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Clan Rivalries Take Hold in China

Contesting Communist Party dominance, ancient families reassert control over village life

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WU AI climbs the dirt path rising from Mawen village to a grassy hillside and stops before a pile of shattered stone, the ruins of an ancestral tomb sacred to his kinsmen. "The Wangs demolished it, like all the others!" says the wiry, leather-skinned village chief, pointing to a dozen barren grave mounds scattered across the misty clearing.

"They are savages. But they outnumber us, so we can't do anything about it," Mr. Wu fumes.

The deadly feud of Wus and Wangs is raging once more in this remote corner of Guangdong Province, symbolizing a dramatic revival of ancient, patriarchal clans that dominated southern China until the late 1800s.

Over the past decade, clans have reemerged to unite thousands of peasants in an embrace of blood, money, and ritual. Challenging the Communist Party's grip on villages, they inspire loyalty and faith in family-centered Confucian ethics where Marxist dogma has long left a void.

Unable to dissolve the brotherhoods without a great use of force, the party appears reduced to the role of mollifying clan chiefs and policing their territorial battles.

Strife between the powerful, far-flung Wangs and the close-huddled Wus is rooted in conflicting claims to the tranquil, auspiciously located graveyard at Mawen village.

Dominating the hillside is the elaborate, black-stone tomb of the Wang clan's founding ancestor, a southern duke of the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Each year growing numbers of Wangs join a pilgrimage to sacrifice meat, wine, and paper money to his spirit in a celebration of clan solidarity.

As part of the ritual "grave-sweeping," the Wangs pick weeds and repaint the tombstone with bright red characters. They also smash or exhume "rogue" Wu graves and chop down encroaching trees to stop them from leeching the site of beneficial forces known as feng shui, or "wind and water," in China's ancient art of divination.

Mobilized for battle

The feud intensified last month, when Wang elders mobilized 10,000 kin from as far away as neighboring Guangxi Province and vowed to "level" Mawen. The 600 Wu villagers recalled their young men from nearby towns, arming them with wooden clubs and knives to "meet the enemy," according to local newspapers.

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