China Tourist

Tomb weeping

A messy family feud over a cultural inheritance


All not calm on Mianshan

The Qingming Festival is believed to have originated on the mountain named Mianshan in Shanxi province.

Legend has it that the tradition was inspired 2,500 years ago by Jie Zitui, a loyal retainer who cut a piece from his own leg to feed his hungry lord, Duke Wen, who was forced to go into exile when the crown of Jin (now Shanxi) was in jeopardy. After the Duke returned to his position he looked for Jie to reward him. But Jie had no interest in fame or fortune and hid on Mianshan. The Duke tried to tease him out by setting it on fire. A few days later, the bodies of Jie and his elderly mother were discovered in a cave beneath a charred willow tree. Feeling remorseful, the Duke ordered activities to honour Jie. These have evolved into a tradition to remember the dead, as Chinese visit and clean their ancestors’ graves, often bringing willow branches with them.

The solemn festival’s true meaning appears to have been lost on the feuding ‘wives’ and children of a recently deceased businessman from Jiexiu, a city named after Jie Zitui. Until his sudden death in June, patriarch Yan Jiying had spent 20-years using a fortune amassed from coking coal to turn Mianshan into one of China’s top tourist attractions.

When he first climbed the mountain in 1995 many of its temples lay in ruins after being torched by Japanese soldiers in 1940. According to Southern Metropolis Daily, Yan spent Rmb2 billion ($310 million) restoring them. That investment is now worth more than Rmb6 billion and the overall site has a top tourism rating, placing it on a par with the Terracotta Warriors and the Forbidden City. The tourist and coking businesses had made Yan one of the most important taxpayers in Jiexiu city.

However, Yan died without a will and his assets, estimated to be worth Rmb10 billion, are now the subject of a bitter inheritance dispute between his first wife, second spouse and their assorted seven children.

Southern Metropolis Daily and 21CN Business Herald have both recently reported on the case, which has even seen Jiexiu city’s deputy mayor try to broker an inter-family agreement (unsuccessfully).

On the one side is Yan’s illiterate first wife, 63 year-old Cao Yulian. She has three daughters, two of whom live in Canada and two sons. Younger son Yao Huihui was working for his father as head of Yi’an Silicon Chemical, a subsidiary of parent company Sanjia Energy, which also owns Jiexiu Mianshan (the tourist attraction).

On the other side is Yan’s ‘second wife’ 52 year-old Guo Qiuxiang, who lived with him for many years, although they remained unmarried. She bore him a son who is now the general manager of Jiexiu Mianshan. Together they also raised her adopted daughter.

Yan met Guo when she was the accountant at one of his plants and today she is CFO and vice-chairman of the parent company with a 20% stake. Her son owns a further 20%. At dispute is how Yan’s 60% stake gets split. The first family says it will acknowledge Guo’s son as one of his seven heirs (alongside Cao and her five children), but not Guo herself, nor her adopted daughter.

The issue is complicated by the fact that both parties believe the only asset of real value is Yan’s tourism operation in Mianshan. His coking firm has been losing money due to declining coal prices. Before he died, Yan had been in the process of transforming the coking business to organic silicon, but the new plants are not yet operational.

Cao and her children worry that Guo and her son will use their accounting knowledge to transfer assets, potentially leaving the first family with a shell company, or even the debts from the coking business. Their fears escalated after some of the company’s computers mysteriously disappeared following a police intervention.

Southern Metropolis Daily reported that the company has been left in a state of chaos since Yan’s funeral last month. Employees have protested outside the headquarters, complaining about pay. Local police have also raided the office of Yan’s auditors. How they must wish the two sides simply followed Jie Zitui’s example. “I do not ask for any reward,” Jie is said to have told Duke Wen as the latter supped on broth made from his thigh. “I only hope that one day you become an honest and upright head of state.”

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