Women and the Family in Chinese History

By Patricia Buckley Ebrey | Go to book overview

5
The early stages in the development of descent group organization*

Twenty-five years ago, Denis Twitchett wrote that “one of the most urgent tasks confronting the social historian writing on China is to provide a dynamic picture of the developments in clan organization over the past two millennia.” 1 However urgent this task may have seemed, since Twitchett's own study of the Fan estate and its management, very little research has been done on the historical issues of change and development. Scholars have added a dozen or more case studies of lineages, but most of these have concentrated on analyzing how lineages operated in a static, ideal form, rather than examining how forms of organization developed or spread. 2 Moreover, scholars have often assumed that there was only one type of lineage and that features important in modern lineages, especially corporately owned landed property and genealogies, played the same roles everywhere and in all stages of lineage development. 3 Even the broad surveys of lineages done a generation ago by the Japanese legal and sociological historians Niida, Shimizu, and Makino, which drew together great quantities of information, did not altogether escape these failings. 4 This essay, therefore, will try to correct the balance by looking at the development of kinship organization in a historical context, concentrating on the period 1000–1400.

As I organized material for the overview that follows, I kept in mind three underlying questions. The first is the question of what, precisely, changed. Many of the activities of descent groups and lineages (ancestral rites, charity along kin lines, compilation of genealogies) were practiced long before there were descent groups of the type that appeared in the Song and later. What were the crucial innovations that can be linked to the appearance of this type of descent group, and when did they appear?

The second question is why these innovations appeared. Given the great continuity in kinship attitudes and practices, what social, economic, religious,

____________________
*
This chapter was originally published in Kinship Organization in Late Imperial China, 1000–1940, ed. Patricia Buckley Ebrey and James L. Watson, copyright 1986 © The Regents of the University of California. Reproduced with the permission of the University of California Press.

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