Clan Rivalries Take Hold in China
Contesting Communist Party dominance, ancient families reassert control over village life
MAWEN VILLAGE, CHINA
WU AI climbs the dirt path rising from Mawen village to a grassy hillside and stops before a pile of shattered stone, the ruins of an ancestral tomb sacred to his kinsmen. "The Wangs demolished it, like all the others!" says the wiry, leather-skinned village chief, pointing to a dozen barren grave mounds scattered across the misty clearing.Skip to next paragraph
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"They are savages. But they outnumber us, so we can't do anything about it," Mr. Wu fumes.
The deadly feud of Wus and Wangs is raging once more in this remote corner of Guangdong Province, symbolizing a dramatic revival of ancient, patriarchal clans that dominated southern China until the late 1800s.
Over the past decade, clans have reemerged to unite thousands of peasants in an embrace of blood, money, and ritual. Challenging the Communist Party's grip on villages, they inspire loyalty and faith in family-centered Confucian ethics where Marxist dogma has long left a void.
Unable to dissolve the brotherhoods without a great use of force, the party appears reduced to the role of mollifying clan chiefs and policing their territorial battles.
Strife between the powerful, far-flung Wangs and the close-huddled Wus is rooted in conflicting claims to the tranquil, auspiciously located graveyard at Mawen village.
Dominating the hillside is the elaborate, black-stone tomb of the Wang clan's founding ancestor, a southern duke of the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Each year growing numbers of Wangs join a pilgrimage to sacrifice meat, wine, and paper money to his spirit in a celebration of clan solidarity.
As part of the ritual "grave-sweeping," the Wangs pick weeds and repaint the tombstone with bright red characters. They also smash or exhume "rogue" Wu graves and chop down encroaching trees to stop them from leeching the site of beneficial forces known as feng shui, or "wind and water," in China's ancient art of divination.
Mobilized for battle
The feud intensified last month, when Wang elders mobilized 10,000 kin from as far away as neighboring Guangxi Province and vowed to "level" Mawen. The 600 Wu villagers recalled their young men from nearby towns, arming them with wooden clubs and knives to "meet the enemy," according to local newspapers.
Official reports say both sides sought to avenge lives lost in a bloody clash in March 1990, when Wu kinsmen confronted some 5,000 Wangs who paraded to the grave site in 53 cars and 1,000 bicycles to celebrate qing ming, the "pure brightness" festival honoring ancestors.
To forestall another battle this year, regional party authorities ordered hundreds of armed police and troops to Mawen on March 29, the date of the Wang pilgrimage. The forces encircled the village, compelling the Wus to remain indoors while they maintained order at the Wang's festivities, Chinese officials and witnesses say.
The growth of such inter-clan disputes is just one sign of a broad revival of the kinship groups, Chinese scholars say. Clans are most active in China's southern and eastern provinces of Fujian, Guangdong, Hunan, Jiangxi, and Zhejiang, where they were historically strongest, but are also found in the north.
Known as lineages among anthropologists, the groups unite the families of men who descend directly from a common male ancestor.
Philosophically, they espouse deep-rooted Chinese beliefs about life and death that are ritualized in ancestor worship. For clansmen, they provide a channel for achieving status, wealth, and power that they feel means the difference between immortality and melting away as a "hungry ghost" in the afterlife.
The kinship groups offer members a degree of economic security and a protective buffer against wai xing, or people with other surnames, and meddling government authorities. In turn, kinsmen must obey rules commonly set down in a zupu, or genealogy - a kind of clan "Who's Who" that glorifies illustrious members and shames detractors by crossing out their names with red ink or expunging them entirely.
Party criticizes clans
The Communist Party blames the clans for obstructing efforts to shore up its rural power base. Strengthening village party branches has been a priority since the spring of 1989, when millions of discontented city dwellers protested for democracy.