Clan Rivalries Take Hold in China

Contesting Communist Party dominance, ancient families reassert control over village life

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

"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.

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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.

In a recent unpublished speech, Communist Party conservative Wang Zhen reportedly criticized clans for weakening the party in rural areas, where three out of four Chinese reside.

"Clan power in some areas has already become a kind of private force 201> which is contending with the power of the state," writes Qian Hang, a historian at the Shanghai Academy of Social Science who has documented the revival of clans.

"Peasants are transferring the trust they placed in government leaders to strongmen of the same surname and clan," Prof. Qian asserts.

Chinese and Western experts agree that clans are more conservative than rebellious by nature. Enmeshed in petty rivalries, they are too fragmented to threaten an overthrow of central party rule.

Nevertheless, strong Chinese clans have coincided historically with flagging central rule over localities. Today, they exemplify the increased power of social groups after China began easing Mao's totalitarian controls in 1979.

Resilience of clans

Life in a farming settlement of Wangs in Huanglue Township, 25 miles southwest of Mawen village, illustrates the resilience of clans more than 40 years after the Communist Party took power and officially disbanded them.

On the road to Huanglue, bright green stalks of sugar cane sprout from the fields. Peasants on bicycles pass plodding water buffalo pulling wooden carts toward the cluster of red-brick homes and gray tiled roofs.

Villagers, all named Wang, crowd around a lively ancestral temple at noon, offering plates of steamed chicken, bowls of rice, and other dishes at the altar before taking them home in straw baskets.

The first question asked a stranger, even a foreign one, in the land of Wang, is: Ni xing shenma? or "What's your surname?"

In a spacious, two-story farmhouse, Wang Bangzhang, a wizened elder of Huanglue, sits on a wooden bench and carefully opens the worn cover of the latest Wang genealogy, recorded in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

"Here is our earliest ancestor," Mr. Wang smiles proudly, tapping a wrinkled forefinger on a smooth, yellowed page. "I am one of his 26th generation descendants."

An entry of bold, hand-written characters in classical Chinese reveals that ancestor Wang Yueyan was a high-ranking Song Dynasty official.

He was honored as a successful candidate in the highest imperial examination for Confucian scholars.

But around the year 1006, Wang opposed the orders of a superior and was banished to a minor post in backward Guangdong. He settled in Huanglue, fathered a son, and founded the local Wang lineage.

Many strong patriarchal kinship groups like the Wangs emerged following a large migration to China's southern frontier regions during the Song Dynasty.

Far from the dynastic struggles and imperial armies of the north, the self-regulating clans filled a power vacuum at the village level. They organized local militia, controlled marketplaces, and built up huge ancestral estates. By the 19th century, they owned almost 35 percent of the land in south China. Qing emperors and later the Nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-shek attempted to rein them in, but failed.

In Huanglue, Wang elders ruled with ready fists.

"You had to obey them," says Wang Bao, another member of the 26th generation, flashing a full set of gold teeth. "If you did something wrong, they would beat you in front of the ancestral hall."

After the 1949 revolution, the Communist Party launched a campaign to eradicate kinship organizations through land reform and political persecution of clan elites. In Guangdong, the last province "liberated," troops were ordered to enforce the land reform drive and compel reluctant peasants to denounce rich kinsmen.

Party vanguards moved into Huanglue, confiscating the property of ancestral trusts and converting the ancestral hall into a school. Kinship rites marking engagement, births, and other celebrations were outlawed, as were local opera performances that dramatized clan history.

"When Chairman Mao came, everything was considered feudal superstition," Wang Bao says.

On the surface, it seemed the clan had disappeared by the late 1950s. But recent evidence indicates that many clans survived covertly.

Wang villagers say they made secret visits in small groups to the worship at ancestral graves on qing ming. Wang Bangzhang buried the genealogy in a wooden box, saving it from the book-burning sprees of Mao's radical Red Guards during the 1966-76 cultural revolution.

More important, according to Chinese historians, the establishment of collectives and "people's communes" in the 1950s and '60s left intact the traditional Chinese village inhabited by relatives of the same name. Many villages simply became production teams.

Suppressed but not uprooted, clans began reviving with the dismantling of communes and establishment of individual, household-based farming under Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s.

Today, peasants turn to the network of relations to find jobs, establish contacts for inter-village trade, and gain a competitive edge in the market-oriented rural economy born with Mr. Deng's reforms.

Filling a void

Lacking ancestral trusts, clansmen pool their individual savings. Some set up exclusive economic associations that compete with rivals for business, scholars say.

Many villages have also resurrected clan rites to fill a spiritual hollow left by communism. In Huanglue, the Wangs donate money for ancestor worship, sacrifices to temple gods, and maintaining the geneology. This year, they renovated the ancestral hall and erected a stage for performing operas about famous Wangs.

Kinship groups use their influence to dominate the weddings, funerals and other rituals of members. Punishment for defying the clan can be severe, such as denying a member burial in the ancestral graveyard.

Disobeying the state

Perhaps most disconcerting to Chinese leaders, many village cadres indulge or encourage clans that break state decrees.

"Without opposition, local strongmen can spur on a multitude of clansmen to engage in all sorts of illegal activities," writes Qian.

Clans ignore laws against building tombs on farmland. They forge alliances by betrothing children as young as eight, and hamper China's single-child birth control policy, Chinese researchers say.

"Strong clans can persuade a woman to disregard family planning officials. This is a big problem for the government," says Yang Zihui, a demographer at the Chinese Academy of Social Science.

Yet while publicly denouncing troublemaking by clans, the party tacitly respects their power and appeal among a traditional-minded peasantry. When party leaders in Zhanjiang learned of the approaching showdown in Mawen village last month, they immediately sent officials to Wang villages across the region to appeal to clan leaders to restrain their men.

"In each village we worked with the head of the clan. He has prestige and popular trust," says Chen Fa, an official at the Zhanjiang Communist Party Committee, which administers the region.

The party also appears reluctant to discipline clans, even for blatant violations of law.

In Guangdong's Wuchuan County, hundreds of Li kinsmen surrounded a police station, beating several officers in an act of clan revenge last year. But provincial press reports on the incident mentioned no punishment for the offenders.

Instead, party propagandists seek ways to link clan interests with those of the state.

For example, Marxist historians laud the patriotic exploits of Wang clansmen against French imperialists in the 1890s. According to one account, the Wangs of Huanglue drank pigs' blood mixed with white spirits, grasped guns bought with ancestral money, and charged off to fight the French to the last man.

A plaque identifying 40 clansmen who died in the battle now graces the Wang's ancestral hall in Huanglue. But Chinese scholars predict that it will take far more than propaganda, and probably only a long process of modernization could eradicate the millenium-old clans.

With the firecrackers of qing ming echoing across the fields, Wang Bao kneels down and kowtows before the tomb of the Song scholar-official. A light rain begins to fall on the tan and rose colored strips of paper anchored around the tomb with stones.

"Now the government has let loose, so we can worship again," Wang laughs. "After all, everyone has ancestors!"

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