Twentieth Century Impressions of Hongkong, Shanghai, and other Treaty Ports of China/Ceremonies/The Disposition of Property
The head of a family may make a will, or dispose of his estate by word of mouth, or by memoranda, signed or unsigned. But in the absence of any verbal instruction or instrument in writing, all his sons, whether by his wife or handmaids (whose position will be defined later on), take equal shares of all his property other than the sacrificial, or family property. The formal will is uncommon in the interior of China, because a Chinaman believes it to be unlucky to talk about death when in perfect health, or, when he has an ailment, to anticipate death by making a will. The most common method of bequeathing property is by giving oral instructions. Feeling the end approaching, the head of the family assembles the members of his family and some of his clansmen, and gives them directions as to the future conduct of his business, and as to the manner in which his possessions shall be divided. Invariably the eldest son, or heir, inherits all sacrificial property, or property set aside for family or ancestral worship. It is necessary here to explain that, though the law of China enjoins monogamy, certain latitude is allowed when no heir has been born to a man. In such cases a man may take, in addition to his wife, other women who would be called respectively his second, third, or fourth handmaids. When a handmaid gives birth to a child, male or female, she is recognised as a secondary mother to the family; but if she have no issue she is regarded merely as a servant-maid all her life. These handmaids are generally girls of the lower classes, acquired by purchase from poor families. They become virtually the property of their employers, the purchase-money ranging from a few scores to thousands of dollars. In the absence, therefore, of a son by the wife, the eldest son of one of the handmaids is regarded as the heir. If the heir lives to have a family of his own, but predeceases his father, his eldest son becomes the heir to the sacrificial property; if he predeceases his father, and leaves no family, the son next in order of age inherits; but if a man has no son, either by his wife or his handmaids, it is competent for him to adopt one of his brother's sons as his heir.
If a man die without leaving any one to represent his line of descent he is considered to be under a curse. Consequently an heir is always found for him whether he leaves any estate or not. If he has no one to succeed him so nearly related to him as a brother's son, then one of a remoter degree in kinship or one of the same clan or even one bearing the same surname may be adopted. But it is a sine qua non that the heir be of the same surname and of the proper generation, that is, of the same generation as the man's own heir would be if he had one, otherwise the adoption would be illegal.
In disposing of landed property inter vivos certain formality has to be observed. When once a man acquires a piece of land his near relatives seem to have in it a right of pre-emption. In all purchase deeds, therefore, there is always a recital stating that the vendor first offered the property to his near relatives, but no one was willing to buy, and that through a middleman (the broker), a purchaser was then found who was willing to buy, &c. In actual practice no such offer is really made, but a notice posted for a certain time at a public place to the effect that it has been made is considered sufficient for the purpose; and the sale may, after the expiration of the time mentioned in the notice, be completed without being liable to be upset at a future date.
The lower classes of Chinese make some provision for the future by subscribing to societies which undertake to bear their funeral expenses, and to provide something for their widows and children. Almost every village has one of these friendly societies.