Historian traces China through ancestors
Reconstructing large-scale events through one family’s intimate saga
Histor ian Joseph W. Esherick is highly sought after in China after the July release of his book Ancestral Leaves: A Family Journey Through Chinese History.
Ancestral Leaves, first published in English in 2011 and just translated into Chinese this year, reconstructs the large-scale events that shaped modern China by recounting the saga of the Ye family. The book includes the vast and destructive rebellions of the 19th century, the economic growth and social transformation of the republican era, the Japanese invasion during WWII, and the “cultural revolution” (1966-76), a long, revolutionary period that is explored only briefly in school history books.
“It might be out of curiosity,” Esherick said of his book’s popularity. “Just as those circumvent to read their countries on an overseas website, people are eager to know what they look like from an outsider’s perspective.”
Esherick, better known in China by his Chinese name Zhou Xirui, is a professor of modern Chinese history at the University of California San Diego. His track record includes an influential study of events that led up to and set the stage for the 1911 Revolution and a prize-winning study of the Boxer Uprising, both of which were carefully documented and also set the stage for future research on the topics.
“I have been teaching Chinese history for 40 years. The greatest problem I have faced is getting students to appreciate both the distinctive trajectory of modern Chinese history and the familiar human problems that the Chinese people faced,” said the 72-year-old silver-haired Esherick.
“History is most likely to resonate with us if it has a biographical dimension. This is especially true if one is writing about a time and place distant from our own.”
In the new book, he follows the Ye family (Ye means leaf in Chinese) from the 14th century when its first ancestor was recorded, all the way to 1976. It weaves in the details of life stories with an account of major historical turning points and not just the Taiping uprising, but also the Opium War and events from the 20th century.
“They are relatively ordinary Chinese people, who are easy to associate with and identify with. On one hand I want to show how the big structures of culture, state and society were changing; on the other hand, I want to see how the everyday practices of child-rearing, gender relations, education and sociability were transformed.”
It is the first time for Esherick to work history from a family level, something like TheDreamofthe RedChamber (or The Story oftheStone), one of China’s four great classic novels. His wife Ye Wa, is a member of the Ye family and that gets him access to the Chinese family.
About 20 years ago, Ye Wa gave him the memoir of her father economist Ye Duzhuang. “The memoir is very extraordinarily frank, honest, and based on his own experience from the beginning of his life and all the way through the 20th century. It offers an uncommonly personal and intimate glimpse into Chinese family history,” Esherick recalls.
However, for a work of history, it is far less than enough. One of the reasons, Esherick said, is when people are writing about their own family history, there is a tendency to cover up something, not to talk about something, and to write about more of the bright side than the dark side.
He started to collect a variety of materials, including family genealogies, memorials, biographies, poems, oral histories, and Ye Duzhang’s personal dossier.
He went to the family’s ancestral home — a village in Anqing, in Anhui province where all the villagers are surnamed Ye and that the branch of the family left over a century and a half ago. He found family genealogies that traced back the history of the Ye family to the 15th century, when its first ancestor was recorded.
Certainly, the fact that he is a member of the Ye family was essential in gaining access to the sources, but it also posed challenges.
His book editor, Li Zhanfei from Hantang Reading Press, said they had to confirm and negotiate repeatedly with living members of the family before getting the book published.
“The younger generation was very anxious to say that something the elder generation said that can’t be public,” Esherick said. “The younger generation is sort of a sensory for the older generation.”
Historical writing has some degree of subjectivity. “What historians are attempting to do and they are doing it well, is trying to restore what actually happened in history like it was,” he noted.
Esherick’s career as a historian started when he was a Harvard University undergraduate student in John King Fairbank’s class. After graduating in 1964, he went to the University of California in Berkeley and received his PhD in 1971, under the supervision of Joseph R. Levenson and Frederic Wakeman.
“Levenson’s Confucian China and Its Modern Fate is one of my favorite books, which I first read as an undergraduate and is part of the reason I wanted to study with Levenson in Berkeley,” he said. “I still think it’s amazingly powerful.”
Esherick visited China for the first time in 1979 when he was doing research on the
ha‘ I ve been teaching Chinese history for 40 years. The greatest problem I have faced is getting students to appreciate both the distinctive trajectory of modern Chinese history and the familiar human problems that the Chinese people faced.” JOSEPH W. ESHERICK HISTORIAN
Boxer Uprising, sponsored by the US National Academy of Sciences Committee on Scholarly Communications with the People’s Republic of China. Almost eight years later, the trip helped lead to his successful book The Origins of the Boxer Uprising. It won the John K. Fairbank Prize, awarded by the American Historical Association.
“I often remember the places were nice. There were lots of people who wanted to help me, though they were not able to because they were not powerful on one side.”
In retirement, Esherick comes to China often, with some cooperation from Chinese universities. But he said contemporary China is more difficult for him to understand and incredibly complicated.
“Historians are much better to understand the past than to predict the future,” he said, adding that’s why he doesn’t talk about the contemporary, fearing he may be misinterpreted.
Historian Joseph W. Esherick (right), whose book AncestralLeaves:AFamilyJourneyThroughChineseHistory was translated into Chinese this year, has a dialogue with Chinese writer Xu Zhiyuan about the book at a book salon in Beijing.