HUANGLUE VILLAGE, CHINA — IT was May 13, 1991. Several thousand Chinese clansmen from two rival villages faced off on opposite bluffs overlooking a broad field.
At mid-afternoon, two dozen Wang kinsmen from Huanglue village charged into the open field. Two were shot and killed by the Yangs from adjacent Wenche village.
Alarmed and enraged, the Wangs that night broke into a factory in the nearby county seat of Suixi, Guangdong Province. They raided its garrison, taking six anti-aircraft guns, machine guns, and thousands of bullets, according to witnesses and official press reports.
For four or five days afterward, the Wangs fired a steady stream of anti-aircraft shells across the divide to the Yang village, bombarding homes and buildings in Wenche.
Local police watched the fighting from a distant hillside for nearly a week until the arrival of hundreds of paramilitary troops, witnesses say. The troops cordoned off both villages and confiscated the weapons.
"The police did not dare to intervene," says one Huanglue villager who saw the clash.
Police later made a handful of arrests in the middle of the night to avoid resistance.
The Huanglue clash demonstrates how family-based clans are returning in China's countryside, four decades after communist revolutionaries disbanded their armies, confiscated their estates, and denounced, beat, or killed their leaders.
The once-powerful kinship groups have renewed their influence in thousands of villages since 1979, when Beijing began relaxing totalitarian controls over the rural economy and the structure of society.
Today, clans are spontaneously rising as a political force, increasingly taking the law into their own hands, and dominating village Communist Party and government organs.
"Clans are emerging as a private force that is in conflict with the public force," says Qian Hang, an anthropologist at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences who studies clans.
In an indication of the government's inability to control the growing power of clans, officials in Zhanjiang City in Guangdong Province reported that in the first five months of 1991, clan fights involving 9,000 people left 14 residents dead and 270 injured, while causing almost $200,000 in damages.
In villages in Guangdong, Jiangxi, Hunan, and other southern provinces, clan elders are assuming chief party and government posts, creating illegal clan organizations, printing clan newspapers, and running clan businesses, Chinese anthropologists and clansmen say.
Clans, or lineages as anthropologists call them, regularly hold large celebrations to worship their ancestors.
In recent years, clans have repaired ancestral halls and erected stages to put on operas to entertain their zugong, or founding fathers.
In Huanglue, clan elders, who also serve as leading village officials, recently met to discuss an application for more than $100,000 from the provincial cultural relics bureau to renovate their largest ancestral hall.
And in the interest of guaranteeing the birth of baby boys to fortify the clan, Huanglue officials ignore China's "one-couple, one-child" birth-control policy if a woman bears only girls.
Although there are exceptions in some Chinese villages, women are traditionally excluded from clan genealogies except for a small notation under the name of the husband or father.
Clans are also regaining their role among Chinese peasants as a powerful source of moral authority and discipline independent of the government.
In Huanglue, young Wang men are taught to respect precepts set down in the family genealogy by a prominent Wang ancestor from the 15th century. The rules urge "dutiful sons" to care for their parents, take in males orphans, teach their children to work hard, help fellow clansmen, and live ethically upon threat of having their memorial tablets excluded from the ancestral hall.
Moreover, the rules stress that disputes within the clan should not go to official courts, but be handled internally, warning of punishment for any member who contacts the government "without prior notice to the clan."
Clans appeal to many peasants because they unite the villagers and enrich their identity by preserving local history, Professor Qian says.
In Huanglue in recent years, each household has traced a family genealogy, or jiapu, in addition to the large village genealogy.
"Chinese peasants are demanding respect for their history and traditions," says Qian.
"Through the genealogies, they can find their historical position in society."
One Wang elder puts it more simply: "The jiapu is important because if you don't write things down, it is as if people are lost."