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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Chinese Roots
By Joseph W. Esherick


It has now been almost 30 years since I first did research in China, when I was working on a book on the Boxer Uprising. Needless to say, the changes over those years have been dramatic. In the early 1980s, you still needed ration tickets to buy grain or cotton goods; university housing was primitive, cramped and barely heated in winter; and the villages that I visited had mud-walled thatched-roof houses and many lacked electricity. Now the Chinese economy is booming, the cities are bustling with commercial activity and choked from industrial and automobile pollution. Skyscrapers pierce the urban skyline, rising like the proverbial bamboo after a spring rain. The countryside has changed more slowly, but as migrant workers send money home from coastal factories, they too are experiencing unprecedented prosperity.

It was 4:00 on a cold February morning in 1995 when the small passenger ferry docked at the Yangzi River port. Anqing, located some 370 miles upstream from Shanghai, is a small (by Chinese standards) city of some 500,000 people, and my wife, Ye Wa, and I had traveled there for one simple reason: it was her ancestral home. Ye Wa was born and raised in Beijing, and no member of her family had been back to Anqing for over a hundred years. But it was still the ancestral home, and so during the Chinese New Year break in my tour as director of the UC Education Abroad Center at Peking University, we took a trip through the famous Yangxi River gorge, past the enormous Three Gorges Dam, then still under construction, and continued downstream to Anqing to discover the family roots.

Some years before, my father-in-law had written a memoir, so that his grandchildren would have some understanding of his life and their past. The manuscript was a remarkable document, tracing his childhood in a wealthy family in Tianjin (70 miles southeast of Beijing), through the tumultuous years of war and revolution in the 1930s and ’40s, to 18 years of imprisonment in Mao’s China; yet it was written without the self-righteous tone of victimhood that colors so many memoirs from the People’s Republic of China. When I showed the manuscript to a historian friend who was president of a Chinese university, he urged me to write a history of the family. After I discovered that libraries and archives in China contained a number of rare books and documents related to the nineteenth-century history of the family, and that my wife’s seven surviving aunts and uncles were also willing to do oral history interviews, I embarked on the project, which is finally nearing completion.

In a country as large and populous as China, it is often difficult to convey the human dimensions of the country’s recent history. Through the close investigation of the history of one family, I have sought to show the ways in which the personal and the political, the private and the public are intimately linked in these large processes of historical change. And the visit to Anqing produced a memorable experience of history research in China.

After checking into a hotel following our pre-dawn arrival, we hired a taxi, which took us a short distance to the family’s village on the outskirts of Anqing. Stopping at the Ye Ancestral Hall, which then housed the village office in the front and a general store in the rear, we were soon escorted to a neighboring hamlet to meet a retired school teacher who was the acknowledged keeper of Ye family lore. He proved to be a delightful old village intellectual then in his seventies who met us with an intriguing combination of pleasure and open suspicion: just who was this woman from Beijing with her grey-bearded foreign husband? Fortunately, we had brought along photographs of a Ye family reunion in Beijing just a few weeks before. One by one my wife identified each person in the picture, as the old man struggled to make out the faces through cataract-blurred eyes. As the names matched those he remembered from old family records, it was soon established that we were truly all of the same family.

The next day, we were invited back to a gala feast at the old teacher’s home, this time accompanied by several local officials and the village party secretary, whose weathered face and rough hands testified to many long years in the rice fields. “To tell you the truth, we are a little suspicious,” he said with refreshing bluntness. “What is your real intention in coming here?” He further noted that no member of my wife’s branch of the family had returned for over a hundred years—although their ancestors’ graves were there. “We despise that branch,” he continued. “They have forgotten their ancestors.”

The rift between the two sides of the family was deep and went back many generations. My wife’s branch had been officials of the last Chinese dynasty in the mid-nineteenth century, holding office in the north and growing quite wealthy. When her great-grandfather brought his father’s and grandfather’s coffins home for burial, his Anqing relatives locked him up in the lineage hall, demanding more support for his poor relatives before he would be released. He answered their demands, but that was the last time any from his branch returned to Anqing until our visit in 1995. Over the next few days, during which we visited the ancestral graves and demonstrated our sincerity in remembering them properly, much of the distrust that had long divided the family was dispelled.

Once our bona fides had been established, the old schoolteacher produced the treasure we had been hoping to find: a 12-volume family genealogy reaching back to the fourteenth century and filled with a wealth of material: a complete family tree, moral codes to guide proper behavior, and many biographies. My father-in-law and his brothers had seen such a text years ago during the Cultural Revolution, but a genealogical record of connections to a “feudal” past was a dangerous thing to have then and the copies in Beijing had been lost or destroyed. In the countryside, however, especially where local party officials were members of one’s own family, such genealogies were quietly stored away and thus survived. The family helped us photocopy the entire text, over a thousand pages, at a nearby shop, and this became a key source for the project. We brought it home with a poem supplied by the old schoolteacher:

A thousand years, and the clan is still there.
Distant origins, long extended; the ancient renewed.
Though the family branches have long split away,
With one meeting, old ties are restored.

* * * * * * * *

One of the truisms in the study of Chinese culture is the importance of family. In traditional China, familial ethics and obligations provided the model, even for the behavior of officials. Thus a collection of poems from one
Ye family official of the last dynasty includes the following lines: “ Governing the people is like governing a family.
Being an official is like being a mother.

For the pitiful millions, we offer our tender support.”
Over the course of the last century, however, the meaning of family has changed radically, and that is the story
I hope to capture in the history of the Ye’s. My father-in-law’s life was played out against a backdrop of dynastic collapse, iconoclastic attacks on the old Confucian culture, war, revolution, and now a new age of global capitalism under the rule of a Communist autocracy—a unique amalgam, the future development of which is difficult to predict. But along with these great political changes came important changes at the family level. He grew up, at the beginning of the twentieth century, in a household of some 50 people, including his father’s wife and two concubines, 15 siblings, several uncles and cousins, and dozens of servants. But he and his siblings later raised their children in nuclear families; and now the small family norm of urban China limits couples to one child, and the whole host of complex relations with maternal and paternal uncles, aunts and cousins is coming to an end.

Family history allows us to explore this kind of social transition at a personal level, and remind us that China is not just an enormous country with a long and complex history —it is also a nation composed of millions of individuals whose lives deserve attention and study as part of the larger human story.

Joseph W. Esherick is Hwei-Chih and Julia Hsiu Professor of Chinese Studies and a professor of history. His book on the Ye family is tentatively titled Leaves: The Ye Family and Modern China.


Joseph W. Esherick, Faculty Experts



"In a country as large and populous as China, it is often difficult to convey the human dimensions of the country’s recent history."