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Negotiating Daily Life in Traditional China

Negotiating Daily Life in Traditional China: How Ordinary People Used Contracts, 600-1400

Valerie Hansen
Copyright Date: 1995
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Negotiating Daily Life in Traditional China
    Book Description:

    This intriguing book explores how ordinary people in traditional China used contracts to facilitate the transactions of their daily lives, as they bought, sold, rented, or borrowed land, livestock, people, or money. In the process it illuminates specific everyday concerns during China's medieval transformation.Valerie Hansen translates and analyzes surviving contracts and also draws on tales of the supernatural, rare legal sources, plays, language texts, and other anecdotal evidence to describe how contracts were actually used. She explains that the educated wrote their own contracts, whereas the illiterate paid scribes to draft them and read them aloud. The contracts reveal much about everyday life: problems with inflation that resulted from the introduction of the first paper money in the world; the persistence of women's rights to own and sell land at a time when their lives were becoming more constricted; and the litigiousness of families, which were complicated products of remarriages, adoptions, and divorces. The Chinese even armed their dead with contracts asserting ownership of their grave plots, and Hansen provides details of an underworld court system in which the dead could sue and be sued. Illustrations and maps enrich a book that will be fascinating for anyone interested in Chinese life and society.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16153-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-vii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. viii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Note on Conventions
    (pp. xi-xii)
  6. Table of Equivalent Measures
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  7. 1 Why Study Contracts?
    (pp. 1-14)

    To most modern readers contracts suggest dry, multipage documents divorced from everyday existence. Happily, traditional Chinese contracts pulsate with life. They were used by people at all social levels, who paid scribes to draft contracts and then read them aloud. If literate, those who commissioned the contracts signed them. If not, they sketched their finger joints or drew their personal marks. People who used contracts were sufficiently familiar with legal language to alter stock texts to fit their own circumstances, and the details they inserted afford wonderfully informative glimpses of their concerns.

    Most of the contracts in this book are...

  8. Part I Contracting with People

    • 2 The State’s Reluctance to Recognize Private Contracts
      (pp. 17-46)

      In 618, after overthrowing the Sui dynasty, the first Tang emperor established a dynasty that was to rule China for the next three centuries (map I). The Tang was a time of extensive contact with the foreign peoples who traveled along the Silk Road from India and Central Asia. It came to stand as an ideal for later dynasties, including its successor, the Song, and is now thought by many to mark the peak of China’s cultural development.

      One of the lasting accomplishments of the Tang wasThe Tang Code,promulgated in 653 and surviving today in its 737 reissue....

    • 3 Government Recognition of Contracts
      (pp. 47-77)

      The second cache of original contracts from the Tang dynasty was found at the end of the nineteenth century in a cave in Dunhuang, Gansu province (see map 1). Dating to the ninth and tenth centuries, the Dunhuang discovery makes it possible to track the changing role of contracts in the years following the collapse of central government power in 755. Dunhuang was remote but, like other more centrally located areas, was governed by a regional ruler.

      Those signing the Dunhuang contracts shared the wariness of those at Turfan about state intervention in private agreements. Until the middle of the...

    • 4 The Age of Governmental Taxation
      (pp. 78-112)

      In 960, fifty years after the disintegration of the Tang, the founder of the Song united China (map 2). No one could have foreseen just how difficult it would be to collect the tax on contracts. Nor could anyone have anticipated to what extent the difficulties would stem from the brokers, the agents chosen to collect the tax. Although the Song could not increase the land tax for fear of alienating powerful landowning families, it still needed money both to support its armies against the steady incursions of northern peoples on its borders and to fund its attacks against them....

    • 5 Contracts under Mongol Rule and Afterward
      (pp. 113-146)

      The Mongols finally succeeded in conquering southern China in 1276 and ruled all of China until 1368 (map 3), when the founder of the Ming dynasty ousted them. Although in power for less than one hundred years, they took a very different approach to the collection of the contract tax than the Song had. For instance, they lowered the tax to one-thirtieth the value of a given transaction. Although scholars doubt the efficiency of Mongol rule and see this century as a time of great chaos, the surviving evidence—some of it in contracts, some of it in new vernacular...

  9. Part II Contracting with the Gods

    • 6 Tomb Contracts
      (pp. 149-188)

      One type of contract differs from those described in the first part of this book. Buried in tombs, these contracts for the purchase of grave plots were with gods, not with people. They were usually calledmaidiquan,literally, contracts to buy land. Although they retained many features of realworld land contracts, some telltale signs marked them off as contracts for use in the netherworld. They were meant to resolve an age-old danger in China: the risk of encroaching on land that belonged to the gods when digging deep in the ground to build a grave. They were also meant to...

    • 7 The Courts of the Underworld
      (pp. 189-221)

      The Chinese envisioned the world of the dead to be much like the world of the living—governed by bureaucrats, filled with courts, and punctuated by lawsuits. Accordingly, they buried contracts as a precaution in case they were sued. Because the contracts do not reveal much, one has to consult other sources to explain how people viewed these subterranean courts.

      Belief in the underworld court system was already widespread in the fourth and fifth centuries, when Daoist ritual manuals explained how to resolve an underworld suit. The Maoshan Daoists claimed they knew how to intervene in the courts on behalf...

    • 8 The Courts of the Living and the Courts of the Dead
      (pp. 222-230)

      Anyone reading these pages will recognize how strongly ordinary people’s understanding of tomb contracts and the subterranean legal system derived from their experiences with this-worldly counterparts. The same problems that plague earthly contracts appear in the netherworld, as do many of the same solutions. People tried, and often failed, to make the signing of a contract coincide with the time of payment, because they hoped to lessen the possibility of suits. For once, their interests coincided with those of government officials who hoped more definitive contracts would lead to fewer suits and a lighter workload.

      Everyone struggled, too, to understand...

  10. Appendix A Known Tomb Contracts
    (pp. 231-238)
  11. Appendix B Deities Named as Sellers in Tomb Contracts
    (pp. 239-242)
  12. Glossary
    (pp. 243-250)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 251-276)
  14. Index
    (pp. 277-285)