Book Review: Ancestral Leaves: A Family Journey Through Chinese History

Esherick, Joseph W., Ancestral Leaves: A Family Journey Through Chinese History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. xvi, 374 pp. $60.00 (Cloth), $24.95 (Paperback).

By R. Keith Schoppa

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 an agronomist who studied at Tokyo Imperial University and also was an important figure in the Democratic League. He spent most of his career as head of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences. Ye Dulian (Ye Fang), joined the CCP and became an important party official in Liaoning Province. Ye Duzheng attended Qinghua, received a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in atmospheric physics, and became a leading member of the Academy of Science in Beijing; President Hu Jintao presented him with the 2005 Highest National Science and Technology Award. Ye Ducheng (who was called Fang Shi) was a journalist who worked most of his career in important positions at the New China News Agency. Various brothers had contact with such luminaries as Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong, Hu Yaobang, Hu Jintao, and the anthropologist Fei Xiaotong.

Yet it is equally and tragically true that all suffered to some degree during the 1950s to the 1970s. Three were attacked in particular during the Anti-Rightist period and/or the Cultural Revolution. Before war’s end, Ye Duzhuang had joined an intelligence unit of the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA; further, he had lived with liberal journalist Graham Peck. Duzhuang was arrested in 1958 and not released until 1972, though he did not make it back to Beijing from an Anhui labor camp until 1979. Ye Duyi was arrested, attacked for being reactionary for twenty years and for allegedly serving as liaison between Democratic League leaders seen by the party-state as traitors; he was held in a penitentiary from 1968 to 1972. Ye Fang, the Communist leader in Liaoning Province, was attacked on trumped up charges during the Cultural Revolution when party leaders everywhere were under the Red Guard guns. The experience of these three brothers points to the madness that seized China from the late 1950s to 1976.

Esherick sums up the contribution of this excellent, fascinating, and enlightening work: “The long sweep of this book’s coverage permits a broader perspective on the changes that swept the family and the nation, and the mutually constitutive relationship between family and sociopolitical change” (p. xiii).

R. Keith Schoppa is Professor and Doehler Chair in Asian History at Loyola University Maryland and author of In a Sea of Bitterness: Refugees During the Sino-Japanese War (Harvard University Press, forthcoming October 2011).

© 2011 by Twentieth-Century China Editorial Board. All rights reserved.

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