Branches - a saga of Chinese families

Updated 2018-04-04 17:44:01 Xinhua

The best known tree in China is probably a big locust in Hongtong County, Shanxi Province.

Over 600 years ago, some 1 million people living near the tree were relocated to war-torned areas for economic recovery. Now, their descendants from around the world are returning, tracing their roots and searching for their ancestors. More people are coming especially prior to the Tomb-sweeping Day.

On a warm sunny morning last week, 11 buses packed with people from Shandong Province stopped in front of the locust tree.

"I was told our forefather moved away from here during the Ming Dynasty, so I decided to come and have a look," said visitor Zhang Xinyuan.

In the history of Chinese migration, Hongtong was the source of a very large number of migrants. There are 18 distinct batches of local people known to have moved to areas like Anhui, Hebei, Henan, Jiangsu and Shandong from 1373 to 1417, scattering their descendants across China and the world.

"If you ask me where my ancestors were from, I'd say the big locust tree in Shanxi's Hongtong...," goes a saying.

While migrants' former homes are nowhere to be found today, the locust tree has stood here for nearly 2,000 years and become their symbolic home.

Liu Yanqin is a retired policeman from Pizhou, Jiangsu Province.

His ancestor Liu Huaizhi trekked hundreds of miles with his wife and children among the first batch of migrants to settle in Jiangsu. More than 100 years later, his great great grandson tried and failed to return because of his old age and the long distance.

Nowadays, airplanes and high-speed trains enable descendants to visit from every corner of the world. The nearest high-speed train station is only four km from the tree.

Liu Yanqin made the trip for his ancestors in 2008 and found his family tree greatly resembled that of Liu Baoqiang, from Hongtong's Wan'an village.

"It took us 600 years to finally find home," said the 75-year-old. Since then, he often talks to his Shanxi relatives by phone.

"Our hearts are bonded as long as our roots are connected," he said.

Visitor numbers have risen from less than 60,000 in 1996 to over 2 million last year. About 65,000 came from overseas.

The worship room by the tree has expanded from 40 to 6,000 square meters. A total of 1,230 tablets inscribed with surnames are placed where visitors can pay tribute, said receptionist Wang Hongmei.

Wang recalled that only those who afford the travel expenses came in the past. To save money, some people brought their own food. "Now, very few bring their meals with them, and more people drive here," she said.

Huang Zeling has studied the big locust tree culture for more than 20 years. Huang said more people come to trace their roots have revealed cohesiveness of the Chinese culture and people's unprecedented confidence in Chinese culture.

Businessman Max Soong from Taiwan has lived on the Chinese mainland for over 10 years. A nursing home he has invested in is about to open in Shanxi.

"On hearing that I was visiting here, my mother was quite delighted. The big locust tree is our roots on the mainland and will never be forgotten," he said.

Tomb-sweeping Day, also known as Qingming Festival, falls on April 5 this year. It is a traditional Chinese holiday during which people pay tribute to deceased friends and family members.

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