Xiasha: What continues and what fades away

Yesterday, I met Chen Hong (陈宏), executive producer of the Shenzhen Villages documentary mini-series (桑海桑田:深圳村庄三十年) and was gifted my own set of DVDs and associated book! No longer dependent on the odd youku upload, I can now finish my review of episode 5, The Background of Xiasha (下沙背景).

The opening begins with the last Song Emperor fleeing the Yuan. His grave, of course is in Chiwan, but it turns out, over 800 years ago, Xiasha villagers met the imperial refugee and his ragtag army with large casseroles of chicken, seafood, pork, and vegetables or pencai (盆菜) as they are known in Shenzhen. The mini-series narrator solemnly intones that although the Emperor died before his ninth birthday, the pencai tradition lives on in Xiasha Village. 

The inclusive and historical symbolism of pencai infuses a sense of the village as a community. Anything can be added to a pencai and when cooked together, the flavors mix to create a savory and unique taste. During a village festival, round tables are set up in the central plaza, with 8 to 10 chairs squeezed around. Importantly, once casserole is not only enough to feed everyone at the table, but also late-comers — after one has finished eating, he rises and then someone else can sit and eat from the one common dish. On Feb 23, 2002, for example, when the Xiasha Huangs gathered for a family reunion that brought together 40,000 descendants now living in 21 countries, they ate pencai at 3,800 tables.

The founder of the Xiasha Huang village was Huang Qiaoshan (黄峭山) the son of from Heping Market, Shaowu City, Fujian. Huang Qiaoshan had three wives and 21 sons. However, in order to maintain household peace, he only kept the oldest son of his third wife in Heping. The sons of the other two wives were given a family genealogy and horse and then sent out to make their fortune. Huang Qiaoshan’s 15th generation grandson, Huang Motang (黄默堂) founded the Xiasha homestead and has a memorial on Lianhua Mountain.

The episode then jumps to Xiasha’s early reform efforts. In 1983, the village secretary was a woman, Huang Meizhu (黄美祝). She organized collective investment in building factories and a system for distributing profits to all participating villages. In 1992, Xiasha established its eponymous joint stock-holding corporation and in 1993, Huang Yingchao (黄英超) the current CEO decided to go to England to hire an urban planner to design a new village layout — and yes, his name means “surpass England”, an ironic memory of Cultural Revolution China.

The design plan anticipated a population of 50 to 60,000 and included underground electrical wires, wide streets, and one of the largest plazas in the city. Indeed, Xiasha’s decision to spend 3 million rmb on an urban plan was one of the most expensive in the SEZ. In fact, Xiasha has become one of the poster villages for rural urbanization in Shenzhen. One of China’s more successful clothing brands, Ying’er was established in Xiasha.

Xiasha has emphasized its link to imperial history and traditions. In addition to its central plaza, the Village plan included a Huang Family ancestral Hall, a temple, and folk statues. In 2004, Huang Qiaoshan’s surviving 24-31st generation descendants built China’s first village-level museum to commemorate Xiasha’s history. This museum formalizes the history that was continued in the Huang genealogy. In addition, the villagers found a surviving Xiasha Huang grandson of a Qing dynasty scholar, who taught them an ancestor commemoration ceremony that takes place in the Spring (around Grave sweeping day) and in the Autumn (on the 16th day of the 9th month of the lunar calendar) (春秋祭祖仪式). With the result that Xiasha Village has actually become one of Shenzhen’s more popular tourist attractions for foreign visitors.

One of the more interesting aspects of this episode is its straight-forward connection of Xiasha with imperial history and the Village’s connection to traditional Chinese culture. Indeed, this episode touches upon two aspects of Xiasha’s success as a community with a common identity. First, Xiasha modernized as a collective (under the leadership of Huang Meizhu), linking villagers within the economic structure of a modern corporation. Consequently, as in traditional society, members of the Xiasha corporation have common interests. Second, this process was symbolized through traditional forms that emphasized family continuity. Thus, their modern economic relationships are not seen as becoming “western” or even “modern”, but rather as using contemporary means to pursue traditional goals, ingested each time they eat pencai together.

All this to say, this episode makes the case not only for urban villages as a continuation of Chinese history, but also and thus as a legitimate form of urbanization.

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