The Evolution of the Li System in Late Antiquity in China

Social Sciences in China (Chinese Edition)

No.1, 2015


The Evolution of the Li System in Late Antiquity in China



Bao Weimin


The accounts of basic rural organizations in the extant literature of the Song and Yuan dynasties (mainly local gazetteers) show an extremely complex situation, but the vast majority have a xiang-li (乡里) arrangement. By the middle of the Northern Song Dynasty, the xiang-li system handed down from previous generations had been abandoned, and the actually operating basic rural organization became the xiang-du, giving rise to a disparity between the documentary accounts and institutional operations. With the passing of time, from the Tang Dynasty to the Song Dynasty, the Tang xiang-li system, in which the basic rural units were organizations of linked households of a certain scale, underwent a process of institutional transmutation manifested in localization and concentration. The main trend in this process was localization, which resulted in the widespread degeneration of particular xiang or li into place names which were recorded as a system of regional identification by the compilers of local chronicles. In the Song, the imperial state, for reasons of management, re-established organizations of linked households such as the xiang-guan and xiang-du. As these were not yet stable, they could not be used for local identification, so were ignored in the records. We can regard this issue, emerging as it does from institutional evolution, as a typical case of the complex relations between historical text and historical fact.