Marguerite Chien-Church first wrote down her life story for her children to read but has sold nearly 700 copies of her tale
“It's like she's sitting there telling you her story. I think she's done a magnificent job of giving a picture of China before the War, in an aspect that many people have never read about,” said Ann Brandt, an Olney, Md., resident, who has known Chien-Church since 1960.
Chien-Church, 79, lives in Greenspring Village in Springfield with her husband, John Church. She published her first book, “Adopted the Chinese Way,” in the fall of 2003.
“It’s a long, complicated story,” said Chien-Church, who said she believed her story needed to be told, if for no one else than her children. She started writing in 1994, and the account of her life became a book eight years later.
“I wrote it because my children are so American, and they always think of me that way, too,” she said. “I felt they needed to know my life was very different in China.”
Chien-Church’s early years in China were anything but typical by American standards, and her adoption was even less so. Born in Beijing, China, when it was still known as "Peking," to an upper-class family, Chien-Church was adopted when she was 1 month old, by her father’s youngest brother and his wife.
This practice of adoption, which Chien-Church called “kuo chi,” was fairly common in China at the time, and it allowed Chien-Church’s adoptive parents, who had no children, to have three of their own, since they adopted another of Chien-Church’s siblings, along with a girl from another of Chien-Church’s uncles.
“In Chinese families of any stature, they never adopted children from outside the family, because they wouldn’t know anything about their background,” said Chien-Church. “If you adopted the child from outside the family, all your estate when you died would go to a stranger. This way, family property is kept inside the family.”
Chien-Church didn’t meet her birth parents until she was 18, since they lived in Shanghai. She said to this day, she considers her adoptive parents her own and marvels at the lengths Americans will go to in order to uncover their true parents.
“Nowadays, you hear stories of adopted children looking for their birth parents. I have always not understood this, because to me, the birth parents were nothing,” she said.
WITH A Chinese father who worked for the Chinese government and an American mother who didn’t have a formal job but dabbled in renting homes to visiting dignitaries, Chien-Church’s childhood was comfortable in China. Her parents had met while at school at Harvard, and Chien-Church said they experienced no animosity for the mixed-race marriage.
“Then, the War came, and everything fell apart,” she said. Japan, under the dictatorship of Emperor Hirohito, invaded China in 1937, and when the Americans entered World War II following Pearl Harbor in late 1941, the Japanese suddenly viewed Chien-Church’s mother as an enemy.
“Most of the Americans were taken to concentration camp,” said Chien-Church. Their family was exempt since they had minor Chinese children. Nonetheless, Chien-Church said she remembered her mother being interrogated in the middle of the night, and losing nearly 50 pounds from her 135-pound frame.
“There were no atrocities, but it was a very hard life,” she said. “They [the Japanese] confiscated our home, and we lived by selling things.”
When the war ended in 1945, she and her mother decided it was time to leave the country. They boarded a ship bound for San Francisco in the fall of 1945, and Chien-Church enrolled at Smith College in Massachusetts. When she graduated, Chien-Church took a job in Washington, D.C., with the Chinese embassy. She also worked for the State Department during her more than 50 years in America.
DESPITE HER fond memories of China, Chien-Church has returned only once to her native land. In 1995, 50 years after she left, she took her three children back. It was that trip that sparked Chien-Church’s desire to write the book. At first, it was simply notes made in advance of the trip to be able to give points of reference to the places her family visited.
“It was really quick, because I was writing it for my kids, and I was just rattling it off as I remembered it,” she said.
Once that draft was complete, Chien-Church put it aside for three years until in early 1998, she began looking at it again, with an eye toward turning it into something more.
“After you’ve gone to all that work, you think it would be nice to publish it,” she said.
Chien-Church published the book with the help of Infinity Publishing, a print-on-demand company. The publishing cost her $400, which included five copies of the book. After revising her manuscript, she enlisted Marion Ciaccio, a personal friend who worked for many years as an editor with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to work on the project as an editor.
A tennis partner of Chien-Church’s, Ciaccio said she was thrilled to be able to learn in depth about the life her friend had led.
“I became so thoroughly engrossed in it, I was wondering what in the world would happen [next],” said Ciaccio, of Falls Church. She edited the book in pieces, then gave it one final read of the entire draft before it was published in late 2003.
“I don’t know how in the world she could remember everything,” said Ciaccio. “It certainly made a very good read.”
SINCE ITS publication, “Adopted the Chinese Way” has sold 700 copies by Chien-Church’s count. She has been invited to speak about her life and the book at almost a dozen groups since she published the book, and has an appointment for another in McLean in January. Many of her sales come from these appointments, and the book is also available from www.buybooksontheweb.com.
“That’s nothing compared to books that go in the stores, but I’m really pleased,” she said of the sales numbers. “I never expected that.”
What made it interesting for readers like Brandt is hearing about China from the perspective of a privileged youth.
“I have read a lot of books about people who left China because of the Communists,” said Brandt, a self-professed lover of historical fiction. “But I can't remember reading one where the descriptions [are] of what it was like to grow up privileged in China before the Communists took over.”
Chien-Church still marvels when the royalty checks arrive each month and is mostly pleased to be able to give her family a true picture of what their mother was like when she was in their shoes.
“I personally feel like every second-generation Chinese, like my kids, would benefit from this, because they would know what their parents’ lives were like in China,” she said.