Ancient ancestor who links the Chinese diaspora is helping a county overcome modern issues, report Huo Yan in Huangling, Shaanxi, and Li Yang in Beijing.
An estimated 50 million overseas Chinese are scattered across the world today, but whatever cultures they embrace or languages they speak, blood ties from shared ancient ancestors are an eternal link of kinship.
Few understand this better than the residents of Shaanxi province’s Huangling county, home to the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor.
According to legend, the ancient tomb that sits on Qiaoshan Mountain holds only the clothes of the revered emperor, a tribal chief who defeated his enemies to unify China about 5,000 years ago.
Since the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), rulers have held regular memorial activities at the mausoleum to offer tributes and pay respect to one of the forefathers of Chinese civilization. They prayed to the Yellow Emperor for a long life and long reign, good harvests, and for fortune in battle.
Yet in the years that followed the collapse of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the ancestral celebrations in Huangling began to take on new significance — to unite the Chinese people for the fight against Japanese invaders and the reconstruction of the nation.
The Yellow Emperor Memorial Ceremony is held annually during Qingming Festival, or Tomb Sweeping Day, which this year falls on Tuesday. Since the late 1970s, when the nation launched its reform and opening-up policy, this event has evolved into an important activity for the far-reaching Chinese diaspora.
Overseas Chinese from across the world began to flock to the county each year to honor this iconic ancestor, with compatriots from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao occupying prominent positions in the ceremony.
Authorities at all levels have recognized the ceremony’s power to stoke pride in Chinese people worldwide, with the hope that it may bolster the nation’s search for outside investment and technologies to stoke economic growth.
The central government started to help with organizing the memorial ceremony in 2004. Two years later, the event was added to the list of national intangible cultural heritage.
Although its role has changed, the memorial ceremony rarely does. A ceremonial drum is beaten 34 times, which represents China’s 34 regions, and a large bell is rang nine times (an auspicious number in Chinese culture) to awaken the divine spirits. Offerings of flowers and elegiac speeches are made. Attendees visit the tomb and bow three times, and there are performances of traditional music and dance.
This year’s event is themed “Trace the Source, Seek the Root, Unite the Hearts, Build the Souls”. Thousands of observers from home and abroad, including Taiwan politicians Chen Chen-hsiang, vice-chairman of the Kuomintang, and New Party Chairman Yok Mu-ming, were expected to be in attendance.
To compliment the annual ceremony, the local authorities also arrange other related activities during March, including planting trees — the Yellow Emperor is said to have attached great importance to the practice — as well as academic seminars.
While the annual event is important in terms of ancestral worship, officials in Huangling also see it as an opportunity to build the county’s image as the cradle of Chinese civilization, or the “spiritual home of ethnic Chinese people”, and to boost the local tourism and cultural industries.
Tourism development is a key ingredient of plans to restructure the local economy, which currently relies heavily on coal mining, according to Meng Zhonghua, the county Party chief.
“The county’s potential lies in tourism, hope lies in tourism, the answer to economic restructuring is in tourism,” he said recently. “We need to promote the deep integration of culture and tourism to boost the industrialization and branding of Huangling.”
Data from the county government show tourists visited Huangling 5.2 million times last year, up by 71 percent on 2011. Tourism revenue was 1.83 billion yuan ($265 million), an increase of 83 percent over the same period.
Growth of the tourism industry has seen the service sector’s contribution to local GDP rise from 15.5 percent to 26.4 percent between 2011 and last year, the statistics show.
In addition to the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor, visitors are drawn by the county’s many other historical attractions, such as its Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) relics Qinzhidao; Zi’e Temple, which dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907); and Wan’an Zen Temple, which was built in the Song Dynasty (960-1279).
Huangling National Forest Park also attracts many people — the county is 76 percent forest, three times the national average — as does the local intangible cultural heritage, such as paper-cutting and decorative flour buns.
However, while visitor numbers have increased, the availability of tourism services like hotels and parking lots have failed to keep up. This is an issue officials are keen to fix.
“We’ll pay special attention to deepening supply-side reform and boosting tourism growth,” Gao Yong, the head of the county government, said recently, promising a review of services and support systems. “We’ll provide what tourists need, and we’ll correct the problems they find.”
The county set creating a “holistic tourism destination” as a main task in its Government Work Report this year. Gao said the goal is to get more sightseers to stay for at least one night in Huangling, which is usually just a stop-off for those traveling between the historic cities of Xi’an, the provincial capital, and Yan’an, the birthplace of the revolution led by the Communist Party of China.
Backed by the Shaanxi government, county officials began work on the Yellow Emperor Cultural Park in 2011. The venue, which will have the mausoleum at its center, will cover 24 square kilometers and include an exhibition hall, cultural industry projects and developed tourism facilities, according to the plans. The opening is slated for 2030.
Profiting from talent
Residents of Huangling, especially those living near the mausoleum, are also benefiting from the growing tourism industry. Some have opened restaurants or work as tour guides, while others have put their talents to good use.
Wang Hulin, 52, a farmer in Liujiachuan village, was the first to open a restaurant catering to travelers in 2005. Now, 38 of the 40 families in Liujiachuan run restaurants for tourists.
“I want to develop a style of cooking called Yellow Emperor cuisine,” he said.
Cao Shuquan is a farmer and self-taught sculptor from Shuanglong town, about 40 km from the Yellow Emperor’s tomb. He has visited the site many times to study the engravings as well as studied the history books to learn more.
“I find in the Yellow Emperor not only a generous and forgiving ruler, but also a powerful and brave warrior,” the 51-year-old said. “If he weren’t, it would not have been possible for him to conquer all those other tribes.”
Four years ago, Cao started making clay sculptures in the image of the Yellow Emperor. “It’s my dream the temple will one day have a big statue of him made by a local artist — and I hope that I can be that artist,” he said.
Wang Minzheng, 70, a retired geological prospector, makes traditional decorative flour buns, including for the Yellow Emperor Memorial Ceremony.
He said it takes eight to nine days to make four buns for the event using the skills passed down from his grandmother. Last year, he was paid 1,600 yuan for his ceremonial buns, four times the amount he earned when he started in 2000.
Over the years, his wares have been used by several senior government officials and distinguished guests as offerings to the emperor.
“Traditional crafts always have a market in modern society. The more developed the society, the more valuable the traditional arts are,” said Wang, who regularly holds classes for kindergarten and primary school students.
“The offerings are part of a culture that is unique to Huangling,” he added. “If lost, one by one, our culture will become inauthentic.”
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