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Social organization of South China 1911-1949 : the case of the Kwaan lineage of Hoi-p’ing Woon, Yuen-fong

Abstract

The three major principles of social organization in South China before 1949 have been seen as those of lineage (kinship), ethnicity and class. The Kwaan lineage of Hoi-p'ing hsien, Kwangtung province, was used as a case study to examine the role of kinship as a principle of social organization during the period 1911-1949, one of substantial demographic and economic change along with innovations in the political, administrative and educational systems. Fifteen members of the Kwaan lineage and one non-Kwaan long resident in Hoi-p'ing, were interviewed in depth in Victoria and Vancouver. Interviews were supplemented by local histories (fang-chih), newspapers of the period and other local historical sources. Data confirmed Freedman's assertions that ethnicity was the least important principle of social organization. The solidarity of the Kwaan lineage was adversely affected by (1) the migration of lineage segments to other parts of rural Hoi-p'ing, rural to urban migration and overseas emigration; and (2) the growth of class consciousness among the wealthy and well-educated groups through co-operation in economic and defense projects and joint participation in government organs and pressure groups that developed after 1911. Despite the growth of class consciousness and the migration of its members, the Kwaan lineage retained its territorial, economic, political and numerical dominance in the T'oh-fuk - Che-hom area. After 1911, it became a richer lineage with a more vigorous ritual life as a consequence of the rise in value of its corporate property in the urban centers of T'oh-fuk and Che-hom. Data on the Kwaan lineage suggest that the higher-order lineage was a more important entity than has generally been recognized. Skinner's argument that relationship between lineage segments attending different standard market towns tended to erode over time is questioned. The study also challenges Fei Hsiao-tung's theory of social erosion: overseas emigrants and merchants among the Kwaan did not lose their connections with the home lineage. Rather, by their investments and direct contributions they strengthened the Kwaan lineage. Contrary to the arguments of Wakeman, Chen Han-seng and Feng Ho-fa, class differences and the growth of class consciousness among elites in T'oh-fuk and Che-hom did not lead to class antagonism. The elite members still lived in T'oh-fuk, retained their lineage membership and acted as spokesmen for the lineage. There was a general absence of peasant organizations in the area. Among the variables that explain the persistence of the Kwaan lineage, the most important is the policy of the Hsien government which discouraged the sale of corporate property and allowed the lineages to exercise control over segments that had moved away. Moreover, by permitting three types of leaders (1) official leaders; (2) class leaders; (3) lineage leaders to co-exist in the local power structure, it enabled the Kwaan lineage to act as a protective umbrella over its members and to provide a channel of upward mobility for the ambitious and the talented. The heavy taxation and the questionable activities of the police and soldiers after 1936 made it possible for local leaders to gain prestige by acting as both lineage-and class spokesmen. It is also argued that the Kwaan lineage persisted because it was initially a powerful lineage in control of an important market-town and thus able to retain its corporate property and encourage local leaders and migrant members to participate in lineage affairs even amidst administrative, education, population and economic changes. The Kwaan lineage also persisted despite the absence of productive farming in rural T'oh-fuk through reliance on commercial and industrial wealth. As a consequence of the unusual economic conditions in the area, there was a low rate of absentee landlordism and land concentration. The growth of Che-hom enabled both the rich and the poor to share in the general prosperity of the area. This tended to avert the development of class antagonism among the members of the Kwaan lineage. The study of the Kwaan lineage of Hoi-p'ing suggests that while class challenged lineage, kinship was the dominant principle of social organization in South China until 1949 when there occurred fundamental change in the political, economic and social order.

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