social structure of China.

The third generation of the Chen family is Jack, and it is Jack that was the reason for Yuan-Tsung Chen to write this book. She was his wife from 1958 until his death in 1995. Jack too was political animal, and a highly successful one until Mao's Cultural Revolution, a decade of intellectual purges (1966-1975). Even with friends in high places, and a sometime acquaintance with Mao himself the couple found themselves staring down the gun barrel of the feared Red Guards. Interrogated, humiliated, and finally exiled, political life in China at least, was at an end for the Chen family.

This is an incredibly well researched and well written book. Part biography, part history book, Return To The Middle Kingdom sheds much light on a fascinating period of history. It also explores everyday life, and lifestyles, something that few straight history books do. The family sacrifices that all three generations made for their country are almost unbelievable.

This book also gave me an understanding of maybe why China is such an insular society today, and that reason has its roots in the 1800's Opium War, China was being turned into another India, a plaything for the Europeans to rape and pillage.

I can wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone that has an interest in modern history. I will warn you though, this book has so much detail within its 400 pages that it will take you a while to read. As a reviewer I usually budget 3 days for a book this size, it took three times that to read it! My wife was beginning to think I had forgotten how to read.

You can order your copy from Amazon or through Yuan-Tsung Chen's web site.
About the Author
Simon Barrett is an adult educator in Calgary, Alberta. With the 11 months a year of winter, he reads a lot of books! He is also a contributing editor for Blogger News and maintains a personal blog at Simon B.
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