A Hongtong Tale

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The root of the Han people.


-by Ernie Diaz



It’s a field-anthropologist’s nightmare, trying to pin a Chinese person’s origins by looks. All the rules of thumb – the Manchu tiki-head, Shandong’s spare ranginess, Sichuan’s ethereal slenderness, go out the window when the answers are revealed: Henan, not Heilongjiang; Shenzhen, not Shandong; Suzhou, not Sichuan.


Yes, the stubborn physiological diversity of more than a billion people defies an armchair anthropologist trying to find regional patterns. Even more so does the thorough inter-migration of China’s people. Never mind the trope about being settled and tied to the land. Besides the granular blending over ages of Chinese folk pulled far afield by individual ambition and misfortune, there have been mass migrations aplenty. The tale of one mass migration, spread throughout China in successive waves, reveals much of how the Han rose to demographic superiority. It also reveals how you can always spot a true Han Chinese, if not his home province, if he’ll take off his socks for you.


The scene of the tale is an apocalyptic one, the death pangs of the Mongol empire and the birth pains of the Ming. Harvests lost to farmers off as conscripted soldiers, and other soldiers taking the rest. Revolts and reprisal ripping apart families, then inevitable famine, then plague on its heels. Children for sale, rice payments accepted. A horrific larger narrative in which millions of personal tragedies were playing out.


The key figure in the tale: Zhu Yuanzhang, later to be known as Hongwu, the first Ming emperor. Horatio Alger made rags to riches an American concept, but rags to living god? Only in the East. The eighth child of peasants stricken by the miserable times, young Zhu saw his seven siblings all “given away”. At 16, Hongwu watched the Yellow River break its banks, and his parents succumb to plague shortly after. So did the first Ming son of heaven take to the road as a wandering beggar.


A Buddhist monastery took him in and taught him his characters, giving him a lifelong sympathy for followers of the Middle Way. But Zhu had tiger blood, and found himself not in robes but a red turban with a sword, battling not just the Yuan dynasty, but rival factions fighting to represent the Han once the Mongols were driven from the land.


Given our spoiler of Zhu becoming Emperor Hongwu, we’ll skip the final acts of the military drama which got him to the throne. The point is that Hongwu was an emperor with deep understanding of what it meant to be powerless at the hands of despoiling armies, corrupt officials, and other Chinese curses from above. He also saw that vast stretches of China were short on its greatest resource – people, preferably people who could work the land.


One province, Shanxi, had no such shortage. In fact, southern Shanxi had weathered the mid fourteenth century with almost divine good fortune, well fed and prosperous. But the Lord giveth then taketh away, and new lord Hongwu saw in Shanxi a vast supply of human capital with which to re-populate his decimated realm.


Thus did Hongwu order over a million southern Shanxi peasants corralled at Hongtong, for dispatch to points all over the Middle Kingdom, over two thousand cities in thirty provinces. Logistics dictated that only five to ten thousand peasants per day could be rallied for reassignment, but the rally point was always the same: a massive scholar tree that eight peasants could not encircle, outstretched finger to finger.


At this point the larger tale of yet another Chinese mass migration splinters into a million separate story lines. They all begin with sighs and tears, simple people leaving everything they love behind for the unknown. Their story lines reveal the complexity of the main tale, never as neat as the textbooks try to make them. Take one of the migrant destinations, for example – Qinyang, a city in Henan whose dire straits were attributable directly to the man who was now redressing them, Hongwu.


Qinyang had held a Yuan garrison, put to rout only after a battle of attrition. On ascending the throne, Hongwu decided that the Qinyang peasants had not been cooperative enough in helping the Ming against the garrison, and had the entire county massacred. As soon as Qinyang people knew to hide well out of sight, soldiers would leave food, necessaries, or kidnapped children at roadsides, luring desperate commoners out to their deaths.


At the same time, Hongwu was instituting laws and measure which stifled corruption, placed scholars above generals, and guaranteed the rule of law for peasants. A complicated living god, to say the least, for those who think Mao was original in his dichotomies. Hongwu turned mental at the end, too, his paranoia hangover from years of drunken power resulting in torture, arbitrary executions, and general besmirching of his legacy.


So the tale is complicated, as is its central character. But there is one simple trick we can take from it all, a quick verification test for all who claim to be Han. For the Han, as much as they’ve made all China theirs, come originally from the Loess plains which encompass Shanxi, and Hongtong. According to the legend, all who left from the scholar tree had one or both of the nails on their little toes split, for identification, should they escape and try to return.


Whether the legend is hogwash or not, two hundred thousand Han a year visit the scholar tree, truly getting back to their roots, as that is all that is left of the tree since a Qing-era flood washed the rest of it away. And every last one of them has at least one petaloid little toe-nail, a ridge dividing it as neatly as a leaf on a scholar tree.

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