Overview

From the Sino-Japanese War to the Communist Revolution, a cache of letters from one of China’s prominent families, the Lius of Shanghai, sheds light on a tumultuous era. Sherman Cochran and Andrew Hsieh show how the family confronted war, civil unrest, and social upheaval, and how—in the midst of it all—they built a vast business empire.
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The Lius of Shanghai

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Overview

From the Sino-Japanese War to the Communist Revolution, a cache of letters from one of China’s prominent families, the Lius of Shanghai, sheds light on a tumultuous era. Sherman Cochran and Andrew Hsieh show how the family confronted war, civil unrest, and social upheaval, and how—in the midst of it all—they built a vast business empire.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This sharply focused family biography by Cochran (China on the Margins, coauthor) and Hsieh (The Realm of Jade Mountain, coauthor) is based on a trove of correspondence between members of the eponymous Lius, an influential and progressive business family. Using these letters—composed during the tumultuous decades of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s—the authors explore how the interactions among the 12 internationally educated children (nine sons, three daughters) and their parents shed light on everything from domestic matters to contemporaneous social concerns. Topics run the gamut from the Youngest Daughter’s break with Mother (family members are referred to not by name but by position) to the Sixth Son’s heartfelt conversion to Christianity—on account of the “doubt and despair” brought on by the Second Sino-Japanese War—and Father’s musings on the implications of the Communist Revolution. Readers unfamiliar with modern Chinese history will likely feel lost, and the authors’ prose rarely rises above the utilitarian level, but Chinese history scholars (both authors are professors of the subject—Cochran at Cornell University, and Hsieh at Grinnell College) and folks fond of in-depth genealogical studies will find this to be of great interest. 20 photos, 2 maps, and a family tree. (Apr.)
South China Morning Post - Mark O’neill
[An] excellent book...The letters provide a wealth of detail about the family, their wealth, the personal relations between them and the lives of those who studied and lived abroad. It is this wealth of detail that gives the book its richness and authenticity.
Times Higher Education - Jennifer Altehenger

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.

Foreign Affairs - Andrew J. Nathan
Liu Hongsheng (1888-1956) was a prosperous Shanghai industrialist whose household exemplified the traditional Confucian family's transition into modernity. Cochran discovered a trove of letters that span the 1920s to the 1950s, as family members pursued education, marriage, and business prospects all over China and in Japan and the West. He and his co-author provide historical context and sensitive cultural and psychological interpretations but allow most of the story to come out in the family's sometimes stilted but honest and moving words...[A] fascinating saga.
South China Morning Post - Mark O’Neill
[An] excellent book...The letters provide a wealth of detail about the family, their wealth, the personal relations between them and the lives of those who studied and lived abroad. It is this wealth of detail that gives the book its richness and authenticity.
Choice - A. Cho
The correspondence among the patriarch, Liu Hongsheng, his wife, Ye Suzhen, and their nine sons and three daughters offers a rich tapestry of events tense and fraught in family politics and division… Their lives continue to fascinate through the narratives of this book.
Los Angeles Review of Books blog - Jeffrey Wasserstrom
Sherman Cochran and Andrew Hsieh’s The Lius of Shanghai makes extensive and effective use of a large cache of letters that were exchanged between members of a prominent Chinese business family. It is…tightly focused in one sense yet expansive in another, in this case due to how robustly cosmopolitan Shanghai was in the early 1900s, when many of the letters were written, and the fact that the family’s members left the city to spend time in other parts of China and also in the West.
Bryna Goodman
Written in a page-turning style, The Lius of Shanghai offers an illuminating view of lives lived in the midst of the turbulence of China's twentieth century. A fascinating and insightful account.
Joseph W. Esherick
A perceptive and engaging history of a complex and fascinating Chinese family. Cochran and Hsieh provide an intimate portrait of a family and a city in the midst of nation-building, war, and revolution—a portrayal based on a unique collection of correspondence and unlikely to be rivaled soon, if at all.
Library Journal
Are happy families, as Tolstoy posits, all alike? What if the family in question is a wealthy one from Shanghai, trying to manage 12 sons and daughters through war and troubles from the 1920s to Mao's revolution of the 1950s? To find out, read this dramatic family history. Cochran (Chinese history, Cornell Univ.) and Hsieh (Chinese history, Grinnell Coll.), both respected historians of modern China, found in the Shanghai archives 2,000 thoughtful, detailed, and intimate letters that Liu family members wrote to one another. The authors provide comments and context as Father (Mr. Liu) first finds love in an arranged marriage, then builds a business dynasty, dispatches sons to America and Britain for education, finds spouses for them, keeps his mistresses from his wife. When the Japanese invasion divides the family, navigates the politics as one patriotic son collaborates with the Japanese, one joins the Communists, and others become successful capitalists. Throughout, the various family members respect but negotiate with the patriarch. VERDICT Academics will savor the analysis of Chinese family dynamics. Readers who enjoyed Chang Jung's Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China should consider this more scholarly but engrossing volume.—Charles Hayford, Evanston, IL
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674073876
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 4/22/2013
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 1,280,180
  • File size: 3 MB

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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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.

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