China day 14: One Family’s Story

General Wang Ju-chin was in charge of a number of the southern provinces in the late days of the Qing dynasty (late 19th and early 20th century). As a high ranking military man, the family was well-off, and owned a number of these quadrangle residences in the hutong area. The one we saw was actually not the main one, it was originally occupied by servants. Even the family’s servants lived in luxurious residence at the time.

In those days Sun Yat-sen, with the help of the powerful General Yuan Shikai, managed to overthrow the corrupt and ineffective Qing empire. Sun Yat-sen intended to set up democratic government at that point, modelled on the ones he had seen while living in Europe. They were succesful in overthrowing the Qing. But then General Yuan Shikai showed his true quality as a man, by betraying the democratic dream. He revised the new consitution before the ink was even dry, making himself ‘President for Life’, and shortly thereafter even promoted himself to Emperor, and declared a new dynasty. The more distant provinces would hear nothing of this, and immediately tried to break away. Yuan Shikai looked for support from others to cement his position, but General Wang Ju-chin declined to take part, remaining neutral in this. So, in this at least, he was not on the side of Evil.

General Yuan’s dynasty lasted exactly 80 days, before he died of kidney failure. One wonders why he bothered? Destroying everything Sun Yat-sen had fought for, when he had such a short time to live anyway. How different might China be today, if Sun Yat-sen’s true democracy had taken root at that time? No squabbling over Taiwan, no millions of people starved to death as a result of Mao’s awe-inspiring incompetance, no Cultural Revolution.

In the following 30 years, the Kuomonting government of Chiang Kai-shek took power. No democracy to be found there, just another sick megalomaniac.

The general’s son (the father of the present owner) was very well-educated, and did ok working in technical position for a government factory. But they were turbulent times, and the youngest, the present owner, received little education.

The good times were over when the Communists finally overthrew the Kuomintang, and Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan (taking China’s entire gold reserve with him.) The family was not so rich anymore, but they still owned land and a number of quadrangle residences. The Communists at that time were very much into the philosophy that best way to provide for poor people was to eat the rich people (figuratively, of course, not literally.).

After founding the Peoples’ Republic of China in 1949, the Communists under Mao seized most of the family’s residences. Only the one servant’s quadrangle was left to the family.

Things got worse later on when the Cultural Revolution came. The ‘eat the rich’ fervour reached a peak, and the Red Guards ran around destroying anything that even vaguely reminded them of the feudal times. It’s surprising the Forbidden City survived, but Mao had respect for it as a symbol of China’s ability to build great things.

At this time, the Communists seized all but one of the small houses in the remaining quadrangle. They were left with a tiny two room house. The family was treated very badly. The present owner was uneducated, and worse yet, the son of formerly-rich people. That made him a prime target. The Communists wanted to send him to the country to work in the fields, where he would likely die, as many did. He was only spared because of his wife, who was from a poor family, and thus subject not a prime target. The Communists wanted her to divorce him, so he could be sent away, but she refused to do this.

And so they struggled, in great poverty, for many years. In 2004, the government, apparently thinking its ‘eat the rich’ strategy, returned the other buildings of the present quadrangle to the family. What happened to the poor people who had been living there I don’t know, but they probably didn’t like it.

The family’s fortunes finally had a bit of recovery. They have opened the quadrangle as a simple little sort of museum, and manage to pull in a little bit money.

The old man seems to have no anger about the story, he’s just grateful for the new chance they have been given.

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