Lineage Society on the Southeastern Coast of China: The Impact of Japanese Piracy in the 16th Century

by Ivy Maria Lim


Sixteenth-century China experienced an economic transformation which saw the spread of commercialization and a consumerist material culture that pervaded all aspects of life. As society began to respond to the economic transformation, the ideology and culture of patriarchal descent-line ethics, hitherto an urban, literati trend, began to find resonance among up-and-coming literati families within rural communities. By the end of the sixteenth century, Chinese society, especially in the Jiangnan region and along the southeastern coast, had began to make the transition from the lijia system of household registration into corporate groups overtly organized by kinship relations and unified by the common symbols of the ancestral hall, lineage trust estates, compilation of lineage genealogies and in the symbolic performance of ancestral sacrificial rituals.

At the same time, the middle decades of the sixteenth century saw the growing incidence of Japanese “wokou” piracy along the southeastern coast of China. The county of Haining in Zhejiang province was one such victim of the depredations of the wokou. Yet by the end of the century, it had also been transformed from a rural backwater into a prosperous area known for its lineages which enjoyed literary fame and official influence. The process by which groups within the local community of Haining created their identities as lineages is the focus of this study.

While there has been much discussion about the wokou crisis, little attention has been paid to the impact of the wokou upon the littoral societies. Along the coast, the limited reach of the Ming empire was given a boost by the appointment of an anti-wokou administration which in turn marked the beginning of a more extensive incorporation of the maritime periphery into the larger administrative structure. The process of incorporation would have presented opportunities for interested parties to gain political legitimacy and social ascendancy through the adoption of patriarchal descent-line ethics and its accompanying rituals and cultural symbols. This book thus examines the appearance of lineage society in Haining against the background of the wokou raids and the problems brought about by the anti-wokou campaign.

This is the first study that takes the innovative and unique approach of linking the rise of lineage organization in Haining, Zhejiang province, to wokou activity. By using Haining as the geographical focus of research, this study provides a good comparative study to published works on Chinese lineage organization which had focused largely on Guangdong, Fujian and Anhui provinces. Through the use of previously un-utilized genealogical records of the lineages resident in Haining, the story of how the local groups in Haining responded to the wokou raids through adopting imperially sanctioned ritual practices and cultural symbols to negotiate the transformation of their local communities into the Neo-Confucian model of corporate family organization emerges. The impact of this transitional process within the local community is extrapolated in the case studies of inter-lineage and intra-lineage conflicts. At the same time, the true extent and impact of the wokou crisis, long held by scholars to be of devastating effect on the Ming polity, is also re-examined.

Lineage Society on the Southeastern Coast of China is an important book for Asian studies and history collections.


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