- Ancestral Leaves: A Family Journey Through Chinese History by Joseph W. Esherick
This is an extraordinary book; for me it was something of a page-turner as I followed the story of the twists and turns of the Ye family of Anhui and then Tianjin in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Esherick describes the book's approach: "A central thread of this story is the impact of the great events of modern Chinese history on several generations of a Chinese elite family" (p. 313). Esherick's major divisions are chronological periods: The Imperial Era, Republican China, and The People's Republic. Though different eras obviously faced different problems and the Yes in each period faced wide-ranging realities, they were often in key bureaucratic and/or professional positions and brushed shoulders with key elite figures of the time.
Esherick's discussion of the imperial era focuses on a father and son duo—the father, Ye Kunhou; and the son, Ye Boying. They were involved in two of the mid-nineteenth century rebellions, having to flee as refugees from the Taiping, and in helping substantively to quell the Nian. Kunhou was especially adept at fund-raising to help raise militias to fight that rebellion. Positions one or the other or both held included magistrate, prefect, circuit intendant, provincial judge, provincial lieutenant governor, governor (Boying in Shaanxi), and attaché on the Board of Revenue. In addition, Kunhou made a name for himself in the area of water control. Kunhou had an audience with the emperor in 1856 and Boying met with Cixi in 1879 and 1882. They were patronized by Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang. Both were thoroughly Confucian: Kunhou's own governmental philosophy was that "officials should treat the people like members of their own families" (p. 71). But he drew the line with rebels, reveling in their torture and killing; he also approved looting by soldiers because they had suffered so much. It is interesting that neither man was interested in the West and imperialism along the Chinese coast. Their heads were turned completely to the interior of the country.
Boying's grandson, Ye Chongzhi, had Yuan Shikai as a patron and was appointed to the same intendancy that his grandfather had held. But Chongzhi did not like the rough political world, perhaps in part because one of his kinsman, Ye Chongju (the great grandson of one of Kunhou's brothers), was executed in 1913 on trumped up charges that he was a royalist plotter in the early days of the Republic. Chongzhi left politics, the bureaucracy and the interior, and moved to the important treaty port of Tianjin to enter the world of business. He "held a number of directorships and managerial positions in the industrial empire of Zhou Xuexi" who served "in the entourage of Yuan Shikai" (p. 123). The dramatic historical developments of the May Fourth Movement and the Nationalist Revolution of the 1920s bypassed the Yes. Chongzhi had twelve children who reached adulthood, all born to his two concubines. It was this generation who generally successfully carried the Ye family into the period of war with Japan, the Civil War, and the People's Republic.
While Chongzhi began his sons' education at home, bringing in teachers, after his death in 1930, the boys began to attend Nankai Middle School, one of the most famous in the country. While the three older commuted to the school each day and missed the full Nankai experience, the younger boys who would become more significant in national and professional affairs lived on campus. There they were brought into the world of politics and especially the national humiliation of Japanese aggression. (The three older brothers entered the world of business, married, and settled down in Tianjin.) Among the younger brothers, five emerged as most significant in China's development. In order of age there was Ye Duyi, who became a leader of the Democratic League. Ye Duzhuang, Esherick's father-in-law (to whom the book is dedicated), was...