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Book Review – ANCESTORS by Frank Ching, 528 pages

reviewed by Anton Graham

Over the past few years, there have been many books by foreigners on China, but very few by Chinese writers.

Frank Ching’s Ancestors helps to redress the balance, providing us with precisely the sort of book a non-Chinese would be unable to write — a glimpse of Chinese history through the story of his own family.

It is a kind of Chinese “Roots” — the comparison is inevitable. Ching is a Chinese-American, born in Hong Kong, who had a chance to re-acquaint himself with his origins when China opened its doors to the outside world in 1979.

While he worked as a foreign correspondent in Peking, he conducted research into the history of his family, a personal project which has resulted one of the best and most readable books on China to be published for some time.

Ching’s background make him an ideal person to attempt such a book. His roots in China and his education largely in the United States give him both an instinctive feel for the material and the objectivity necessary to explain it to outsiders.

He traces his family back more than 900 years to a poet named Qin Guan, his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great- great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great- great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great- great-great-grandfather, 33 generations removed.

Luckily, Ching’s family tree contains many prominent and interesting figures, erudite scholars and administrators who served the emperors well (the family name is spelt Ching in English, but rendered as Qin in Chinese romanisation).

Apart from the poet Qin Guan, born 939 years ago, there is Shanghai’s city god, ministers of state in several reigns, a Keeper of the Imperial Diary, a pirate-fighter and towards the end of the story, a communist martyr.

He intersperses the family details with asides on Chinese social customs to explain the sometimes perplexing behaviour of those times — the extremes of filial piety, how scholars sometimes spent decades trying to pass the imperial examinations (the only avenue to power), how officials in the prime of their life were required to go into mourning and cease work for three years when either of their parents died.

There are stories of forebears who served as magistrates, bringing to mind the Judge Dee novels. One seventeenth century Qin is implicated in a plot to rig the sucession to the imperial throne. Several ancestors become the victims of court intrigue.

But there are no villains lurking in the branches of the family tree, at least none that we get to hear about. Ching’s father, ironically, is given the roughest treatment of all the ancestors, being depicted as a cruel, paranoid and self-centred man.

The reason is that the black sheep of the family, those who brought shame on the clan’s name were excised from the geneological tables and, for posterity’s purposes, ceased to exist.

Ching largely pieced the family story together from a geneology he was given by his sister in 1978, fleshing it out with research in archives in both China and Taiwan.

The thread of history is sometimes lost over the centuries as the Qin family sinks into obscurity. But another son eventually passes the examinations and rises once more into the upper levels of the imperial bureraucracy, dragging the family back into view.

Ancestors is painless history. In an understandable and digestible form, Ching is able, through his family’s story, to illuminate some of the key features of life in China during the long centuries of imperial rule.

On one provincial trip, Ching discovered the grave of a sixteenth century ancestor who held many high posts in Peking. Living nearby was a peasant family nearby which had cared for the grave from his death in 1610 up to the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s in spite of all the changes in dynasty, wars and natural disasters that had intervened.

“I could not help being amazed by the continuity of Chinese society,” Ching says. “It made me more aware of the great cohesion underlying Chinese, a cohesion that remains despite all the changes.”

This book is a testament to that cohesion, that sense of belonging, which forever draws people of Chinese origin, wherever they are, to China and to their past.

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