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Reviewed by:
  • Ancestral Leaves: A Family Journey through Chinese History by Joseph W. Esherick
  • Guy Alitto (bio)
Joseph W. Esherick. Ancestral Leaves: A Family Journey through Chinese History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. 390 pp. Hardcover $60.00, ISBN 978-0-520-26699-5. Paperback $24.95, ISBN 978-0-520-26700-8.

The distinguished modern China historian Joseph Escherick has added to his already wide repertoire with this excellent contribution to the genre of family history. The volume is based primarily on written documents such as genealogies and literary collections, but he has done considerable oral history research as well. The book presents the truly epic saga of the Ye family of Anqing (Escherick’s wife’s family) with skill, insight, and clarity. This historiographically sound narrative is also a rather good read that should have a ready nonacademic audience.

The scope is vast. The lineage traces itself back to its fourteenth-century founder, Ye Sheng’er, a Yuan dynasty official. His great-grandson, Ye Hua, was the first family member to bring the family into the upper echelons of officialdom and to compile a genealogy for it. In the following centuries, the lineage continued to produce degree-holding elites, but only in the mid-nineteenth century did it attain its acme through Ye Kunhou’s meteoric rise through his successful suppression of rebellion. This was a common path, well known for the rise of the great regional officials who transformed the nature of the Qing state. This reviewer was somewhat startled by the first line of the first chapter: “In 1852, Ye Kunhou went home to bury his mother” and began to organize a militia. Zeng Guofan (the most famous and a kind of prototype of such officials) began his meteoric rise in precisely the same way, when in 1852, he went home to bury his mother. This is not the only way in which Ye’s career parallels that of the well-known self-strengtheners. In subsequent years, Ye Kunhou and his son Boying were always where the historical action was. Esherick’s narrative presents a highly textured picture of how the famous events and large-scale changes affected individual families and their lives. He skillfully weaves the family story into a narrative sketch of the period as whole, all the while providing background for those readers unfamiliar with China. As much as his sources allow him, Esherick provides glimpses into the daily lives of all family members, including the women.

At the very end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the narrative’s focus shifts to Ye Chongzhi, Boying’s grandson. Chongzhi also achieves a high office through suppression of disorder, but at the dawn of the Chinese Republic, he retired to a life in business in Tianjin, an event that led to very different lives and careers for his own children and grandchildren. With this shift in direction, the Ye family was again at the center of great historical changes. After the civil service examination system ended in 1905, the Chinese elite rapidly diversified, offering opportunities for a multiplicity of talent. The careers of the Ye family’s following generations exemplify this development. Remarkably, although misfortunes struck various individuals, the family as a whole remains within the elite ranks of Chinese [End Page 317] society, but the extended family of the previous generations proceeded to break down. With the Japanese invasion, the Ye family took on an even greater diversity of roles, and, once again, seems to be located in the areas of greatest historical significance of the time.

With the new challenges and opportunities presented to the family by the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the fates and roles of individual family members further diversified. Although the extended family was gone, the various trials and tribulations visited upon members by various campaigns—most especially the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution—did not further fray family relationships, but rather strengthened them. The book ends with an epilogue that sums up the story and reflects upon it.

The book fits well into an increasing food of family histories and autobiographies coming from China (which, in turn, corresponds to a previous...


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pp. 317-320
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