Love, Not War, Made the Chinese State

In today’s post, I want to discuss social networks and state building — two of our favorite topics on this blog. In particular, I focus on the relationship between kinship networks and state building. The conventional wisdom in the social sciences over the last century is that kinship-based institutions undermine state building. For instance, Max Weber argues that the state needs to “shatter the fetters of the sib [the extended family].” Joel Migdal maintains that strong states emerge only when massive dislocation severely weakens traditional kinship-based institutions. Francis Fukuyama likewise contends that state building represents “a transition from kinship-based forms of organization to state-level organization.” Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson consider communities with strong kinship-based institutions to be trapped in a “cage of norms,” which prevents the birth of a strong Leviathan. In the same vein, Joseph Henrich argues that the rise of so-called Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic (WEIRD) states can be traced back to the medieval era when the Catholic Church dissolved extended family networks.

Kinship-based institutions, however, have coexisted with centralized state institutions throughout human history. A group of Norman aristocrats, bound together by kinship ties, ruled medieval England. In pre-colonial sub-Saharan Africa, kinship ties were prevalent in what Meyer Fortes and E. E. Evans-Pritchard call “centralized” kingdoms, such as the Zulu, Ngwato, Bemba, Banyankole, and Kede. Imperial China, one of the world’s earliest bureaucratic states, boasted strong lineage organizations.

Findings from a Recent Study

In a recent article accepted by the American Political Science Review, I analyze the conditions under which kinship-based institutions are compatible with state building. I argue that geographically dispersed kinship networks cross-cut local cleavages and incentivize elites to unite in pursuit of national, rather than sectarian, goals. Elites embedded in such dispersed networks can benefit from a strong central state, which generates scale economies in providing protection and justice throughout a large territory. Dispersed kinship networks, therefore, transcend parochial interests to align the incentives of self-interested elites in favor of state building. In other (cheesy) words, the love of their family members who are scattered all over the country motivates the elites to build a strong state.

To evaluate my argument, I compiled an original dataset that includes individual-level information on all the major politicians during what was arguably China’s most important state-building reform, which occurred during the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127). China faced severe external threats from the nomads in the North during this time, which motivated the emperor to initiate a reform to strengthen the state’s fiscal and military capacities. The map below shows the three regimes in China between 960 and 1127.

Politicians, however, diverged on their attitudes toward the reform: some became state builders, while others formed the opposition. The emperor’s strategy to keep both camps in power to play them against each other allowed them to publicly express their policy preferences. I use archival materials, such as policy deliberations submitted to the emperor, to document the political allegiances of major central officials during this reform era. As the figure below illustrates, of the 63 politicians who expressed an opinion about the reform, 34 (54%) consistently supported it (coded as 1), while 24 (38%) consistently opposed it (coded as 0). The remaining five politicians supported some of the reform policies but opposed others

Mapping elite kinship networks from a thousand years ago presents a formidable challenge. I use a novel archeological source: tomb epitaphs. Tomb epitaphs in ancient China consisted of square slabs of limestone, on which biographies of the decreased were inscribed. Because the epitaphs were deemed a literary genre, the texts of hundreds of them survive in the collected works of Song-era writers. These epitaphs included lengthy eulogies containing information on several generations of the deceased individual’s kin members. The figure below shows the tomb stone of Fu Bi — a chief councilor (prime minister) during the reform.

English Translation: His excellency (Fu Bi) married the daughter of Yan Shu. She was virtuous, calm, and restrained. They had three sons: Fu Shaoting, Gentleman for Court Service; Fu Shaojing, Deputy Commissioner of Storehouse; Fu Shaolong, Aid in the Court of Imperial Entertainments. They had four daughters: the first married Feng Jing, Scholar in the Institute for the Extension of Literary Arts; after she died, the second daughter married Feng Jing; the third daughter married Fan Dazong, Court Gentleman for Instruction; the fourth daughter married Fan Dagui, County Magistrate of Huoqiu.

With the information provided by tomb epitaphs, I was able to map each politician’s kinship network. Each network consists of two components – the politician’s nuclear family and all in-laws who were connected by marriage to his son(s) or daughter(s). The figure below presents an example of a kinship network.

Notes: SW = son’s wife; SWF = son’s wife’s father; SWM = son’s wife’s mother; DH = daughter’s husband; DHF = daughter’s husband’s father; DHM = daughter’s husband’s mother. Solid lines represent blood relations, and dashed lines denote marriage ties.

I geocoded every kin member’s hometown to construct an index that measures the geographic concentration of each politician’s kinship network. Compare the two kinship networks in the figures below. The upper figure shows that the relatives (small dots) of the reform leader Wang Anshi (denoted by the large circle in the figure) were scattered all over the country, while the the lower figure indicates that those of Lu Gongzhu — an opposition leader — were located mostly in nearby provinces.

My statistical tests demonstrate that politicians’ support for state building is positively correlated with the geographic span of their kinship networks. In other words, the more dispersed their extended family, the more likely politicians are to advocate a strong state. The results are robust to controlling for a large number of individual, family, and regional characteristics.

I argue that this correlation is driven by what Albert Hirschman calls “forward linkage” effects. Forward linkages are created when investment in a particular activity encourages investment in subsequent activities. For instance, elites create such linkages when they build kinship networks, a form of patronage sharing and risk mitigation, to perpetuate their power and alleviate uncertainties. These networks can “lock” politicians into future state-building preferences even after the initial impetus to create the networks has passed. In imperial China, politicians’ kinship networks, often handed down from earlier generations, shaped how they weighed their family’s future interests vis-à-vis state interests.

Broader Implications

John Padgett and Christopher Ansell point out that to understand state building, one needs to “penetrate beneath the veneer of formal institutions and apparently clear goals, down to the relational substratum of people’s actual lives.” Social science research has long emphasized the impact of social networks and “social embeddedness” on elite behavior. Recent works demonstrate that network structures shape political incentives. I, in this article, link the geography of elites’ kinship networks to their state-building preferences.

This article is related to the contribution of Saumitra Jha, who shows that overseas shareholding aligned the incentives of various elites during England’s Civil War (1642–1648) to cobble together a pro-reform coalition in favor of parliamentary supremacy. I focus instead on kinship networks, which were prevalent in premodern societies and remain prominent in many developing countries.

Previous scholarship views state building as a state-society competition in which the state gradually achieves predominance over social organizations. In this competition, extended kinship groups are the state’s major rivals. This notion of state-kinship competition, however, is largely based on the European experience of state development, where the medieval church’s prohibitions on endogamy, adoption, polygyny, concubinage, divorce, and remarriage undermined the strength of kinship groups. Meanwhile, frequent and increasingly expensive wars created a comparative advantage for territorial states over smaller social units, such as manors, in mobilizing resources. The state ultimately replaced its social rivals and became a monopolist.

Yet complex kinship institutions have dominated premodern societies outside Europe. The Chinese state bureaucratized more than a thousand years before European countries. In the 11th century, the Chinese state (under the Song Dynasty) taxed over 15% of its economy — a level that England did not reach until the 18th century. China achieved these state-building milestones while maintaining strong kinship institutions.

Many of the policy interventions carried out by the international community, such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, focus on strengthening state bureaucracies and building “Weberian” states. But the Chinese case emphasizes the importance of understanding how a country’s social structure affects its state-building trajectory. When elites are embedded in local social relations, they are more likely to rely on local, private organizations to provide services and protection and less likely to support a strong central state. The lesson is that state weakness is a social problem that cannot be resolved with a purely bureaucratic solution. State-building projects should thus extend beyond a narrow focus on reforming the bureaucracy to include efforts to make incentives related to the social structure compatible with a strong state.


  • Yuhua Wang

    Wang is Professor of Government at Harvard University. He received B.A. from Peking University and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. His research has focused on the politics of state building, with a regional focus on China. He is the author of Tying the Autocrat’s Hands: The Rise of the Rule of Law in China (Cambridge University Press, 2015) and The Rise and Fall of Imperial China: The Social Origins of State Development (Princeton University Press, 2022).

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