Ancestral Halls as Institutions in Late Imperial China

2017/2018 School of Chinese Public Lecture Series

Ancestral Halls as Institutions in Late Imperial China

Joseph P. McDermott (Emeritus Reader in Chinese History, U of Cambridge)

March 6, 2018 (Tuesday) 4:30pm-6:00pm
Room 730, Run Run Shaw Tower
Language: English

The ancestral hall is commonly thought of as a place where descendants worship their ancestors, and so it has long been considered an integrative and inclusive institution encompassing an entire lineage or branch. This talk questions that understanding, preferring to see that at least in some parts of south China during the Ming and Qing dynasties ancestral halls were erected to redistribute power within the lineage, often in line with wealth and power already acquired outside of the village, and thus were actually very divisive institutions. Two keys to gaining this insight are the financing of the hall’s construction and the hall’s subsequent role as a credit-granting institution in a society with very limited “banking facilities.” To that extent, the growth of the ancestral hall as a key institution of lineage life in south China from the sixteenth century onward is a sign of the commercialization of a descent group institution along lines imagined by neither pre-Ming advocates of this central institution in neo-Confucian reforms nor modern scholars focussed primarily on what such advocates wrote about institutions as opposed to what Chinese actually did with them.

About the Speaker
Joseph P. McDermott has had a career teaching in the US, Japan, and the UK. Having recently retired as Reader in Chinese History at the U. of Cambridge, he presently is Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, and Honorary Fellow of the Toyo Bunko, Tokyo. Over the past four decades he has written widely on middle and late imperial Chinese history, at times on Chinese art and thought, but mainly about Chinese social and economic history from the Song to the early Qing. His books include A Social History of the Chinese Book (HKUP, 2006) and the two-volume study of Huizhou Prefecture, The Making of a New Rural Order in South China (Cambridge University Press, 2013 and forthcoming in 2019) , and the volumes he has edited include Art and Power in East Asia (ICU, 1990), State and Court Ritual in China(Cambridge University Press, 1999), and, with Peter Burke, The Book Worlds of East Asia and Europe, 1450-1850 (HKUP, 2016). Most recently, he co-authored a lengthy chapter, “Economic Change in Song China, 960-1279,” for The Cambridge History of China.