Delimited Options


Odds and Ends VI

Jun 03, 2022

Interesting Papers

Time-Preference (and its Consequences) in Historical China

From 1587, A Year of No Significance:

The fact was that, even though our empire was not a closed society, the vocational options it could offer were extremely limited. For families who wished to enjoy stability and respectability, there was little choice besides farming and officeholding. Usually the two were interconnected; success in one area led to success in the other. But it was most unlikely that both could be attained by a newcomer in his own lifetime. The common pattern was that a family persistently worked toward its common interest until the labor and self-denial of the fathers bore fruit in the time of their children, who benefited from clear titles to their land, sometimes from the liens they held over the properties of others, and above all from free time for educa- tion. Sacrifices on the part of mothers and wives were an integral part of the process. Thus, while sudden advances were possible at the time of the governmental examinations, the triumphs and satisfactions thus attained had in reality been shared, transmitted, and deferred. The motivation to succeed required individuals within the household to maintain a collective personality, so to speak. Corresponding to the emotional need, the imperial conferring of honorary titles upon meritorious officials as a rule covered three generations in retrospect and their wives, often posthumously. Li Chih's own life story shows traces of this general pattern, even though the early deaths of his sons and his own premature resignation prevented it from developing into a typical case.

The strong kinship bond could not logically stop at the limit of the conjugal family, since there was no reason why the common destiny that one shared with one's ancestors could not also be shared with one's uncles, brothers, nephews, and cousins. Besides, the benefits of mutual aid were reciprocal. One could never be certain when one's own children might need help from those relatives. The cult of ancestor-worship therefore had a strong rationale on its side. But along with its semireligious trappings and ethical values, the practice also became a relentless coercive force. The demands it made upon individuals were by no means limited to intermit- tent flashes of devotion to the common cause, nor were the obligations merely financial. In the main, it committed people to a definite pattern of life, characterized by the obsessive acquisition of land, the compulsive choice of official careers, the promotion of education for the sole purpose of perpetuating the system, and, in pursuing all these goals, the subjection of themselves to the pressures and expectations of the nearest kin, who felt justifed in inducing them to chart their course for the common good.

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