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Ancestral Leaves: A Family Journey through Chinese History (review)

From: Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies
Volume 72, Number 1, June 2012
pp. 155-158 | 10.1353/jas.2012.0006

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

This is the history of an elite Chinese family from their origins as landowners and degree holders in Anhui in the early Ming through to their descendants' academic achievements and business ventures in the twenty-first century. Set against this expansive narrative are detailed studies of two periods of the family's history: the lives of a father and son who were Qing officials in the mid-nineteenth century, and the lives of the fifteen children born to a wealthy descendant of these officials who grew up in Tianjin in the early twentieth century and lived through the dramatic years of Mao's rule. The book is written to be accessible to a reader lacking prior knowledge of Chinese history: it covers and explains most major events in Chinese history for the period covered and relates each event to the story of the family. It will be fascinating for anyone interested in the comparative study of families, and useful for students who are learning modern Chinese history for the first time and interested in how the events they study related to people's lives.

The book begins with a dramatic description of the Ye family's sufferings when their home city of Anqing fell to the Taiping rebellion. The narrative then jumps back to the family's origins in the early Ming and briefly traces the history of the Ye lineage through to the early nineteenth century. Here we come to the story of Ye Kunhou and his son Ye Boying, both of whom held various senior positions in the Qing bureaucracy, with Ye Boying ending his career as governor of Shaanxi province. We see how unimportant the Opium War and themes of modernization were in the lives of these old-fashioned officials, who continued fighting rebels, organizing water control systems to prevent terrible floods, inspecting and controlling government expenditures, and working through vast backlogs of legal cases up to the end of the nineteenth century.

After a brief survey of a couple of generations who were lower ranking officials in the last years of the Qing, we move on to Ye Chongzhi, who settled in Tianjin and was employed in the bureaucratic capitalist business ventures of Zhou Xuexi. This takes us into the world of the conservative northern political elites (known to the Nationalist Party as the Beiyang warlords) who, when out of office, congregated in Tianjin. Ye Chongzhi arranged his children's marriages to a niece of president Xu Shichang and a granddaughter of Zhang Xiluan. A marriage with the daughter of business magnate Liu Hongsheng was rejected after her family sent a photograph of her in an indecorous modern posture (standing with her foot on a chair). As this might suggest, the Ye family's lifestyle was extremely conservative, and it is described in detail in this part of the book, which is based on memoirs and interview materials. Ye Chongzhi took two concubines in addition to his wife, had fifteen children, had his daughters' feet bound in the 1910s, and did not allow them to be educated. His ten sons received a traditional education but were also prepared by modern-educated tutors to take the exams to the prestigious modern Nankai Middle School.

We then follow the careers of the eight surviving sons through school in the 1920s and '30s, when several of them were drawn to radical political activities, the war of resistance against Japan, and life in the People's Republic of China. Despite Esherick's best efforts, the daughters drop out of the story as they marry out to other cities and lose touch with their natal family: clearly the Chinese family's expectations as to membership win out over the American historian's interests! Nevertheless, the sons' careers were varied and often dramatic, making the chapters on the mid-twentieth century the most absorbing section of the book. The eldest son followed in his father's footsteps as a Tianjin banker and businessman, but his younger brothers' careers ranged from atmospheric physics to stand-up comedy. The brothers' political orientations were as varied as their careers: one withdrew completely from politics, one became a leader in the Democratic League, and two joined...

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