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  • Verwandtschaft und Gesellschaft im Alten China: Begriffe, Strukturen und Prozesse
  • Kai Vogelsang (bio)
Robert H. Gassmann . Verwandtschaft und Gesellschaft im Alten China: Begriffe, Strukturen und Prozesse. Worlds of East Asia 11. Bern: Peter Lang, 2006. 593 pp. Hardcover € 67.50, ISBN 3–03911–170–1.

Ancient Chinese society was structured by familial relationships and ruled through kinship tie—and in a way, sinology is as well. Just as the ancients would inherit their father's title and their family's name, sinologists adopt their schools' theories and their teachers' terminology. This may explain why so much sinological knowledge has gone unchallenged even though it has its roots in precritical scholarship. We rely on Song dynasty textual editions, on nineteenth-century translations of these editions, on Qing commentaries, and perhaps even a missionary's Chinese-English dictionary. Ancient Chinese social structure and terminology is a case in point. Although unanimously acknowledged as a crucial factor in understanding ancient China, its very details are but poorly understood. What exactly was the zongfa? How are clans defined? Who belonged to the shi? What do names mean? What, to begin with, is a man in Ancient China? Rather than seriously studying these issues, scholars of ancient China have all too often taken them for granted by relying on time-honored wisdom and standard terminology.

Robert Gassmann, however, takes nothing for granted. His book Verwandtschaft und Gesellschaft im Alten China (Kinship and society in ancient china) is an ambitious attempt to reconstruct the whole sweep of ancient Chinese society and clarify much of the terminology that has heretofore been clouded in vague, contradictory, or even misleading translations. The scope of the book is breathtaking. The first 250 pages provide an in-depth study of the ancient Chinese kinship system: the clan (xing 姓), lineage (zong 宗), "sib" (zu 族) and their subordinate units. The next 200 pages deal with those social groups that transcend kinship ties: the ren, min, shi, shu, zhong and others, as well as the status of women. A final part clarifies the meanings of names, titles, honorific appellations and other "corollaries."

Despite its comprehensiveness, Verwandtschaft und Gesellschaft is not a handbook, much less a synthesis of scholarship. Rather, it is wholly based on fresh, at times provocative, scholarship. Ever critical of established opinions, Gassmann derives all of his conclusions directly from the sources. The results are remarkable: wherever the reader delves into this massive work, he is in for a surprise. We thought that ren 人 and min 民 both simply mean "people"? They do not, as Gassmann demonstrates: they are categories of a dualistic society that differentiated carefully between ren of the own (ruling) clan and min of other clans (pp. 287–337). Nor are shuren 庶人 or shumin 庶民 simply the "numerous people": they are persons not entitled to an office, mere "hopefuls" or "expectants" [End Page 440] (p. 369). But surely Confucius, being a shi 士, was not one of them? In fact, he was just that: a shumin and no shi, his office being nonhereditary and merely a transitory position (p. 370–378). As such, he did not even qualify for the category of junzi 君子, which in Chunqiu times designated not a morally superior man but a "Fürstjunker," a noble of daifu-rank or higher (pp. 339–355).

By pointing out the omnipresent subtext of kinship relations, Verwandtschaft und Gesellschaft yields entirely new insights into the history of ancient China. From this perspective, many texts acquire new meanings: When the Zhao Patriarch (not "duke") of Lu married a woman from the same clan, Zi, he referred to her as Wu meng-Zi 吳孟子, allowing for zi to be interpreted as a title, not a clan name (p. 301). And Junker (not "master") Kong's remark that in a well-governed state the shuren should not discuss policy may well contain subtle irony, given his own status (p. 378).

In this way, Gassmann's detailed analysis of kinship terms leads to a clearer understanding of many texts. However, this does not mean that things become easier; rather, they become more complicated. The organization of lineages (zong 宗), the politically most important kinship structure in ancient China, is a particularly intricate example. It designates no less...


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