2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 164

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How to Flourish and Prosper: Geographic Mobility and Family Strategies in Pre-20th Century China

Organizer and Chair: Cong Zhang, University of Virginia, USA

Discussant: Robert P Hymes, Columbia University, USA

Scholars have often noted the impressive long-term survival of Chinese lineages; genealogies of the early twentieth century not infrequently trace ancestries back nearly a thousand years. In order to account for the persistence over centuries of certain families, scholarly attention has tended to focus on family ties to local communities. The four papers in this panel seek to push the discussion in new directions by examining the impact of geographic mobility on family survival strategies. How did uprooting one’s family and migrating elsewhere both create new opportunities and new challenges? Nicolas Tackett begins the panel by looking at how early Tang relocation to Chang’an and Luoyang allowed upper-class families to construct the dense social networks that assured them success in monopolizing top government positions. Cong Zhang then examines the ideological side of geographic mobility, investigating how bureaucrats of the Song reconfigured their filial obligations to justify careers that took them away from home for decades. Yongtao Du explores the impact of increasingly unrestricted spatial mobility beginning in the Late Ming, and how families dealt with new developments in household registration. Finally, focusing on Cantonese male migrants to Guangxi during the Qing, Steve Miles illuminates the diasporic strategies adopted by families and lineages in their efforts to generate social mobility. Collectively, these papers demonstrate the importance of paying attention to place and to spatial mobility in understanding the family dynamics of traditional China.

Geographic Relocation and the Exploitation by Late Tang Elites of Capital-Based Social Networks
Nicolas Tackett, University of California, Berkeley, USA

On the basis of a new database containing biographical information about tens of thousands of eighth- and ninth-century individuals, this paper seeks to explain the remarkable persistence into the late ninth century of a political elite that had largely monopolized the top positions in government for centuries. Although one often thinks of the An Lushan Rebellion as a key turning point in Chinese history, Tang elites in fact adapted very well to eighth- and ninth-century political developments. One critical factor accounting for their striking success was the relocation of these families to the capital early in the dynasty. Their geographic concentration allowed them to construct dense marriage networks. It was the resulting social connections that allowed the late Tang upper class to coopt potential avenues of upward social mobility, including both the civil service examinations and the informal recruitment system used by provincial governments. Within this network of elites were two different marriage cliques, one organized around the imperial clan and one organized around several sub-branches of the most eminent of the old clans. The different structures of these two cliques suggest that the social capital embedded in the marriage and kin network could function in multiple ways, allowing families to exploit their social connections on the basis of fundamentally different survival strategies.

Hard Choices, Successful Compromises: Government Service, Filial Piety, and Changes in Elite Family Life During the Song
Cong Zhang, University of Virginia, USA

Because they were drawn to examination success and government service, many educated men of the Song spent the balance of their adult lives away from their native places; this often rendered them unable to fulfill vital filial obligations to their parents and ancestors. These were by no means new developments in the Song; scholar-officials from earlier and later times faced similar problems. But the Song witnessed the rise of a discourse that directly addressed this problem. More importantly, rather than highlighting the inherent conflict between filial piety and political loyalty, this discourse focused on the impact of elite geographical mobility on the family life of its members. Drawing on hundreds of epitaphs, this paper will show that Song scholars increasingly argued that performing mourning and funeral rituals, assisting family members with financial problems and marriage alliances, and, most importantly, bringing honor to the family by earning official titles constituted the most ideal expressions of filial devotion. These shifts in obligations made filial piety less about individual sons physically caring for their parents, as had been prescribed in classical and early medieval literature. Filiality was instead construed as a virtue that could sanction elite men’s scholarly and official pursuits, all in the interest of advancing family causes. This development had far-reaching implications for the way in which elite status was conceived and maintained and for the construction of ideal family and gender roles.

Registering for Prosperity: The Household Registration System and Family Strategies in the Qing
Yongtao Du, Oklahoma State University, USA

Because of substantial reforms in taxation and labor conscription between the late Ming and early Qing, the place-identity of the population gradually became untied from the state’s fiscal concerns, and spatial mobility grew more unrestricted. At the same time, the place-sensitive quotas for civil service examinations remained the same. Thus, for migrant families of the Qing, examinations became the only field in which their household registration status mattered. Practically, to register as locals in the host place meant to participate in examinations there, and vice versa. Official change of place affiliation therefore became the migrant families’ first step towards upward social mobility at their new homes. Correspondingly, the Qing government rigorously revamped the household registration system, prescribing clear and standard procedures for the registration of migrant households at new places, and also more effectively preventing individuals from taking examinations in multiple places. This paper sorts out Qing legislation on household registration and examines migrant families’ strategic practices in this changing context in which spatial mobility was largely free yet the state-sponsored channel of upward social mobility still required a stable place affiliation.

Family, Lineage, and Migration in the West River Basin, 1570-1870
Steven B. Miles, Washington University, St. Louis, USA

This paper is part of a larger project that examines a set of diasporic practices that male Cantonese lowlanders from southern China’s Pearl River delta pursued upstream into the highlands along the West River basin, primarily in Guangxi, but also in western Guangdong, southern Guizhou, eastern Yunnan, and northern Vietnam. Practices included serving as officials in Guangxi, registering as students in government schools upstream in order to sit for less competitive civil service examinations there, opening and settling agricultural lands, and conducting trade. In this paper I explore the family and lineage dynamics that both sustained and evolved out of Cantonese male migration between the late sixteenth and late nineteenth centuries. Narrowing the focus to family, I highlight the gender dynamics of migration; male sojourners’ primary wives and daughters who remained in the delta made family strategies of migration possible. Upriver, Cantonese anxieties focused on the body of “native” women accused of detaining male migrants. Broadening the focus to lineage, I describe both the networks that produced patterns of “chain migration” and the ways in which claims of descent were flexibly manipulated in the interests of social mobility in both downriver and upriver communities. Drawing on recent studies of overseas Chinese in the modern era, I argue that institutions such as the family and lineage, most often envisioned as purely “local,” in fact were closely linked to diasporic strategies of mobility and dispersal.