China has no tradition of writing wills. Scholars have found only a smattering of examples of ones made during the country’s 2,000 years of dynastic rule. After the Communists seized power in 1949, wills became redundant. The wealthy fled or had their assets confiscated. Under Mao, private property was banned. It was only in the 1980s that the Communist Party gave its approval for people to get rich.
Will-writing is now coming into vogue. Last year notary offices in Guangzhou, a southern city, handled over 24,000 wills, up 20% from 2016. The numbers have been rising at a similar rate in Shanghai. According to the Ministry of Justice about 1.4m wills are lodged at notary offices around the country, five times as many as there were two decades ago.
In imperial China, the first son normally inherited his father’s titles. Property was divided among the deceased’s offspring, with sons getting far more than daughters. These days a common motive for writing a will is to preserve such patriarchal values in the face of what some people see as an assault by freewheeling lifestyles and soaring divorce rates which have made family relationships more fluid and complex. A study in 2015 by the China Notary Association found that families overwhelmingly favoured sons over daughters in allocating wealth. The Chinese Will Registration Centre, which functions like a national notary office, says many parents use wills to try to make it clear that assets should be kept within the bloodline rather than passed on to their children’s spouses.
The actual number of wills may be far higher than official figures suggest because many people choose not to involve notaries. Legally, wills are private. But some people worry that officials could still gain access to them in order to work out how much income tax they really owe (dodging the tax authorities is a national pastime, see article). They could also be used one day to calculate death duty, they fear, should the government decide to introduce such a tax. Officials have long been debating whether to do so. For now, they appear reluctant, knowing that levying one would arouse considerable opposition, even if only the richest were affected. The government worries that more people would simply move abroad, taking their wealth and their wills with them.