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Yang Qian

Walking – Village of Zeng Family

My mother’s last name is Zeng and she is from a Hakkanese family from Guangdong province who owned their land and amassed considerable wealth. During the Qianlong period, her family moved to Sichuan. They settled in Yaodu town, Jintong, and built a few villages which were collectively named the village of Zeng family. The village’s golden age was during the Second Sino-Japanese war. To promote universal education in support of the war, our Zeng ancestors donated most of the houses, which became classrooms for the Xianxi Mingxian school established by Kong Xiang Xi.

I grew up in Chengdu, but strangely enough, I never visited the Zeng village. In May 2016, I suddenly felt the urge to see where my mom spent her childhood, seek my family’s roots and learn about the changes through history and different times…

12:28pm

21 May, 2016

Yang Qian used Codoon, a mobile application with GPS technology, to develop a new form of art by walking in the Zeng village and creating an interesting image with his tracks.

Zeng: Yu, Xiu, Qi, Shu, Xuan, Xian, Liang. [In traditional Chinese families, ancestors select a set of characters and list them in the family book, which serves as a reference when naming future descendants. The man was listing out those characters in order, which represents a hierarchy within the family.]

Yang: So how old are you now?

Zeng: I’m already 72.

Yang: 72. You’re still quite young. But you’re very senior in the family. You’re a Yu – that’s very high in the hierarchy.

Zeng: My dad’s a Qiang!

Yang: Oh, then he’s even more senior! Were you born here?

Zeng: [Yes.] We lived over there, in the old Zeng house until the revolution in 1949. Then we moved here. Oh, how beautiful it was when we first moved here!

Yang: Good old times! Since when did it become a wreck like this?

Zeng: Since when? Since 1958!

Yang: How did it happen?

Zeng: Back then, we were all starving because of the communes, so we began demolishing this and that. Everything was so pretty before!

Yang: You took down parts of the houses and sold them for money?

Zeng: Anything we could find. We sold the parts for money or used them for burning. We even sold our calligraphy.

[Change of scene]

Zeng’s daughter-in-law: Zeng Cong Xiu!

Yang: Zeng Cong Xiu?

Zeng’s daughter-in-law: That’s my husband’s name – Zeng Cong Xiu.

Yang: Zeng Cong Xiu, oh! Then I should call him Grandpa Cong Xiu. Ah, Cong Xiu, Grandpa Cong Xiu. I think I heard of him when I was young.

Zeng’s daughter-in-law: It may be him.

Yang: So Grandpa Cong Xiu is your husband?

Zeng’s daughter-in-law: Yes.

Yang: Wow! So you’ve been living here all this time? In the Zeng village?

Zeng’s daughter-in-law: We’ve always been living here and they have as well!

Yang: During the last time my Aunt Zeng Qi Wei visited, did she see Cong Xiu?

Zeng’s daughter-in-law: Yes, he was still here back then.

Yang: My mother was with her that time. I think it was around 2000.

Zeng’s daughter-in-law: It should have been around 2000.

[Change of scene]

Yang: I’d like to interview you. What’s your name? Zeng Rong. Zeng Rong! Totally from the Zeng family!

Yang: Your father is also named Zeng?

Zeng: [Yes, he’s called] Zeng Cong Xiu.

Yang: You grew up here?

Zeng: Mhm. Have you heard of Zeng Yao Guang?

Yang: Oh, Zeng Yao Guang. Yes, I’ve heard of him.

Zeng: Zeng Yao Guang, that’s our father’s uncle.

Yang: You grew up here. Back then, these were old houses, right? Not these new ones. Look at these concrete patches, most of them are slapped onto old houses…

Zeng: Rebuilt from old houses.

Yang: Rebuilt from old houses. They look completely different! Then the other houses crumbled, right?

Zeng: It’s mostly after they fall [that we build new ones]. To be honest, it takes a lot of money to maintain houses in a village like this.

Yang: Oh. How much does it cost to fix a house like this? [Pointing] Like these here, they’ve all been repaired…

Zeng: Like this block? This building only costs something in the tens of thousands.

Yang: Oh.

5:37pm
21 May, 2016

Zeng: [Houses were broken down and] made into chairs, tables and benches.

Yang: Oh, break them into long pieces and make them into benches.

Zeng: Break them into long pieces.

Yang: No wonder so many houses in the village were torn down!

Zeng: Not that many were torn down, actually. It was the prodigal children who decided to take them down.

Yang: Did they only break the stone beams?

Zeng: They took down the houses and took everything they could.

The first great loss caused by destruction happened around 1958 to 1960, when everyone was starving. They didn’t care if it was a public house or a nationally-owned property; people took some roof tiles and sold them for rations and then began removing one of the two beams in the house just to make it through the year. It was all about survival and most of the older generation, those around 60-something years of age, would know. That was the first time the Zeng village underwent manmade destruction. After the food shortage, the government implemented a policy to centralise individual families, making it easier for the Communist Party to handle things.  So they grouped the families scattered across the village together, forming what is now the Zeng village. They assigned houses to each family, ignoring whether they belonged to the country or some group – if you were given the house, then it belonged to you.

When did the second period of destruction happen? It happened after the Chinese economic reform. Everyone was ready to build western-style houses because nobody liked the old dirt houses anymore! Whatever! After a long time, the people living there tore down their houses and found other land to build westernised homes on. This second wave of destruction was due to human influence. By this time, some houses were still standing, though the residents had already moved out. Since nobody was maintaining these homes, they slowly fell apart. This was natural destruction. The rubble left behind after the buildings collapsed was taken and used as firewood, causing further damage.

During the Cultural Revolution, our village didn’t undergo much damage because we had nothing left. The only incident I witnessed was when the Red Guards chopped down the Taishan stone by the village entrance. They didn’t ruin the houses. Some decorative sculptures collapsed on their own, along with the eaves, but everything was so old and weathered that there wasn’t much left to be destroyed!

[Change of scene]

Yang: Hey, mister! Do you live here?

Li: I was born right here.

Yang: What was this house behind you in the past?

Li: [Pointing] This was the kitchen.

Yang: Oh.

Li: [Pointing] And this was the bedroom.

Yang: This house was recently renovated, right?

Li: Yes, it was recently renovated. This is the living room.

Yang: What is your last name?

Li: It’s Li.

Li: Our father was married to a Zeng. [Chuckles] So I was born here.

Yang: Oh. Okay, thanks.

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