Family Patrilineage

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Family Patrilineage


Patriarchy. The family, whether large or small, was patrilineal and patriarchal in imperial China. Maternal relatives, and the family of one’s mother, were never closely bound to the primary kinship unit. Only paternal relatives were recognized as members of the kin-group and were able to participate in all rituals honoring common ancestors. The most important parts of Chinese family life were the use of patrilineal surnames, the worship of patrilineal ancestors, and the organization of kinship based on a common patrilineal descent. The ancestral cult was intimately tied to the kinship organization.

Surnames. Names that the Chinese use are diverse and complex. Chinese surnames were well established after the Tang period as either a badge of family dignity or of lineage identity. It is alleged that about five thousand years ago the earliest family names were given by Huang Ti to his twelve sons. From these cognomens derived additional clan and family names. The Bat Jia Xing (Book of Hundred Surnames), a Song-era primer, listed only one hundred names, but in reality there were well more than this figure. In Tang times there was a popular fashion of having a Hao (sobriquet), especially among members of literary and elite circles. A person acquired a Hao, usually designated by himself or conferred upon him by an elderly or respected person, later in life.

Ancestors. In the classical era, however, commoners often did not have family names. Even the names of aristocrats were highly confusing. The real beginning of the system of patrilineal surnames appeared after the unification of the country by Qin Shi Huang, the first imperial emperor of China, and his efforts to register the entire population. Surnames came to be considered an identification of kinship, making it easy for everyone (particularly males) to identify with a patrilineal descent line and to consider themselves part of a “continuum of descent.” The family with the most direct descent from a common ancestor claimed the political and ritual leadership of the clan. The obligation to observe ancestral rites also led to the need to secure male heirs. The Mencius Doctrine, claiming that “the worst of unfilial acts was a failure to have descendants,” laid the foundation for patrilineal ancestral rites. Yet, in early classical periods these rites were reserved for the privileged class. By law the emperor had seven ancestral temples; a lord had five, an official three, a scholar one, but a commoner had none.

Aristocracy. The aristocracy, controlled by a few great families of nobility, or Wang Zhu, declined in political and social influence during the Tang dynasty. Their remaining power dissipated during the Song dynasty, when the imperial government took measures to break the aristocracy by reducing the great estates into smaller holdings divided among multiple owners. During the Tang dynasty the rewards of passing the civil service examination prevailed over the use of the aristocratic family names in determining government appointments.

Kin-based Village. In Song times the patrilineal kinship organization became more systemized because of the impact of the Zz Jia Li (Book of Family Rites), which introduced to commoners the designs of ancestral halls, protocols of ancestral worship, responsibilities of the family head, and steps to record the family history. The significance of the Zhu Zijia Li was that it changed the tradition that ancestral rites were confined only to royal and pedi-greed families, thus making the practice of ancestor worship available to any family, regardless of its social rank. Since families that shared the same ancestors were grouped into clans, they tended to live in the same geographical area. Kin-based villages prevailed during the Ming dynasty; if the kin-clan was extended, it usually only spread to adja-cent villages.

Kinship. Ouyang Xiu and Su Xun, Song scholar-officials, believed that if kinship organizations were able to uphold ethical teachings, they would give an added

degree of social stability. Kinship, as an organizational form of the extended family structure, became a well-established institution that held kinsmen together through the practice of ancestor worship. Every kin-group had its own Jia Pu (record of family genealogy), which had been a tradition among families of pedigree in early classical periods. During the Song dynasty, recording the family genealogy became a social trend. The obvious purpose of keeping a family genealogy was to facilitate the worshiping of ancestors. Yet, the function of Jia Pu went well beyond ancestor worship; it was widely used by the imperial government as a document of reference or verification in selecting candi-dates for official appointments. It also served as a symbol of social distinction, especially when a family produced several high achievers either as distinguished scholars or high-ranking imperial officials.

Affinities. Kinship organizations played a pivotal part in social relations. To a great extent, community-based kinship organizations were the cornerstone of social stability in imperial China. First, the group was united by a natural affinity of blood relations. Ancestral rites reminded everyone that they were descendants of a common ancestor and that they shared the responsibility for maintaining family honor and dignity. Second, the group handled self-protection and mutual assistance. Kinsmen were organized for the common interests of their group to ensure security and economic needs. Wealthy families provided property or assistance for philanthropic purposes and children’s education, especially for poor families in the kin-group. Third, the group disciplined deviant members. Every village was self-governing and had no officials. The kinship organization assumed collective legal responsibility for its members; the state allowed a certain autonomy to be exercised by family leaders and at the same time took from them the severest cases, such as murder, for punishment under state laws.


Hugh D. R. Baker, Chinese Family and Kinship (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979).

Han-Yi Feng, The Chinese Kinship System (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967).

Zhenman Zheng, Ming Qing Fujian jia zu zu zhi yu she hui bian qian, translated as Family Lineage Organization and Social Change in Ming and Qing Fujian, by Michael Szonyi and others (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001).