the return of the return of chinese clans

avner greif — of Family structure, institutions, and growth – the origin and implications of Western corporatism fame (well, famous on this blog anyway), and who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite researchers even though he doesn’t take into account human biodiveristy things (nobody’s perfect!) — and father guido tabellini have a fantastic paper out titled: The Clan and the City: Sustaining Cooperation in China and Europe.

they really get why western europe works the way it does while china works in a whole other way — except they’re missing the underlying biological reasons, of course. here’s what they have to say:

“In a clan, moral obligations are stronger but are limited in scope, as they apply only toward kin. In a city, moral obligations are generalized towards all citizens irrespective of lineage, but they are weaker, as identi…cation is more difficult in a larger and more heterogeneous group. We refer to this distinction as limited vs generalized morality.

i like that. more…

“Institutional mechanisms also differ between the clan and the city: clan enforcement mainly relies on informal institutions, whereas the city relies more on formal enforcement procedures. In terms of economic effciency, these two arrangements have clear trade-offs. The clan economizes on enforcement costs, whereas the city exploits economies of scale because it sustains cooperation in a larger and more heterogeneous community.”


where greif and tabellini get it wrong is that they believe that people become clannish or not depending on what sort of moral system they have. *sigh* which is exactly backwards, of course (i think) — a population’s moral system stems from whether they are clannish or not, not the other way around. but here’s there take on it:

Two otherwise identical societies that differ only in the initial distributions of moral traits evolve along different self-reinforcing trajectories of both cultural traits and organizational forms. Initial diffusion of kin-based morality leads to a steady state where clan loyalty is widespread, the clan provides public goods, the share of the population living in the city is small, and intra-city institutions are weak. This equilibrium captures the arrangements that prevailed in China.

“Conversely, if generalized morality is initially widespread, the organization of society moves to an opposite steady state, where strong and large cities act as the main providers of public goods, as in the evolution of Europe. Thus, to understand the different paths in China vs Europe, we need to focus on cultural differences in their respective early histories. Even if China and Europe had access to the same technologies, and neglecting the role of geography and other factors, social organizations and cultural traits evolved endogenously and mutually reinforced each other.”

yeah. almost. but, just where did the “initial distribution of moral traits” come from in the first place?

they’ve also got a lot of interesting stuff on the return of clans in china today. ruh roh:

“The persistence of cultural attitudes is matched by a striking persistence of clans as a central organization in Modern China.

“The modernization movement in the early 20th century was hostile to the clans, that were viewed as an obstacle to economic development. In 1904, the Chinese government legalized corporations with the explicit intention to foster joint stock companies. The law failed in this regard, as Li Chun explains: ‘the idea that members of the public would be invited to join one’s business and share in its control and pro…fits was indeed repugnant. On the other hand, the notion that one’s money be put into the pocket of some strangers for them to run a business was just as unthinkable’ (Li, 1974, p. 205 cited by Kirby, 1995, p. 50).

“The communist regime officially abolished the clans upon gaining power in 1949: clans’ properties were confi…scated, elders lost their legal privileges and authority, clan legal codes were no longer recognized, and the ideology of class consciousness was promoted (e.g., Huang, 1985, p. 308). Had the clans been a product of the state, they would not have survived the crackdown since 1949. If, however, clans had been a product of the coevolution of deeply held moral convictions, social organization, and institutions [not to mention biology – h. chick], clans should have persisted and reemerged following the reforms that allowed individuals to organize themselves. This is indeed what has happened since 1978.

“A county-level survey in 2000 (by Liangqun and Murphy, 2006, in Jiangaxi) documents that 70 surnames out of 99 (in 40 villages) updated their genealogies since 1981 and 41 surnames invested in their ancestral shrines since 1991 (p. 230). A 2002 representative national survey of more tham 300 villages reveals lineage activities and kinship organizations in 66 percent of the villages (Tsai, 2007, pp. 154–7). Clans resumed their role in securing property rights from predation by officials, organizing weddings and funerals, providing welfare, contributing to public projects, and promoting mutual aid arrangements (ibid). Inter-clan confl‡icts also resumed and collectively owned rural fa…rms often formally exclude non-locals (Thøgersen, 2002). About 90 percent of the 887 households that migrated to or from one of 50 villages relocated to their ‘ancestral village’ and 60 percent relocated due to inter-lineage tension (Liangqun and Murphy, 2006, p. 623).

“We quantify clans’ persistence using a random sample of 76 counties, 205 villages and 4274 individuals from China General Social Survey, 2005 (GSS05). The GSS05 asks (only) rural residents whether there is a clan organization in their community and, whether it is a surname-based or a temple-based clan organization. Although under-reporting of clan organizations is likely given tradition of suppression by the communist authorities, the census reveals 277 clan-based organizations. A clan organization almost always (90 percent) has a genealogy, a graveyard, or both. The two organizational types differ, however, in their economically-relevant assets such as land, estates (other than ancestral hall), and trust funds. Only 26 percent of the surname-based network have such an asset compared to 78 percent of the temple-based organizations (F12). On average there is 1.35 organizations per-village and one organization per 15.5 respondents. The highest number of people per-clan organization is in the eastern region (35) and the lowest is the northwest.

Almost 70 percent of the population live in a county with positive sample probability of a village having an organization and in 41 percent of the counties the village-probability of having a clan organization is at least 50 percent. In fact, clan organizations currently exist in each of China’s six regions although there are no temple-based clan organizations in the north (Figure 2, note that the northwest is a separate region) but they are particularly strong in the south-central region and, speci…cally, in Guandong, the richest province. These findings correspond to our historical discussion in which we noted the relations between out-migration from the North and the rise of clans.

“Table 5 presents the number and fraction of organizations –out of the 277 in our sample that ful…ll various functions. Most common are cooperation-promoting functions –resolving private disputes within the village and handling inter-village relations –and providing public goods in the village or the clan.

“Our online appendix also documents that the frequency and strength of clans in modern China is negatively correlated with urbanization in townships (i.e. excluding major cities), as predicted by the model. Speci…cally, data from China County-prefectural Statistical Yearbook, 2006 (YB06) and China General Social Survey, 2005 (GSS05) reveals that in the sample of 76 counties, clan strength is negatively correlated with urbanization even after controlling for such variable as education, infrastructure investment, and distance from the coast.

This re-emergence of clans is particularly noteworthy given that the reforms were not designed to foster clan organizations. Households, and not clans, were given land-use rights in the former collective farms and privately-owned businesses were permitted. Yet, kin-based and relations-based exclusive organizations have re-emerged and resumed their traditional role in supporting cooperation.”

previously: the return of chinese clans and china today… and whatever happened to european tribes?

(note: comments do not require an email. father guido sarducci: vita est lavorum)


  1. “The modernization movement in the early 20th century was hostile to the clans, that were viewed as an obstacle to economic development. In 1904, the Chinese government legalized corporations with the explicit intention to foster joint stock companies. The law failed in this regard”



  2. @hbd chick “yeah. almost. but, just where did the “initial distribution of moral traits” come from in the first place?” Nice. Perceptive and persuasive. I understand Aristotle said, (Oversimplifying) “Your teeth were not made for your convenience. They happened by chance and the persists because they work.” It is the best description of evolution I have read. Anyway, there are two systems here that persist so they must both work, but maybe they are accomlishing different things. How’s this sound? “Clans make babies; cities make money.”


  3. @g.w. – “trust”

    yup. trust. being trusting and being trustworthy.

    greif and tabellini talk about it extensively in the article. here’s a good bit [pg. 22]:

    “In contemporary China limited morality is re‡ected in trust attitudes. In China “you trust your family absolutely, your friends and acquaintances to the degree that mutual dependence has been established . . . With everybody else you make no assumptions about their good will” (Redding, 1993, p. 66).[18]”

    and then footnote 18:

    “Chinese overseas businessmen perceive Westerners as more contractually reliable. A survey of Chinese businessmen in Thailand and Hong-Kong (1994-5) fi…nds that “Westerners are considered [by the Chinese] to be attractive partners for … their respect for the law and keeping of promises. Trustworthiness is a frequently mentioned trading attribute of non-Asians”(Pyatt and Redding, 2000, p. 59).”


  4. “Chinese overseas businessmen perceive Westerners as more contractually reliable.”

    There’s a meme that gets passed round in PC circles that Euro faces being put on the brochures for Asian business projects is done to compensate for white racism whereas in reality it’s at least partly for this – bogus colleges selling fake degrees often have a white actor paid to be the front man for the brochures.


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