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  • Fenjia: Household Division and Inheritance in Qing and Republican China
  • Robert J. Antony (bio)
David Wakefield. Fenjia: Household Division and Inheritance in Qing and Republican China. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1998. x, 261 pp. Hardcover $42.00, ISBN 0-8248-2092-4.

Fenjia is a highly informative and quite detailed study of the inheritance system in Qing and Republican China. This book by David Wakefield, who teaches at the University of Missouri, is a revision of his UCLA dissertation, and is based on extensive primary research in China and Taiwan, including fieldwork interviews. The author sets out to explore both the nature and the importance of household division (fenjia) in modern Chinese history, focusing on Taiwan in the Qing era and North China in the Republican era.

The book is divided into ten chapters, including an introduction and a conclusion. After the useful background introduction surveying China's inheritance laws and practices from the Zhou to the Qing dynasties, other chapters probe such topics as why, when, and how households divided; the rights of individuals in property division; inheritance disputes in Qing courts; variations in inheritance patterns according to region and class; and the impact of household division on Chinese society.

Throughout history the Chinese have always practiced, both in custom and in law, an "equal-male-division inheritance regime." As Wakefield shows, in China household division meant more than the equal division of family property and debt among all sons. It also included guarantees for the continued support of parents and for the marriage expenses of sons and daughters. Although the rules for household division remained consistent over time and place, the Chinese astutely devised various strategies or orientations that aimed to hold the family—and its property—together as long as possible. In Taiwan, families set aside lineage trusts; in the Lower Yangzi Delta, they used charitable estates; and in Huizhou, Anhui, merchant families adopted a "phased division orientation."

Wakefield joins with several other recent scholars, particularly Jing Junjian and Thomas Buoye, in arguing for the notion of individual property rights in Qing China.1 In Qing Taiwan, as elsewhere in China, basic property rights were embodied in the process of household division for sons, adopted sons, living parents, widowed wives and concubines, and daughters. Although not everyone in the family, aside from male siblings, received equal shares, everyone could nevertheless expect to receive some share of property at division. Unmarried sons had rights to marriage expenses; unmarried daughters had rights to continued support and dowries; and parents—including husbands, wives, and concubines—had rights to continued support and a funeral. [End Page 542]

Frequently, too, as the cases from the Baxian, Sichuan, judicial archives show, Qing local courts staunchly defended these rights, even those of women. As was true in other civil suits of the Qing period, contracts, wills, and other written evidence played important roles in adjudicating inheritance disputes. Interestingly, too, Wakefield points out that local yamens, once they became involved in disputes, often became "safe deposit boxes" for household division documents. Otherwise, the government tried not to get involved in the division of family property.

Despite the promulgation of new laws in the Republican period, the author explains that the inheritance and division of household property continued to follow old customs. Laws that gave equal rights to daughters in inheritance, for instance, were largely ignored in actual practice. Numerous cases from North China in the 1930s show that daughters did not receive shares of the inheritance, but they did continue to get dowries.

In discussing the important questions of the effect of household division on Chinese society and social mobility, Wakefield adds little that is new. Rather, his study lends further support to the earlier works by John Lossing Buck, Philip Huang, and William Lavely and R. Bin Wong.2 For example, in addressing the issue of whether or not Chinese peasants divided land beyond the point necessary for survival, the author agrees with Huang that well-to-do peasant families could little avoid the downward mobility caused by household division. Wakefield adds further that actually all peasant families, at least in North China, where most of the evidence comes from...


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pp. 542-544
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