Social Hierarchies and the Formation of Customary Property Law in Pre-Industrial China and England

41 Pages Posted: 24 Mar 2013 Last revised: 30 Dec 2014

See all articles by Taisu Zhang

Taisu Zhang

Yale University - Law School

Date Written: 2013


The appendices for this paper are available at the following URL:

Comparative lawyers and economists have often assumed that traditional Chinese laws and customs reinforced the economic and political dominance of elites and, therefore, were unusually “despotic” towards the poor. Such assumptions are highly questionable: Quite the opposite, one of the most striking characteristics of Qing and Republican property institutions is that they often gave significantly greater economic protection to the poorer segments of society than comparable institutions in early modern England. In particular, Chinese property customs afforded much stronger powers of redemption to landowners who had pawned their land. In both societies, land-pawning occurred far more frequently among poorer households than richer ones, but Chinese customary law allowed debtors to indefinitely retain redemption rights over collateralized property, whereas English debtors would generally lose the property permanently if they failed to redeem within one year.

This article argues that the comparatively “egalitarian” tendencies of Qing and Republican property institutions stemmed from the different ways Chinese and English rural communities allocated social status and rank. Hierarchical “Confucian” kinship networks dominated social and economic life in most Chinese villages. Within these networks, an individual’s status and rank depended, in large part, on his age and generational seniority, rather than personal wealth. This allowed many low-income households to enjoy status and rank quite disproportionate to their wealth. In comparison, substantial landed wealth was generally a prerequisite for high status in early modern England, effectively excluding lower-income households from positions of sociopolitical authority. Chinese smallholders possessed, therefore, significantly more social bargaining power, and were more capable of negotiating desirable property institutions. Paradoxically, the predominance of kinship hierarchies actually enhanced macro-level political and economic equality.

Keywords: Kinship, Hierarchy, Social Status, Social Norms, Custom, Mortgages, Dian, Confucianism

JEL Classification: K11, N45, P52, Q15

Suggested Citation

Zhang, Taisu, Social Hierarchies and the Formation of Customary Property Law in Pre-Industrial China and England (2013). American Journal of Comparative Law, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

Taisu Zhang (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States

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