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Farmer Yan reaps bounty as crops and family thrive. Reform has transformed lives in China. Peasants farm with their families - not in communes. Entrepreneurs amass fortunes. But others have not gained. Women face growing discrimination. And the rice bowls of the poorest of the poor remain empty. A 14-part, occasional series begins today. [ on zee page: Where old is new ]

By James L. TysonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 30, 1988



Bo Ning, China

DURING the harvest here in the birthplace of Confucius, Yan Shikui and his mother fill straw baskets with wheat and fling the grain skyward in amber plumes. The Yan family has scattered the chaff from the grain this way for 77 generations. But recently, they and other Chinese peasants have winnowed much more than just wheat.

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Reforms that have swept away Peking's most radical Marxist dogma over the past decade have enabled Chinese peasants to embrace anew traditional family values. The Confucian ethics that guided family life for centuries before communist rule are reemerging.

The return to these ancient ideals has led to a new emphasis on closer family ties and individual initiative.

Moreover, the strengthening of the family has helped restore prosperity to the countryside. Since 1978, the state has dismantled the country's disastrously inefficient communes and returned power over basic agricultural decisions back to family, the most productive farming unit in China.

``These are good days for my family, the best I've seen,'' said Mr. Yan, standing behind a knee-high mound of wheat while his neighbors tossed grain in the air as if celebrating windfall riches.

China's peasantry began reviving Confucian values after senior leader Deng Xiaoping dismantled the country's disastrously inefficient communes in 1978 and gave power over basic agricultural decisions back to the family.

``The past 10 years of economic reform has helped reinforce the Chinese family, especially in the countryside, because family members have realized that if they join their energies together they can prosper and get rich quickly,'' said Liu Ying, director of the marriage and family research office at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Mr. Deng has counted on China's tightly knit peasant families to build a sound agricultural base for China's plan for industrial and technological development. His reforms have enabled Yan and most Chinese peasants to nearly triple their income.

By relying on the family, Deng turned to the same institution Confucius extolled in an effort to save China on the eve of the tumultuous Warring States Period (403-221 BC).

As regional fighting and social chaos threatened to tear China apart, Confucius tried to restore stability by promoting a philosophy built on the solid ties of the Chinese family. He made filial piety the highest virtue, espousing ancestor worship and specifying the proper relation between father and son, husband and wife, and elder and younger brothers.

``The family, rather than the individual, the state, or the church, has formed the most significant unit in Chinese society,'' according to Harvard Sinologist John Fairbank.

``Each individual's family was his chief source of economic sustenance, security, education, social contract, and recreation. Through ancestor worship it was even his main religious focus,'' writes Dr. Fairbank in his book ``East Asia.''

The very strength of an ethical system oriented toward the family rather than the state made it the target of attack by a totalitarian, Marxist regime. After taking power in 1949, the Communist Party jealously assailed the family during two decades of gross abuse of power.

Led by Mao Tse-tung, the party forced family farms into communes and tried to graft industry onto the countryside and forcibly create a communist Utopia in the catastrophic ``Great Leap Forward'' of 1958-1960.

Facing starvation, Chinese in Bo Ning withdrew into their immediate families and let their ties to the extended family wither. ``Many people in Bo Ning died of hunger at that time,'' Yan said. ``Often all we had to eat was the bark and leaves from the trees.''

Starting in 1966 the party turned family members against one another during the decade-long Cultural Revolution. It dispatched radical fanatics throughout China to ostracize, torture, or kill ``bourgeois reactionaries'' and other political groups it deemed distasteful. Throughout China, Maoist zealots goaded spouses and siblings to denounce each other and children to denounce their parents.

In a effort to wipe out Confucianism, party cadres destroyed Confucian temples and forced peasants to hurl ancestral tablets into public bonfires. Many families in Bo Ning fell apart, village family heads say.

``During the Cultural Revolution it was completely mad and no one dared to follow old traditions of the family and religion, but now there is order, and people are going back to those old ideas,'' said Yan Shitian, another farmer in Bo Ning.

Since the end of the party's campaign of devastation, village families have returned to the security of ancient traditions and the rhythms of the Chinese lunar calendar. They worship their ancestors, celebrate a birth with full-month ceremonies, offer a dowry to a bride, and marry on ``lucky'' days.