The Chinese University of Hong Kong Department of History Department of History
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Whose Land? Owning, Selling, and Leasing Houses in an Imperial City: Guangzhou Prefecture in the Qing Dynasty

Principal Investigator


Total Fund Awarded


Funding Source

RGC General Research Fund

Abstract of Project

This study will investigate practices around owning, selling, and leasing houses in Guangzhou prefecture during the Qing, partly by analyzing deeds for civilian properties in Guangzhou city and surrounding counties. There are many of these deeds but since they were in a standardized format it is difficult to draw conclusions from them. The strategy in this study will be to combine a textual analysis of deeds and interviews with descendants of families who owned them. Adding oral history will help us researchers form a clearer picture of how these families managed their houses (and shops, if any), and even to pinpoint exactly where their houses were built.


As a preliminary study I collected deeds from two families who owned houses in the late Qing. The Xus were a wealthy family living on Gaodi street within Guangzhou city; I have copies of 40 Xu property deeds. The Chengs were a wealthy family from Xiangshan county; some years ago they donated to my department a large collection of family documents, including over 50 property deeds, several letters, and a family genealogy, ranging from the late Qing to early Republican China. Making a preliminary analysis of the deeds from these families, I discovered that most of the houses were sold along with the land on which they stood except for the houses within Guangzhou city, where the Xus bought and sold houses without owning the land. This discovery clarifies state policies on government land, a subject quite neglected in the literature.


Based on the above, I formed two hypotheses. Firstly, there were differences in state policies for city houses, which were built on government land, as compared to village houses, which were built on civilian land. Secondly, there was dual ownership for houses even within Guangzhou city, when a house-owner with a permanent tenancy sublet his property to a tenant. As part of this three-year project I shall collect more data from other families in Guangzhou prefecture, including extensive collection of oral histories.


I expect this study to deepen our understanding of state policies on civilian structures on government and civilian land. Also, since Qing law is still used in the New Territories in land matters, this pioneer study will provide a historical background for the local legal system, particularly on whether there was a traditional right for a male villager to demand government land to build a house.

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