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Custom, Land and Livelihood in Rural South China

The Traditional Land Law of Hong Kong's New Territories, 1750–1950

Patrick H. Hase

Publication Year: 2013

Land was always at the centre of life in Hong Kong’s rural New Territories: it sustained livelihoods and lineages and, for some, was a route to power. Villagers managed their land according to customs that were often at odds with formal Chinese law. British rule, 1898-1997, added further complications by assimilating traditional practices into a western legal system. Custom, Land and Livelihood in Rural South China explores land ownership in the New Territories, analyzing over a hundred surviving land deeds from the late Qing Dynasty to recent times, which are transcribed in full and translated into English. Together with other sources collected by the author during 30 years of research, these deeds yield information on all aspects of traditional village life – from raising families and making a living to coping with intruders – and evoke a view of the world which, despite decades of urbanization, still has resonance today.

Published by: Hong Kong University Press, HKU

Series: Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Studies


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pp. 1-2

Series Page, Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 3-7


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pp. vii-viii

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Preface and Acknowledgements

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pp. ix-xii

I became fascinated with the traditional Land Law of the New Territories thirty years ago. Utter chance led me, with Dr David Faure, to discover the books and papers of Yung Sze-chiu (1874–1944) in his house just outside Hoi Ha village, in North Sai Kung.* Eventually, I was able to convince Yung Sze-chiu’s descendants to place these papers on permanent deposit ...

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pp. 1-22

A problem which arose in preparing this book requires discussion right at the start. The problem is that the book is written in English. English has a rich legal vocabulary, but that vocabulary is a Common Law vocabulary. Furthermore, as time has passed and society has become more complex, that Common Law vocabulary has become ever more precise and exact. ...

Part 1: The Imperial and Customary Land Laws

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1. The Imperial Land Law

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pp. 25-38

The Ch’ing state had a clear concept of Land Law. This Imperial Land Law was well developed and sophisticated, if pre-modern. It was, at least in its assumptions and ideology, inherited by the Ch’ing from their predecessor dynasties: the basis of the system had been in place for over a thousand years before the New Territories were incorporated into Hong Kong. ...

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2. The Customary Land Law

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pp. 39-70

The Imperial Land Law was a well-rounded and comprehensive system, but, in practice, a Customary Land Law had grown up in the New Territories area which was at serious odds with this Imperial Land Law and, in many details, flatly contrary to it. Furthermore, given the villagers’ unwillingness to go to law or to enter any formal litigation process, ...

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3. Registration for the Land Tax and the Collection of Land Tax

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pp. 71-94

A good deal of the Ch’ing Imperial Land Law was based, above all, on the need to protect the land tax. The Ch’ing authorities supported the requirements of the law by running a very complex and highly bureaucratic land tax registration system, with a detailed land tax archive in every county. ...

Part 2: The Customary Land Law and Transactions in Land

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4. Arable Land: Family Holdings, Trusts and Clan Holdings

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pp. 97-116

Both before and after 1898, land in the New Territories, especially rice-land, was held by the villagers under a complex system of personal and group or communal ownership. The Customary Law had a clear concept of individual land-ownership, albeit one with restraints on freedom of alienation, but the Customary Law also had a detailed conceptual system of communal and trust landholdings. ...

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5. Restraints on Transactions in Land

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pp. 117-134

We have already seen that the apparent unfettered right of the paterfamilias in Chinese tradition to do what he wanted with his land was, in practice, very much restrained in the New Territories area by the fact that most men held their land by oral perpetual tenancies from their own ancestral or communal trust, so that the clan and village had a collateral interest ...

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6. The Next Heir

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pp. 135-142

The Customary Land Law imposed restraints on the free sale of land because the land inherited from the ancestors was seen as being, in effect, an informal “trust” set up by the ancestors for the descendants, with the current head of family being seen, to a large extent, merely as the holder for the time being of the ancestral estate. ...

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7. The Middleman and the Role of the Community in Land Transactions

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pp. 143-158

Effectively, the only transactions which routinely did not require a middleman were either those involving very close relatives,1 or else were loans of cash, which clearly did not require a middleman under the Customary Land Law, even if land was put up as collateral for the loan. In the case of a loan, the deeds usually state that the borrower ...

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8. Temporary and Reversible Alienations: Mortgages and Leases

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pp. 159-170

While most surviving deeds relate to absolute, once-and-for-all sales of land, there remain a significant number where the deed reflects a transaction which was not designed as absolute or permanent, but where the alienation was temporary, or at least reversible. Transactions of such a temporary or reversible character comprise mortgages ...

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9. Land Deeds and the Japanese Occupation, 1941–1945

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pp. 171-176

These eleven deeds are, as a group, the poorest drawn of all the deeds in Part 3, and show the poorest calligraphy. The normal conventions of the traditional land deeds are mostly present, but in many cases show clauses omitted which might be expected, unusual variants, poor grammar, and strange turns of phrase. ...

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10. An Afterview

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pp. 177-182

Before 1899 there was very little about the area which was to become the New Territories which was at all special. The area had a recorded history of almost 2,000 years, but, for most of that time, its history had been quiet and uneventful. The area was part of the Prefecture of Canton and fell firmly into the Cantonese cultural region. ...

Part 3: Customary Land Deeds

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pp. 185-194

The 119 land deeds here transcribed and translated are a representative sample of the traditional land deeds of the New Territories (about 300 land deeds of this character are known to survive). Deeds have been chosen for transcription and translation from as many village areas of the New Territories as possible. ...

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Pre-British Period Deeds (Deeds 1–68)

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pp. 195-322

Now, it is well known that a mountain is more than just height, yet the marvellous power of the deity stands out; possessions are more than just quantity, yet the deity’s great power is hugely evident. In this area, there is taxed land in our possession at Fat Tap Mun, Tai Long, Tan Ka Wan, Nam She, Lan Nai Wan, Long Ke, and elsewhere, ...

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Early British Period (1901–1941) Deeds (Deeds 69–82)

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pp. 323-342

This deed for the absolute sale of rice-land is issued by Ng Kwai-cheung and Ng Kap-sang, of Nga Tsin Village, Kowloon. They have inherited from their grandfather, by a division between their families, certain taxed land at the place called Wu Shek Chung, within Sha Ho Kiu, at Kowloon, that is to say, Kwai-cheung has a field numbered 776 ...

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Japanese Period (1941–1945) Deeds (Deeds 83–94)

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pp. 343-356

This deed for the absolute sale of rice-land is issued by Lau Sang, of Ngong Wo Village. Since his family is in desperate need, dying of privation and without resources, they, husband, wife, and sons, discussed together and agreed (to sell to others) the rice-land they inherited from their ancestors at the place called Wu Loi Long, six pieces of land in all, ...

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Post-War (1945–1975) Deeds (Deeds 95–100)

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pp. 357-364

This deed for the absolute sale of hill-paddy land is issued by Tsui Yuet. Since she is lacking money to spend, she is now willing to sell to someone that single piece of hill-paddy land which she previously bought from Lau Kwok-wing at the place called Kot Cheung. The land was first offered to the members of the immediate descent line, ...

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Other and Miscellaneous Deeds and Documents (Deeds 101–119)

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pp. 365-400

This deed of lease is issued by Tsang Chiu-yuk. He has leased today to elder brother Pang Kau rice-land three tau tsung in area at Kwu Hang, at the place called Nga Yiu Lung. It was agreed that the annual rent should be 450 catties of grain. This should be paid after each harvest. No shortfall can be allowed. ...


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pp. 414-429

Appendix: A Note on Measures

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pp. 401-408


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pp. 409-458


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pp. 459-466

General Index

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pp. 467-478

Index of Persons

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pp. 479-498

Index of Places

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pp. 499-514

E-ISBN-13: 9789882208490
Print-ISBN-13: 9789888139088

Publication Year: 2013

Edition: 1
Series Title: Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Studies