Blood Is Thicker Than Water: Elite Kinship Networks and State Building in Imperial China

35 Pages Posted: 15 Apr 2019 Last revised: 24 Nov 2021

See all articles by Yuhua Wang

Yuhua Wang

Department of Government, Harvard University

Date Written: November 24, 2021


A long tradition in social sciences scholarship has established that kinship-based institutions undermine state building. I argue that kinship networks, when geographically dispersed, cross-cut local cleavages and align the incentives of self-interested elites in favor of building a strong state, which generates scale economies in providing protection and justice throughout a large territory. I evaluate this argument by examining elite preferences related to a state-building reform in 11th century China. I map politicians' kinship networks using their tomb epitaphs and collect data on their political allegiances from archival materials. Statistical analysis demonstrates that a politician's support for state building increases with the geographic size of his kinship network, controlling for a number of individual, family, and regional characteristics. My findings highlight the importance of elite social structure in facilitating state development and help understand state building in China – a useful, yet understudied, counterpoint to the Euro-centric literature.

Keywords: State building; kinship network; state–society relations; cross-cutting cleavages; imperial China

Suggested Citation

Wang, Yuhua, Blood Is Thicker Than Water: Elite Kinship Networks and State Building in Imperial China (November 24, 2021). Available at SSRN: or

Yuhua Wang (Contact Author)

Department of Government, Harvard University ( email )

1737 Cambridge Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States


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