Wang & Weston's China and Japan 2010 travel blog

This morning we said goodbye to Beijing as we headed to Zhengding and Shizhuazhuang, co-located cities in Hebei about 300 km southwest of Beijing. Zhengding is the Wang family's ancestral home. In 1370, our common ancestor moved there from Shangxi province and there are still numerous Wangs still living in the area. Lan's generation is the 23rd in the line, so there are lots of us, although for the most part our distant relatives have dispersed all over China and elsewhere. This trip to Zhengding has been arranged so that we can meet some of the Wangs who are still living in our ancestral home.

Zhengding was once a mighty city, but the building of the railway line closer to nearby Shizhuazhuang led to its gradual decline and Shizhuazhuang's rapid growth, indeed explosion. Now Shizhuazhuang is a pollution choked construction site, with all the big international brands and huge shopping centres. Zhengding, on the other hand, is a quiet, far more traditional town, with small laneways, plenty of courtyard houses and no tall buildings.

Lunch was interesting because it reflected the different region that we had now entered. We had the most delectable vegetable balls, a superb chilli eggplant dish and an interesting array of Chinese breads (mantou - like pork buns without the pork).

We headed for Zhengding's most famous landmark, which is a reflection of its former glory, Longxin si (more commonly known as the Big Buddha Temple). As its name implies, this temple houses Hebei's largest buddha. Set in lovely serene grounds, the walk up to the grand prize delights with outstanding sights, including a two-faced buddha, a huge wooden octagonal rotating bookcase, and a statue of Maitreya (a boddhisatva) that is over 7 metres high and carved from one piece of wood. Finally, we reached the "Big Buddha" - over 21 metres high, made of bronze and featuring numerous arms. You can climb up two stories to get a closer look at the statue as well as getting a terrific view of the town.

As it happens, the Wang family's ancestral street is the very street that accomoodates the Big Buddha. We had a quick drive down the street, which now looks like any other in regional China, but in its heyday sported a gateway proclaiming the prominence of its residents (several of the Wang clan, over the centuries, passed the highly competitive imperial exams - taken by 20,000 candidates every 3 years). We had arranged to have tonight's dinner with some of the family members who live here, so we didn't disturb them on our drive-through.

Our hotel in Shizhuazhuang was of a distinctly "Chinese" style of the 80s (post Cultural Revolution but still with many older design elements). We had forgotten what it was like to live in a world of smokers and so ended up in a room that reeked of cigarette smoke. In the end we regretted not changing rooms, but it certainly was an experience that we're not keen to repeat. Although many younger Chinese appear not to have taken up smoking, it is still a common habit that persists in restaurants, buses and other public places, although it is beginning to be banned in several places, giving us some relief from it all.

Dinner time came and our Wang family guests arrived for dinner in the hotel restaurant. This presented a challenge for all of us, even Lan's father, who is fluent in Mandarin, because many of the older family members speak with a heavy Hebei accent, making it very difficult to understand them. For the rest of us with limited or no Mandarin, this made things even more difficult. Fortunately, several younger members of the family stepped in to translate - mostly into Mandarin, but also occasionally with enough English to make the conversations viable.

The evening was made all the more enjoyable when we whipped out our iPads to show the guests some scans of old family photos. The simplicity of the iPad's touchscreen enabled even the oldest among them to figure out how to view the photos themselves, and identifying the individuals in the photos was within our linguistic abilities. In addition, we had a Chinese dictionary app on the iPad that we could use to help us translate and the guests were particularly enchanted by their ability to draw Chinese characters on the iPads with their finger and for the program to figure out which character they meant. Ah, the wonders of modern technology!

It took much of the dinner to figure out all the relationships anyway. There are three major branches of the Wang family and the branch that stayed in Zhengding are now only distantly related to the branch that moved to Taizhou in the mid-19th century (Lan's branch). Nevertheless, using the Chinese system of generational names, we know that we are related and which generation is which (despite differences in age). Basically, the Wang family uses two 16-character poems to determine what each generation's common name will be. We are just starting on the 2nd poem with my nieces' and nephews' generation. Thus, all Wangs in Lan's generation share the name "Chang" 昌 (e.g., Wang Shih-chang, Wang Hui-chang), all her father's generation share "Wu" 武 (Geng-wu, Wei-wu), and her grandfather's "Wen" 文 (Fu-wen, Hu-wen). If we meet a Wang whose family's generation names match at least 3 of our generation names in the same order, then they must be related to us, however distantly.

So it is that the family in Zhengding shares all known generation names with us, in the same order. However, due to differences in the age at childbirth, we are out of kilter by about a decade. Thus, the Chang generation for this group of Wangs range in age from the early 50s to the late 60s while Lan and her siblings range in age from 49 to 53. The oldest in the Chang generation has a daughter who is 45, only 4 years younger than Lan, but of the younger generation, so she called Lan an "aunt" despite the minor difference in age!

After an engaging 3 hours, we took the final group photos and bade our farewells. The Australian Wangs retired to the bar for a debrief before going to bed.

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