Comparative lawyers and economists have often assumed that traditional Chinese laws and customs reinforced the economic and political dominance of elites and, therefore, were unusually “despotic” towards the poor. Such assumptions are highly questionable: Quite the opposite, one of the most striking characteristics of Qing and Republican property institutions is that they often gave significantly greater economic protection to the poorer segments of society than comparable institutions in early modern England. In particular, Chinese property customs afforded much stronger powers of redemption to landowners who had pawned their land. In both societies, land-pawning occurred far more frequently among poorer households than richer ones, but Chinese customary law allowed debtors to indefinitely retain redemption rights over collateralized property, whereas English debtors would generally lose the property permanently if they failed to redeem within one year.
This article argues that the comparatively “egalitarian” tendencies of Qing and Republican property institutions stemmed from the different ways Chinese and English rural communities allocated social status and rank. Hierarchical “Confucian” kinship networks dominated social and economic life in most Chinese villages. Within these networks, an individual’s status and rank depended, in large part, on his age and generational seniority, rather than personal wealth. This allowed many low-income households to enjoy status and rank quite disproportionate to their wealth. In comparison, substantial landed wealth was generally a prerequisite for high status in early modern England, effectively excluding lower-income households from positions of sociopolitical authority. Chinese smallholders possessed, therefore, significantly more social bargaining power, and were more capable of negotiating desirable property institutions. Paradoxically, the predominance of kinship hierarchies actually enhanced macro-level political and economic equality.