Robbed of our past

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 March, 2005, 12:00am

As China's economy continues to power ahead, few people are counting the cost in terms of the loss of its historical legacy, the growing sense of alienation and the loss of the cohesiveness that used to mark society, particularly in rural areas.

Take my own family. Over the Easter holidays, I went to Wuxi, near Shanghai, 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 it 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, and they smuggle the fruits of their labours out of the country to be sold at high prices. Actually, tombs from the Ming period (1368-1644) are supposed to be protected, but little appears to have been done to implement this policy. All of society - including all levels of government - is way too busy with the all-consuming task of getting rich.

After the robbers had done their work, the local government decided to dig up the adjoining grave of Qin Liang, the son of Qin Han, another high Ming dynasty official. It was only after his descendants protested that the work stopped.

Ironically, as urbanisation breaks up traditionally close-knit families, there is now renewed interest in reviving traditional clan institutions. In the past, the communists banned the compilation of family trees, saying it was a feudal practice, but now realise their importance. As a result, many families, including mine, are compiling genealogies. Our clan's history 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 members.

Both Qin Yao and Qin 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, it remained in the hands of one family for more than 400 years. And from the late Qing dynasty on, it was the common property of the clan. However, with the arrival of the People's Republic, it passed into the government's hands.

Another family institution that went the same way was the ancestral hall, where clan members used to honour their ancestors. The communists banned ancestral halls but now, the Wuxi government has renovated ours. It will reopen in a few months - as a museum.

And so, institutions that gave our clan - and others - a sense of identity and purpose no longer exist. The cohesiveness that clans provided also vanished.

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 was that of Qin Bangxian, an early communist party 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, almost all elderly, 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.

As the eyes of the world turn to China with the approach of the 2008 Olympics, Beijing is modernising at breakneck speed. China should realise, however, that if it constructs a future of steel and concrete while steamrollering over its past, it will result in a country without a soul.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator