The Demise of Town-Based Ancestral Estates
In a previous essay focused on the Republican period, I compare the sharply different ways local strongmen in three townships transformed lineage institutions
The changing relationship between the Chens of Tianma and the established lineages based in Huicheng was highlighted in an episode in 1948. At that time, there was a civil war on a national scale. Locally, the political vacuum provided opportunities and economic fluidity. The Mo lineage, landlords with large holdings and merchants in Huicheng, claimed that its ancestors had been settled in the area since the Ming and maintained elaborate ancestral halls. In the first few decades of the twentieth century, local bosses from Tianma, some of whom had been tenant contractors and functionaries of the Mo, had numerous conflicts in and out of court over control of the Mo estates in the sands. In the 1940s, it happened that a landowning family of the Mo lineage in Huicheng ran a county newspaper. The editor, Mo Chaoxiong, was a lawyer and county politician. He published an article written by his father ridiculing the humble cultural origins of the Chens (who were known locally as dan). When mediation by other politicians failed, local bosses at Tianma mobilized over a hundred villagers to march to the newspaper office in Huicheng with the intention of beating up Mo Chaoxiong. Mo managed to escape, but they destroyed his office. The county government officials, having been bribed by the Chens, did little to stop the mob and did not legally charge the offenders.
The ancestral estates of major lineages in Xiaolan zhen of the neighboring Zhongshan county had a slightly different fate. Since the eighteenth century, the town had been dominated by an alliance of landed interests and grain traders from four major surnames whose ancestral estates held vast areas in the sands. For a town of a few thousand residents, the 393 ancestral halls had a towering presence. However, by the 1930s, they too were losing to the military bosses. Local strongmen from the sands did not build ancestral halls in the sands because there was no sizable village. Instead, they moved into town, took over the temples, and dismantled many of the ancestral halls. In the most important community event
When the Japanese military occupied the area later in 1939, local bosses in town maintained an uneasy truce with the Japanese unit stationed in Shiqi (the county capital of Zhongshan). Over a hundred of the town's 393 ancestral halls were torn down. A social club, known as the Siyou tang, was set up by the head of the town, in which the different bosses could socialize and work out conflicts of interests. They formed "companies" to collect grain and taxes in the sands, very often by a blatant show of force. Their patron was Yuan Dai, former captain of a crop-protection force and current commander of the third regiment under the Nationalist government. His deputy and cousin, Qu Renze, kept troops in the town, while seven of his captains were stationed in the sands.
In Shawan of Panyu county, a smaller market town further southeast toward the sands, a He lineage had accumulated 60,000 mu of reclaimed river marshes. Members of this lineage, together with smaller surnames such as Li, Lai, and Huang, had built 116 ancestral halls. Annual rituals involving the founding ancestral hall, the Liugeng tang, and the local Beidi temple were formidable spectacles. Residents in town lived off the grain rent. The collection of rent had depended on powerful tenant contractors who were lineage members themselves. In the turbulent decades of the Republican era, auctioning off the land and collecting rent necessitated a show of force. Estate managers and tenant contractors, who were the major participants in these auctions, were escorted by their own entourage of armed guards. The assets of Liugeng tang, the positions of its managers, and the vast power networks it commanded became the center of contention. Identification with the ancestral estate continued to be reinforced because of the intense competition. But local residents clearly distinguished the more "legitimate" managers and tenant contractors from the new local bosses, who, like their Zhongshan counterparts, organized collection companies out in the sands to extract protection fees, and who preyed on the rich and poor alike.
In sum, a new generation of local strongmen rose from the regional fringes. Their power was not culturally recognized, but they were able to accumulate vast assets at the expense of the town-based lineages. They sidestepped the traditional arenas of negotiation by linking themselves directly to new regional military figures in a volatile network of patronage and intimidation. A different language of power prevailed over the cultural nexus that had been cultivated by the gentry-merchants for centuries. As rural communities were drawn into the personal orbit of the territorial bosses, the authoritative presence of the imperial order became increasingly remote in the daily lives of the villagers. Militarists in Guangdong and elsewhere did take on various literati trappings and activities, such as building their own ancestral halls, patronizing schools, running for county government offices,