Return to the Middle Kingdom

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Yuan-Tsung Chen, Union Square Press, £8.99

Reading down a contents page and discovering a chapter titled "Blending Confucius, Lincoln and Marx" is rarely going to fill a Marxist with glee. And if we are to take the book in its entirety, purely for its politics, we would also be disappointed.

Return to the Middle Kingdom tells the story of three generations of revolutionaries in China spanning a period of more than 150 years. It begins at the time of the Opium Wars of 1839-1842, tells of the workers' struggles of 1925-1927 through until the revolution of 1949 and beyond. Undoubtedly, Chen is a gifted storyteller. The book is pieced together from tales told to the author by her husband, Jack, during interrogation by the Red Guards at the time of the Cultural Revolution and is written in a very accessible way. Reading personal accounts of historical events are often fascinating. Chen recounts what it was like to live through, and participate in, the revolutionary upheaval which ended 4,000 years of dynastic rule. The debates which are recorded here, such as the necessity of revolutionary journalism and the question of programme, are particularly interesting to read and the immense amount of research and political detail included add to the quality of the book.

But here lies a problem. The Chen family, which is central to Return to the Middle Kingdom, are the ones having the debates, and they are certainly not the working class, or even the peasantry. Chen herself was from a very privileged background and throughout the book much is made of the family's connections with leading members of the Chinese Communist Party. There are numerous episodes of Jack meeting and dining with such figures as Zhou En-Lai who was in the higher echelons, and famously on the right, of the Chinese Communist Party.

There is much to disagree with politically. There is a sizeable section of the book dealing with the popular front strategy of merging the Chinese Communist Party with the Guomindang (the Chinese Nationalist Party); something Chen refuses to challenge. Jack's father, Eugene, dismisses Marxist theory as "naive".

The problem is that the reader is unsure of whether this is purely a story being told or if it is an attempt to offer a political analysis of events in China focussing on the lead up to the 1949 revolution.

Return to the Middle Kingdom is impeccable in its anti-imperialist message, with reference to the invasion of Iraq in the introduction, and is a very well told story - but it is nothing more. Or is that the point?