China's Family Ties

Clan roots run strong--and deep--in the village of Da Kengkou, in Anhui province. Nine out of ten families in the village are surnamed Hu. A thousand years ago, so legend goes, the Hus erected a clan temple here. A soothsayer, steeped in the art of feng shui, advised the clan to invite a family named Ding to live in their midst; the word ding means "nail," and the Hus needed something to anchor their clan's roots, he said. But some Hu elders were anxious: how could they ensure the Dings wouldn't eventually outnumber the Hus and grab power in the village? The fortuneteller had a solution: he cast a spell over the Dings, ensuring that each generation would have only one surviving son, thus limiting their numbers.

Did it work? A family surnamed Ding has lived in Da Kengkou ever since the spell was cast--and to this day, with just a few exceptions, 24 generations of Dings have had only one surviving male descendant each. The Hus and the Dings get along just fine. "I've never thought of leaving this town," confesses the current patriarch, a retired postal worker named Ding Guanghui. His son, also a postal worker, seems content to stay put as well. That's good news for the Hu clan, which may need stability now more than ever before. The family's most famous descendant happens to be Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao, the man who's been groomed to take over the country's top party and government posts in a momen--tous reshuffle slated to begin next month.

Kinship groups have always been important in China. For one thing, unlike in the West, surnames appear first in Chinese names. Ordinary citizens are still referred to as lao bai xing--literally, "the old 100 surnames." Yet despite all that history--or, more likely, because of it--the Chinese communist regime set about trying to destroy clan affiliations after it came to power in 1949. As Mao Zedong saw it, preoccupation with ancient roots had little place in the new China. Clan patriarchs--who'd accumulated land, wealth, prestige and even private armies in pre-1949 society--were stripped of assets and persecuted for their "bourgeois" inclinations. During the chaotic 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, radical Red Guards destroyed clan temples, tortured landlords and burned the precious, hand-bound family genealogies, or jiapu, that many Chinese families had compiled for centuries. For three decades millions of Chinese tried to forget their roots.

Not anymore. Family ties are taking over now that the central government has relaxed its grip on rural economies--and Marxism no longer answers the question, What does it mean to be Chinese? Clan power is making a comeback, and kinship ties are back in vogue. Tattered genealogy books are being restored, cataloged and copied onto microfiche and CD-ROMs. Clan temples are being renovated, often with the help of wealthy Overseas Chinese compatriots. Clan elders have once again assumed political influence, especially in southern provinces such as Guangdong, Jiangxi and Hunan. "There's more and more interest in finding one's roots," says Chen Jianhua, head of Shanghai Library's genealogy department, which boasts the world's biggest repository of jiapu. "Many Chinese now seek answers to that very natural question: where did I come from?"

Those who discover a famous descendant, as the Hus have in Da Kengkou, are happy to proclaim--and to promote--the news. It's good for tourism. Two obscure villages--one in Jiangxi province, the other in Anhui--claim to be the ancestral home of Chinese President Jiang Zemin. (He apparently doesn't know himself, because he's visited both.) The media has dubbed the dispute the "battle of the Jiangs." Residents of the rural village of Baiye (population: 6,000) in Fujian province say that Chen Shui-bian, the president of Taiwan, is a native son, the ninth-generation descendant of a onetime resident. (He has acknowledged being from the area.) The village's Communist Party secretary, Chen Qunhai, has called on Taiwan's leader to relinquish his dreams of independence--and then to come home. "His name can never be changed," says Chen. "He's one of us."

Kinship ties are a significant factor in village power structures, say social scientists and Communist Party researchers. Winning over clan elders is especially tricky for local authorities when they face decisions regarding land allocation, infrastructure projects and--a hot topic now--how, when and whether taxes are to be collected in full. Sometimes big families simply are the village. In Tianluokeng, a remote village in Fujian province about an hour from Xiamen, 67 families of the Huang clan--more than 250 people altogether--live cheek-by-jowl in an old circular wooden structure called a tulou. It resembles an architectural doughnut. "Twenty-five generations of Huangs have lived here," boasts one clan member named Huang Shuangxi. He isn't one of them; he moved out of the complex because living with so many relatives was "too complicated."

Strong clans tend to be turf conscious, naturally, and a number of violent feuds have erupted in recent years. In 1998 a dispute flared in the Hunan village of Lanshan after a schoolyard fight between two groups of youths reignited an ancient clan feud. Members of the Cheng and Huang clans set about preparing for battle. They built earthen trenches--one of them three kilometers long--and fashioned homemade cannon from empty propane cylinders. That December the rivals starting bombarding each other with cannonballs. When the Lanshan clash subsided, five people were dead (four of them innocent bystanders belonging to neither clan), 16 injured and as many as 60 homes destroyed.

That's clannishness at its extreme. More intriguing--and more critical to China's future--is the effect that large local families are beginning to have on grass-roots politics: specifically, the village elections that are the country's only institutional form of political pluralism. Some Chinese-government officials regularly cite the deeply entrenched clan culture as one reason why Western-style Jeffersonian democracy cannot be transplanted wholesale to the People's Republic. Vice President Hu Jintao--notorious for steering clear of politically controversial statements--has suggested that China should proceed cautiously with direct elections, citing an example where rural voters in a village with three large families each wound up voting simply for candidates from their own clans. "Because of clan power, the opinion of most people in a village is sometimes [not heard]," writes Chinese researcher Yu Jianrong.

Western experts disagree. James L. Watson, a Harvard anthropologist who's researched China's kinship groups, says the notion that clans undermine democracy is "nonsense." He's studied family structures in Guangdong, which he calls "the granddaddy of Chinese clan systems," and accurately points out that Chinese intellectuals and government officials have argued for centuries that clans have just the opposite effect--undermining central-government authority. The debate long predates the communist era. Liu Yawei, a researcher from the Carter Center in Atlanta who's examined China's recent experiments with village democracy, shares Watson's viewpoint. He notes that rural candidates regularly espouse "better schools for their children, better roads, scientific farming and how to sell crops--not merely loyalty to a family patriarch."

Clan culture is complex, as a NEWSWEEK correspondent learned visiting the lush mountainside village of Youjiacun--literally, the You Family village--in Jiangxi province. There, virtually all the 800 residents share the surname You. Politically, they're subdivided into the Upper Yous (or Shangyou)--whose ancestors have lived in the village since the Song dynasty (960-1279)--and the Lower Yous (or Xiayou) who settled on the opposite side of a narrow river during the Ming (1368-1644). Before 1949, the Yous were just one of four large clans that often engaged in violent feuds and bandit raids against each other. After 1949, the communists killed many clan elders who'd supported the anti-communist Kuomintang (KMT) government. This destroyed three of the four big clans in terms of political influence.

But the You clan remained largely intact. That's because the Lower clan--mostly salt-of-the-earth peasants inspired by Mao Zedong's egalitarian slogans--had thrown its loyalties behind the communist revolutionaries early on. After the communist victory, many Lower-clan members were inducted into the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), while Upper Yous were not. Communist land-reform edicts also re-allocated land among villagers, giving Lower Yous a bigger share of the pie.

The village party secretary has always come from the Lower clan. Between 1980 and 2000, moreover, not a single Upper You was inducted into the CCP. The political rivalry is subtle--and nowadays peaceable--but nonetheless intense. Lower Yous cite a modern proverb passed on by one of their elders to explain the importance of holding onto CCP power: "The party secretary must never cross the river." According to Beijing-based researcher Tong Zhihui, who lived in Youjiacun for three weeks to study clan politics, "They want to keep the political power in [the hands of the] Lower Yous."

But in the '90s, a new element was injected into the village's political dynamic--the selection of the village head through direct elections. (Villages have parallel power structures: residents elect members of both the village committee and the party committee. The party secretary is chosen by the township-level party committee while the village chief is elected by his peers.) The man who won the most recent polls for village head is You Chunshan, a soft-spoken carpenter from the Upper clan. In this way, both the Upper and Lower clans are represented in the power balance. Leaders of the two groups are often asked to mediate in disputes. (The village was in an uproar recently when two Yous tussled over a duck; the woman who smashed a brick over the head of a male villager was asked to pay $50 in compensation.) According to an unspoken rule, village committee members recuse themselves from cases where members of their own kinship groups are involved in a dispute.

Some analysts argue that clan influence is actually on the wane. Restless Chinese youth are leaving their villages in droves to find city jobs. As for family trees, "young people don't give a damn," said Carter Center researcher Liu Yawei. But a more persuasive argument is that clan culture has simply evolved. Because the communists' land-reform campaigns destroyed the old clans' resource base, says Harvard's Watson, "new clans have had to reorganize their organizations without property. These new kinship groups operate more like local voter constituencies and information networks--and they're building a new civic culture in China." Watson asserts these new clans thrive because they're inclusive. Rather than relying on the division of concrete assets, they're networks that provide members with vital information, from the price of chickens in Yunnan to the availability of veterinary medicines. In the past, a newcomer claiming kinship would face elders challenging him to "show me in the clan genealogy where your father is named," as Harvard's Watson put it. "But now it's just the opposite; a clan functions almost like a chamber of commerce." The shared commodity is information, and personal connections, or guanxi, that can help deals get cut and business get done.

Today curators and researchers are preserving jiapu that were discarded by the thousands during the Cultural Revolution. Representatives of Overseas Chinese luminaries, from Singapore elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew to former Philippine president Corazon Aquino, have contacted the Shanghai Library for information about their roots. Such overseas interest in clan histories has jumped; a bilingual Web site (www.chineseroots.com) helps people discover their ancestors online. While acknowledging that young mainland Chinese are more footloose than their forebears, Shanghai Library's Chen says they won't abandon their clan connections. "Young people might be busy with their careers for now," says the genealogy master, "but eventually they'll want to seek their roots." It's a natural instinct, after all, especially in China.

China's Family Ties | News