some random notes on the history of mating patterns in china…

on the recommendation of john derbyshire, we have been listening to some of the great courses lectures here at home. that’s not the royal “we” by the way — i mean the d.h. and me. anyway…in From Yao to Mao: 5000 Years of Chinese History, the lecturer, kenneth hammond — an excellent lecturer and, incidentally, one of the kent 25 — mentions that during the southern song period (1127–1279) elites in china changed their marriage patterns. in the preceding northern song period (960-1127), the elites — the intelligensia and bureaucrats running the country — had a tendency to marry other elites from all over the kingdom. the bureaucrats — provincial administrators, for instance — would all meet up with some regularity in the capital at kaifeng and, when they were there, one of the things they’d do was to arrange their children’s marriages between their respective families. however, in the southern song period, the elites — according to the current paradigm of teh historians — began to marry much more locally. really locally, apparently — not on a national basis, and not even on a provincial basis, but within very local areas.

the first thing that came to my mind when i heard this was that it probably just reflects the general pattern in china of closer marriage in the south than in the north. my impression so far from the little i’ve read on the history of mating patterns in china — and it is so far just an impression, so don’t quote me on this! — is that there has been a greater amount of cousin marriage in southern china than in northern china (who knows for how long?) — and as a result, there is a greater importance of clans in southern china than in the north (which there definitely is). if this general pattern is true, then it’s perhaps not surprising that marriage amongst the elites became more local in the southern song period since we’re presumably talking about elites from the south. the general pattern (if it exists) would also fit with the “flatlanders vs. mountaineers” theory of inbreeding and outbreeding, since southern china is mountainous while the north has a nice big plain.

in Portrait of a Community: Society, Culture, and the Structures of Kinship in the Mulan River Valley (Fujian) from the Late Tang Through the Song (2007), hugh clark, after looking through the genealogies of the elites in this mulan river valley place in the southern province of fujian during the southern song period, has this to say about their marriage patterns [pgs. 134-135]:

[T]hese links point to a phenomenon called ‘patrilateral cross-cousin marriage’, a pattern of reoccurring affinal exchange in which sone of a union most often took the daughters of a maternal uncle as wives [mother’s brother’s daughter or mbd marriage – h.chick].

Such links, which were common in traditional Chinese culture, helped to cement ties between patrilines that could render all manner of mutual assistance, be it fiscal, political, or social, to their affines.”

so…there you go. i’ll be keepin’ my eye open for more info on all this!
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in The Elementary Structures of Kinship, claude lévi-strauss concluded that a preference for mother’s brother’s daughter (mbd) marriage had a long history in china. speaking of history, it’s been ages since i’ve read Elementary Structures, so i don’t recall exactly how lévi-strauss’ argument went, but apparently he based his conclusion on the kinship terms in the chinese language. lewis h. morgan thought similarly — that peoples categorize their relatives based upon which ones they were permitted to marry and which ones were forbidden to them. i happen to think this is correct. it’s not the only reason for why peoples name their relatives in the ways that they do, but it’s probably one of the main ones. thus the arabs have a pretty complicated naming system for all of their cousins, since marriage to some cousins (the father’s brother’s daughter or the bint ‘amm) is preferred. the chinese also have a complicated kinship terminology (but some of that is related to an age hierarchy/ancestor worship). most europeans, on the other hand, don’t differentiate between their cousins, since cousin marriage was banned for so long in europe. before the church’s cousin marriage bans, most (all?) europeans — especially northern europeans (the greeks are a bit of an exception in this story) — did name their cousins differently — the european naming system changed after the mating patterns changed — about three or four hundred years later in the case of the germans, for example.

anyway, i can’t quote lévi-strauss on mbd marriage in china for you, because i don’t have a copy of his book. but i can quote jack goody on lévi-strauss. from The Oriental, the Ancient and the Primitive: Systems of Marriage and the Family in the Pre-Industrial Societies of Eurasia (1990) [pg. 23]:

“Attempting a historical reconstruction which has some affinities with the parallel undertakings of L.H. Morgan (1870) and W.H.R. Rivers (1914), Levi-Strauss compares China with the Miwok of North America largely on the basis of terms for kin relationship and concludes his own study of China with words that reflect the earlier tendency to derive structure from terminology:

“‘We are thus brought to the hypothesis of the coexistence, in ancient China, of two kinship systems: the first, practised by the peasants, and based on a real or functional division into exogamous moieties, the exchange of sisters, and marriage between bilateral cross-cousins; the other, of feudal inspiration, and based on cycles of alliance between patrilineages (distributed or not into exogamous moieties), and marriage with the matrilateral cross-cousin and niece. That is, a system of restricted exchange and a system of generalized exchange.’ (1969:368-70)”

no idea if this theory bears any resemblance to reality, but it’s certainly interesting.
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finally, from Why Europe? (2010), here’s michael mitterauer on china [pgs. 83-85]:

“The quite substantial differences between Europe and China are more apparent if we take the terminology of relationship as a prime indicator of kinship systems. There is no Chinese counterpart to the parallelling process [i.e. naming paternal and maternal relatives the same – h.chick] discernible in Europe from antiquity on. Quite the opposite: an exceedingly complex system of kinship terminology was further differentiated and elaborated upon in China. Claude Levi-Strauss speaks in this connection of an ‘overdetermined system’ against which he counterposes the ‘marked tendency toward *indeterminism*’ in European cultures. Historical dictionaries from after the second century BC list no fewer than 340 Chinese terms for the different relationships between kinfolk. Typical examples of this differentiation are the terms for ‘uncle.’ The European languages have managed with one word since the great transformation in its terminology, whereas Chinese has five different words, depending on whether the father’s older brother (*bo*) is meant, or his younger brother (*shu*), the mother’s brother (*jiu*), the aunt’s spouse on the father’s side (*gufu*) or on the mother’s side (*yifu*). This example illustrates the four distinguishing criteria on which this terminology is by and large based: gender, relative age, the generation, and filiation. The strict separation of the paternal and maternal lines is particularly vital. A distinction is drawn in China and Tibet between ‘relatives of the bone’ and ‘relatives of the flesh’; it also is found in a larger area stretching from India to Siberia and embracing the Mongolian and Turkic peoples of Russia. What is meant by these forms are paternal and maternal relatives, respectively, with the former being given preference. As this example demonstrates, the terminological distinction between an older and a younger brother is made only in the patriline, a differentiation that the Chinese system of kinship shares with many cultures in its extensive surroundings. It occurs as far away as southern Europe, where Indo-European roots cannot even begin to explain this significant feature. In this case we might have to think about possible influences from the steppe nomads who came from the East….

“The traditional rules of marriage in China display the same basic outlines of a strict patrilineal ordering of kinship that is found in the terminology of kinship. From the Tang dynasty [618–907 ad – h.chick] on, legal codes prohibited marriage to a woman from four classes of relatives: first and foremost, marriage to women with the same surname, then to widows of members of the same household, to women of another generation of fairly close kinship on the mother’s side or by marriage, and finally to sisters from the same mothers by a different father (half-sisters). In China identical surnames meant in principle descent from the same patriline. The ban on marriage was valid even if the common ancestor was a long way back in the male line. The Chinese family held to these basic principles of exogamy, which can be found in many other cultures in Eurasia with an analogous kinship structure. In early medieval Europe, far-reaching rules concerning exogamy were also established, but they were confined to certain degrees of relatedness. They mainly concerned the paternal and maternal lines completely symmetrically. In China, on the other hand, the emphasis on the father’s line led to crass inequalities when it came to enlarging the list of banned female marriage partners…. Marrying relatives from the mother’s side was not forbidden in principle. In earlier times, marriage in China even between cross-cousins not only used to be permitted but was common practice. Among China’s neighbors it can be found up to this day as a preferred form of marriage.”

previously: abridged history of cousin marriage in china

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