Clan Rivalries Take Hold in China
Contesting Communist Party dominance, ancient families reassert control over village life
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In a recent unpublished speech, Communist Party conservative Wang Zhen reportedly criticized clans for weakening the party in rural areas, where three out of four Chinese reside.Skip to next paragraph
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"Clan power in some areas has already become a kind of private force 201&gt; 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.