Book review: The Lius of Shanghai, by Sherman Cochran and Andrew Hsieh

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 April, 2013, 4:58pm

The Lius of Shanghai

by Sherman Cochran and Andrew Hsieh

Harvard University Press

"At that moment I felt that the fire of war had burned its way to the front door of my own home." These were the words of the sixth son of a wealthy Shanghai family when the Japanese army attacked the city in August 1937 in one of the most intense battles of world history.

They come from an excellent book, The Lius of Shanghai, written by two American professors of Chinese history: it is based on 2,000 letters between members of a rich and powerful Shanghai family, the Lius, in Chinese and English. The authors, Sherman Cochran, Hu Shih professor of Chinese history at Cornell University, and Andrew Hsieh, professor of Chinese history at Grinnell College, gained access to a collection containing a lifetime of letters exchanged by the parents and children; rarely has such a large collection been made available to scholars.

Parts one and two are set in the late 1920s and '30s, a period of open-ness when Chinese could travel freely at home and abroad. Part three is the Sino-Japanese war of 1937-45, and part four is the communist revolution.

Liu Hongsheng (1888-1956) had an industrial empire that produced matches, woollens, cotton textiles, cement and briquettes. He and his wife gave an international education to almost all of their 12 children - nine boys and three girls.

His life spanned a period of revolutionary upheaval. His family and his business were at the centre of this change, in the economic capital of China, and as owners of wealth and substantial businesses coveted by others. The story has international dimensions because the children went abroad to live and study, and had choices not available to most Chinese.

The sixth son is a good example: in 1931, he went to Japan to study and learn business. He stayed with a host family to whom he became attached; he succeeded at everything - learning Japanese, studying at a major university and an apprenticeship at a cement factory. He became attached to his "second homeland" and was devastated by its invasion of China.

His despair helped to convert him to Christianity. "My absolute trust and faith in God has brought forth the trust and faith in myself as well as in our final victory over Japan," he wrote to his family. Later he joined the Communist Party - which he kept a secret from his family and friends for more than 30 years, not making it public until the 1970s.

During the war, like other entrepreneurs in occupied areas, the family faced bitter decisions about whether to operate their businesses under the Japanese-backed government or abandon them.

In 1947, the family was reunited in Shanghai, except for one son, and all but one of the sons held jobs related to the family business.

But as the communists conquered north and central China, Liu had again to consider his future. Initially, he moved some of his assets to Taiwan but, after the failure of the government's gold yuan reform and bad treatment of Shanghai capitalists, decided to move to Hong Kong.

Liu's wife and most of his children stayed in Shanghai when he left for Hong Kong in May 1949.

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.