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Chinese Interpretation of Property Rights

December 6th, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

This post is supposed to be respond to @ersim and @Black Pheonix but grow into the following:

I want to note that before Qin re-united the country, the title of huang(皇) and di(帝) mean sage or saint. The Qin king combined that title and make it huangdi(皇帝) which becomes the title emperor. And I also want to say that before the Xia dynasty, leader in China is elected rather than being hereditary.

Due to extensive record keeping by Chinese historian, they actually recorded the transition from nomadic lifestyle to static farming community of China. As one can tell, the value of a society would change with way of life. In nomadic lifestyle there is no landed property. As for property right, starting with the Xia dynasty, the nobles would be the major land owners and this power give them special position and rights. Ancient Chinese historian also recorded that this power from property is far from ideal and distorted the value in the society. However, Qin did introduce a major reform where nobles would be punished the same as a commoner. This pave the way to equal rights for every man.


The ancient Chinese concept of property is complex. On one hand, after Qin dynasty, even a slave can own property. On the other all land supposedly belongs to the king or emperor. However, the king or emperor must have the mandate of heaven. In a way, he only work as middleman for heaven. Since he is also the son of heaven, he is supposed to uphold justice of the people. There is a spiritual and moral interpretation of property ownership.

So the ancient Chinese belief on property is not absolute but have a very strong moral dimension to it. The western view on property right in large part is based on the Magna Carter which emphasized the inalienable rights of the nobles to their lands and property. Basically, it is a document drafted by the nobles against the king so their property right is absolute and even the king cannot touch them.

In China, if a noble, powerful statesman, or even a tycoon is convicted of a serious crime. The emperor can strip him of all his property even if the property is rightfully inherited or obtained by fair trade. In many ways, this correspond with the collective right mentality of the Chinese. The ancient Chinese sages believe that individual right can only be protected if collective right is enforced. For example, every fit men in ancient China has to contribute labour or military service. Because if everyone is free to choose whether he want to work the dam of the Huang river or join the military to fight off invasion, China as a civilization would not have survived.

As can be seen from the short reign of the Qin and Shui after unification, any abuse of the drafted labour would mean swift end to the dynasty. Another aspect of property right is also based on collective relationship. Qin code emphasize collective punishment. For example if a man committed a serious crime, his wife, parents or brother would be punished also. And if a man is involved in rebellion, his extended family would be punished and all their property confiscated. In many ways it is this belief that allow the communist concept of shared property to spread. The Chinese translation of communist party is simply “shared property party”. Since Magna Carter, the western concept of property right has a religious context to it, that is why Communism is considered such an affront to Christianity. In China, the religious context meant property right is based on morality as well. That is one major reason the CPC can introduce the concept so successfully. Another reason is that Chinese are used to the concept of revolution.

Some people want to view the introduction of family planning in China as a restriction of individual right. However, when the policy was being introduced, Chinese family on average has 5 children, two decades ago it was seven children (granted most didn’t make it to adulthood). With limited food resources, if the large family is sustained, there would be famine and many more would die. And in a market driven economy, the well connected would still be able to provide for their many children while the poor would not. It is the commitment to equality and fairness that family was introduced not the other way round. For example, Xi Jinping, the president of China, only has one daughter.

Chinese belief and code are mostly influenced by circumstances and historical events and are also shaped by logic. Simply compare it to Greek and Roman concept of property rights. In those society only men with property are entitled to be elected to office. And every free man are required to serve in the military. They also have collective punishment system. This is the same as ancient China. It differs after Qin gave a mean for slave to free themselves by national service. The divergent started here, is it a coincidence that Qin was survived by the Han, Jin then Shui, Tang, Song to Qing; while Greek and Roman empires fell? Granted the Eastern Greco-Roman empire lasted until the 15th century.

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  1. N.M.Cheung
    December 6th, 2013 at 12:28 | #1

    I think slavery was abolished before Qin unified China. There were various reforms proposed in the 200 years interval, before that slaves were buried with their master alive as excavations in recent years discovered. The Qin reform was that common people can aspire to be nobles and own land with military services and slay enemies in battle.

  2. December 6th, 2013 at 12:58 | #2

    To be exact, slavery wasn’t outlawed until 1911. Although reform in Qin ended large scale slavery it still existed in two form:

    The slaves owned by the court, especially those in the palace. They cannot redeem their freedom even by merit. They can only be set free by court edict. The slaves may also included family of criminal who committed serious crimes. They can only be freed by pardon. Of course, the number of this so-called slaves is tiny, numbering around 200,000 by 1700s, out of a population of 200 million.

    Bonded servants owned by individual. Servants of this category are bounded usually by a title (賣身契). However, as long as they have the money they are freed. The number of this category is quite large and probably numbered around 1 percent of the population.

    In Xia and Shang(especially) dynasty, the nobles usually have their favorite slaves and concubines buried with them. It eventually was replaced by the terra cotta substitute. Did you meant to say it existed for 2,000 years instead of 200?

    I would argue that the Qin reform is radical by world standard, it allows common man to rise to become general or minister. No other major civilization introduced this system until at least 1,000 years or more later.

  3. Black Pheonix
    December 6th, 2013 at 14:48 | #3


    What you described was called “Official Slaves”, which technically was not a form of slavery, but rather a form of punishment, reserved for criminals and prisoners of wars.

    Why was not “slavery”? Because those these people had no “freedom”, they were not considered “property” either. They could not be bought or sold.

    Qin did end the practice of “slave trade” period, in the sense, that there was no more legal protection for “slaves” as properties, and no more large ownership of slave populations.

    Why? Put it bluntly, everyone is a “slave” to the Emperor, and the Emperor couldn’t very well allow someone else to usurp his authority by owning slaves.

    That’s a no no.

  4. December 6th, 2013 at 17:15 | #4

    @Black Pheonix
    I agree, technically there are no slaves (奴隸) after Qin’s reform. It is mainly this system that released the potential of the population that allowed it to defeat its six other main rivals. Of course, I wish it has totally ended but it still existed in the two format I’ve stated, I use the word slavery for there is no equivalent word in English.

    Nevertheless, I would disagree with your opinion that everyone is slave to the emperor. 民为重,社稷次之,君为轻.The above words by Mengzi simply dispute that notion. In the view of the Confucian, the king or emperor is only third in importance, the most important is the welfare of the people. And since Han dynasty adopted Confucianism as the premier belief, all emperors subsequently has to memorize that phrase by heart. And it is pretty much required reading for imperial exams from Shui dynasty onward. And if the emperor failed his duty, the people has every right to rebellion and revolution.

    I have said many times, perfect theory doesn’t mean perfection in reality. During the CR, the red guards actually used a term (造反有理) that is similar in spirit to ancient Confucian. I think that is one big irony. Basically, Chinese society has been seeking a system to enable that famous quote by Mengzi. The search is still ongoing.

  5. ersim
    December 6th, 2013 at 19:28 | #5

    Thanks for posting my question in relation to “property rights” within Chinese tradition. Was curious to know what philosofical background existed within Chinese society in regards to “property rights”. Losurdo’s book failed to give me a clear religious aspect and or interpretation about the current Western concept of “property rights”. Specially after the Protestant Reformation.

  6. Black Pheonix
    December 7th, 2013 at 08:54 | #6


    That is a good lead to another interesting contrast.

    Whereas Modern “liberalism” emphasize on “property”/rights (as the Defining factors in a person’s IDENTITY), Chinese culture emphasize on “responsibility” as the hallmark of an individual’s identity.

    Classically, Chinese meritocracy is based upon the concept that a person must live up to his responsibilities, where ever he is in society. And the harmonious society as a whole has the responsibility to see every person is in the position appropriate to his/her abilities and responsibilities.

    Titles and ranks are reflection of a person’s responsibilities, not possessions or rights.

    A virtuous ruler or noble would have the highest ranks of responsibilities but have none of the wealth.

    This is similar to how Socrates described the ideal ruler as the “philosopher King” who have all the power but none of the wealth.

  7. December 7th, 2013 at 09:12 | #7

    I have read quite a few western works on the origin of democracy too. Of course, the authors’ consensus pretty much attributed to two factors, “democratic” tradition of ancient Greece and later Christian tradition. They also concluded because other societies don’t have these two tradition, they fell behind and get invaded and enslaved. That seems like funny theories to me. Well, if you simply narrow history to the past few decades and focus only on the supposed ideals that spawned from the west, you could easily come to the same conclusion.

    Chinese philosophy and tradition is actually very complex. Although we might see Confucianism on the surface, it actually includes Legalism, Daoism, Moism, and also many folk religion, not to mention Buddhism and of course modern concept of Communism and Nationalism. Let’s say we go back to the 1800s before modern ideology makes its impact, we have a pretty much constant view of property right and contract since Qin. I will skip anything before that because it is not that developed.

    In order for any contract to be honoured, first there must be credibility and trust. Feudal government is simply a different ruling class to the common people. They don’t inter-marry hence you still have this Chinese saying that in marriage “bamboo door must match bamboo door, wood door to wood door”. It is not much different from Indian caste system. The Qin in order to get the people involved in the government started by adopting legalist teaching of Shang Yang. He did that by “putting a pole to gain trust” (徙木立信) He put a pole in the city square and told the people that whoever that is able to move it will receive 10 gold pieces. However, nobody believe it and he raise the reward to 50 gold pieces. Then a strong man took the challenge and was rewarded. This event became the talk of the town and spread throughout the state. For more detailed of the reform please check out my earlier writing.

    Now that credibility and trust has been established, the law is not simply about crime and punishment but a detailed merit and reward is now included. You might wonder why I keep harping on the government role if it is simply private property right. The fact is, without government enforcement and protection, there would not be any property right, isn’t it. Now that all the slaves are freed, land title (地契) become common place. It is simply a practical development.

    Qin’s reform also weakened the nobles as a ruling class and allow private businesses to take off. The unification and standardization also facilitate trade. So contract (契約) comes about. In my opinion, necessity is the mother of all invention. Ancient China leapt ahead because of those circumstances. For me, European success is also from practical circumstances. The requirement of running a stable government, progressive society and development in science and technology all contributed more to property rights development than religion. Of course, like China, war and destruction also contributed to social development. And the rise of the middle class aka the 3rd estate is the foundation of much of Europe progress and development.

  8. Black Pheonix
    December 7th, 2013 at 09:39 | #8


    “They also concluded because other societies don’t have these two tradition, they fell behind and get invaded and enslaved. ”

    That is a funny kind of theory. Circular in logic.

    Of course, Christians got invaded too. Advanced civilizations get invaded by “barbarians”. That’s not unusual.

    Subject to Invasion is not a sign of inferiority. It’s a fact of reality.

    Surviving invasion, is an unique skill of tolerant societies (for example, China).

  9. December 7th, 2013 at 12:39 | #9

    @Black Pheonix
    As both an outsider and insider of western belief and tradition. I believe I can see other short coming they refused to see. By viewing property right as sacred and must be passed from father to son or to direct bloodline, also lead to xenophobia and racism. For example, I have yet able to find an author willing to state that the so-called liberal, democratic, Christian tradition also lead to wholesale slaughter of the native in the “New World” and also enslaving another group. That is why I always take any idealism with a pinch of salt because it always come with duality.

    Yes, a “philosopher king” is the ideal in Utopia, but isn’t a royal bloodline itself an affront to the concept of Utopia? Voltaire used Kangxi as a model of philosopher king to challenge the church authority in Europe. He also claimed that Europe never produced such a king while Confucianism or rather Chinese civilization could. Of course this is the Qing dynasty during its near peak of wealth and power (although in my view still inefficient). To top it off, the European exposure to China is still driven from the tales of Marco Polo and books such as Yijin, Daodejing etc.

  10. December 7th, 2013 at 12:48 | #10

    @Black Pheonix
    This is where western exceptionalism reared its ugly head. Christians don’t invade or plunder, they colonize and civilize.

    As for whether there is a superior or inferior civilization, that is a subject of deep discussion. How does one judge? Through history, legacy, present day position or future development?

  11. Black Pheonix
    December 7th, 2013 at 13:11 | #11


    Technically, Socrates’ ideal “king” is not a hereditary position. Remember, in ancient Greece (of the multiple Kingdoms of Greece), Kings were often elected (from a few elite families).

    But if we look at Socrates’ idea of the “King”, we can see that Modern Democracy is not that far from it.

    In Ancient Sparta, 2 Kings were elected from elite families, to maintain a balance of power. 1 King would be away on wars, while the other King would be at home.

    Similarly, in Venetian Republic (which lasted 700 years), the ruling Doge is elected from a council of elite families.

    Modern Western Democracies also tend to choose their leaders from “elite families”, although some elite families do rise up from non-elite status. (That is not that different from Venetian families.)

  12. ersim
    December 7th, 2013 at 15:25 | #12

    Was trying to connect the historical dots of the origins of the Western concept of “property rights” starting from the Papal Bulls of 1456 and 1493 when it came to “discovering new lands”. Chose the Protestant Reformation mainly because, from there, I think, the concept of “property rights” became more of a “right” of an individual. At least from this blog was able to have an understanding of the Chinese cultural and historical view.

  13. Black Pheonix
    December 7th, 2013 at 15:46 | #13


    In a sense, “right” concept, as a protective exclusion to prevent government intrusion in the Western tradition, is sort of “Carving out ownership without the necessity of responsibility”.

    That is, in the West, if I OWN a property, I owe no duties to society to do any thing with my property. I can let it go rot into nothing, if I wanted to. Nobody can stop me.

    In Asian tradition, that’s actually the opposite. A person only really “own” something, if one has responsibility for it. One owns the “Civil Responsibility”, as caretaker of the thing for society.

    However, even in practice, the Western legal traditions have largely given so many exceptions to “property rights”, that it pretty much recognizes “civil responsibility” as the underlying theory of “ownership”.

    If one owns property, one must pay taxes, as a way to demonstrate “productive use”. If not “productive”, the government can step in and condemn the property and confiscate it via “eminent domain”.

    “Eminent domain” in essence is a recognition for the necessity of “responsibility” as core element of “ownership” of property, BUT, it is a convoluted way of saying it.

    Rather, in China, by evolution, society has come to recognize in practice that “property” is really just “responsibility”.

    And if that is the ultimate underlying conclusion, the SOCIALISM is absolutely correct, in that Society should be the ultimate collective decider on how resources are used, not individuals.

  14. ersim
    December 7th, 2013 at 17:19 | #14

    @Black Pheonix
    The things is because of the Papal Bulls I mentioned about “discovering new lands”, throughout the period of European colonialism and imperialism, when they saw that the “other” living in these “new lands” were not using these lands in a “productive manner”, they had the self-righteous arrogance of taking over and controlling these “unproductive lands” from the inhabitants of those lands and automatically made themselves “owners of the unproductive land”. After that property rights was used as an excuse to legitimize land theft and all because the original peoples of those “unproductive lands” weren’t “civilized” to make the land “productive”. From there it goes downhill when it comes to the individual’s “right” in “owning land”. That has been the West’s “responsibility to humanity” in relation to taking over and controlling “unproductive lands” throughout the world to make them “productive” to this day.

  15. Black Pheonix
    December 7th, 2013 at 18:23 | #15


    That’s a difference in interpretation.

    Native Americans considered “ownership” as being a responsibility of caretaking the land. Whereas Colonial Europeans saw it as some form of “fencing off” exclusivity.

    Native Americans didn’t really see a problem with letting other people use the land. “Use” was not equal to “ownership” in their mind.

    But the reverse is also true to a point:

    Socialism, the collective form of responsibility division in property, was/is seen as a threat to the Western notion of “property rights”, fundamentally because it removes the right of exclusive control of property by the individual, if “productivity” is the standard.

    And it does come down to what you discussed, WHO decides what is “productive use”??

  16. ersim
    December 7th, 2013 at 19:16 | #16

    @Black Pheonix
    Curious to know if there is a difference between “socialism” versus “anarchism” when it comes to how the land should be used? How the “Native American” view of land use similar to “anarchism”?

  17. December 7th, 2013 at 19:28 | #17

    @Black Pheonix
    Sparta as a democracy is the biggest joke. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helots

    The European use this concept to claim land of the native. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terra_nullius

  18. Black Pheonix
    December 8th, 2013 at 06:30 | #18


    Back in those days, “Democracy” was a very limited experiment. Which makes the current Democracies also very limited experiments.

  19. Black Pheonix
    December 8th, 2013 at 06:33 | #19


    “Anarchism” implies no government enforcement of law, but more individual self-help enforcement.

    That sort of system never really existed, (except in power transitions), because even in primitive cultures, a hierarchical power structure always existed.

    “Native Americans” had tribal councils that made and enforced rules, settled disputes.

  20. N.M.Cheung
    December 8th, 2013 at 11:46 | #20

    Looking at U.S. today with anti-tax Tea Party movement, anti-mooching and entitlement against the poor, it would seem that the property ownership and social responsibility not only diverge but are in war with each other. Whatever happened to “The End of History” rhetoric?

  21. ho hon
    December 8th, 2013 at 22:43 | #21


    Ha ha. Yes. Fukuyama is a joke.

  22. Black Pheonix
    December 9th, 2013 at 06:54 | #22

    The more things change, the more they stay the same (or come back full circle).

    Capitalism was supposed to be based upon the ideal that individuals should keep what they earn, and a man defines his own worth by his hard work.

    But now, Modern Capitalism is the twisted logic that a person is defined by how much he/she owns, instead of hard work and intelligence.

    Now, a person is assumed to be hardworking and intelligent, if he/she owns a lot.

    That is simply a circular logic.

    It also extends to the international relationships. Poor nations are assumed to be wrong, backward, or even unworthy.

    Rich nations claim themselves as righteous, even Godly.

    “Democracy” has no cure for such arrogance.

  23. December 9th, 2013 at 09:07 | #23

    @Black Pheonix
    However, too much idealism is also unrealistic. The Chinese expect officials to act like saints and want them to live a life of no indulgence. Not to mention paying them badly and imposed severe restriction on lifestyle.

    I will just take the Song dynasty onward, a 5th grade minister (五品官) made the equivalent about the same as a primary school teacher today. One can imagine how poorly those below him made. A 5th grade governor is in charge of 3 counties. A county magistrate who is 7th grade is in charge of a county. Poorly paid and with lots of power, a fool would know what would happen next.

    These belief is recipe for corruption. In my opinion unrealistic expectation is what causes Chinese dynasties to fail. There should be check and balance but an official should be paid a lot more and not be expect to live like a monk. The emperor’s role since Song is actually rather limited and serve mostly a symbolic role. China is mostly run by the extensive bureaucracy.

  24. Black Pheonix
    December 9th, 2013 at 10:20 | #24


    Yes, I agree. We Chinese should be practical, and match our words to our actions. Otherwise, all our words are empty.

    In some ways, I have less of a problem with China’s “culture”, than I have a problem with some modern people’s “idealism” when it comes to China.

    Yes, I know China has problems like Pollution. But I really dislike some people who complain about it, while still out driving or take taxis in Chinese cities. (And that goes for the Expats too).

    BTW, Car pollution is actually #1 cause of smog in China, not coal plants.

    Why? Chinese vehicles burn very unclean gasoline, and have pretty much no smog-checks.

    Why? Chinese drivers complain whenever gas price go up and whenever they have to pay more for their cars (like for expensive anti-smog devices).

    Well, it’s corruption, because EVERYONE wants benefits of cars/etc., but still complain about the downside of pollution.

  25. December 9th, 2013 at 10:52 | #25

    @Black Pheonix
    Singapore, Macau and HK currently has the most highly paid minister level official, averaging US$30k-$50k monthly income. Of course that kind of salary is unrealistic for China right now, but currently a minister level official made around $3k-$5k. That is decent income but what about the county level, 2nd or 3rd tier city mayor? They and their family couldn’t even have a decent life if they stick to their official income of $1K-$2k!

    The argument is that China is still poor and has a per capita income of only around $7k yearly. Another argument is that if these officials want to make money they should quit their job and go into business, as officials their goal should be “to serve the people.” The 2nd scenario harks back to what has failed all dynasties.

    I would say that car pollution is the most direct cause of smog around the cities, but coal plants are still the main culprit for creating particle in the air across a large area. (For example, around Shanghai there are 30 coal fire plants). Simply compare car ownership in Europe versus China. Europe actually has higher car usage density. To top it off, Western Europe and Japan also has higher energy usage per capita even when compare to Chinese cities. Basically, high emission power plants and factories have to be “controlled”.

    China plan to shut down smelters of 6.8 million tons smelting capacity in Hebei province. That capacity is equivalent to S.Africa 6.9 million annual capacity.

  26. December 9th, 2013 at 11:13 | #26

    @Black Pheonix
    I want to add that China’s smog problem is over blown, it is not as bad as cities in developing countries. It will be readily tackled by the resolute CPC we all know. I am willing to bet it won’t be an issue in 5 years time. The biggest threat to Chinese health is actually bad eating and smoking habit. Of course, lack of in time medical facilities is another but that is still secondary.

    The Chinese has a diabetes rate of close to 1 in 10, caused by over eating! Almost 1 in 10 adult Chinese is a smoker! I don’t know what the govn’t can do short of giving advice.

  27. N.M.Cheung
    December 9th, 2013 at 21:05 | #27

    Just finished reading the excellent article in NYT of “Girl in the Shadows: Desani’s homeless life.”. Quite a few comments felt moved by the article, yet felt hopeless or can find no solution for the problem. To me it’s a question of value system. The Dickensian lives described is very much a product of U.S. Capitalism, where human lives are measured as commodities and treated as such. While China can be criticized on many levels I find the fact that China has improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people is beyond dispute and can’t be minimized by the propaganda of so call democratic values. In a way China today is very much a continuation of her traditional philosophies and values, that society as a whole is more important than individuals.

  28. ho hon
    December 9th, 2013 at 21:45 | #28


    I agreed with your statement that today’s China is a continuation of her traditional values.

    I want to supplement a point over “society vs individual”. Traditional wisdom did not treat it as a dualism, but a continuum. The main reference text is from “大學” where “格物 致知 誠意 正心 修身 齊家 治國 平天下” is the growth process. Ontology speaking, 1. the existence of an “individual” and the existence of “society” are open and not mutually expelling; and 2. the existence of them are dynamic and growing. This, again I have to say, is very difficult to be understood using English especially after Descartes. In short, “society vs individual” is never the ultimate issue, but a shortcoming / symptom over the entire growth process, in this sense.

    You may say that in practical world, individual rights and society needs are in constant conflict. Certainly it is true. However, it is not wise to just “strike a balance” (mostly a stupid one) between “needs”. Ultimately we have to tackle the fundamental issue (about value and growth) and here the Chinese Philosophy is very helpful to the whole world. The text is all there.

  29. Black Pheonix
    December 10th, 2013 at 06:31 | #29

    @ho hon

    I agree.

    Chinese view of “virtue” is like actions and thoughts, flowing like processes and rivers.

    A man’s virtue is like a river flowing to join the other streams to form the sea.

    A virtuous man flows wide and far, to have others join him in the flow.

  30. Black Pheonix
    December 10th, 2013 at 06:36 | #30


    I agree to a point. Whether it is a problem is relative.

    My standard is, if no one wants to pay to get clean air, then it’s not that big of a problem.

    The thing is, the Chinese government don’t want to do any thing, because it might disrupt people’s business and livelihood, which would really rile up a lot of people.

    So they put in the smaller measures. IN the long run, they are trying to drastically reduce the pollutions, via green energy /etc.

    That, I think, is the right approach.

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