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The aristocratic families in China were never a single, unified group. It took centuries for a clearly defined aristocracy to emerge, and even then, new families appeared as old ones died out or declined. Moreover, the country was politically divided for extended periods of time, with parts ruled by non-Chinese. This created regional and ethnic differences, which eventually distinguished groups of aristocratic families as a social category.
The Han Upper Class
A large proportion of the aristocratic families of the 3rd to the 8th centuries AD appear to have descended from the "powerful families" (hao-tsu, hao-chieh, ta-hsing, etc.), which formed the Han upper class. Because China proper was unified and a single imperial house was maintained for four centuries (with a brief interregnum when Wang Mang overthrew the Former Han), the Former and Later Han are considered among the great dynasties of Chinese history.
The Han upper class derived their status largely from two private, informal areas: Their local standing and their style of life. These families generally had a local base, an area where they owned land and had social and political influence. The largest of these perful families are described as containing hundreds of members and can probably best be described as clans.
Magistrates and Grand Administrators imbued with the idea of strong central control often tried to curb the influence of powerful families. However, in cases of rebellions or border raids the government was glad to see the "clans" arm their followers for self-defense.
Trends in the Second Century
A number of developments in the Later Han period contributed to making possible the elevation of a few of these powerful families to the position of aristocratic families of national importance.
One trend was an increase in the autonomy and strength of locally powerful families due both to long-term growth of large estates and to the decline in the power of the central government. More large estates meant that there were more estate owners who could dominate local affairs because the hundreds or thousands of retainers, tenants, private soldiers, and kinsmen on who they could rely. With the decline of central authority and its collapse after 184, these local magnates had to defend themselves and their dependents. By the end of the Later Han, no ruler could ignore the threat such powerful families posed to the restoration of central authority.
A second development was a conservative, moralistic revival led by a group who called themselves the "pures." The pures were a political faction who preached that the eunuchs and emperor's maternal relatives who controlled the throne were corrupt and unsuited for political responsibility. The pures believed they should be replaced by men locally known for firm, straight-forward, traditional moral standards. These ideas became the ideological basis for reforms and the recruitment system of educated, locally respected families.
A third trend was an apparent increase in the respect for pedigrees. In the Later Han there were a number of cases where the sons, grandsons, and even later descendants of outstanding men were honored for their birth, and were given every opportunity to achieve eminence for themselves. In addition, the descendants of the high officials Yang Chen and Yüan An, while never consort families, became recognized as the leading bureaucratic families, and in many ways, resembled the aristocratic families of later centuries. They provided such an extraordinary share of the three highest officials in the central government (the Three Ducal Ministers) that filling these posts came almost to be considered their hereditary right.
Effects of the Nine-Rank System
The warlord struggles that brought an end to the Han dynasty were not resolved quickly and for several decades China was divided into three contending states (the Three Kingdoms period). The Wei dynasty (220-65) founded by Ts'ao Ts'ao and his son P'ei in North China was the largest and most important of these. It was succeeded by the Wester Chin (265-316) which briefly reunified the country. One means the new rulers used to gain legitimacy and the cooperation of locally powerful families was to reform the system of recruitment to office.
In 220 the nine-rank, Arbiter system (chiu-p'in chung-cheng), was introduced. Basically a method of local recommendation, an Arbiter was appointed to each commandery (chün, the unit which supervised several counties) and after a few decades also to each prefecture (chou, the highest unit of local administration). The higher the rank a man received from his local Arbiter, the higher he could enter the bureaucracy.
The old system of ranking offices by salary was abandoned, and offices were also classified into nine ranks. The main difference between this and earlier systems of local recommendation was that decisions were left not to the Grand Administrator, a stranger to the commandery, but to an Arbiter chosen from among the local upper class. The Arbiter was supposed to be familiar with local opinion.
Within three generations, by the end of the Western Chin, this new recruitment system seems to have precipitated a major change in social stratification. Birth, status, and office-holding became inseparably bound. Although it was not originally intended that sons should be given the same ranks as their fathers, as it became recognized that these ranks divided men by social status. As status became more clearly associated with office-holding, only the sons of men who had received high rank and gone on to hold office had much of a chance of receiving high ranks themselves.
Growing respect for pedigrees probably also contributed to this change. By the beginning of the 4th century, the Arbiter system was no longer considered a system of local recommendation, but rather a system of appointment to office according to family rank. The locus of decision-making had shifted from the commandery to the prefecture (probably by 250), and eventually, largely to the capital where family records were kept by the Department of State.
Men began to speak of grades of families: There were top-ranking families (chia-tsu), secondary houses (tz 'u-men), lesser houses (hou-men), and houses subject to government corvée (i-men or san-wu men) (a day of unpaid work required of a vassal by a feudal lord). Men's starting posts, and even the kinds of poses they were given depended on family rank and were visible signs of it. Many posts came to be considered especially aristocratic ("pure") and others suitable only for men from lower ranking families ("impure"). Thus, the bureaucracy itself underwent considerable reorganization to accommodate changes in social stratification. The leading families of the Western Chin (such as the Yang, Ch'en, Hsün, P'ei, Lang-yeh, and T'ai-yüan Wang) were almost all descended from Han upper-class families.
Failures of Central Control
The Wei and Chin governments failed to establish full fiscal or military control over the population, which indirectly facilitated the growth and maintenance of large estates. Ts'ao Ts'ao restored the finances of the central government by making a large portion of the population state dependents; some families became state tenants who paid rent and others became military households who provided soldiers. With this type of financial base, it was less important for the government to try to prevent powerful families from increasing their landholdings. In fact, special economic privileges for officials were recognized. In the Chin they could possess large tracts of land and protect households of dependents from taxes,. The intention of this measure may have been to undermine locally powerful landlords who were not officials. However, it could only have helped those families placed high in the nine-rank system who could hold office without difficulty. Their large landholdings received official recognition as appropriate to their position.
The collapse of the Western Chin fundamentally changed the political situation. First torn apart by internal strife as imperial princes engaged in open warfare with each other, the Chin government was finally destroyed by the invasion of Hsiung-nu tribes who captured the capital in 311.
The courses of action adopted by leading families when the court fell reveal their dual foundations. many eminent men returned to their homes and tried to organize defensive positions, clearly believing their local status worth protecting. The remainder, also a sizable number, fled south, joining the new court as soon as they could. While personal safety was a major consideration, the chance to retain high court status probably contributed to their decision to flee.
After this crisis two largely independent aristocracies developed. In the North there were powerful, famous families whose position rested entirely on private resources, such as their local influence, the prestige of their way of life, and past association with the Wei and Chin Courts. In the South, the great families formed an aristocracy that was intricately bound to the newly established court and bureaucracy.
Aristocratic Society in the South
The Chinese who migrated south could not simply revive the Chin dynasty. Centralized bureaucratic institutions were ill-suited to the South, a mountainous area with difficult communications and no tradition of close governmental control. For a century (184-280) the South had been largely independent under the control of local powerful families. What the newcomers did was install a Chin prince as emperor at Chien-k'ang (modern Nanking), retain much of the power of the court in their own hands, and leave much of the power in the provinces to military leaders and locally influential families of the Wu area.
In the Eastern Chin (317-420) there were two kinds of aristocratic families, the emigrants and the local Wu families, each with distinctly different resources. Domination of the government was the major source of power for emigrant families, such as the lang-yeh and T'ai-yuan Wangs, Ch'en-chun Hsiehs, and Yins. Ying-Ch'uan Hsüns and Yüs.
This was a period when public and private powers were especially confused, and the aristocratic families could use the governmental apparatus to enrich their own families. Through their domination of the court they saw that they were granted vast tracts of land and fiefs, and that their sons gained respectable posts at early ages. In addition, they often used local or central posts to increase their private resources.
By contrast, during the early decades of the Eastern Chin, the great families of the Southeast (such as the Wu-chün Changs, Lus, and Kus) still living in the area that they had dominated for a century or more, enjoyed great local and military power but less prestige or power at court. Despite some early antagonism, in time a number of them were incorporated into the aristocratic social system. The emigrant families granted them the same privileges they gave themselves, perhaps fearing the consequences of their independence. This recognition raised them above the numerous families of local importance, which were similar to the powerful families of the Han but were now disdained as han-men ("cold" families), ones with less than the highest social standing.
The Eastern Chin is considered especially aristocratic, not only because the eminent Wang and Hsieh families dominated much of high court politics, but also because they and similar families dominated so much of the social and cultural life of the period. Continuing trends started in the Wei and Western Chin. The Eastern Chin aristocrats combined refined interests in poetry, calligraphy, and metaphysics with social snobbery and personal extravagance, such as the use of large retinues of retainers. Many of these basic cultural attitudes, especially the emphasis on taste and refinement, remained important through the Southern Dynasties.
In the competition between the rulers and the aristocratic families, the key symbolic issue was the emperor's right to appoint and promote men without regard to their family origin, solely on the basis of whether they could serve him loyally and well. Any assertion of such a right by the emperors was a threat to the association of high social status and high office, which formed the foundation of the aristocratic families' position. The aristocratic families in a sense responded to these threats by carrying to great heights emphasis on pedigrees.
Appearance of Aristocratic Lineages
By the Eastern Chin period, the historical records begin to show dozens of men from the same "family," all in prominent positions. For instance, the Chin shu gives biographies or brief references to 89 Lang-yeh Wangs, 76 of whom were fourth cousins or closer.
The appearance of numerous cousins of aristocratic status is not surprising. It was a natural result of the nine-rank system. Since the rank of each man was determined by that of his father, with each generation a larger group of relatives would share a common rank.
The nature and strength of the ties among the members of these lineages are difficult to discern. Members of emigrant families, such as the Ch'en-chün Hsiehs and Lang-yeh and T'ai-yüan Wangs were enmeshed in capital social and political life. They had contact of diverse sorts with their relatives. However, these ties could be overridden by other considerations. Possibly their kinship ties were limited to common ancestor worship, attending each others weddings and funerals, and mutual responsibility for the prestige of their family name. In the case of aristocratic lineages within local Southeastern families, it is unclear which kinship functions were carried out by the aristocratic lineage and which by the larger clan, when it remained in existence.
Nevertheless, failure of the later Southern Dynasties to establish strong states was not the result of increase in the power or influence of the aristocratic families. If anything, the emperors gained in the competition to set standards of prestige and status. Early in the 6th century, Emperor Wu of the Liang reformed the family ranking system to raise the most distinguished of the "cold" families to the highest rank with its greater privileges with regard to access to office. In this way, he he gave weight to bureaucratic achievement over pedigree.
A number of reasons can be given for the decline in the authority of the aristocratic families. The aristocrats lost influence because they were degenerate. They were used to leisure and wealth, and they placed in high ranking but unimportant posts. They had become useless; their prestige was unwarranted. Real power had fallen to others because the aristocrats failed to make any effort to keep it for themselves. Whatever the reasons, while the Hsiao and Ch'en families (the imperial families of the Ch'i, Liang, and Ch'en dynasties) survived into the T'ang dynasty, once-eminent emigrant families, such as the Hsieh and Hsün, died out or disappeared.
By the mid T'ang dynasty, few of the old aristocratic families seem to have formed lineages (distinct kinship groups with common activities). By this time, the descendants of the 4th and 5th century lineages were often only distantly related. Moreover, many families had scattered, thereby losing their geographical focus. By the T'ang dynasty, the bonds that brought together members of different aristocratic families as social equals greatly outweighed the ties to patrilineal kinsmen that divided them.
The old aristocratic families in the T'ang dynasty are best seen as a status group, a community with a distinctive way of life, sustained by prestige more than power or wealth. What gave coherence to this status group of old families was marital exclusiveness. A restricted marriage circle, into which entry was difficult to obtain except on the basis of the ascriptive criterion of birth, visibly defined the membership of this group.
Decline of the Aristocratic Families
The aristocratic families, or at least significant numbers of their members, survived through the T'ang dynasty, despite clique struggles, the devastating Rebellion of An Lu-shan, institutional and fiscal reorganization, the growing power of palace eunuchs and independent Regional commanders. Although affected by these events and development, they continued to command respect and many of their members found places in the bureaucracy.
Despite this impressive records, however, the old families in the T'ang dynasty lacked the solid foundation they had enjoyed earlier. In previous centuries the autonomy of their status had been ensured by many resources: Wealth, local power, lineage organization, political office, and prestige of pedigree. As a consequence, they had been able to respond to most political and economic challenges, retreating to their home base or producing generals or scholars when circumstances warranted.
During the T'ang dynasty, however, the autonomy of the old families' status rested on a much more precarious balance. Without a geographically concentrated local base, the aristocratic families could no longer survive except as professional bureaucrats. Their fate, therefore, was tied to the orderly operation of the bureaucracy and its recruitment system. When the bureaucracy collapsed in the late 9th century and the T'ang dynasty was overthrown, members of the old families ceased to be at the center of power and are mentioned less and less frequently in the histories. Many were undoubtedly killed in the rebellions and wars that lasted near a century from 860 to 960. What seems most important is that few of the new rulers found their services of value. They did not need old aristocrats for legitimacy, stability, or experience. The old families had nothing left to offer.