Clan Rivalries Take Hold in China
Contesting Communist Party dominance, ancient families reassert control over village life
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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!"