Women and the Family in Chinese History

Patricia Buckley Ebrey

Routledge, London, 2003

ISBN 0-415-28822-3

Despite enormous geographical diversity and mutually incomprehensible dialects or languages, today more than a billion people consider themselves to be Han Chinese. This situation makes Han Chinese ethnic identity one of the wonders of world history. Whereas Western Europe and the Americas together are home to almost as many people, they divide themselves into several dozen countries and even more ethnic groups. What has made China different? What has made it possible for Han Chinese to imagine such an enormous agglomeration of people as sharing something important, something that makes it possible, even desirable, to live together in a single state ? … I contend that Chinese understandings of ethnic identity have differed in important ways from ones found elsewhere – ones based on language, race, or place – and that their distinctive features help account for the huge size of the Han ethnic group. p. 165

[O]ver time, family names became very important for both personal and group identity. A persons family name was much more important than his or her personal name, a situation uncommon elsewhere. These family names were, moreover, central to notions of ancestors and marriage: ancestors shared one’s surname; marriage partners did not. By Han times, Chinese had become accustomed to thinking of those common ancestors generations or even centuries earlier as forming a natural solidarity group. … Over time, the number of surnames in common gradually declined.

Whereas a study based on historical records found more than 3,000 single-character Chinese surnames, a study based on the 19982 census in China found only 729 Han Chinese surnames. …[F]ew surnames account for a very large proportion of the population. Wang, Chen, L:I, Zhang, and Liu are used by 32% of the population, and half the population have one of only fourteen names. … Knowing someone as a Li or a Wang does not tell you what province that person comes from or even whether he or she is a northerner or a southerner. And certainly it indicates nothing about culture. The kind of connection provided by surnames thus was a genealogical connection, not a connection based on place, dialect, or local culture. p.167

How did the Chinese way of thinking differ from others we know about ? let me start with one of the easiest: how it differs from our use of surnames as ethnic markers. In the United States today we regularly use surnames as ethnic markers. We casually ask people if their names is Greek or Polish or Italian. They know we are assuming links between surnames and ethnic origin and so will offer supplementary information, saying that although their name is Greek, their mother or grandmother was Italian for instance. In other words, because we do not see ethnicity as strictly or even primarily patrilineal, we therefore realize it does not map perfectly to name…. We tend to assume that those who speak Slavic languages somehow share a common origin. By contrast, Chinese could make the Xianbei descendants of Huang Di without any concern with the language they spoke or its conception comparable to the Chinese language. There was, in other words, no conception comparable to the notion of an Indo-European language, no hypothesis that the links between languages and dialects were evidence of a remote genetic links between different cultures of people. p. 174

[Patrilineal kinship] provides a structure for a confusing agglomeration of people, a kind of template for seeing how they all fit together. Benedict Anderson (Imagined Communities), stressed the role of print, especially newspapers, in letting people imagine that others they had never met or even expected to meet had something in common. But Chinese had long seen people sharing the same surname as having something in common, and this kind of common bond, in weaker form, was also felt by all those who bore names that one’s patriline had married with or could plausibly have married with – a group that extended out from the known to the unknown to encompass what was conventionally called the "hundred surnames".p.175

[A] patrilineal conception of ethnicity co-existed well with Confucian culturalism. The issue was origins, not purity; emphasis was not on keeping others out, but on knowing who you were and how you were connected to others. Those who left written record commonly believed two things…: (1) what makes people Chinese is acting Chinese, and (2) what makes people Chinese is Chinese ancestry. These two beliefs each provided context for the other and shaped the effects the other had. If we notice only one we do not see the whole story.p. 176.


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