Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Asian Ethnicities"
Social and Economic Life
Han social life is dominated by patrilineage. Although shady accounts of early Chinese history hint at matriarchal relations, patrilineality (reckoning kinship through the family of the father) has been the clear kinship pattern for well over three millennia. Anthropologists emphasize the importance of the marriage alliance in understanding kinship, gender, and family issues in all societies. Men and women do not live in a vacuum when they interact, but rather function within a complex network of social forces that provide them with opportunities, in some cases, and restricted social movement in others. At its most basic level, marriage is a way to diversify the social fabric, and in China (as in many societies) the movement of women between families was the social lubricant that kept traditional society moving.
|[b] Exchange RF|
The overwhelming importance of these exchanges among and between ethnic groups cannot be overemphasized. The only way to create real integration and continuing social regeneration is through exchange, and this is precisely why marriage lies at the very heart of the social order. From the perspective of most scholars of marriage, it is not merely a useful social practice. It is absolutely necessary at all levels of the social order. Exchange of women (for—even though men could theoretically be exchanged just as easily—that is what it became in most early societies) creates one kind of social integration. The practices that lead to that integration are not without conflict by any means, but there is in the case of marriage a biological price to pay for keeping kinship systems closed. Many social theorists stress that the social cost is almost as great.
The way that such exchange takes place—generation after generation for over three thousand years of written records—has everything to do with the history of ethnicity in China. The Han ethnic group came to dominate, in part, because of strategic intermarrying and the strength of sheer numbers. Over the course of many centuries, practices of exogamy (marrying beyond one’s group) combined with patrilineal organization to give sizable advantages to the Han ethnicity. When Han men married women from other ethnic groups, the children would belong to the Han man’s family line. Multiply that process by many thousands of cases and carry it over twenty or more centuries, and the impact is profound.
|[c] Wedding (c.1912) RF|
|[d] Change RF|
Han Chinese were the major beneficiaries of this transformation, but it was “collaborative” in ways that historians are only beginning to understand deeply. Again, this can best be seen in more recent transformations of regions that have had stable ethnic identities for some time. Today’s clashes in the far-west call to mind those a millennium or more earlier in China’s southeast and southwest, when a powerful ethnic group linked to an enormous centralized state began to move in.
|[e] Alliances RF|