HONG KONG — As the Chinese economy continues to power ahead, everyone in the country is pleased with the visible improvement in standards of living, but very few people are counting the cost in terms of the loss of China’s historical legacy, the growing sense of alienation and the loss of the cohesiveness that used to mark society, particularly rural society.
Take my own family. Over the Easter holidays I went to Wuxi, which was my family’s home for centuries.
On my last visit in 1999, I was told that the grave of my ancestor from 12 generations ago, Qin Yao, a high Ming dynasty official who died in 1604, had been dug up. The grave had been preserved for almost 400 years, but the government decided that this part of its cultural heritage was less important than a parking lot.
On this trip, I found that the tomb of another Ming dynasty figure, Qin Han, had been blown up by robbers. Grave robbers are not uncommon in China. After greasing the hands of corrupt officials, they smuggle the fruits of their labors out of the country to be sold at high prices.
After the grave robbers had done their work, the local government decided to dig up the adjoining grave of Qin Liang, son of Han, another high Ming dynasty official. It was only after his descendants protested that the work stopped.
Actually all tombs from the Ming period (1368-1644) are supposed to be protected, but little appears to have been done to implement this policy. The entire society is way too busy with the all-consuming task of developing the economy.
Ironically, as urbanization breaks up close-knit families, there is now a renewed interest in preserving and reviving traditional clan ties and institutions. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the past forbade the compilation of family genealogies as a feudal practice but now realizes the importance of such histories.
As a result, many families, including mine, are busily compiling genealogies. Our clan’s genealogy was first compiled in the 1520s, and updated periodically, with the ninth edition appearing in the 1920s. Now, a committee has been set up to put out the 10th edition, to include some 4,000 new clan members who had made their appearance in the intervening 80 years.
Both Yao and Liang were masters of Ji Chang Yuan, the famed Qin family garden in Wuxi that was admired by emperors. While other gardens in China changed hands within several generations, Ji Chang Yuan remained in the hands of one family for over 400 years.
And from the late Qing dynasty (1644-1912) on, it was the common property of the clan. However, with the arrival of the People’s Republic, it passed into the hands of the government.
Another family institution that passed into government hands was the ancestral hall, where clan members used to congregate to honor their ancestors. The Communists banned ancestral halls but now, the Wuxi municipal government has renovated our ancestral hall. It will reopen in a few months — but as a museum.
And so, institutions that gave our clan — and other clans — a sense of identity and purpose no longer exist. The cohesiveness that clans provided also vanished.
The compilation of the family genealogy, however, has served to revive a sense of clan identity, but also a sense of resentment that the clan has been stripped of so much of its original institutions and properties. Historic buildings have been torn down and people moved to outlying areas, all in the name of progress. In our clan, the only old home deemed worthy of preservation by the government was that of Qin Bangxian, an early CCP leader, while the homes of historical figures of the Ming and Qing dynasties have all been razed.
At a meeting of about 30 clan members, I was told that my book, “ANCESTORS: 900 Years in the Life of a Chinese Family,” which came out in the late 1980s, had inspired them to revive the family genealogy. So ironically, a book I wrote to help foreigners understand China ended up influencing members of my extended family — almost all of whom I had never met before — to consolidate their own sense of identity and to maintain their traditions.
China should realize that if it constructs a future of steel and concrete while steamrollering over its past, it will result in a country without a soul. That is not the direction in which China should move.
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