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Ancestral Leaves

Ancestral Leaves: A Family Journey through Chinese History

Joseph W. Esherick
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Pages: 392
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  • Book Info
    Ancestral Leaves
    Book Description:

    Ancestral Leavesfollows one family through six hundred years of Chinese history and brings to life the epic narrative of the nation, from the fourteenth century through the Cultural Revolution. The lives of the Ye family-"Ye" means "leaf" in Chinese-reveal the human side of the large-scale events that shaped modern China: the vast and destructive rebellions of the nineteenth century, the economic growth and social transformation of the republican era, the Japanese invasion during World War II, and the Cultural Revolution under the Chinese Communists. Joseph W. Esherick draws from rare manuscripts and archival and oral history sources to provide an uncommonly personal and intimate glimpse into Chinese family history, illuminating the changing patterns of everyday life during rebellion, war, and revolution.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94762-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xviii)

    • 1 Fleeing the Long Hairs
      (pp. 3-17)

      In 1852, Ye Kunhou went home to bury his mother. The filial son, then fifty years old, was at the prime of his career as a local official in the north China province of Henan, along the Yellow River. He had distinguished himself by fighting floods and then pursuing bandits and rebels. At a recent awe-inspiring audience in the capital, the emperor had commended him for diligent service.¹ But the Confucian precepts of the imperial code required that an official resign his post for three years of mourning on the death of a parent. Together with his brother, he fulfilled...

    • 2 Family Roots
      (pp. 18-35)

      Five hundred years before the tumultuous nineteenth century, the ancestors of the Ye family moved to Anqing during another age of war and rebellion. This too was a period of alien rule. The Yuan dynasty, founded by the Mongols under Khubilai Khan, was coming to an end. Since the 1350s, Anhui had been wracked by rebellion. Rival armies passed back and forth, seizing Anqing from the Mongols and from each other. Nearby areas in the Yangzi valley suffered even greater destruction, and in the late fourteenth century, most of the countryside around Anqing was repopulated by refugees from the hard-hit...

    • 3 Father‚ Son‚ and Family
      (pp. 36-54)

      Early one a afternoon in the spring of 1802, in the old family home west of the countyyamenin Anqing, Ye Kunhou was born. His twenty-seven-year-old mother, a devout woman who prayed frequently at the nearby temple to the bodhisattva Guanyin, had been rewarded with her first son. (She would eventually have six children, five sons and a daughter, though the daughter and two sons would die young.) On the day before Kunhou’s birth, his mother had been visited in a dream by a white-gowned woman promising that the family’s record of good works would be rewarded with a...

    • 4 Rebellion
      (pp. 55-68)

      For many years, the history of modern China has been told as the story of “China’s Response to the West.” In the long run, the military and economic impact of Western imperialism in the period following the Opium War threatened the stability and even the survival of the Qing empire. Most histories of this period pay substantial attention to a few reformers who promoted the study of Western science and mathematics, urging the adoption of modern industrial technology to build arsenals and shipyards to strengthen the army and navy.¹ However this “self-strengthening” did little to address what most officials—and...

    • 5 Official Life in the Late Qing
      (pp. 69-98)

      The late nineteenth century was a critical era in world history. In Europe and America, technological change was transforming life at an unprecedented pace. Steam-powered factories, ships, and railways produced and moved goods at speeds unimaginable just a couple generations earlier. Telegraph cables circled the globe and carried news and information in a matter of minutes, where overland post or sailing ships just a few decades earlier had required weeks or even months. Great industrial cities produced textiles, steel, machines, chemicals, and a host of new-consumer goods—from soap to sewing machines, boots to bicycles. Political reforms brought constitutional government,...

    • 6 A Time of Transitions
      (pp. 99-114)

      In 1891, a small, solemn, but no doubt well-appointed party set off from Kaifeng carrying coffins. The carefully preserved bodies of Ye Kunhou and his sons Boying and Jingchang were being returned to Anqing for proper burial. They were escorted by Ye Yuanqi, the forty-two-year-old son of Ye Boying, and his twenty-three-year-old uncle, Ye Jiquan, born to Kunhou and his young concubine late in the old official’s life.¹ Kunhou and his sons had died between 1887 and 1889, in the reverse order of their ages. The three men had all been officials, and their coffins were elaborate and carefully sealed....


    • 7 Doing Business in Tianjin
      (pp. 117-127)

      Like most late Qing officials, the Ye men who served China’s last emperors were products of the interior. Local and provincial positions in the late nineteenth century were frequently filled by men who had risen to prominence in the Hunan and Anhui armies of Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang, earning merit in battles against the Taiping and Nian rebels. Born and raised in Anhui, rising through the official ranks in Henan, serving in Zhili and Shaanxi, Ye Kunhou and Ye Boying were men of this mold. They spent their entire lives in the agricultural provinces of China’s interior—fighting peasant...

    • 8 Growing Up in Tianjin
      (pp. 128-147)

      Before the twentieth century, Chinese commentators paid little attention to childhood. Confucius’s classic capsule autobiography does not start until fifteen, when the great philosopher “set [his] heart on learning,” and then proceeds, decade by decade, from ages thirty to seventy.¹ If a traditional biography says anything about a prominent man’s boyhood, it usually describes the precocious mastery of such adult skills as reading the classics. A rich tradition of pediatric medicine and scholarly writings on the early education of children evince some attention to the specific biological and intellectual conditions of childhood. An informative genre of paintings shows children at...

    • 9 Student Life in the 1930s
      (pp. 148-181)

      When Ye Chongzhi planned the schooling of his sons, there was one obvious choice for their secondary education: Nankai Middle School. As we have seen, he paid scant attention to the education of his daughters. Once they acquired basic literacy and learned to sew and embroider, they were married off to old scholar-official families, where they were expected to devote themselves to domestic duties. (Only his youngest daughter, who grew up a after his death, managed to escape this fate.) The boys were another matter. For them, he envisioned jobs in science, engineering, or business—practical careers for which a...

    • 10 War
      (pp. 182-220)

      In the hot sticky summer of 1937, the students of Tsinghua University were undergoing military training on the outskirts of Beiping. It was not Ye Duzheng’s first experience with the army. During the winter vacation of 1936–37, he had traveled to Shanxi with a couple hundred Beiping students for training in a “student army.” His involvement was as much personal as political: he was following a girlfriend, a Tsinghua classmate who was deeply embroiled in left-wing politics. In Shanxi, the students received political education and basic military training, including their first live-ammunition firing of real weapons. The growing threat...


    • 11 Family Life in New China
      (pp. 223-249)

      Ye Duzheng was no leftlist, but he returned to China within a year of the Communist takeover. If the Communists had not emerged victorious in the Civil War, he might never have returned: China under the Nationalists was too corrupt and chaotic. The founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949 inspired new hope for the country. As Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist armies collapsed in the final year of the Civil War, first Beijing and Tianjin were “liberated,” then the Communist forces swept southward to occupy Shanghai and the Yangzi valley, and finally Canton and the far south. Duzheng...

    • 12 Hundred Flowers and Poisonous Weeds
      (pp. 250-277)

      Late in the spring of 1957, Ye Duyi was summoned from his small apartment at the Democratic League headquarters to a meeting at Tsinghua University. He did not have a car at his disposal, and he had never learned to ride a bicycle, so he took a city bus to the campus in Beijing’s western suburbs. Only about twenty people attended the meeting, mostly party officials and faculty at the prestigious university. They sat in overstuffed chairs and sipped tea in the heat of the a afternoon. It was the sort of semiformal get-together to exchange views that the Chinese...

    • 13 The Cultural Revolution
      (pp. 278-300)

      Late in 1960, the New China News Agency sent Fang Shi to lead a delegation of visiting reporters from Latin America and Eastern Europe to the capital of Anhui province. The group flew directly to Hefei from Beijing and was ushered immediately to the best hotel, carefully sheltered from any contact with the local population. The foreign journalists were given a series of official briefings on the progress of the Great Leap Forward, then taken to a tourist boat on a nearby lake. As they drifted about admiring the rural scenery, a group of brightly clad young girls collected lotus...

  8. Epilogue: After the Deluge
    (pp. 301-316)

    Shortly after midnight on September 9, 1976, Mao Zedong died. Three weeks later, his wife and her radical colleagues were arrested and branded a conspiratorial Gang of Four. The revolutionary era of Chinese history had come to an end, and the country would soon embark on a new stage of economic reform and opening to the outside world that would transform China as fundamentally as had the revolution. The socialist planned economy was replaced by market mechanisms, and export industries were developed to take advantage of China’s abundant young, cheap, and well-disciplined labor force. By 2002, China had entered the...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 317-356)
  10. Glossary of Chinese Terms
    (pp. 357-360)
    (pp. 361-362)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 363-374)