David Faure and Xi He
Like all peoples, Chinese people value their families. Unlike many other peoples, they see them in the wider context of their lineages, that is to say, in terms of descent lines traced from their ancestors. Although it is sometimes said that such ideas about the family and lineage had early origins, in early times only the families of the ruling elite (the “great clans”) traced their descent lines. For the majority of Chinese people, the tracing of descent beyond the family began no earlier than the Song dynasty, from about the 10th century. The practice spread together with ritual changes that governed sacrifice to ancestors. Again, while beliefs in the efficacy of ancestors to bring about good or bad fortune had been present from ancient times, it was in the Song that standard practices were established on how and what commoner families could sacrifice to their ancestors. Those practices were proposed by scholars and officials in opposition to Daoist and, especially, Buddhist practices that had been prevalent. It took several centuries for the alternative, neo-Confucian rituals to take hold, and even then, they supplemented rather than replaced the practices that the neo-Confucians opposed. In this process, the fundamental principles that underpinned both family and lineage, the ideals of filial piety and of cohabitation and property-sharing, the subordination of women to men, even the manner by which ancestors themselves may be tracked and the properties held for sacrificing to them, took many turns that combined secular, utilitarian purposes and a deeply religious view of the connections between ancestors and their descendants.
Despite important continuities in imperial practices and bureaucratic structures, the spatial organization of Chinese government and society evolved in significant ways over the course of the two millenniums of the imperial period (221