His­to­rian traces China through an­ces­tors

Re­con­struct­ing large-scale events through one fam­ily’s in­ti­mate saga

China Daily (Canada) - - PEOPLE - By LI JING in Bei­jing Li­jing2009@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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.

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