Zhu Houcong, Jiajing Emperor

The Challenges of Adoption in Imperial China

The importance of male heirs made for complex negotiations of ritual, law, and lineage for those wishing to adopt

In 1856, a young boy named Dekeng was adopted by his uncle, Chengdie. Dekeng’s father, Sendie, already had two other sons to care for him, and, eventually, carry out the rituals necessary for a peaceful afterlife.

The less fortunate Chengdie had no sons of his own, so a contract was drawn up, witnessed by other members of the family, transferring Dekeng from one brother to another in exchange for 14 silver dollars—described in the contract as “milk money.”

This exchange, translated by Madeleine Zelin in her 2004 book Contract and Property in Early Modern China, represented one of the commonest forms of ancient adoption: The transfer of a male heir from one brother to another. But adoption in late imperial China was rarely simple, and always involved careful negotiation of ritual, filial piety, law, and lineage.

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author Jeremiah Jenne

Jeremiah Jenne is a writer and historian based in Beijing since 2002. He earned his PhD from the University of California, Davis, and has taught Late Imperial and Modern Chinese History for over 15 years. His essays and articles on China have appeared in The Economist, the South China Morning Post, The Journal of Asian Studies, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and The World of Chinese. His writings can also be found in China in “2008: A Year of Great Significance,” “The Insider’s Guide to Beijing,” and the 2015 collection “While We’re Here: China Stories from a Writer’s Colony.” Jeremiah frequent speaks and leads workshops on history, culture, and cultural adaptation for students, embassies, companies, and community groups. Along with David Moser, Jeremiah also hosts the podcast Barbarians at the Gate.

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