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Modern Family

04/08/2014 02:56 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2014

Kyle Hutzler reviews The Lius of Shanghai

They were the Chinese Rockefellers. At their head stood Liu Hongsheng, head of a Shanghai industrial empire whose family lived through China's tumultuous war years beginning with the Japanese invasion and ending with the Communist triumph in 1949. Thanks to a unique trove of thousands of letters, in the Lius of Shanghai, it is his role as a father of nine sons and three daughters (and one of each by two mistresses) that is the center of this captivating piece of Chinese history.



"As a ruler of our house, I wish to be, to use a political parlance, a democratic leader, instead of being an autocrat or a dictator," the elder Liu wrote to one of his sons. Historians Cochran and Hsieh's work stands uneasily as a history, often reading more as a sociological case study of Chinese family dynamics. Liu represented a departure from the strict patriarchy that had characterized Chinese fathers, one who accepted many of the changes -- business and societal -- that modernity was bringing. He spared no expense in seeing his sons educated abroad in Britain, Japan, and the United States to prepare them for the futures he envisioned for them in his businesses. He also financed his daughters' study abroad, although he envisioned no future for them in his firm after their marriages.

The book quotes extensively from the original letters, with each chapter structured around a specific member of the family and their dilemmas. Many are personal -- a mother's refusal to accept her son's choice for wife or the Lius' own failing marriage -- but others speak to the broader challenges of their times. One of the most compelling chapters takes place while three of the Liu sons are studying at Cambridge in 1932. As the Japanese threat to China became increasingly acute, Liu asked his sons to become British citizens to better protect their enterprises against the Japanese. The request sparked much soul-searching among his sons who had experienced the best and worst natures of British tolerance, and ultimately chose for patriotic reasons to refuse their father's request.

Throughout, the two historians drive home their point that for the Lius at least, family relations could not be understood as a traditional patriarchy and call into question whether more families were in fact like the Lius, albeit without the letters to prove it. Instead, a complex interplay of alliances and influences among siblings and their mother weigh on each decision. The result is engaging -- and relatable -- reading, but unnecessarily diminishes the significance of the Lius' wealth and importance. The Liu sons would play roles in collaborating with the puppet Japanese government, with American spies responsible for aid after the war, and with both sides of the civil war between the Nationalists and Communists. The elder Liu spent most of the war years in the Nationalist capital in Chongqing and considered moving all of his family to Taiwan, where two of his sons had already set out, after the inevitability of Chiang Kai-shek's defeat became apparent. It was not for nothing that the elder Lius' favorite English saying was "don't put all your eggs in one basket."

And yet, Liu began to lose faith in the Nationalists and chose not to go to Taiwan. Ensconced in British Hong Kong, Liu was convinced by his family and emissaries from the new Communist government to return to Shanghai. In the newly founded People's Republic, Liu was initially feted as a good, "national capitalist" by Zhou Enlai (as opposed to a "comprador bureaucratic capitalist.") Before long, despite his and several of his son's participation in official positions, Liu's family would join other Chinese capitalists as targets of the Five-Anti campaign. In 1953, the last of his empire would be nationalized, leaving Liu with a pension worth 5% of his assets. The man who once wrote his sons that "the communists would never be our real friends" had been proven right.

By then, separated from his wife and living with a mistress, Liu senior would die in 1956, removing the center of gravity from a once united family. Some ultimately left China and others remained to endure the hardships of the Cultural Revolution and the reemergence of an altogether different kind of Chinese capitalism. By this point the letters, which had so richly captured the emotional confusion and uncertainty through the Chinese Civil War, had stopped, leaving the full emotional extent of the family's fall unwritten.

There are no heroes or villains in this book. Cochran and Hsieh play it straight. And yet there is an unmistakable tragedy. Convinced by his family to return to the United States after graduating from MIT and Harvard Business School despite his doubts of Communist rule, one son would be unable to escape China for the United States for twenty-seven years. Writing his father before returning home, Liu Nianxin warned:

History has shown that dictatorships always end up in failure. Only the democratic endures. It only takes a handful of power or money mongers to massacre the great majority of the innocent, good people. We must be extremely careful about the future.

Beyond the Lius' extraordinary position and times in which they lived, there is something all the more significant: a family that looked to the future with optimism and was prepared to be judged by it on the merit of their own industriousness. The Lius were the China that could have been, the China that no family of princelings can ever match.

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The Lius of Shanghai, by Sherman Cochran and Andrew Hsieh. Harvard University Press. 2013. $40.

Kyle Hutzler is a senior at Yale University and managing editor of the magazine. Contact him at kyle.hutzler@yale.edu.

This article also appears in China Hands.