Stepping in Red China | The lineage temples of Dajiangpu

Dajiangpu, Conghua,  Guangdong

Visiting abandoned villages

From my overcrowded base in Guangzhou (广州), I knew that there were places with low density of population in the mountains of western Sichuan or in the Qaidam plain in Qinghai. I had never imagined that within the Pearl River Delta region (which is becoming a megalopolis of 40 to 50 million people) there would be ghost villages like Dajiangpu (大江浦) near Conghua (从化).

Yet, Dajiangpu was not the first abandoned village I visited, nor was it the last one. 

In rural China, there are two reasons that drive people away : first, the layout and architecture of the houses of some ancient villages do not match the idea of contemporary living. People abandon their village to build a new one made of modern brick and concrete houses close-by. Another reason is that villagers are looking for more lucrative activities than the back-breaking agricultural activities. So, they go to the city to find a job and leave behind their historical houses. 

There are always tenuous traces of life in these abandoned villages. Elderly people are left behind in care of children while the adults work in cities, some villagers did not have the financial means to build a modern house in the new village. Finally, some people come back to honour the ancestors and burn incense in the lineage temples. 

Dajiangpu, Conghua,  Guangdong

The abandoned lineage temples of Dajiangpu (大江埔)

In my exploring of ancient villages in southwest China, I have become familiar with the ancestral halls or lineage temples (祠堂) where, according to the untheologised Chinese folk religion, family members pay their respects to deceased family members. 

What remains of the village of Dajiangpu (大江埔) is a cluster of five ancestral halls (祠堂) that dominate a geomantic pond. Out of the five, only three were opened and left unattended.

The ancestral halls of Dajiangpu all have the same layout. Once past the entrance hall whose doors are adorned with couplets (对联), we enter a small open courtyard flanked with side wings. Through the middle hall, we see, at the end, behind a second open courtyard, the main hall where an odd wooden table acts as an altar and on top of which we find a container which functions as an incense burner. 

Usually red paper wrapping of firecrackers indicate that someone in the clan still comes periodically to honour the ancestors. 

Dajiangpu, Conghua,  Guangdong

The ghost hand of Mao

In cities, the only portraits of Mao that you will see are on the banknotes. When travelling in rural parts of the country, it’s not unusual to see portraits of Mao. In these abandoned ancestral halls, where nature was growing back and making the place look eerie, there were, on the walls, revolutionary slogans painted in red characters. 

毛泽东思想做武器,改造思想,指导实线!
Mao Zedong’s thought is a weapon that will transform our thinking and guide us on the right path!

毛泽东思想伟大红旗奋勇前进!
Mao Zedong’s thought is the might red banner under which we advance with determination!

全世界无产者,联合起来!
Proletarian of all countries : unite!

Dajiangpu, Conghua,  GuangdongDuring the months preceding the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), theorists were expressing their views on class struggle and religion. With the intensification of the debate, Mao theorists ruled that religion served the interests of anti-revolutionary forces. Religion was thus a political heresy and had to be eradicated. 

The campaign against the ‘Four Olds’ (old ideas, old culture, old customs, old habits) marked the beginning of the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976) and a war against religion. Destruction was systematic, but uneven. If religious artefacts were destroyed, the physical structure of temples were spared. Many temples were not physically destroyed, but their function was re-assigned to a non-religious one. 

Dajiangpu, Conghua,  Guangdong

Even though I was dealing with sub-tropical temperatures, the discovery of these old fading slogans sent shivers down my spine. I was imagining red guards storming the place, throwing on the floor the stone tablets where the name of the ancestors was carved, arresting people because they were thought to be anti-revolutionary and telling the rest of the crowd that, well, the Red Sun 红太阳 (Mao Zedong’s nickname in the Chinese Communist pantheon) was there to show them the right path. 

I wondered if academics have drawn comparisons between the Cultural Revolution and the Spanish Inquisition. 

Dajiangpu, Conghua,  Guangdong