Censoring History

Jeremiah Jenne , March 12, 2015 5:04pm

Excellent article on the China File blog by uber-historian Joseph Esherick on the somewhat awkward process preparing his most recent book for Chinese publication.  Published in 2011, Ancestral Leaves: A Family Journey Through Chinese History is a personal work following nearly six centuries of his wife’s family and looking at how the Ye family (Get it? Ancestral leaves?), many of whom are not unknown to Chinese historians, navigated the vicissitudes of China’s more turbulent periods.

Fine as far as it goes when published in English, but getting the book ready for a Chinese pressing proved a little more difficult than anticipated. First, his wife’s family requested some small changes in the Chinese version to help put the family in a better light.

Then there were questions of history itself. Did Sun Yat-sen oppose class conflict? Can you quantify the number of people who died as a result of the Great Leap Forward as “millions” in a particular province or would it be better to simply say “quite a few?” To what extent did Deng Xiaoping’s legacy repudiate that of Chairman Mao?

The book’s treatment of the Qing Dynasty also caused problems.  This is a subject on which Professor Esherick has written many times and is a noted authority. The post recaps the hilarity which ensued when he tried to publish in China an earlier essay on the transition from Qing Empire-Chinese nation-state.  In the case of Ancestral Leaves:

Members of the Ye family had been officials in China’s last dynasty, the Qing, and one had served as governor of the northwestern province of Shaanxi as it recovered from a massive and destructive rebellion by the local Muslim population, much of which had been wiped out in the process. The press admitted that the narrative could not ignore this rebellion, but all mention of its ethnic dimension had to be cut.

The same principle guided discussion of the Qing dynasty itself. The Qing was ruled by Manchus from the north, and their armies had conquered the previous dynasty and greatly expanded the empire to include Mongolia, Tibet, and the Turkic Muslim regions that are now Xinjiang. But the Manchus are now one of the 56 official “nationalities” that make up the Chinese people, so the Manchu conquest had to be rephrased as nothing more than one (implicitly Chinese) ethnic group coming from beyond the Great Wall to rule the rest of China.

Fortunately on this and many other points, Professor Esherick stuck to his guns and although the book was published with edits, these edits did not significantly alter the narrative of the original nor did they ignore or re-write historical evidence.

The Chinese translation of Autumn Leaves is now selling very well inside the PRC.

One wishes that more international authors showed the same backbone when working with Chinese publishers.

Jeremiah Jenne

A Qing historian reads the newspaper...