The Lius of Shanghaiby Sherman Cochran, Andrew Hsieh
From the Sino-Japanese War to the Communist Revolution, the onrushing narrative of modern China can drown out the stories of the people who lived it. Yet a remarkable cache of letters from one of China’s most prominent and influential families, the Lius of Shanghai, sheds new light on this tumultuous era. Sherman Cochran and Andrew Hsieh take us inside the
From the Sino-Japanese War to the Communist Revolution, the onrushing narrative of modern China can drown out the stories of the people who lived it. Yet a remarkable cache of letters from one of China’s most prominent and influential families, the Lius of Shanghai, sheds new light on this tumultuous era. Sherman Cochran and Andrew Hsieh take us inside the Lius’ world to explore how the family laid the foundation for a business dynasty before the war and then confronted the challenges of war, civil unrest, and social upheaval.
Cochran and Hsieh gained access to a rare collection containing a lifetime of letters exchanged by the patriarch, Liu Hongsheng, his wife, Ye Suzhen, and their twelve children. Their correspondence offers a fascinating look at how a powerful family navigated the treacherous politics of the period. They discuss sensitive issuesshould the family collaborate with the Japanese occupiers? should it flee after the communist takeover?as well as intimate domestic matters like marital infidelity. They also describe the agonies of wartime separation, protracted battles for control of the family firm, and the parents’ struggle to maintain authority in the face of swiftly changing values.
Through it all, the distinctive voices of the Lius shine through. Cochran and Hsieh’s engaging prose reveals how each member of the family felt the ties that bound them together. More than simply a portrait of a memorable family, The Lius of Shanghai tells the saga of modern China from the inside out.
The Lius of Shanghai is not a conventional family history. It is the history of one family's communication across continents, wartime divides and ideological boundaries. Liu Hongsheng, the patriarch of the family, kept copies of all correspondence between him, his wife and their 12 children (nine sons and three daughters). This treasure trove of some 2,000 letters, written between the 1920s and the late 1950s, forms the core of the book. The result is an engaging and thoughtful account of one prominent and fabulously rich family through the turmoil of Nationalist China under Chiang Kai-shek, the Sino-Japanese War, the Civil War and the Communist Revolution. It is also a startlingly ordinary history of private family exchanges, albeit during extraordinary times...Cochran and Hsieh have successfully complicated our picture of the fabled Chinese patriarchal system and have enabled a rare glimpse into the private life of one family.
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Read an Excerpt
From Chapter Six: A Son Who Proposed Marriage to a Westernized Woman
In response to Father’s suggestion, Second and Third Sons both wrote letters to Mother in Chinese. Each of them addressed one of her major concerns, with Second Son discussing Liane’s attitude toward divorce and Third Son describing her attitude toward money. Second Son urged Mother to distinguish between Liane’s mother on the one hand, and Liane herself on the other. He did not deny that Mrs. Yen had done the wrong thing by divorcing one man and marrying another, but “What,” he pointedly asked, writing to Mother from London on September 22, 1935, did Liane “have to do with her mother’s marrying for a second time? She was then probably only five years old, and how could she have stopped that?” If, as a little girl, Liane had no way to stop her mother’s second marriage, she did find ways to express her opposition to it as a young woman, Second Son reported. “Both Miss Yen and her older brother strongly opposed the second marriage, and have both suffered much because of it. They have never called Mr. Yen ‘Daddy.’”
Faced with this family breakdown, Liane deserved Mother’s sympathy, not her scorn. “She herself also knows the big mistake her mother has made,” Second Son wrote to Mother. This mistake was certainly not Liane’s fault, and it probably was no one’s fault. “People’s fortunes or misfortunes usually come from heaven anyway, and there’s nothing anyone could have done for Miss Yen.”
Mother needed to judge Liane for who she was quite apart from her family, Second Son told Mother, and in her own right, she was a fine person. “I myself,” Second Son said, “have come to know Miss Yen quite well. According to my observation, she is really a very knowledgeable person and she understands the world well.” Second Son reminded Mother how rare it was to find a suitable marriage partner who was as educated and sensitive as Liane. “Proper girls are hard to find, especially those from rich families. Miss Yen is fluent in English, French, and German, and no ordinary female college graduate can begin to compare to what she knows. Due to her unhappy family life, she is very knowledgeable about everything, and is especially sensitive to the feelings of other human beings.”
Second Son drove his points home by scolding Mother for her narrow mindedness. “You are conservative in your thinking, and I understand how you feel,” Second Son somewhat patronizingly told Mother. “Most people from Ningbo [the Liu family’s native place, a smaller city south of Shanghai] think the same way as you do.” While identifying Mother with the parochialism of people from Ningbo, he also accused her of having the superficiality of the people from Shanghai. “Nowadays you Shanghai people behave worse and worse with every passing day,” he said of Mother and everyone else in his hometown. “You only pay attention to people’s outward appearances, and you don’t know what’s inside.” If Mother took a closer look at Liane, she would see that “Third Son would be lucky to have her as his wife.”
“Dear Mother,” Second Son pleaded, becoming less confrontational and more deferential, “please think more about this.” He reported to her that her refusal to give her blessing for the engagement had taken a heavy toll on Third Son, and he implored her to relent. “Your opposition to the engagement,” he told her, has made Third Brother “deeply unhappy. Why can’t you just let it go, so that everyone can be happy for him?” This question Second Son posed on behalf of not only Third Son but the whole Liu family.
Meet the Author
Sherman Cochran is Hu Shih Professor of Chinese History at Cornell University.
Andrew Hsieh is Professor of Chinese History at Grinnell College.
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