The chal­lenges of adop­tion and an­ces­try in Late Im­pe­rial China

The World of Chinese - - Cover Story - - JEREMIAH JENNE

In 1856, a young boy named Dekeng was adopted by his un­cle, Chengdie. Dekeng's father, Sendie, al­ready had two other sons to care for him, and, even­tu­ally, carry out the rit­u­als nec­es­sary for a peace­ful af­ter­life.

The less for­tu­nate Chengdie had no sons of his own, so a con­tract was drawn up, wit­nessed by other mem­bers of the fam­ily, trans­fer­ring Dekeng from one brother to an­other in ex­change for 14 sil­ver dol­lars— de­scribed in the con­tract as “milk money.”

This ex­change, trans­lated by Madeleine Zelin in her 2004 book Con­tract and prop­erty in early Modernchina, rep­re­sented one of the com­mon­est forms of an­cient adop­tion: The trans­fer of a male heir from one brother to an­other. But adop­tion in late im­pe­rial China was rarely sim­ple, and al­ways in­volved care­ful ne­go­ti­a­tion of rit­ual, fil­ial piety, law, and lin­eage.

A man with­out heirs, as was the case with Chengdie, faced many chal­lenges in this world and the next. The Con­fu­cian scholar Men­cius once de­clared the least fil­ial thing a man could do was have no sons, thereby doom­ing a long line of an­ces­tors to a wretched eter­nity as “hungry ghosts,” de­prived of the reg­u­lar of­fer­ings for sus­te­nance in the great be­yond.

There were more mun­dane con­cerns as well. Care of aged par­ents was gen­er­ally—though not al­ways—a son's re­spon­si­bil­ity, since daugh­ters were usu­ally mar­ried out to an­other fam­ily and lin­eage. Hav­ing no male heir could also com­pli­cate the dis­pen­sa­tion of prop­erty fol­low­ing a pa­tri­arch's death. Wealth might be di­vided up among his ex­tended clan, trans­ferred to an­other brother, or even be­come a source of con­flict in the fam­ily as in­ter­ested par­ties laid claim to the spoils.

It was prop­erty rights, as much as blood­lines, which fa­vored keep­ing adop­tion in the fam­ily. As an­thro­pol­o­gist James Wat­son and oth­ers have noted, many lin­eages, in south­ern China es­pe­cially, were ef­fec­tively joint cor­po­ra­tions with vast col­lec­tive land­hold­ings. Ex­clu­siv­ity meant con­trol.

Nev­er­the­less, blood­lines mat­tered, and pre­serv­ing the pu­rity of a lin­eage res­onated with fam­ily mem­bers. For ex­am­ple, in Chi­nese­civ­i­liza­tion: Asource­book, Clara Yu trans­lates a strict set of fam­ily in­struc­tions pro­mul­gated by the Liu clan of An­hui prov­ince, circa 1870: “Any­body­whoad­opt­sasonofa dif­fer­entsur­namethanour­sand there­bytinges­thep­u­ri­ty­ofour lin­eagewil­lbe­dealt60blow­sof thestaff.any­onewhoal­low­shis son­to­bead­opt­ed­byafam­i­lyof ad­if­fer­entsur­namere­ceives­the samepun­ish­ment.so­doe­sany­one who,in­adoptin­gan­heir­fro­mour own­fam­ily,caus­escon­fu­sionin gen­er­a­tionalorder.suchanadopted son­shouldthen­bere­turned­to­his nat­u­ral­fa­ther,an­dan­oth­er­heir cho­s­en­in­his­place.”

Lin­eage rules were of­ten backed by the law. Statutes in the Ming and Qing era re­quired adoptees to be of the same sur­name as their new fam­ily, and foster par­ents were not al­lowed to change the sur­names of their wards.

One of the main con­cerns was the po­ten­tial for adopted chil­dren to be di­vided in their loy­al­ties be­tween their new par­ents and their birth par­ents. Fam­i­lies with daugh­ters and no sons could “adopt” a son-in-law, a prac­tice known as ma­trilo­cal or ux­o­rilo­cal mar­riage.

While the ar­range­ments var­ied, the chil­dren of such a union, and some­times even the hus­band, would take the sur­names of the wife's fam­ily, and thus pro­vide the nec­es­sary heirs to sus­tain a blood­line. But such ar­range­ments could also be com­pli­cated. Lo­cal of­fi­cials were some­times called in to ad­ju­di­cate cases when the hus­band of an ux­o­rilo­cal mar­riage threat­ened to take chil­dren back to their own fam­i­lies, or to set­tle in­her­i­tance dis­putes be­tween the fam­i­lies of the hus­band and wife.

In the strato­spheric realm of im­pe­rial life, adop­tion could of­ten cause far more prob­lems than it solved.

In 1521, Zhu Houcong as­cended the throne as the Ji­a­jing Em­peror, suc­ceed­ing his cousin, the Zhengde Em­peror. The sole heir to the Hongzhi Em­peror, Zhengde had the mis­for­tune to die child­less. To make this suc­ces­sion work, the new

Ji­a­jing Em­peror had to be adopted by his un­cle—who had been dead for nearly two decades. In ex­change for the throne, the adopted em­peror would have to per­form the rit­u­als hon­or­ing his new an­ces­tors. Things be­came messy when the Ji­a­jing Em­peror proved un­will­ing to con­duct the proper cer­e­monies to his de­ceased un­cle, claim­ing that his loy­al­ties re­mained with his birth father.

Ul­ti­mately, the Ji­a­jing Em­peror re­solved the prob­lem by posthu­mously el­e­vat­ing his birth father to the po­si­tion of em­peror, com­plete with his own im­pe­rial tomb, and ex­e­cut­ing or ban­ish­ing any courtiers who took a dif­fer­ent view on the is­sue of im­pe­rial adop­tion.

Nearly three cen­turies later, the rulers of the Qing Em­pire faced a sim­i­lar prob­lem. The corona­tion of the Guangxu Em­peror in 1875 re­quired his aunt, the Em­press Dowa­ger Cixi, to fi­nesse the fact that the new em­peror was a cousin of her re­cently de­ceased and heir­less son, the Tongzhi Em­peror. Guangxu needed to be adopted by Tongzhi's late father to main­tain father-son suc­ces­sion, and Tongzhi would then posthu­mously “adopt” one of Guangxu's fu­ture sons to pro­vide for the dead em­per­ors' rit­ual needs in the af­ter­life. Un­for­tu­nately, the plan hinged on the Guangxu Em­peror hav­ing male chil­dren of his own—which never tran­spired, ei­ther for Guangxu orhis­nephew and suc­ces­sor, Puyi.

Among or­di­nary Chi­nese, adopt­ing sons ap­pears more com­monly in his­tor­i­cal records than adopt­ing daugh­ters, mostly be­cause le­gal and so­cial prej­u­dices only rec­og­nized pa­tri­lin­eal kin­ship; women, who did not usu­ally ap­pear in the le­gal doc­u­ments gov­ern­ing in­her­i­tance, were not tech­ni­cally “adopted” into that lin­eage. Nev­er­the­less, girls also could be raised out­side their birth fam­i­lies, and records sug­gest that they were more avail­able for adop­tion than boys, due to the same prej­u­dices. Though there were un­doubt­edly fam­i­lies that adopted girls for purely al­tru­is­tic rea­sons, adopt­ing daugh­ters could also be a means to pro­vide care­givers for a house­hold or at­tract a son-in-law for an ux­o­rilo­cal mar­riage. There were also in­stances of fam­i­lies adopt­ing tongyangxi (童养媳) or “child brides,” who would one day marry one of the house­hold's male chil­dren (and do the chores in the mean­time).

What­ever strate­gies a fam­ily em­ployed, se­cur­ing an heir was cru­cial for the par­ents' com­fort. Lin­eages re­quired heirs to be sure that all mem­bers of the clan were ac­counted for in the af­ter­life. But adop­tion was never easy and could lead to com­pli­ca­tions of loy­alty and legacy in fam­i­lies of po­ten­tially any so­cial rank. The philoso­pher Men­cius may have ar­tic­u­lated the orig­i­nal im­per­a­tive, but he also help­fully wrote of its chal­lenges: “Heaven gives birth to two crea­tures,” he warned, “in such a way that they only have one root.”

A por­trait of the Guangxu Em­peror

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