crash course in chinese clans

reading greif and tabellini, one would be left with the impression that clans in china are eight hundred or so years old. nothing could be further from the truth. afaict, clans have been around in china since at least zhou dynasty days (1046–256 b.c.).

first, from g&t [pgs. 3-4, 17]:

“In China settlement was “based on kinship ties and migrants ‘constructed a new kin-group on the frontier for the purpose of land clearance and developing an irrigation infrastructure’” (Rowe, 2002, p. 534). The hallmark of the emergence of clans during the Song Dynasty (960-1297), is that commoners began keeping genealogies. At that time, European commoners were adopting surnames for the …first time. In sharp contrast to China the most common surnames do not designate common-descent (e.g., Smith, Clark, Draper, Taylor)….

“Table 1 reveals that clans …first emerged in the east and south — —areas that attracted migration during the Song (960-1279) –— and not in the north, the birthplace of the Han people that during this period were out-migrating to the East and South. The table presents the percentage of each region’s genealogies –records of a clan’s members –that trace the clan’s origin to a given period. Thus, for example, about 40 percent of the sample genealogies from the east trace the clan’s origin to a year prior to 1644. The data thus suggests that prior to 1368, clans prevailed in the east and south. They emerged in the north and west only by the Ming period. This period witnessed a large migration back to the north and west, following depopulation due to the Yuan-Ming and the Ming-Qing westward expansion….

“Chinese clans relied on voluntary contributions to …nance their activities. The Chinese ‘clan trust ’was fi…rst introduced during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) and it enabled clan members to jointly hold property. Trusts were endowed by wealthy clan members and some clans, particularly in the south were very wealthy.”

so, something interesting apparently did happen with clans in china during the song dynasty. there were these migrations of clans, but also the clans became more formalized — or something. not sure how to put it.

but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t clans in china before the tenth-thirteenth centuries. the zhou dynasty’s fief system, fengjian, forms of which, from what i understand, were also utlized by other dynasties at various points in time during china’s history, was based on clans and kinship and lineages [pgs. 31-32]:

“The Zhou systems of government adopted quite a few of the political patterns of the Shang Dynasty, retaining and modifying their methods of controlling the internal and external areas under their sphere of influence. The central area where the Son of Heaven of Zhou lived was called King’s Land, the environs of the capital city, beyond which were the areas governed by the lords on behalf of the Son of Heaven. Of course, many Zhou institutions differed from those of the Shang Dynasty in a number of aspects. The establishment of those new institutions was significant in the history of the Zhou, and even influenced the entire course of development in Ancient China.

“To strengthen their power, King Wu and King Cheng enfiefed their sons and other people they considered suitable as lords and dispatched them across the country to act as a protective screen for the Zhou royal house. This kind of feudal system was called the feudal fief system. An important model of Zhou governance, the feudal fief system was close to the Shang system of appointing officials to outer regions to subdue barbarians, but was also quite different from it in that the fief system was built on close clan and blood relationships….

The Zhou Dynasty mainly enfiefed descendants with the same surname, which was quite closely related to the clan system practiced in those days. According to the principles of the Zhou clan system, Zhou Son of Heaven was the supreme head of the Zhou people, and his sons were sub-heads, fiefed across the country, defending the territory of Zhou. The fiefed lords gave themselves the title of head of their respective clans. They then enfiefed their land to their sons, who became ministers and senior officials, who, in their turn, enfiefed their land to their sons, called intelligensia. Subsequently, from the Son of Heaven to lords to minister and senior officials to intelligensia, a strict hierarchical system based on blood relationships constituted the essential basis of the Zhou rulership.

(see also zongfa — the clan law.)

my point is that clans and clannishness have been around in china for a loooooong time.

various dynasties have, however, tried to curb the powers of chinese clans. examples of which i am aware: the qin dynasty which tried to put an end to the zhou fengjian system; possibly during the tang dynasty when cousin marriage may have been banned; definitely during the ming dynasty when cousin marriage was banned — this ban was reversed during the following qing dynasty and it doesn’t seem to have been very well enforced anyway; finally, in 1980 with the communist government’s ban on cousin marriages.

previously: the return of chinese clans and the return of the return of chinese clans and abridged history of cousin marriage in china

(note: comments do not require an email. clan temple, canton.)

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31 Comments

  1. @jayman – “One thing to note is that the Han Chinese of today do not go back that far as the dominant ethnic group in China….”

    very good point. i don’t know what the marriage/family patterns of the han chinese were during the zhou dynasty days. will have to find that out!

    what was the first ethnically han dynasty? the han dynasty? (that seems too easy. (~_^) ) or was it something later, like the sui or even the tang dynasty? anybody know?

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  2. The Han Chinese are named after the Han dynasty, but they had a different name before that.

    I don’t think it’s possible to distinguish between “Han” and “non-Han” ethnic groups at that point in history.

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  3. Aren’t clans the default setting all the way back to the Paleolithic? It would be more interesting to identify ancient societies which were not organized by clan.

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  4. @ihtg – “I don’t think it’s possible to distinguish between ‘Han’ and ‘non-Han’ ethnic groups at that point in history.”

    thanks! yeah, i guess that’s what i was wondering — when do we start picking up on a mostly “han chinese” society in china? gotta go do some reading…. (~_^)

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  5. @luke – “Aren’t clans the default setting all the way back to the Paleolithic?”

    you mean amongst the chinese or humans in general? if the latter then no — not necessarily. the bushmen aren’t clannish. neither are the eskimos from what i understand. i think some other groups — typically hunter-gatherer groups — in africa are not, either (dr*t — can’t remember the name of one west african group right now — edit: the turkana, who are pastoralists — not certain if they’re clannish or not, but there are some reports that they’re not particularly so.).

    it could be that the amhara in ethiopia aren’t, either, although to be honest, i didn’t figure them out 100%. in any case, if they aren’t clannish, it might very well have something to do with christianity — same as nw europeans (maybe).

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  6. @luke – there are also different flavors of clannish which i find is interesting. the chinese are clannish and the arabs are clannish, but in very different ways. i think that’s partly down to the type of inbreeding that each group does/has done — different mating patterns alter the genetic relatedness between individuals (both within and between families) in different ways.

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  7. @hbd chick “my point is that clans and clannishness have been around in china for a loooooong time” I’d say even longer, that it’s the default setting. also “i think that’s partly down to the type of inbreeding that each group does/has done — different mating patterns alter the genetic relatedness between individuals (both within and between families) in different ways” I do believe you have an idea here that is really big. I cannot see how varying patterns over such long periods of time could fail to have a biological impact. I could be wrong on that. Not my comfort zone. But right or wrong it’s important and it’s your creation.

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  8. hbd*chk – “the bushmen aren’t clannish. neither are the eskimos from what i understand. i think some other groups — typically hunter-gatherer groups — in africa are not, either (dr*t — can’t remember the name of one west african group right now — edit: the turkana, who are pastoralists — not certain if they’re clannish or not, but there are some reports that they’re not particularly so.).”

    I notice you are not really sure. From my readings in anthropology (granted, decades ago) primitive tribes were all about kinship systems. I’m going to guess that all of the tribes you mention here are in fact organized on the basis of kin. Maybe you can dig up some data to show otherwise.

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  9. hbd*chk – “there are also different flavors of clannish which i find is interesting. the chinese are clannish and the arabs are clannish, but in very different ways. ”

    Yes, indeed, and they vary in the degrees of their interrelatedness and in the strengths of their loyalties to clan and tribe before state and society. I find it interesting that the Greeks and the Romans both deliberately broke up their clans with cross-cutting political insitutions in order to establish a democracy (in the case of Athens) and a republic (in the case of Rome). Did other ancient polities do that? Not the Hebrews, but then their society quickly split in two (ten vs. two). Not sure how the two that survived got along.

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  10. @luke – “I notice you are not really sure.”

    i am actually sure — 100% certain — about the bushmen. they are not clannish in the sense that the fundamental building block of their societies is the nuclear family, several of which sometimes come together in bands — sometimes based on relatedness (a couple of brothers and their families), sometimes not. but they absolutely do not go around worrying about their uncles and cousins and second cousins all of the time the way that arabs and, to a lesser/different extent, the chinese do. i need to do a post or two about the bushmen. in fact, i need to dedicate a week or two to them! (^_^) they are a neat groups of people.

    i’m not sure about the eskimos because i haven’t read about them yet. but someone who i trust told me they are not clannish, so i’m inclined to believe them. but, like i said, haven’t read a thing about them … yet. (interesting to note, though, that the eskimo kinship terminology is the exact same as ours — iow, they’re not bothered about distinguishing father’s brother vs. mother’s brother, etc., etc. — like the arabs and the chinese are….)

    i’m confused about the turkana from east africa ’cause there was a study about them published last year saying that there was a lot of non-familial alliances amongst them when they go to “war” with neighboring groups. according to “the theory,” since they’re pastoralists, they ought to be inbreeders and, therefore, clannish, so this didn’t seem to fit the picture to me. again, though, like the eskimos, i haven’t read anything about the turkana (except that one article), so i’m not sure what’s going on there.

    what i need is a matrix-like system where all this data can just be uploaded to my little brain. all this reading takes time! (~_^)

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  11. America is the great Mix Master: it is only a matter of a few generations (probably) before immigrant families from traditional cultures overseas disappear into the wider population through intermarriage and migration. I presume the same it true of Canada, Australia. Less clear cut in the case of Britain and Scandinavia and Europe in general.

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  12. @luke – i forgot to mention that, of course, the bushmen don’t inbreed. in contrast with them, some other hunter-gatherer groups — like populations in papua new guinea and the yanamamo — do inbreed, are clannish, and are quite hostile in their behaviors (edit: to outsiders). so, not all hunter-gatherers are created equal. (^_^)

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  13. When you do the Bushmen address the issue of their cultural and demographic dissolution: aren’t they marginal survivors? What were they like before other groups came in and squeezed them into near extinction? How does this compare with the situation on, say, American Indian reservations?

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  14. @luke – “it is only a matter of a few generations (probably) before immigrant families from traditional cultures overseas disappear into the wider population through intermarriage and migration.”

    ah, but the genes won’t necessarily disappear so quickly. see Albion’s Seed. (~_^)

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  15. @luke – “Hypothesis: the West is the great outlier. All the rest of the world is based on extended families.”

    exactly!

    specifically, nw europe. and you can throw in the bushmen and, maybe, eskimos, too. and maybe some other groups i don’t know about yet….

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  16. @linton – “I cannot see how varying patterns over such long periods of time could fail to have a biological impact.”

    me, neither. (^_^)

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  17. Hbd*chk — “so, not all hunter-gathers are created equal.” But, in another sense, maybe they are. You are familiar with the concept of reverse-dominance hierarchies? But now of course we are talking about two different things. Equality (or, rather, absence of dominance) within a small mobile band composed of a few lineages (the in-group) and hostility to all unrelated (or more distantly related?) outgroups. With the coming of settled agriculture reverse dominance hierarchies disappear however, only to re-appear once more in the industrial age, if only at the elite level (with what Madison called factions competing for power). This is all off topic. sorry.

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  18. @luke – “I find it interesting that the Greeks and the Romans both deliberately broke up their clans with cross-cutting political insitutions in order to establish a democracy (in the case of Athens) and a republic (in the case of Rome).”

    i don’t know that the romans deliberately broke up their clans. there definitely seems to have been prohibitions early on in roman society against close marriages. why that was, i don’t know — i mean, i don’t know what the motivation was. as time went on, marriage practices got closer — in the late republic and then during the empire days.

    the ancient greeks with cleisthenes definitely tried to break up the power of clans. not sure how well they succeeded. definitely they managed democracy pretty well for a couple of hundred years, so in that sense they did manage, but i don’t think the clans truly disappeared — in fact, cleisthenes’ restructuring may have just led to the establishment of new clans. then again, kinship terms did start to loosen in fifth-third century b.c. greece (taking more of a form we would recognize) , so maybe they did manage to break the clans.

    and, then, of course, different chinese dynasties/governments have tried every now and again, but have never managed. enforcement is always the issue.

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  19. hbd*chk – “ah, but the genes won’t necessarily disappear so quickly. see Albion’s Seed. (~_^)

    Right. For large founder groups especially. Genetic (and cultural) traits diffuse. I think it is interesting that almost all American scientific achievement (using Charles Murray’s data) has occurred across the northern tier of states. Chalk that up to all those middle-class Puritan dissenters from East Anglia.

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  20. By my reckoning the glory that was Greece only lasted sixty years. So, yes, there was a problem. Alcibiades was his name. (I mean disloyalty.) For the Roman Republic I am thinking of the way the popular Assembly was organized into voting groups not based on kinship. I think it was similar in Athens.

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  21. “and, then, of course, different chinese dynasties/governments have tried every now and again, but have never managed. enforcement is always the issue.”

    Conquering groups sometimes try to move their populations around to break up tribes and clans. The Syrians took the ten tribes of Israel; Stalin did it; probably lots of other despots in time.

    The importance of the institution of military conquest is one of my pet ideas. Historians, who confuse it with war, don’t seem to recognize what a revolutionary cultural innovation that was. Up there with the domestication of animals it was in my view. In fact, the same concept, or rather an extension of same. First you break the animal (in the case of horses and man) and then you control him with hunger.

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  22. @luke – “Conquering groups sometimes try to move their populations around to break up tribes and clans. The Syrians took the ten tribes of Israel; Stalin did it; probably lots of other despots in time.”

    absolutely! clans and tribes are (or can be) pains in the b*tt! and a lot of rulers/despots/sun kings/dark knights have known this and tried to deal with it in different ways.

    the only permanent solution, though, seems to be to stop the inbreeding — short-circuit the biological connections. the europeans happened upon this solution by accident, i think — despite how clever st. augustine was, i don’t think he grasped that he was dealing with biological stuff. the chinese almost stumbled upon the same solution, but they missed their big chance in not adopting buddhism fully and going with neoconfucianism instead.

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  23. Did I say conquest was a revolutionary development? I should have said that it was a shocking revolutionary development. (Shocking — as in ‘shock troops’ or ‘shock and awe’). So shocking was it in historical fact that historians don’t seem to be able to talk or even think about it in theoretical terms even to this day There are good reasons for that. They have been domesticated* not to. It was a capital offense before modern times. Naked power was the emperor without any clothes: if you wanted to allude to this clotheslessness you had better do it “between the lines” as they used to say in China during the cultural revolution.

    *when I say domesticated I mean that literally: there may even be genes dictating this reluctance. That’s how plastic human behavior is (and animal behavior in general). It’s hard to grasp how fine grained genetic influences can be — until you start studying nature. Something as simple as the behavior of a dragonfly for instance. Or my Golden Retriever. One thing about our place in the universe is that there are twenty-three orders of magnitude below us (and twenty-three more up in the air) more or less. The permutations and combinations of atoms (or even base pairs in a single living cell) are way beyond astronomical: ten to the what? A thousand? Million? You do the math. Meanwhile there are only ten to the 70th power of atoms in the visible universe. When Shakespeare said there were more things in heaven and earth than were ever dreamed of in our philosophy that was something of an understatement.

    Sorry. Old man running on.

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  24. “so, something interesting apparently did happen with clans in china during the song dynasty. there were these migrations of clans, but also the clans became more formalized — or something. not sure how to put it.”

    My first impression on reading that passage was small groups of kin from the north forming new villages in the south – sometimes in combination with other small groups of kin from the north – so when they founded the new village the Wus and Wangs from up north create a new clan with a new common name and a common genealogy book like a marriage.

    If so it would be a bit like the opposite clannish version of the new manorial settlements in Europe where, although the original clan ties were dissolved by the move, in China a new composite clan was founded as a replacement.

    .
    “i’m confused about the turkana from east africa ’cause there was a study about them published last year saying that there was a lot of non-familial alliances amongst them when they go to “war” with neighboring groups. according to “the theory,” since they’re pastoralists, they ought to be inbreeders and, therefore, clannish, so this didn’t seem to fit the picture to me.”

    If it’s the group i’m thinking of – not 100% sure – it’s not so much when the tribes go to war as a whole it’s when the unmarried men of the various tribes join up to go on a cattle (camel?) raid so i think the analogy would be more like a gang thing.

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  25. @g.w. – “If so it would be a bit like the opposite clannish version of the new manorial settlements in Europe where, although the original clan ties were dissolved by the move, in China a new composite clan was founded as a replacement.”

    yeah, that was my reading of what g&t said, too. need to find out more about this to make sure that’s what was really going on ’cause, if so, like you say, that’s a very fundamental difference from the settlement patterns across central/eastern europe by the germans.

    @g.w. – “If it’s the group i’m thinking of – not 100% sure – it’s not so much when the tribes go to war as a whole it’s when the unmarried men of the various tribes join up to go on a cattle (camel?) raid so i think the analogy would be more like a gang thing.”

    cattle, i think. what you’re saying could very well be right. i’ve just read that one paper on the turkana — and i never heard of them before that, or haven’t read anything else about them — so it sounded confusing to me. sounded like it didn’t fit the pastoralist pattern. further research is required…. (~_^)

    Reply

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