Kin Groups and Descent. Han people have had patrilineal kin groups since the period of the earliest written history, and a hierarchical arrangement of clans was the basis of stratification in the feudal order of the Shang and Zhou periods. Nothing is known about the kin group organization of the nonruling classes before the Song period.
In the Song period, the Chinese patrilineage as we now know it began to appear. The core of this type of lineage includes all male descendants of a founding ancestor; women tend to become more attached as they grow older to their husbands' and son's lineages and to relinquish their minor roles as sisters and daughters of their natal lineages.
Han lineages, until very recent times, have been rigorously exogamous (even a common surname was enough to prohibit marriage in the late imperial period), and with patrilocal marital residence this resulted in lineage villages or even lineage districts populated almost entirely by members of a single lineage. Particularly in the core areas of southern and eastern China, where agriculture and commerce were most developed, lineages often held large amounts of land collectively, using the income from tenant rents to fund ritual, educational, and sometimes even military activities. Such wealthy lineages often contained corporate, property-holding, sublineages within them, and a large lineage of 10,000 or more members might have ten or more genealogical levels of property-holding segments. Such lineages were highly stratified internally, often containing both scholar officials and ordinary peasants.
The importance of lineages varied greatly by region and locally, however, and probably only a minority of Han people in the late imperial period were members of a large, powerful lineage; indeed, many were not members of any lineage at all. In the overall social structure, lineages were one important kind of corporation, but they might be locally eclipsed by local, occupational, ethnic, or sectarian organizations.
The new government effectively destroyed the power bases of lineages when they confiscated all lineage-held land in the Land Reform and replaced lineage-based local governments with structures responsible to the party. But lineages remained localized during the collectivist period, and, since the 1979 Reforms, lineages have returned in some areas to the local scene in limited ways, sponsoring ritual and other activities and becoming the focus of local loyalties.
Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology reflects the patrilineal bias of kinship relations. Agnatic cousins are partially equated with siblings and distinguished from both cross cousins and matrilateral parallel cousins, who are ordinarily not distinguished from each other. Some Chinese kin terminology systems display Omaha features, such as the equation of mother's brother with wife's brother with son's wife's brother. The most important distinction is between elder and younger relatives; elder relatives are always addressed with a kin term, whereas younger relatives are addressed by name. Rural people in some areas use kin terms to address people of a senior generation who are not relatives.