The Personal Past - Two Readings
Joseph Esherick, Ancestral Leaves: A Family Journey through Chinese History. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011. 392 pp. $28 (paper).
Gail Hershatter, The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China's Collective Past. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011. 472 pp. $55 (cloth).
What do we learn when we reconsider modern Chinese history from the vantage point of those who lived through it? Does our understanding of the grand narrative of key events change fundamentally when we think not in terms of the revolution or the state but in terms of life experience and memory? What happens when an empathic historian literally engages his or her sources in conversation? The authors of the two books under review offer radically different answers to these questions, even as they cover some of the same temporal ground. In The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past, Gail Hershatter uses oral interviews with rural women to call into question the inevitability of “campaign time” as an organizing principle. In Ancestral Leaves: A Family Journey through Chinese History, Joseph Esherick revisits the iconic events of modern Chinese history through the life experiences of several generations of elite men from his wife’s family, shedding new light on the familiar timeline while reiterating that chronology’s organizing power. Hershatter offers a breathtaking interrogation of her sources and methods, rendering elegantly transparent the thought processes behind her book’s production. Esherick integrates sources and storytelling, providing a confident and seamless narrative in which politics and personal lives are inextricably intertwined.