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  • Emperor and Ancestor: State and Lineage in South China
  • En Li (bio)
David Faure. Emperor and Ancestor: State and Lineage in South China Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007. 464 pp. Hardcover $50.00, ISBN 978-0-804-75318-0.

David Faure’s book is worthy of more than one reading. Based on twenty years of fieldwork, Faure tells a story of how the central government in Ming-Qing China interacted with the governed through a social institution: the lineage. Faure’s research on lineages in South China challenges scholars’ conventional understanding of lineage as a natural existence, as a tool of state control, and as a backward remnant from feudal society.

While the former understanding of lineage as a natural existence was centered on people who shared common ancestors and were tied by blood, Faure identifies several important historical moments when lineage was socially constructed. Focusing on Foshan, a commercial and industrial town west of Guangzhou in South China, and based on a large amount of land deeds, contracts, and genealogies, Faure depicts the vicissitudes of lineages since the fifteenth century. The Huang Xiaoyang uprising in 1449 tore apart the former social fabric and subjugated minorities, such as the Yao and the Zhuang people, forcing them to enter the administrative community and register as civilian (min) households without tracing their origins. In 1521, the Jiajing emperor of [End Page 50] the Ming dynasty made a sacrifice to his ancestors, establishing a role model for the local society to follow. Sacrificing to ancestors was no longer limited to the emperor and the aristocracy. The lineage in South China based on the lijia system was associated highly with tax payment. The Single Whip Reform in the late Ming dynasty made the corvee service obsolete. Instead of providing services to the Ming state to satisfy tax requirements, lineages were able to use silver to pay their taxes. This change not only monetized the market, but also encouraged single households to form lineages. In Ming-Qing China, as Faure points out, imperial ideology sought to link the state to society ritually and financially, and the lineage served as one of the most important ways for state power to reach down into society.

Lineages were developed through imperial policy, social unrest, a pooling of resources, and ritual practice. However, lineages were not under direct control by the state. Faure contributes to the understanding of state control of Ming-Qing society by illustrating the integration of local society to the state. Faure argues that “the imperial government does not appear as an overarching authority imposing its will on local society, as it often claimed in studies of the lijia” (p. 74). Faure’s local-state relationship was contractual in some sense. By practicing common rituals and sacrificing to state-sanctioned deities, lineages were granted legal implications to ritual rules, such as the rules of descent, and were granted titles to landholding. Moreover, increasing numbers of lineage members were admitted into officialdom via the imperial examination and the growing wealth in the Pearl River Delta, thus gaining power within the lineage. Therefore, by adopting state rituals, lineages gained the legitimacy of local power and obtained legal autonomy, to some extent.

The fact that lineage members were linked together by ritual practice was more significant than mere integration to the state. As Faure elaborates, with Neo-Confucianism as a centralized ideology, the orthodox ritual that it created, and a bureaucracy that granted power through examination regardless of their participants’ origins, the state attached a sense of membership to the lijia system. The lijia registration was no longer an empty policy that was designed for tax payment in the early Ming, but was strongly constructed on a common belief. In this sense, Faure further suggests that the Ming Empire might be “one of the world’s first nation-states” (p. 368). Built on a shared belief and common ritual practice, Ming China was as sophisticated as a nineteenth-century nation-state.

In Faure’s comprehensive narrative, many readers might find the reevaluation of lineage as a powerful social organization most exciting. Previous scholarship that allied with the intellectual discourse during the May Fourth Movement in the...