In the spirit of the present volume, this chapter attempts to fill this lacuna, to show where the Chinese family system fits in the comparison of family systems around the world and through history. It first addresses the question of the patrilineal Chinese family structure and its place in the multidimensional grid of possible human family structures. It then relates this structure to the functions performed and the activities organized by the Chinese family, showing that the bare structure of who moves in and out of the Chinese family through its developmental cycle is but a surface structure, and that we must look toward the functions of the Chinese family in the political economy of China if we are to understand patriarchy and patrimony as the more fundamental factors underlying the dynamics of the Chinese family.
PATRILINY: THE SURFACE STRUCTURE OF THE DEVELOPMENTAL CYCLE
The developmental cycle and the principles of structural variation
Family systems are not static structures, but are structures of process--the process of growth and division of the family that is composed of discrete events: births, marriages, adoptions, divorces, divisions, and deaths. That there is no typical form of family in a society, but rather a series of forms that are the outcome of this cyclical process, was first recognized by Meyer Fortes, who named this process the Developmental Cycle (Fortes 1949). The cycle, of course, is never quite the same in two families, or even in one family from generation to generation, because of the differential numbers and timing of the events. But the process of every family system, the Chinese one included, is governed by a series of principles that operate within the constraints of the biological schedules of human reproduction.
These constraints are fairly simple. There are two biological sexes with fixed roles in the generation of new life; hence every social system comprises two primary genders with specific (not so fixed) roles in the process of making newly cultural beings. No family system has one gender or three. Similarly, there is a universal taboo on sexual and/or marital relations with certain relatives, meaning that every family system has both sibling relations and spousal relations, and these are nearly always separate. Finally, it takes a human being about 17-20 years to reach full reproductive competence, both physiologically and socially, and the human life span is around 70-80 years before the onset of significant age deterioration. This means it is rare that there are more than four generations alive at once in a family, and in most cases there are only three. These constraints mean that the number of possible family systems is large but finite, that the range of variation is circumscribable both logically and empirically.
Within these constraints, family developmental cycles vary along four dimensions:
The Chinese and other patrilocal joint family systems
Patrilocal joint family systems are not rare worldwide. They are particularly common in Sub-Saharan Africa, where most of them take a polygynous form, allowing a man to have several wives simultaneously, and joint families consisting of patrilineally related men and their wives and children often occupy large compounds with several tens of residents. Similarly, in Polynesia, although the rule of patrilocality is not followed as strictly or as consistently as it is in much of Africa or in China, joint family systems exist where the primary mode of residence is patrilocal and the primary mode of transmission of affiliation and inheritance is patrilineal.
Because of the large number of patrilocal joint family systems in Africa, many of the earliest attempts to put Chinese families into comparative perspective were made on the basis of comparison with African systems. Maurice Freedman, for instance, drew on the work of Meyer Fortes, Max Gluckman, and E.E. Evans-Pritchard to try to bring Chinese families into the comparative studies of family structure (get exact refs).
Similarly, but even further afield, the Chinese family system and its associated
patrilineage system also gained a certain amount of attention from comparative
scholars not only of family systems, but of kinship systems in general (Murdock, Lévi
Strauss, I.M. Lewis, Fox). These scholars were concerned with the structural
differences between one patrilineal family system and another. For example, I.M. Lewis
(1966) sought to determine what constitutes strong or weak patrlineal organization. He
noticed that, among many African groups, a woman retained primary affiliation with
her own patrilineal group even after she was married into her husband's group, while
among the Chinese, a woman transferred her allegiance almost entirely to her
husband's group upon marriage. Which was the more representative or stronger
patrilineal organization, Lewis asked, and he concluded that one was not more
patrilineal than the other; they were simply alternative methods of organization, which
of course had an effect on the power and property relations in the lives of these women
and their brothers and husbands. In another example, Murdock's famous typology of
kinship terminology included two types of systems that were generally associated with
patriliny: the Iroqois system (even though it was named after a matrilineal group, it fit
patrilineal and matrilineal systems equally well), in which cross-cousins were
distinguished from parallel cousins, and the Omaha system, in which members of the
mother's patrlineage were equated with each other regardless of generation because
they were members of a lineage allied with ego's through marriage. It did not,
however, mention the Chinese kin terminology system, in which aganatic cousins were
distinguished from both uterine and cross-cousins. In a final example, many texts
(check Fox) stated that the lineage and the centralized state were not compatible, since
the lineage as a form of political organization conflicted with territorially-based state
power; the lineage and the state were alternatives. This statement was made despite
the fact that late Imperial Chinese society combined economically--not so much
politically--important lineages with state power. Even Maurice Freedman, who wrote
the first coherent accounts of Chinese lineage organization, felt compelled to account
for "strong" lineages in Guangdong and Fujian by the relative weakness of state power
in such areas, conveniently ignoring the flouishing of lineages in Zhejiang and Jiangsu
near traditional centers of state control.
All of these comparative treatments of the Chinese family turned out rather askew. To wonder at the different position of women in Chinese and African patrilocal family systems, to ignore in a typology of kinship terminology systems the existence of the system of one-fourth of the world's population, to deny the compatibility of a bureaucratic state and a lineage system because of a priori theoretical considerations--all these mistakes were the result of looking at surface features of lineality, partibility, monogamy, and early transfer, rather than looking at what was passed down, parted, transferred at marriage, or transferred between generations.
In fact, these comparisons of the Chinese patrilocal joint family system and the lineage system in which it was sometimes embedded were doomed from the start because they were comparing incomparables. The family systems in Africa and elsewhere with which the Chinese system was often compared existed in completely different kinds of political economies. The fact that they evolved similar developmental cycles was a function of the limited number of alternatives available for the organization of human social reproduction, but in fact these were similarities of surface structure, not of underlying principles. To make fruitful comparisons with the Chinese family, one would need to go to Russia, the Balkans, Greece, parts of the Arab World, or India, not to the classical anthropological cases of Africa. To understand why, we need to consider what is fundamental and what is superficial in a family system.
The superficial similarity between the structures, or developmental cycles, of the Chinese family and the families embedded in the classical patrilineal societies of Africa stems from the fact that there are only a limited number of ways to organize the family, given the constraints of human biological and social reproduction outlined above. It stands to reason, then, that many very different social systems might be organized according to the same surface structures. But what is important at the level of explanation is in the first instance not how something is organized, but what is being organized. In different sorts of social systems, family groups undertake cooperation in different activities, or to put it another way, perform different functions on behalf of their members. The activities organized by family systems worldwide can be divided into eight types:
In Production and Reproduction, Jack Goody set out a list of differences in social and kinship organization in sub-Saharan Africa, which he took to be representative of pre state societies (what Fried called rank societies), and in the state societies of Europe and Asia:
Africa (rank societies) Eurasia (state or stratified societies)
Hoe agriculture Plough agriculture
No states or rudim. states Large, complex states
Homogeneous transmission Diverging devolution
X-cousin marrige Parallel cousin marriage
Classificatory kin terms Separate sibling kin terms
Permitted premarital sex Prohibited premarital sex
In my analysis here, I take for granted the first three characteristics as defining the two social types, and concentrate on the final six distinctions. If Goody's original analysis were correct, we should expect the Chinese family to fit neatly into the descriptions found in the right-hand column.
In Goody's unique parlance, homogeneous transmission refers to male goods passing only from male to male, through whatever kinship route, while diverging devolution refers to the same goods passing, at least in some circumstances to members of both sexes. In the Chinese case, transmission of real property is almost entirely between males. For example, land and commercial assets descend in equal shares to all sons; daughters rarely receive any portion. When a man dies and his estate remains undivided, either his widow or his sons may be the effective managers, but the widow can never hold this land in her own right, nor could she pass it to children she might have by a subsequent marriage if she were to remarry.
At the same time, Chinese marriages involved dowry, which Goody defines as property (usually not in land) given to a bride or to a married couple at the time of their marriage, and which becomes part of a conjugal fund managed by the couple and outside the control of any of the husband's other family members. Even though dowry was rarely in real property, it did establish a fund known as "money of her own branch," which is practically Goody's definition of "conjugal fund." A woman was free to invest or deal with this money, and since all goods are convertible in a state society, it might lead to female ownership of real property.
Also, transmission of association in China might in some circumstances descend through females. In many areas, particularly in the South and Southwest of China, a family with only daughters and no sons might take in an uxorilocal husband for that daughter, but transmit the family surname, and along with it the right to inherit property and the duty to carry on the ancestral sacrifices, through a daughter even if they were not transmitted directly to that daughter.
So it seems ambiguous whether China had homogeneous or diverging devolution. The primary route of inheritance was from male to male, and in many circumstances only males could be listed as official heads of households (except when there were no male adults in a household) or inherit real property directly in their own names. But at the same time, the residual heir in the case of no sons was a daughter or a daughter's offspring, not a more distant agnate as in many areas of Africa.
At the same time, it is clear that China did have dowry, placing it firmly in the right-hand column. The problem is, it also had bridewealth. Let me explain. In Goody's classic formulation, bridewealth passes from the groom's family to the bride's family at the time of marriage, and becomes part of a "circulating fund," which is used by the bride's family to exhange for rights to a bride for their own son. Dowry, on the other hand, while it originates in the opposite direction--from the bride's family--goes not into a circulating fund but into the aforementioned conjugal fund. When the groom's family gives money or goods to the bride's family, but they use this money as part of the dowry, the gift from the groom's side is "indirect dowry," not bridewealth. Another way to think about the distinction is that if the goods passing from the groom's side to the bride's side exceed the value of the dowry the bride's family gives to her, the bride's family retains a surplus which they can use to secure brides for their own sons, making this bridewealth. If, by contrast, the value of the dowry is greater than whatever the bride's family gets from the groom's family, the groom's family's contribution is simply the indirect part of the dowry.
When we examine economic exchanges in Chinese marriages, we find wide variation in whether these amount to dowry, direct and indirect, or dowry plus bridewealth. It seems clear that there were always goods passing from the groom's to the bride's family, but that whether the amount of dowry exceeded the groom's contribution, eliminating any amount of bridewealth as a contribution to a circulating fund, depended on the local economy. In general, the more commercialized the economy and the higher status the families engaging in the marriage, the more likely dowry was to exceed the amount of the groom's family's contribution. Still, there were many places where the groom's family's contribution was larger, and formed in fact a circulating fund, meaning that both bridewealth and dowry were present.
There is another consideration here, which is that not all of the goods going from the bride's family at the time of marriage went to form what Goody would call a conjugal fund. On the one hand, the "own room money" mentioned above was the woman's private property, and in many places she went to great lengths to conceal its amount and or its location from her husband and especially from his parents (Cohen 1976: xx). On the other hand, sometimes some of the amount paid by the bride's family came under direct control of the groom's parents, making it possibly part of a circulating fund even though it went in the wrong direction and its amount did not exceed the amount of the bride's family's contribution. So it appears that there was sometimes an effective "groomwealth," which was different from dowry, if the latter is defined as forming a conjugal fund.
The two factors of cross- versus parallel-cousin marriage and of exogamy vs.
endogamy are related to each other, in a manner similar to the relation between the
bridewealth-dowry distinction and the homogeneous transmission-diverging
devolution distinction. According to Goody's model, cross-cousin marriage, by
disallowing any marital alliances within a descent group (descent group exogamy),
creates the alliances necessary for leaders of a family or of a larger descent group to
enhance their social position, while parallel-cousin marriage (known particularly in the
Arab world, see xx), and the resulting descent-group endogamy allows wealth to
remain within the control of family members or close relatives. This reflects the
different property regimes: in the rank societies, especially Africa, property produces
prestige and followers, whereas in state societies property is prestige, and must be
retained for its own sake, rather than put into personnel exchanges.
According to this logic, China should have parallel cousin marriage and descent group endogamy, but in fact it has strict descent group exogamy (until recently, one could not marry anyone of the same surname, a group that might include millions of people whose common patrilineal descent was at best putative. Endogamy, of course, existed, but it was endogamy of the social stratum, encapuslated in the saying men dang hu dui, the doors match. It does, however, allow both parallel and cross-cousin marriage, as long as the marriage was outside the agnatic line. In other words, one could marry a child of one's mother's brother, mother's sister, or father's sister; these were all called by the same kinship term, biao sibling.
This brings us to the issue of classificatory kin terms in the pre-state societies where descent groups control property and the residual heir is a distant clan-mate, and distinct kin terms for own siblings in the state societies where families control property and the residual heir is a daughter or her offspring. In fact, China has classificatory terms, but of a different sort. Although one will find in dictionaries and textbooks the following arrangement:
Own older brother: gege
Agnatic older male cousin (FBS): tangge
Uterine older male cousin (MZS): biaoge
Older male cross-cousin (FZS or MBS): biaoge,
in my experience the term tangge (and its equvalents for younger brother, elder sister,
and younger sister) are never used except as explanatory terms, and I suspect they are
20th-century neologisms. People refer to their agnatic male cousins as gege, pure and
simple (and the equivalent for other siblings), thus dividing relatives of the same
generation into two categories: agnatic, including own siblings, where the term has no
prefex, and non-agnatic, which take the prefix biao.
In other words, the Chinese kin terminology system separates the sibiling set from all cousins but the agnatic ones, and can indicated the differences between agnatic cousins and own siblings by the addition of a rather rarely-used prefix. It is thus intermediate between the Eurasian norm proposed by Goody and the African model of family systems in pre-state societies.
Finally there are the issues dealing with marriage: polygyny vs. monogamy and permission vs. prohibition of premarital sex. In these two categories, the Chinese system falls squarely into the Eurasian, state-society model. Like many Eurasian family systems, the Chinese system does permit a small amount of wealth- or status- based polygyny in the etymological sense of one man having "many women," but not in the conventional anthropological sense of one man having "many wives." Plural sex partners for a man in the Chinese system were concubines, clearly distinguished from wives by the fact that they were denied any role in the structure of social reproduction. Children borne by concubines were legally and ritually children of the wife; the concubine was legally nothing more than a method for producing children. And the Chinese system prohibited premarital sex quite strictly, though there is considerable evidence that in peasant populations there was a fair degree of premarital pregnancy (Wolf, Hinton).
The question of patriliny
Why certain societies are patrilineal and others are bilateral or matrilineal is a difficult
question. Matrilineal organization is actually rather rare, and the reasons for this seem
obvious if embarrassing. Many male reproductive strategies work better when males
can control the productive and reproductive capacities of females, and since males are
physically stronger, in many societies they manage to do so. It is easier to control
women when related men cooperate to do so, and it is difficult to do this when relations
are reckoned through the female line. Also, it is clearly demonstrable that there is a
built-in tension between matrliny and marriage, the more so when property
institutions are more highly developed, so that husbands are torn between controlling
their wives' productive and reproductive activities (which enhances directly their own
reproductive success) and participating in the political and economic activities of their
own kin group (which indirectly enhances their reproductive succes by raising their
prominence and prestige). So the more developed the property institutions of a
society, the less likely the society is to be matrilineal, meaning that almost all matrilineal
societies exist either in the nomadic band or the pre-state rank society form, and there
are only a very few known matrilineal family systems in state societies.
But why should one society, such as Greece, display patrilineal, patrilocal forms, and another, such as Italy, be bilateral? Why should China and most of India be patrilineal, with patrilocal joint families, while Thailand and Burma in-between be bilateral? One way to explain these differences is simply to look at what Gates (introduction) calls "path dependency": they were that way before for unknown reasons, and they are still that way today. It's another way of talking about cultural continuity without uttering the "c" word, which is taboo for anthropolgists in the 3rd Millennium.
It might also be possible to search for factors in the ecology or political economy of China that were conducive to the development of patrilineal organization. One might suggest the character of the patrimonial state, which was shared by China, Russia, and Turkey, not to speak of ancient Rome, for example, but the problem is that other states evolved quite involved bureaucratic organization
in the context of bilateral kinship, such as Thailand or many medieval European polities (goody and thirsk, etc). Some cross-cultural comparativists have found that patriliny is associated with animal husbandry, but most of the societies examined in these studies were either non-state societies or pastoral groups on the periphery of complex state systems (refs).
It is thus difficult to come up with causes for the existence of the patrilineal, patrilocal Chinese family system. It is easier, however, to determine the consequences of this system; here I want to concentrate on two: the patriarchal structure of power in both ideology and everyday life, and the structure of patrimonial property relations and inheritance. Both these phenomena, patriarchy and patrimony, contribute to explaining the second question about the effects of patriliny: the intermediate position of the Chinese system between Goody's non-state and state society types of family organization.
Patriarchy and Patrimony
The term "patriarchy" has been used in much recent feminist anthropology and
commentary to mean dominance by males in many walks of life (refs). But here I wish
to use the term in an older and more etymological sense to describe a system in which a
senior generation of adult men, through their control of family property and labor,
exercise domination over all females and over younger generations of men. In other
words, I use "patriarchy" to refer to domination by patriarchs.
There is no doubt that the Chinese family system was patriarchal. In both codified and customary law, the household head, though he was technically only a trustee or custodian of property belonging to his descent line, was still given personal responsibility for that property, as well as the authority to assign labor and allocate income to junior members of the household, the right to make economic transactions, including adding to or diminishing the patrimony itself, and to punish junior members of the household for wrongdoing. Very old patriarchs often lost effective power to other family members; patriarchs with weak personalities or inferior intellects often gave over day-to-day management of family economic affairs to their wives or never fully took them from their aged but more able mothers. But women's power, which could be very real, was never official; a female manager made her decisions in the name of the patriarch for the benefit of the patrilineally organized family.
Patrilineal household organization is probably not necessary for the institution of patriarchy (see counter-examples in (Tibet and NW France, for example) ), but it certainly facilitates patriarchal domination. There are several reasons for this. First, patrilocal marital residence keeps the core of male agnates together as members of the same household (Fox 1966), while it isolates the married-in daughter-in-law without any support from her own kin. It also means that a strong and ambitious woman can in fact gain power in the family, but only by demonstrating her loyalty and contribution to the prosperity of the patriline, meaning that she becomes, in fact, a female agent of the patriarchal system, rather than becoming powerful through any structural position of her own. Second, patriarchy is backed by the institution of the patrilineage, which extends the authority and possible solidarity of the male agnates beyond the family to an extended kin group whose elders often take a part in keeping married-in females in line. Third, institutions of ancestor worship focus on the direct male ancestors and their wives, meaning that the supernatural authority over the family resides in former patriarchs, and that former powerful women are seen as such again by their attachment to the patriline. Fourth, out of the institutions of patrilineal kinship there grew both a moral code of filial piety and obedience of wife to husband, and legal codes that reinforced patriarchal power with the coercive and judicial authority of the state.
The institutions of patriarchy also, in allowing for the growth of the corporate lineage as an extended patrilineal kin group, created one of the factors that might have prevented the Chinese system from conforming to the ideal of the state-society family and kinship system as outlined by Goody. This was particularly true at those times and in those regions that Gates (1995) characterizes as dominated by the bureaucratic tributary mode of production. In these areas, and in codified law as well, which reflected bureaucratic-tributary thinking, family-centered institutions such as non agnatic adoption and uxorilocal marriage as a way of carrying on the patriline through the descendants of daughters, were discouraged or prohibited (Waltner). According to the laws of the xxx dynasties, the proper way of continuing a line with no sons was to adopt an agnate, and according to the rules of many lineages, adoptions of non-agnates were not recognized in the genealogy or in the ancestral sacrifices.
Also, the kinship terminology described above, in which own siblings were conflated with agnatic cousins, thus departing from the ideal of state societies with separate sibling terms, can be attributed to the influence of the lineage, which after all was a group of agnatically related males and their families living close to one another. Not only ideationally were agnatic cousins more like siblings than cross- or uterine cousins; they were also much more like them behaviorally, since many of them at least lived in the same village or neighborhood, so one saw them practically every day throughout life, while uterine and cross-cousins, living elsewhere under the usual regime of village as well as lineage exogamy, were more distant physically and usually emotionally, relatives that one saw on special visits or at holidays rather than every day.
It is difficult to say whether the lineage was more important as a patriarchal or as a patrimonial organization. Lineages in North China generally did not generally own much corporate property; their patrimonial role was limited (Cohen 1992). In the East and South, however, the largest, most complex, and most powerful lineages gained their strength at least partially from their control of corporate property, mostly in the form of land (Freedman, Potter, Baker, etc.). In these cases, not only the transmission of lineage membership and the ancestral rights, but also the inheritance of property, was influenced by lineage rules, and these rules emphasized the precedence of extended agnatic ties over that of closer bilateral ties within the family group. According to many lineage codes, not only could property not be inherited by the offspring of a uxorilocal son-in-law or a non-agnatic adoptee, but sales of family property outside the lineage were forbidden, at least until the right of first refusal was given to potential buyers within the lineage (refs).
The patrimonial system also influenced the intermediate position of the Chinese family system in the area of marriage exchanges, what we can call bridewealth-dowry alternation. In a fully bilateral system, even one that shares with the Chinese the structural characteristic of partibility, women gain a full share of inheritance, as in many parts of Europe (refs from HF), and in some systems that lie intermediate between patriliny and full bilaterality, sometimes a slightly smaller share but one that nevertheless includes land or other real property (more specefic refs). But in patrilineal systems women cannot ordinarily hold real property, so that dowry is confined to personal goods and money. The lack of real property dowries does not in itself mean bridewealth, of course, but in China dowries were often small enough that there was the aforementioned leftover portion of the money transferred from the groom's to the bride's family, which could be used by them as part of a circulating fund. In addition, brideweath seems to have varied with the value of women's labor in agriculture; the greater the value of the woman to her husband's family, the higher the bridewealth, a correlation that seems to have varied independently of the size of dowry.
In other words, patriliny encouraged many practices that strengthened both the patriarchal and the patrimonial role of the agnatic lineage at the expense of the role of the intrinstically partly bilateral family group. The lineage, belying the idea that it was incompatible with the state, served often enough as an agent of state control or an alternative to such control in areas where state penetration was weak at the local level. Even in areas where the lineage itself was not prominent, the strong legal and ideological emphasis on the unity of the patriline in inheritance, authority, and ritual solidarity meant that women were excluded from the structural core of the kinship system. They could still, especially those with great personal ability, wield de facto power in many family situations, but they always did so, as it were, unofficially. This meant, in terms of the scale from the ideal type of non-state societies to the ideal type of state societies, that even the concentration of property holding in the family group was not complete in China, that lineages often had residual control over patrimony, which led to the retention (or perhaps re-creation) of certain features of typical patrilineal systems in non-state societies. In addition, the power of males within the family itself, enhanced by their solidarity through patrilocal residence, meant that women were excluded from inheritance in most situations, and often valued primarily for their labor, which diminished the value of dowry and raised the amount of the groom's contribution to the bride's family at marriage, making that contribution into true bridewealth.
It thus appears that patriliny, while not exactly a deep structure of kinship relations, was more than just a surface manifestation of a deeper model of diverging devolution in the family-centered property relations of state societies. Patriliny, however it evolved, was not just a dependent variable, but also an independent variable, rendering the Chinese family system both more patriarchal and more patrimonial than almost any bilateral system in a complex state society.