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  • Family Memoir, to Memorialize and to InheritThe Year in China
  • Chen Shen (bio)

In recent years, family memoirs have become a prevalent form of life writing in China. Such memoirs—which, as Rocío Davis explains in Relative Histories, can also be described as "'multigenerational' or 'intergenerational auto/biographies'"—have for the most part been written to memorialize and show respect for the authors' elders and ancestors. Many of these memoirs have been published every year, especially when the deceased person has been a celebrity.

Family memoirs have been popular in China because of Chinese traditions. Family is the cornerstone of traditional Chinese society and has even influenced the political structure of the constitution. Although family-oriented culture is not the foundation of today's national political structure, family is still very important in Chinese people's value systems. One of the reasons for this importance is because of how family memoirs preserve genealogies. In turn, genealogical research has also been an important part of Chinese history.

In the past, praising the merit and fame of deceased family members was so prevalent in memoirs it was almost a cliché. Publications from 2017 reveal new trends in this writing form: some authors have tried to reflect on public history through their family stories; others have tried to continue family traditions through tracing their parents' lives; and others still have tried to solve generational conflicts through their depiction of family members. Triggered by marketing factors, popular family memoirs now are still mainly written about famous family members. However, even when written about a famous person, memoirs from 2017 feature the "ordinary" side of extraordinary people. Many writers in 2017 tried to strip the social fame of their subjects and "restore" their nature as common people. [End Page 560]

One example of a family memoir that highlights the ordinary aspects of famous people is Yang Du Yyu Liang Qichao, written by the couple Yang Youqi and Wu Liming, who were grandchildren of the two subjects. Yang Du and Liang Qichao were two very famous revolutionaries in China's modern history and, through marriage, became relatives of the authors. There have been many biographies of Yang Du and Liang Qichao as individuals, but this book is the first to give an account of their relationship with each other. Yang Youqi and Wu Liming are scientists and, as they declare in their postscript, they struggled to research their two grandfathers after they retired. What sets this book apart from biographies of Yang Du and Liang Qichao is that the authors hoped to represent the two revolutionaries' legendary lives from grand-children's perspectives, which shed new light on Yang Du and Liang Qichao's political actions that otherwise were shrouded in mystery. For example, Yang Du was incomprehensible to many people since he once was in support of Yuan Shikai, who tried to proclaim himself emperor. In some historical television programs, Yang Du is even presented as Yuan's servile lackey. But Yang Youqi believes that Yang Du did not really believe in Yuan Shikai, and he draws from some detailed conversations at home to explain his judgment. Exposing such private details that could only be known by family members helps the reader know the invisible part of the subjects' psychological world. The book also provides a precious record of Yang Du and Liang Qichao's family members, especially stories of their wives, who were anonymous in many biographies, thereby drawing a more complete picture of their domestic, ordinary lives.

Another example of this type of text is Bu Yi Ben Se, a family memoir of Yu Pingbo that was written by Yu's grandchild, Wei Nai. Wei Nai lived with Yu Pingbo when he was a child, so he is very familiar with Yu's everyday life and his personality. This book adds to a series of biographies Wei Nai has written about his grandfather. Other than praising his grandfather's great achievements in literature and scholarly research, he presents Yu Pingbo as a "Bu Yi," a commoner. Wei Nai provides picturesque descriptions along with anecdotes of Yu Pingbo with family and friends. For example, to present Yu's happy and serene nature...


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pp. 560-565
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