03/29/2011 10:41 am ET Updated May 29, 2011

Writing Chinese History Through Biography: A Quick Q & A With Joseph Esherick

The good people at the excellent website recently asked me to contribute a list of Chinese life stories (biographies and memoirs) to their "Five Books" feature. I was delighted to be able to do this, but quickly found it a challenge to limit myself to just a quintet of suggested works. Limiting myself to books focusing on the last couple of centuries helped a bit, but I still ended up having to leave out four favorite books: Robert Bickers' Empire Made Me, Henrietta Harrison's The Man Awakened from Dreams , Sang Ye's China Candid, and Lijia Zhang's "Socialism is Great!" Now, having begun to read and finding myself greatly impressed by a brand new book, Joseph Esherick's Ancestral Leaves: A Family Journey through Chinese History, I've got a final title to make my list of works that could've-been-chosen, a list exactly as long as my list of actually-chosen books. Now, I'll have a top ten list ready to go--should ever decide to offer hungry readers beefed up editions of their lists, as a kind of online counterpart to the longer director's cuts of films that sometimes come out on DVD.

Ancestral Leaves
, published by University of California Press (check out the excerpt provided on their website --keeping with the cinematic analogy, think of it as a trailer), is a book I've been looking forward to with a great sense of anticipation for some time now. This is partly due to Esherick's stellar track record: his previous books include 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 compellingly written publications that set the agenda for future research on the topics they addressed. I was also eager to see Ancestral Leaves come out for another reason: I'd heard the author present a paper based on his early research into the Ye family (to which his wife belongs) and was fascinated by the tidbits he offered. The first pages of the book were enough to convince me that I hadn't been waiting in vain. It's clearly a work of significance--and a pleasure to read to boot.

I recently caught up with Esherick in person for a lunchtime chat in Beijing on a trip through the city (where he's based for the year). That meeting was too brief for an interview (even of the quick Q & A variety) and we were lunching with other people, but he's been good enough to provide the following answers to a series of questions (mostly about the book, but also a final one inspired by conversation at that Beijing meal) that I posted to him after my return.

JW: Your previous books have tended to focus on social phenomena rather than the stories of individual lives, so I'm curious to know what you found most challenging--and most satisfying--about writing a book with a more biographical focus?

JE: 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 forty years of teaching, 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. So although my past work has dealt with large scale social movements like the Boxer Uprising or the empire-toppling 1911 Revolution, I wanted to bring modern China's history of rebellion, war and revolution down to a more comprehensible human level, and that required the multi-generational biographical focus of Ancestral Leaves. It definitely entailed a change in my style as an historian, but in the end it has been enormously rewarding.

JW: In what ways did having a personal connection to the family you were writing about make the project easier--and how did it make it harder?

JE: The fact that my wife is a member of the Ye family was certainly essential in gaining access to oral history sources, and also to the family genealogy acquired from the ancestral home--a place that my wife's branch of the family left over a century and a half ago. But the family connection also posed challenges. I am a professional historian, and I did not wish to continue the tradition of Chinese genealogies which were explicitly compiled to glorify the family name. I also did not wish to replicate the tone of memoirs like Wild Swans where the central narrative was victimization by the Communist party-state until the opportunity to escape to the West and freedom finally presented itself. I wanted to tell a story in which members of the Ye family were active participants (though minor ones) in the making of modern China. I wait with some trepidation to see whether my in-laws will approve of the way I have told their story.

JW: You use an interesting phrase early in the book, describing how one character's life might have unfolded in "normal times," but then saying that the period you were referring to, the mid-1800s, was not a "normal" period, due above all to the fact that an extraordinary uprising, the Taiping movement, was underway. I agree that the Taiping rising, which convulsed the country and was led by a man who claimed to be the younger brother of Jesus, was nothing if not an extraordinary event. Still, I wonder if you can point to any stretch of time in the long period stretching from the 1840s through, say, the 1970s, when most Chinese were living through "normal times"?

JE: You make an interesting point, and sometimes one wonders if there was ever such a thing as "normal times" in modern China. But here it helps to look at things from the standpoint of everyday family life, which is what Ancestral Leaves seeks to do. In that sense, each of the periods covered by the book--the late imperial period, the republican years from 1911 to 1949, and the communist era--had reasonably normal times and years of great turmoil. The book is structured around this pattern, with the relatively stable periods of family life massively disrupted by the Taiping Rebellion in the first period, the Japanese invasion and World War II in the second, and the Cultural Revolution in the third. Much of what I have attempted to do in the book is to describe the different forms of family life in each of the successive periods of "normal times," and then narrate the impact of the disruptive event.

JW: In the part of the book I've read so far, you've been mixing details from the life story of one member of the Ye family with an account of some of the major historical turning points of the era (including not just the Taiping rising but also the Opium War and events from late in the 19th century). Do you do similar things later in the book with subsequent Big Events?

JE: That is precisely what I do, and that is the objective of the book. I want to try to bring these big events down to a human level, so we are not just talking about massive armies wreaking devastation across the map of China, but seeing how a relatively ordinary Chinese family responded and lived through these transformative events. On the 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. My father-in-law grew up in Tianjin in a household that included his father and his wife and two concubines, his grandmother, ten brothers, five sisters, a few cousins and dozens of servants. Until high school the boys were all schooled at home by a private tutor and a special "English teacher" who taught them English and math at the end of the day. This was a totally different family from his own and his brothers' small nuclear families under the PRC. In talking about the enduring Chinese family, we need to be aware of the ever changing meaning of the term.

JW: And given that some of your most important early publications focused on a particular transformative event, the 1911 Revolution, I can't resist posing a final question to you about that upheaval, whose centenary is being marked this year. Do you see anything special about this year's anniversary of the Xinhai Geming as opposed to the ones of 1991 and 2001, when it turned 80 and 90 rather than 100? What stands out as most noteworthy about this year's commemoration or seems most worth flagging about looking back to 1911 at this particular point in the history of China or perhaps equally significantly the history of cross-straits relations?

JE: Living in Beijing this year, I have been struck by the way in which many people are recalling the 1911 Revolution. In the past, there was no question that the revolution that toppled the empire and established the Republic of China was a thing to celebrate. This time, I have had a number of conversations in which people have suggested that the revolution had been a bad idea, that China would have been better off with a constitutional monarchy. In the past, Sun Yat-sen and the leaders of the revolutionary party were lauded as heroes on both sides of the Taiwan Straits, both for ending over two millennia of imperial rule and for toppling the Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty. Now, in China, it seems that the middle-class commitment to stability is so strong that many have moved from condemning the Cultural Revolution to a general rejection of the very idea of revolution. The Chinese government itself seems to be having trouble deciding what line to take on the 1911 Revolution. Since centenary celebrations cannot be avoided (and magazines are already full of articles about 1911), it will be very interesting to see what form the official events will take in October.

* This post originally appeared at the China Beat blog/electronic magazine.