Traditionally, kinship-based clans played an important role in Chinese society. Broadly defined as a patrilineal, patrilocal group of related people who shared a surname, clans were often responsible for managing civil disputes, safeguarding property, and collecting taxes. After the formation of the People’s Republic in 1949, many of the clans’ responsibilities were assumed by state-established political authorities, which undermined their economic basis and organizational structures.
The socialist movement shattered the old patrilineal clan system. Older generations, who still have memories of how things used to be, have tried to revive clan traditions in the period since the Cultural Revolution and the advent of the reform and opening-up period in the late 1970s. The revival of clans may be traced to the inability of local formal institutions to handle routine disputes and provide public goods, as well as the desire of local people to seek a collective identity in a rapidly changing, ever more individualistic society. Many clan networks busy themselves restoring long-neglected ancestral shrines and compiling clan genealogy books. However, young people generally have no emotional or intellectual attachment to pre-existing clan systems, and are changing the ways that members interact with each other.
In 2016, along with Lin Pan, an assistant professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Economics, I published a piece of research analyzing more than 450 letters sent among some 70 living members of the Guo clan between 1977 and 2002, held at Fudan University’s Contemporary China Social Life Data and Research Center. The Guos originated in southeastern China’s Fujian province. The research shows that China’s rejuvenated clans bear a close resemblance to social clubs.
In 1963, the American-Chinese sociologist Francis L. K. Hsu connected the concepts of clan and club in order to explain some of the differences in lifestyle and societal attitudes between Americans and Chinese. Hsu argued that the Chinese live in a “clan-based society” centered on kinship ties, where individuals rely on one another for support. Americans, on the other hand, live in a “club-based society,” where the emphasis is on the individual, and social organizations are tied together on the basis of contractual relationships. “Clans” and “clubs” may seem like polar opposites, but our research helps to bridge this gap by showing that China’s new-style clans are something of a hybrid of the two systems.
Traditionally, clans could be difficult to join and even more difficult to leave. As communities based on blood relationships, barriers to entry were high, and losing membership status — by breaking established codes of conduct or engaging in immoral behavior — could cost people their social support networks. As a result, members were highly attached to their clans: If a family suffered disaster or fell suddenly into poverty, the organization would mobilize the clan’s more affluent members to provide money, housing, property, and other forms of support.
Hybrid clans, on the other hand, can be joined and left with relative ease, and admittance is no longer based entirely on kinship relations. Today’s clans can be joined via marriage; women are also increasingly eligible for inclusion in their blood relations’ genealogy books, having been inscribed only into their husbands’ lineages before. In addition, today’s clans no longer hold a monopoly on members’ reputations and life opportunities, which affords people with more elbow room to decide whether they want to enter or leave a clan and helps reduce their reliance on others. While kinship continues to serve as a ticket to clan membership, hybrid clans are distinguished by the availability of other means of entrance, relatively loose affiliations among members, and a low cost of leaving.
One of the many letters exchanged among the 70 or so members of the Guo clan, circa 1981. Courtesy of Zhu Yan
Based on the Guo clan file, notable differences exist between a minority of clan “elders” and the majority of younger members when it comes to the importance of establishing clan genealogies. Clan elders tend to emphasize three points when compiling a genealogy. First, they comb through the blood ties between members to establish the relationship between different lineages and the Guo clan’s ancestors, and to try and unearth the origins and history of the Guo line. Second, they always seek to showcase the brilliance of their clan’s lineage, highlighting the accomplishments of particularly successful members to add luster to the clan as a whole, and requesting clan elders to write autobiographical notes that burnish the reputations of the clan genealogy. Third, they constantly seek to increase the influence of their local clan and look for opportunities for further interaction with other branches of the Guo clan scattered elsewhere in China.
In contrast, younger members tend to lack interest in the historical development and heritage of their clans, and rarely show a desire to rebuild this community along the same lines as their elders. Rather than viewing the Guo clan as an integrated whole, they see it as a dispersed set of resource-holders who happen to share the same last name. As a result, they view clan genealogies as opportunities to create lists of contacts for future profitable projects, caring little for the correctness of genealogical information or the glory it brings to the clan itself.
When they need help or support, younger members tap clanmates whom they believe have the resources they need. Many of the documents we examined involved distant clan members using contact lists to obtain updated information about the resources and contact details of their kinsmen, and there were frequent references to family ties when members made requests of one another. For instance, a young dentist approached a clan elder with the same medical background in order to help him buy dental equipment, even though the two had never met.
Younger members of hybrid clans care little for compiling family trees or renovating grave sites, and rarely accompanied their elders to their ancestral homes in search of more information about the clan. Clan elders cover the lion’s share of the costs involved in these trips, while the younger generations contribute virtually no money to the cause.
The conflict between elders’ emphasis on genealogy and younger members’ focus on contact information was a particularly interesting point. Elders cared more about deceased members of the clan and hoped to use genealogy to trace the clan’s lineage vertically back through time. Youngsters’ contact lists, however, represented a horizontal approach to clan organization. In the end, because the latter format received more enthusiastic support, younger people felt they benefitted more from clan membership than their elders.
Our research shows that elder clan members have very strong collectivist mindsets, something that both motivates them to maintain sprawling relationships with clan members and constrains how they understand and identify with them. They believe that, as members of the clan, they have a duty to commit their physical, mental, and material resources to this project. Younger members of the clan, meanwhile, try and find pragmatic opportunities leading to personal gain.
Given the dispersed nature of clans and the lack of communal property in need of distribution, traditional clan systems are unlikely to rise again. Instead, hybrid clans are filling the void. To members who value the sense of community that clans provide, genealogy books are vital, as they are the only means of rebuilding clans on the basis of clearly defined relationships and heritage. Meanwhile, young, individualistic members tend to treat these organizations more like kinship-based clubs, a proxy for equitable, horizontal relationship networks. For them, the very social basis on which old-style clans were built has already ceased to exist: another reminder that once the cat of individualism is let out of the bag, it’s very difficult to get it back in.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: 500px/VCG)