T’so (祖) and T’ong (堂)

Land Holding by Clan, Family and T’ong
Under S.15 of the New Territories Ordinance (Cap 97), whenever any land is held from the Government under lease or other grant, agreement or licence in the name of a clan (宗族), family (家族) or t’ong (堂), such clan, family and t’ong shall appoint a manager (司理) to represent it. The appointed manager shall be registered at the appropriate New Territories District Office of the Home Affairs Department. Consent of the District Officer is required for any transactions with the land.

Basic Principle of Chinese Customary Law
A basic principle of the Chinese customary law is that of the maintenance and preservation of family property in the male line. An example of this male-lineage system is that of the customary trust over land. The terms  t’so (祖), t’ong (堂), wui (會) and others of similar nature are used to refer to Chinese customary trusts in various forms.

The elements which make up a Chinese customary trust are:

  1. Land is held for the benefit of the clan or lineage;
  2. Males have a lifetime interest in the land;
  3. The interest is that of a perpetual entail;
  4. No members of the clan or lineage has the rights of succession;
  5. The members or beneficiaries of the trust are the direct make descendants of the ancestor, and
  6. The interest is an inalienable, indivisible and perpetual one which, however, can be sold in limited circumstances to a purchaser who is not a member of the clan or lineage.

T’so (祖)
A t’so is concerned with a clan and can only take the name of a deceased person. It can originate with a man who, for various reasons, does not want all his property divided among his descendants, perhaps to avoid disputes or to prevent it from being finally broken up into minute parcels, but always, to perpetuate his own memory and those of his direct ancestors. Alternatively it can be begun on behalf of a certain ancestor by a descendant who buys land which is registered as a t’so in his ancestor’s name.

The title of a t’so is simply a man’s name with the word t’so (祖) tacked on at the end. T’so land is more likely to be bought than inherited land and the vendor must be more prosperous than his forebears if he can afford to set aside bought or ancestral land in his own or another’s memory. He was generally the founder, or an early member of the clan in a particular village. Depending the age of the village, he might lived from 100 to 800 years ago.

T’ong (堂)
A t’ong is a more flexible organisation and needs not be ancestral in character. A t’ong might be created with intention that the land was held in perpetuity for various purposes including education, business and social purposes. There are several types of t’ong, namely:

  • Family t’ong;
  • Business t’ong;
  • Business t’ong formed by clansmen;
  • Religious t’ong, e.g. chai t’ong (齋堂), chi (寺) or am (庵).

A t’ong needs not have the word t’ong (堂) in its name, and also that land could be held by associations under Chinese customs.

The family t’ong is similar to the ancestral t’so though usually with a wider scope of activity. It is not always easy to differentiate the two since their objects largely coinside. The difference lies in the t’so using the personal name and the family t’ong using ancestor’s business or lucky names in the title.

The ancestral t’ong is a convenience, and can be formed not necessarily by one man but by several brothers or clan cousins who do not wish to divide all their ancestral or purchased property but desire to set all or part of it aside for the benefit of their descendants.

But whatever its welfare or family functions, the t’ong is mainly a business venture concerned with profit and loss on which the continuance of its activities depend.

Although t’so and t’ong are discrete transactions, yet t’so and t’ong are often used interchangeably.

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