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  • The Making of a New Rural Order in South China, Volume I: Village, Land, and Lineage in Huizhou, 900-1600 by Joseph P. McDermott
  • Robert B. Marks
The Making of a New Rural Order in South China, Volume I: Village, Land, and Lineage in Huizhou, 900-1600 by Joseph P. McDermott. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xvi + 466. $99.00 cloth, $34.99 paper, $79.00 e-book.

The first of a planned two-volume project, Joseph McDermott’s The Making of a New Rural Order in South China examines the history of lineages and their socioeconomic activities in one of the most studied and storied locales in late imperial China, Huizhou 徽州 Prefecture in southern Anhui Province. Following other scholars (such as Fu Yiling, Ye Xian’en, Harriet Zurndorfer, and Anne Osborne), McDermott mines the extraordinary trove of documents left by lineages, and collected, stored, and protected by a long line of lineage ancestral halls, book dealers, and others from the Ming through the People’s Republic.1 He recounts the fascinating story behind these sources in an appendix to the introduction.

Huizhou Prefecture has long been known as an extraordinary place in late imperial China, producing merchants whose empire-wide activities in the salt, tea, and timber industries endowed them with empire-wide significance. Initially of interest to historians in the [End Page 486] People’s Republic of China as part of the problem of “the sprouts of capitalism,” others have looked at Huizhou for what could be learned about rural class relations and, more recently, about environmental degradation. Although not uninterested in these topics, McDermott is more concerned with the specifics of lineages: “Over the past half-century the lineage has rightly come to occupy a central place in standard accounts of the social history of late imperial China” (p. 1).

In part, McDermott argues that lineage dominance of rural life in much of southern and southeastern China was neither inevitable nor inherent in Chinese culture but rather the result of knowable historical processes. Chapters 1 to 3 thus examine the specific history by which lineages became so integral to the local life of Huizhou Prefecture, and chapters 4 to 6 examine their local economic activities. The changes over time to both lineages and their societies set the stage for the focus of the promised second volume on the “imaginative uses of lineage property and ancestral halls for commercial investments” (p. 420).

Without setting much of a geographical, economic, or historical context, McDermott leaps immediately into a discussion of Huizhou rural society in the Song (960–1279) and Yuan (1279–1368). He shows that lineages came to dominate Huizhou rural society, but other kinds of rural social organizations—in particular village worship associations (she 社), shrines for popular religious cults, Buddhist and Daoist institutions, and kinship (although not lineage) organizations—ordered life for ordinary Chinese families as well. From just four lineages with genealogies and ancestor worship in the Song and eleven in the Yuan, lineages expanded their presence during the Ming and into the Qing, numbering five thousand by the end of the imperial era and replacing the other social organizations in ordering rural life.

The dynamic that led to the growth of lineage dominance in Huizhou revolved around the consolidation and preservation of wealth and the control of resources. In Song and Yuan China, wealth was grounded in private property. The mid-Tang collapse of the equitable fields system, in which the state reapportioned agricultural land based on family size and composition every ten years, yielded a land-tenure system based on the private ownership of land. In this manner, families of the military and political elite accumulated landed property and sought ways to ensure its preservation in the face of the very powerful Song dynastic enforcement of the practice of equitable partible [End Page 487] inheritance (fen jia 分家), whereby each male descendant received an equal share of his father’s estate. As a result, it became a common expectation for families to amass a fortune in land in a single generation, but to lose it all within two or three generations.

The prospect of lost fortunes prompted some...


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