Roots of Revolution

Ancestors: 900 Years in the Life of a Chinese Family

by Frank Ching
Morrow, 528 pp., $22.95

The books by Frank Ching and Zhang Xianliang are vastly different in content, aim, and style, as opposite as yang and yin. Yet each casts light on the Cultural Revolution. Considered together, they may even begin to explain it.

Mao’s venomous “class struggle” against his own Communist party’s elite in 1966–1976 continued his egalitarian struggle against the landlord-scholar-official ruling class of old China. Ancestors shows us what Mao was fighting against. It even suggests why he lost. Its author, Frank Ching (Qin Jiacong), grew up in Hong Kong during the 1940s and 1950s; the son of a well-to-do lawyer, he was not only fluent in English and Chinese but had absorbed both cultures. Coming to the United States at age nineteen, he took a BA at Fordham and an MA from New York University, and on a Ford Foundation fellowship studied international reporting at Columbia. Soon he was working on the China desk at The New York Times. In 1979 he opened the Peking bureau of The Wall Street Journal. Even without knowing much about his scholar-official ancestors he had established his career as a scholar-reporter. His older sister Julia Ching is a professor at the University of Toronto.

Being at home in two cultures and becoming a naturalized American citizen made Frank Ching all the more a Chinese patriot. He began inquiries into his family’s origins. His twenty-eight chapters are guided by the latest (1929) edition of the Qin Family Genealogy in seventeen volumes.

Frank Ching begins in 1049 AD with the founder (Qin Guan) of the branch of the clan at Wuxi (Wusih), an ancient city in the rice-rich Yangtze delta inland from Shanghai and Suzhou (Soochow). From his nine-hundred-year genealogy he selects some twenty ancestors for study. From this personal perspective he describes both the major institutions of the old Chinese ruling class and the important events in which his ancestors participated. The reader is thus led entertainingly through a basic course in Chinese upper-class history. The founder of the clan, for example, a poet, was a friend of the important Song (Sung) dynasty poet Su Dongbo (Su Tung-po) and became involved in his vengeful struggle with the reformers of that time. We begin to learn the political intricacies of scholarly life and get an idea of the examination system through which talent qualified for official appointment. Qin Guan’s marriage takes us into the complexities of Chinese marriage customs. We follow the vicissitudes of his career, as he becomes locked in bureaucratic struggles and dependent on imperial favor. We see how the emperor governed in tandem with the landed gentry, who supplied his administrators, and how clan lineage was important because of its tradition of scholarship and success, inspiring talented young people to try for official careers. Like all lineages, the Qin clan has social and political, not genetic, importance.

Where Alex Haley’s Roots goes back six generations through oral history, Frank Ching goes back thirty-four generations through documentation and the …

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