China's Family Ties

By Liu, Melinda; Schafer, Sarah et al. | Newsweek International, October 7, 2002 | Go to article overview

China's Family Ties

Liu, Melinda, Schafer, Sarah, Mooney, Paul, Newsweek International

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. …

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