“Talk about the eldest son first, then the status, and then the virtuous”, the evolution of the ancient tradition of “the eldest son system”

The eldest son system means the eldest son inheritance system. It is an important system created by people in ancient China to solve the problems of property inheritance and throne succession. It is the core of the patriarchal system. At the same time, it is also an important and indispensable pillar for maintaining the long-term existence of a clan.

“Chunqiu Gongyang Zhuan Yin Gongnian Year” said: “Establishing a son is not based on virtue, and establishing a son is based on nobleness and not based on growth.” The translation of this sentence means that the heir to the throne and property must first be the eldest son born to the main wife. Only when the main wife has no sons will the eldest son born to the highest-ranking concubine inherit the property. This is the core content of the eldest son inheritance system. No matter at any time, the eldest son is the first person to inherit the property. The other sons can only get a small portion of the property left by the eldest son.

ram biography

1. The origin and application of the direct eldest son system

1. The origin of the patriarchal system

In ancient times, both Yao and Shun practiced the abdication system among the tribes, and the general leaders were elected by many tribal leaders. As a result, there were no significant problems of succession to the throne, which mainly occurred in later eras. “San Zi Jing” said: “Xia Chuanzi, the family of the world. For four hundred years, he moved to Xiashe.”

Yu broke the long-standing system of abdication of the leader, passed the throne to his son Qi, and thus established the Xia Dynasty. The society has officially entered the era of the family world from the public world.

It is precisely because the society has entered the family world, and the throne is passed on from family to family, and a major problem has also arisen from this. That is—who should inherit the throne.

Since I am also the son of the king, why can’t I win the throne? This problem affected the entire Xia Dynasty and the subsequent Yin and Shang Dynasties, and all princes who were related by blood were coveting the throne. The throne has been replaced repeatedly in a short period of time, and the country has gradually declined as a result.

Shang Chao Yin Ruins Site

In the Western Zhou Dynasty, the Duke of Zhou formulated rituals and music, formally established the eldest son inheritance system, and the problem of succession to the throne in ancient China was fundamentally answered. Only the eldest son born to the main wife can inherit the throne and property. First discuss the eldest son, then the status, and then the virtuous.

2. The application of the eldest son system

The earliest and well-known application of the eldest son inheritance system was in the Yin and Shang Dynasties. King Zhou has two elder brothers with the same father and the same mother, and they are very capable. However, King Zhou, who is the third son, inherited his father’s throne. Why did King Zhou of Shang succeed in ascending to the throne?

This problem seemed very simple at the time, and the ministers determined the order of succession to the throne according to the eldest son inheritance system.

They proposed that the previous two princes, King Zhou’s elder brother and second elder brother, were born when their mother was not a queen but a concubine. These two princes were positioned as concubines to give birth to children, but the third prince was different. He was the eldest son born after his mother was named queen. According to the eldest son inheritance system, King Zhou was indeed the first heir. And because of this, he successfully defeated the eldest brother and the second brother, and successfully ascended the throne.

Portrait of King Zhou

Here we can clearly see that the eldest son inheritance system has been affirmed by most nobles, because at that time only nobles could hold bureaucratic positions, and the poor were just the poor, and there was no room or way out for promotion in society.

The patriarchal system can influence the establishment of the throne, which deeply shows the importance that people attached to the clan and orthodox status at that time. It is only whether the mother is named queen or not determines the succession order of her children and their future status in life. . This is undoubtedly extremely cruel.

But for the sweet, delicious, and very attractive big cake that is placed in front of people like the throne, only the firm implementation of the primogeniture system will not lead to property consumption, clan splits, and a large population reduction. After all, the clan was the foundation of a person at that time. Only with the recognition of the clan can you get social recognition and help from the clan. People without clans will instantly fall to the bottom of society where everyone can be bullied.

The patriarchal system is the support and backing of the primogeniture system, and only a firm patriarchal system can truly maintain the implementation of the primogeniture system. Under the control of the eldest son system, the eldest son of a family is the backbone of the direct line, the other sons become the branches of the family, and the eldest sons of the separated sons become the new trunk of their line. This is like a big tree. Stretch out. Gradually, a towering tree of a family is formed on the basis of the patriarchal system. The blood relationship is the conduit of the tree, and the eldest son inheritance system is the branch node of the family blood tree. The two complement each other and gradually allow a family to develop, forming a towering tree that eventually blocks the sky.

The throne: a source of strife

2. Advantages and disadvantages of the patriarchal system

1. Advantages of the patriarchal system

Generally speaking, the primogeniture system determines the orthodox heir to the throne and protects the smooth and orderly inheritance of the throne. It is of great help to the stability of the dynasty.

The system of direct succession directly establishes the inheritance of the throne to individuals, greatly reducing the range of princes to choose from, effectively reducing the possibility of princes vying for the throne.

Therefore, all dynasties in China have adhered to this system in order to reduce unnecessary contention and consumption caused by succession to the throne and maintain the supremacy of imperial power. At the same time, the system of heir apparents also separates the status of the princes or princes to show their superiority and inferiority, which is very consistent with the hierarchy system of feudal dynasties. The eldest son system has very important practical significance for Chinese feudal dynasties, and has been confirmed and affirmed by them.

After the feudal dynasty was stabilized in the later period, the system of direct elders was not only established in the upper class, but also implemented among the people. The specific manifestation is that after the old folks are old and separated, except for those who have no sons, most of them will choose to live with the eldest son, and the eldest son will be responsible for the care of the elderly and the funeral affairs. Of course, for this reason, the eldest son generally gets more property when the family is divided, while the other second sons get relatively less property. They also have relatively few pension responsibilities.

The enfeoffment system related to the primogeniture system

2. Disadvantages of the patriarchal system

The system of direct descendants maintained the stable order of the feudal dynasty, but it also brought new problems. That is, the eldest son may be an idiot who was pushed to the throne because of his status, but he is unable to secure the throne. The other princes with lower status are smart and capable, but they can only obey the idiot on the throne, and the resulting injustice and resentment.

This problem is a real problem. The son who is not qualified to inherit the throne is better than the son who can inherit the throne, so there is an irreconcilable contradiction between the two people. Those who are capable are indignant and resentful, while those who are incapable are fearful and oppressive.

As a result, the entire dynasty was seriously affected. The officials in the court would divide into several small groups to fight internally. As a result, excellent policies might not be implemented due to the personal political bias of the officials, resulting in the loss of talents, the shock of the court, and the unrest of the people.

This is the core contradiction arising from the patriarchal system, and if it cannot be resolved for a day, it will also cause many tragedies. The most typical example is the Xuanwu Gate Incident in the Tang Dynasty.

Xuanwumen Change

Li Shimin is the second son of Li Yuan. He is smart and capable and has won many battles. He has contributed a lot to conquer the world. But it was because Li Jiancheng, an elder brother of his own, was in front of him. Although Li Jiancheng was weaker than Li Shimin, Li Jiancheng was the eldest son. Therefore, according to the eldest son inheritance system, the position of prince fell to Li Jiancheng.

In this way, there was an extremely fierce fight between the two brothers, which eventually led to the Xuanwumen Change. After Li Shimin killed his eldest brother Li Jiancheng, he succeeded in ascending the throne. This point was later attacked by people. Even if Li Shimin did a good job after becoming emperor, some people would still attack him because of this. After all, Li Shimin was not an orthodox heir. Of course, we still have to recognize Li Shimin’s achievements, and treat this person correctly and dialectically.

Another typical example is Zhu Di in the Ming Dynasty. He was the fourth son of Zhu Yuanzhang. Like Li Shimin, he won the throne only after launching a coup and even a war. Zhu Yuanzhang first appointed his eldest son as the prince, but the elder son died early, and the position of the prince was vacated. At this time, he had to consider who would be the heir to the throne. Still according to the provisions of the eldest son inheritance system, the eldest son is established after the death of the eldest son.

This time is in line with the regulations of the eldest son system, and logically speaking, no one would object, but the point is that the eldest grandson Zhu Yunwen is too young and weak, and his uncles are in the prime of life, capable of literature and martial arts. So such a war started. This is the shortcoming or disadvantage of the eldest son inheritance system. Once the heir is not capable enough, he will be counterattacked soon, and finally the capable one will ascend to the throne.

On the other hand, it should also be a good thing and a supplement to the system of direct elders. After all, it is a good thing for the whole feudal dynasty, whether it is the upper bureaucracy or the lower class people.

Ming Chengzu: Zhu Di (di)

3. Summary

The system of direct descendants originated in the late Yin and Shang Dynasties and the early Western Zhou Dynasty. The Duke of Zhou formulated the Rites and Music and formally established the fundamental requirements of the eldest son inheritance system: “First discuss the eldest son, then discuss the status, and then discuss the virtuous”. The eldest son system can influence the establishment of the throne. The patriarchal system is the core of the patriarchal system. The system and the clan complement each other and help a dynasty develop a tree like a family, which is endless and has a long history. The primogeniture system clarifies the orthodox heir to the throne, greatly narrows the scope, effectively reduces the possibility of competing for the throne, and maintains the stable inheritance of the dynasty.

However, the shortcomings of the eldest son inheritance system are also obvious. If the heir’s ability is a little weaker, he will be counterattacked and suppressed by other non-heirs, and his life may be in danger. In many dynasties, the one who finally ascended to the throne was not the first heir, the prince, who was originally established according to the eldest son system.


1. “The Legend of Gongyang in the Spring and Autumn Annals: The Year of Yin Gong”

2. “Zhou Li”

3. “Three Character Classic”