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No Foreign Bones in China: Memoirs of Imperialism and Its Ending

by Peter Stursberg

Effective tour guides to that other country – the past – generally share two attributes: top-notch research skills and imagination. Longtime journalist Peter Stursberg’s strong investigative skills are evident throughout his account of his ancestor’s lives in interesting times – the dying days of imperial China – but he lacks the sympathetic faculty needed to take the reader there.

Stursberg’s maternal grandfather was the scion of the protestant Anglo-Irish elite who went to sea young in the mid-1800s. He rose rapidly through the East India Company, at times commanding the puppet king of Burma’s yacht and filling various executive posts in the customs offices along the Chinese coast. This strapping, self-satisfied man took as his second wife the sister of a Japanese business contact and Irished her name, calling her Ellen O’Sea.

The book is dedicated to Ellen, Stursberg’s Japanese grandmother, a woman whose race was hidden from Stursberg for years. Unfortunately, notwithstanding Stursberg’s persistence in bringing up the subject, Ellen remains a sphinx to the end: it’s unclear whether the mixed marriage affected her husband’s social status and even whether their East-West relationship was based on love or convenience.

In his trilogy on British imperialism, popular historian James (now Jan) Morris evoked the empire’s pomp and circumstance, while analyzing how the empire was viewed by contemporaries within and outside the power structure. Stursberg’s work covers some of the same territory– the horse racing galas, whist at The Club, the intercultural dissonances and outright clashes between “them” and “us” – but his memoir lacks both the colour and analysis that distinguish Morris’s history. Stursberg is not as ambitious as Morris, but even as a family saga, his memoir fails.

Unlike the fascinating Russian aristocrats who populate another family memoir, Michael Ignatieff’s Russian Album, Stursberg’s European ancestors never intrigue. They come off as so many stereotypical gin-sipping, sedan-chair riding functionaries whose insights into the empire are limited to a single truism: “I can live higher in the Orient than I can at home.”