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China Table of Contents


Stratification and Families

Before 1950 the basic units of social stratification and social mobility were families. Although wealthy families were often quite large, with as many as thirty people in three or four generations living together on a common budget, most families contained five or six people. In socioeconomic terms, late traditional China was composed of a large number of small enterprises, perhaps as many as 100 million farms and small businesses. Each was operated by a family, which acted not only as a household but also as a commercial enterprise. The family head also was the trustee of the estate and manager of the family business. Families could own property, such as land or shops, and pass it on to the next generation.

About 80 percent of the population were peasant farmers, and land was the fundamental form of property. Although many peasant families owned no land, large estates were rare by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Peasant families might own all of the land they worked, or own some and rent some from a landowner, or rent all their land. Regardless of the form of tenure, the farm was managed as a unit, and the head of household was free to decide what to plant and how to use the labor of family members. Land could be bought and sold in small parcels, as well as mortgaged and rented in various forms of short-term and long-term contracts. The consequence was that in most villages peasant families occupied different steps on the ladder of stratification; they did not form a uniformly impoverished mass. At any time, peasant families were distinguished by the amount of land that they owned and worked compared with the percentage of their income they paid in rent. Over time, peasant families rose or fell in small steps as they bought land or were forced to sell it.

Most non-farm enterprises, commercial or craft, were similarly small businesses run by families. The basic units were owned by families, which took a long-term view of their prospects and attempted to shift resources and family personnel from occupation to occupation to adapt to economic circumstances. In all cases, the long-term goal of the head of the family was to ensure the survival and prosperity of the family and to pass the estate along to the next generation. The most common family strategy was to diversify the family's economic activities. Such strategies lay behind the large number of small-scale enterprises that characterized Chinese society before 1950. Farming and landowning were secure but not very profitable. Commerce and money-lending brought in greater returns but also carried greater risks. A successful farm family might invest in a shop or a food-processing business, while a successful restaurant owner might buy farmland, worked by a sharecropping peasant family, as a secure investment. All well-to- do families invested in the education of sons, with the hope of getting at least one son into a government job. The consequence was that it was difficult to draw a class line dividing landlords, merchants, and government workers or officials.

Data as of July 1987