Brainstorming: The extinction of China’s Ancient Noble Houses, and the rise of the Bureaucracy.
Investigating a new line of inquiry for a blog post, this time about the near extinction of the major Noble Families of Antiquity after the Tang Dynasty.
What I have managed to establish so far as facts, these are preliminary research, with no particular conclusion or direction. I am just brainstorming.
1) The Tang Noble families were the last great aristocracy that could trace their supposed aristocratic lineages back to the Pre-Qin Dynasties (Zhou, Shang, and Xia Dynasties).
2) The Tang Dynasty was also when the Imperial Examination became entrenched as a institution, allowing the rise of Scholar-Officials, gentry raised from the ranks of commoners on the basis of merit and education. The following dynasties was almost always ruled by Scholar-Officials, permanently moving China towards Bureaucratic Rule.
3) Southward Migration of Noble Families over successive dynasties. After the collapse of the Tang Dynasty, the survivors moved into Southern China.
4) According to wikipedia: Historically there are close to 12,000 surnames recorded (including those from non-Han Chinese ethnic groups), of which only about 3,100 are in current use, a factor of almost 4:1 (about 75%) reduction.
5) Surnames, in the original Zhou culture, were only held by nobility, but after the Qin Dynasty, commoners begin to have surnames. Chinese Surnames arise from many sources, including nobility, occupation, position in government, or are ethnic or religious (ie, “Barbarians”, specific religious groups, etc).
6) Confucius’ established his House in 551 BC in the Zhou Dynasty, but he traces his lineage from the Royal Family of Shang Dynasty, through the Dukes of Song. Confucius’ direct descendant, Kung Te-cheng is the current head of House and still holds a hereditary governmental position (Sacrificial Official to Confucius) directly derived from a hereditary peerage (Duke of Yansheng). This proves at least, that it was possible for a Noble House that was 2500 years old to survive intact to the present day. The Yamato Dynasty (The Japanese Imperial Family) could only claim 2000 years of patrilineal descent, though they are the world’s oldest monarchy.
7) Succeeding dynasties did ennoble new peerages. The last Han-Ethnic regime to do so was the short-lived “Dynasty” under the self-proclaimed Emperor Yuan Shikai when he subverted revolutionary efforts to restore Imperial Rule. His rule lasted for under a year, from 1915 to 1916.
8) The Yuan Dynasty (Mongol Empire) and the Qing Dynasty (Manchurian-Chinese State) brought with them their own systems of nobility and peerages, but they made extensive use of the Imperial Examination system. The Mongols initially did not do so, refusing to adopt such extensive use of Chinese language, ideology, and educational history. But they eventually did.
9) There is an undeniable Colonial Aspect to Chinese Surname Culture. It seems to me that the Han Chinese culture was the only one that seemed extensively concerned with surname culture and keeping records of their lineages (or at least they were the ones whose practice survives to the modern day). They brought these practices everywhere they went. There was certainly ancient, equally sophisticated cultures of non-Han origination in China (such as that of ancient Fuzhou), but everyone was encouraged to adopt a Han culture and a Chinese surname over time. With regards to good records, even someone like me, who was literally from a village in Taiwan, have genealogical records that goes back to at least the 17th century (when my Ancestor first established himself in Taiwan, as a Scholar-Official serving under Kongxinga’s command during his invasion of Taiwan, with even older records traceable to specific towns in China). We kept good records in Taiwan, although in China, during the Cultural Revolution, a lot of genealogical records, family temples, etc were destroyed.
Tentative Conclusion: Again, these preliminary research have no true conclusion, but I am leaning towards a combination of 1) Imperial Examination becoming a permanent institution in the culture along with 2) the unfortunate decline of most of the truly ancient houses, and 3) the normal phenomenon of surname extinction, and 4) The Chinese Cultural Revolution as the key causes.