Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Trip Back to China: Looking for Our Hakka Roots

I found that there were many descendants of the Shangguans and Guans in Fujian and Guangdong provinces. I had been trying to locate our ancestors’ home in Fujian for my visit, but it was to no avail. I called a Shangguan who lived in Dingzhou, Fujian. He told me there was no Dragon Gate Village in Dingzhou, but a Dragon Gate far away at the source of the Dingjiang. We had lost all of the words of the original Hakka language, except for what we called our grandparents and what my mother and uncles called their mother and father. I told him what we called our elders. This Shangguan came to Dingzhou after we had already left. I asked him what he called his mother and grandmother. Surprisingly, he did not refer to them the same way we did to mother or father, but we share some words. No one could tell me why we called our elders: Mei (Mother), Ba (father), Jia Jia (grandmother), Da Da (grandfather), or TaiBa (oldest uncle), SiBa (second oldest uncle).  My grandfather's younger brothers were called uncles just like others; we used Yao ( 幺) for the youngest one.  We call my youngest sister yaomei (幺妹). See China’s Disappearing Dialects.
         On Saturday, I was able to talk to a Guan in the big Guan Fortress, and asked him for directions to get there. He said I needed to take a plane, then a train, and finally a bus to get there. Since it was located on a mountain road, it would take a little longer than expected, even though the road was only 60 kilometers. To my surprise, I finally figured out my mother's tongue; they referred to their elders exactly the same way that we did. They still spoke the same Hakka language (the younger ones knew Mandarin as well), but we lost it completely in our generation. Even my oldest uncle could not communicate with his elders. We only kept the same way of referring to our mother/father, grandmother/grandfather, sisters and brothers; then we stopped even that in our generation. I have continually wondered since childhood why my friends laughed at the way I referred to my grandmother; no one used the same word that I did. No one knew in my family why we referred to elders that way; we simply followed the previous generation. Now I had found my roots and I could not wait to go see them. I would go to Dingzhou (长汀古城) Fujian, three hours away from Xiamen (厦门), and see if there were still some who referred to their relatives the same way we did, then I went to see my lost cousins in the Guan’s fortress. I was so excited. They had our family history back to the Han and Tang Dynasties. We just needed to connect our family history to theirs.
         My sister and I finally made our journey to China for a visit. First, she flew from Atlanta, GA and I flew from Boston. We met at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport and flew from New York to Beijing non-stop. The flight took about thirteen hours. Beijing airport had been renovated since 1996, the last time I visited China. It was an amazing, grand new airport.
We stayed with our parents for two days and then took a bus to Zigong, where I spent the first ten years of my life. The first stop was the salt museum; it was the same as I remembered. I had actually written to the curator only a month before, hoping they could help me find anything about the Yan and Guan families’ salt business. To my disappointment, they told me the old records were stored, but not cataloged that well. They would not even know where to start and they had only few staff members. To try to compensate, I bought all the books related to Zigong’s salt merchants and salt wells from the museum, hoping to find something after I returned.
The next stop was to visit my grandmother’s and youngest aunt’s graves. My mother had my sister and I bring some paper money and incense to burn in front of their graves. I was actually surprised that my mother finally followed the old traditions that were only used at local farms. I did not believe it. Still, we did as she asked. The funny part was that my mother gave us six sticks of incense, three for each, and we broke two. My sister went with me to my grandmother’s grave and she thought we should burn three of them for our grandmother. I did not object, so she lit three. One of them kept going out, however. We had to give up on that one. In the afternoon, my sister did not want to go to my youngest aunt’s grave, so my oldest uncle took me there. I burned the rest of the paper money and two incense sticks, including the one that first refused to burn at my grandmother’s grave. I thought that was funny, unless my grandmother was thinking about her youngest daughter on the other side of the town. I was grateful for my oldest uncle’s great foresight, to keep our grandmother’s ashes so we could come to visit her today. 
The next day, my sister and I went to visit the small town called “Xian Si”(仙市古镇), an old salt trading port next to the Fu Qi River (釜溪河畔) from where salt was transported. It had over a 1400 years history; the port is called “The first salt port of China” (中国盐运第一镇). Boats loaded with salt passed from Fu Qi Jiang to Tou Jiang to Yangzi Jiang (沱江进长江). We found the two famous palaces in the area. Guangdong (南华宫 built in 1862) and Fujian (天上宫 built in 1850) palaces were practically built together. They shared a wall like a huge town house; the two next to each other shared the same entry doors. There are still very strong beautiful wooden buildings where my ancestors gathered and prayed. I could feel my heart very heavy there. My sister and I knelt down in front of the same Guan-Ying statue as my ancestors had before us. I felt their influence there and we prayed for our families and our children, hoping our ancestors would watch over us. We dropped some cash in the donation box for repairs before we left.
We then went to San Du Zhei (三多寨), where the rich salt merchants’ hiding place was during wartime. It was said that every time the carriage bell rang, Yan’s wives started complaining because the silver cart had arrived. It was the wives’ duty to count the silver, since it came in loads and loads. It was a hard job just to keep track of it all. Their whole bodies were sore after counting loads of silver money. A rumor said they even turned away some silver carriages, saying they were not theirs. Inside, there were special support beams for the floor, since the silver was so heavy.
Today, San Du Zhei is a small town without any salt merchants. The old defensive walls, houses, streets, ponds, and farmland are still used by people who live there now. There were two important structures closed to the public, so we took pictures from outside. There were two dragons on top of the roof of one of the buildings; this must have been a family shrine or important meeting place. The other one was close to a cliff, like a command center or watchtower.
San Du Zhei (三多寨), where the rich salt merchants’ hiding place was during wartime
I showed the pictures to my oldest uncle at night after dinner. He said that as a small boy he once went to a similar hiding place on his mother’s side called Dou Wan Zhei in Neijiang (内江高梁镇斗碗寨). There was only one way up: very steep stone stairs. It was flat on the top where few families lived; there was everything up there from small farmlands to water. They only lived up there if there was a war down in the flat plains, where most of their farmland and houses were. My uncle remembered that the soldiers helped themselves to livestock and cooked the meat in a big pot. He could only smell it cooking from closed doors where they hid inside. The meat smelled so good that he wished he could have a bite. He did not know who they were, but they certainly got up to their hiding place on the top of the mountain.
The night before we left Zigong, my uncle gathered all the Guan family members in a restaurant for dinner. I remembered some of them; one caught my eyes right away. My oldest uncle’s cousin (my mother’s as well) shared the same grandfather. His name was Guan Ju Kai (官举锴, #12 in boys); he had unusual blue eyes that had a dark center, then brown, then a bright blue circle (called central iris heterochromia). It seemed that no one in my family ever noticed his eyes. My sister went to talk to him again, just to look in his eyes. She was surprised that she never noticed his eyes before. He is number twelve in his generation and my oldest uncle was number ten. I asked him if he had this blue circle since he was a boy; he said he did and very few ever noticed his whole life. I asked around if anyone remembered what their grandfather looked like; they said their grandfather was like nobody alive today, but a little similar to this number twelve uncle of ours, Guan Ju Kai (官举锴), only taller with a much bigger build. They did not remember much about him, since he died so early. I finally accepted my oldest uncle’s statement that he really did not know what was going on in our salt business, since he was too young and not in a position to know much. He said his father, Si-Ba, and his oldest son, Tai-Ba, knew the most. My grandfather was in such a bad position that he was lucky to be alive and cared for by the family.
As usual, the whole family did not think I could find our family shrine and the books my uncle had burned in the Cultural Revolution. They did refer me to see our aunt Guan Ju Liang (官举良, #9 in girls), who lived in Neijiang (内江) all her life teaching. We could go see her; maybe she could find someone to accompany us to Bei Mu Zhen (椑木镇), a town thirty kilometers away from Neijiang (内江), where our Guan family shrine used to be. She had been there many times in her life and had asked around many times, but said that there was no family shrine anymore.
We took a bus the next day and went to Neijiang, which was on the way back to Chengdu. We stopped at my aunt Juliang’s (举良) place first to unload our belongings. She was a retired teacher; she had spent all her life there teaching. Again, she said she had been to Bei Mu Zhen (椑木镇) many times and asked around about our family shrine, but nothing was found. We did not put much hope in finding anything. My plan was to go to the Bei Mu Zhen (椑木镇), take a few pictures, then visit my grandmother’s Dou Wan Zhei (斗碗寨), since the place still existed, but far away from the city in the mountains. We also asked if we could see the Liu family’s big complex, where my great grandmother lived before she married to my great grandfather (东兴镇七拱子刘家三重大院) and where my uncle’s high school had moved during the Japanese bombing -- sadly, it was gone now. We booked a taxi for a short stop in Bei Mu Zhen and then a ride to Dou Wan Zhei.