The Role of the Family in Chinese Culture
|Scene from the Song Dynasty Illustrations
of the Classic of Filial Piety (detail),
depicting a son kneeling before his parents.
It is fundamental for Western people to understand the importance that family has in Chinese society. The family was for centuries the pillar of the Chinese state, and we can still observe its centrality in shaping the economic, social and moral horizon of the Chinese people. However, we should be very careful not to interpret or judge Chinese society assuming that language can be a guidance. Instead, language is more likely to confuse us.
Communication is a process that requires a positioning of the parties involved, both toward each other and toward the cultural narratives that implicitly and unconsciously influence their thinking (see Yin / Hall 2002, p. 199). Only to mention one example: the word ‘marriage’ can be understood by different speakers in different ways, depending on their own cultural background and personal opinions, which are often not openly explained in conversation. The simple word ‘marriage’ does not reveal what the speakers associate with the idea of marriage.
A Westerner, for instance, may think of marriage in terms of a relationship between two individuals; a Chinese, on the contrary, may see it as a matter between two families. In this case, if a Westerner and a Chinese talk about marriage, the notions that are hidden behind the simple words marriage will not come to the surface unless the participants decide to discuss it openly.
In order to understand the impact of the family in Chinese thinking, we must first of all comprehend that in old China, the family was the nucleus of the society. Traditional Chinese society is best understood by referring to the triad ruler-father-husband. This triad represented the formal order of Chinese society. Its opposite was luan, chaos or disorder. For society to function properly, the three relationships (husband-wife, father-son, ruler-subject) had to be strictly hierarchic. These relationships were unequal, that is, the superior demanded obedience from the inferior, while the superior was supposed to exercise his power benignly. (see Swartz 2002, pp. 120-124)
“Within the state ideology of ‘family order’, disorder was a serious threat to the legitimacy of the imperial system. Disintegrating families reflected poorly on the influence of local magistrates whose job was to keep people quiet (i.e., to avoid litigation and complaints) so the emperor could ‘do nothing’ (wuwei) and rely on li (or ‘rites’). Thus, we see an example of the historical predilection of the Chinese against litigation.” (ibid., p. 126)
In this context, disrupting the order of the family meant a disruption of the order of the whole society and consequently of the state. The ultimate rationality of the institution of marriage was not questioned, but it was assumed that it had to serve as the pillar of society, in which the authority of the husband and the father reflected the authority of the emperor.
Children and wives were thus subordinated to the patriarch, who exercised an extensive power over them. The importance of marriage as a fundamental nucleus of state order is shown by the fact that adultery was considered a state crime. Adultery compromised the purity of the family lineage. Even if the husband decided to show clemency, the sate would nevertheless punish the wife. If a woman acted against the husband, she acted against the state, and she had no one to turn to and nowhere to go. She was but an outcast of the society. (see ibid., p. 127)
As I already mentioned in an earlier post, love and romance were not viewed as the purpose of marriage. On the contrary, marriage was a contract between two families, in which genuine affection was subordinate to material and family lineage concerns. In this way, the empire worked as a self-regulating society, in which strict social norms helped maintaining order. The punishment for not complying with the family ideology of the state was the isolation of the individual, sanctioned by the stigmatization by the society of those who acted against these norms.
An Englishman in China
|Sir John Barrow (source)|
At the end of the 18th century, the English statesman Sir John Barrow (19 June 1764 – 23 November 1848) served as an attache’ of the first British embassy to China. In 1804, he published “Travels in China”. It is of great interest to read today – more than two hundred years after the book was written – what Sir Barrow thought about Chinese culture and society. Of course, his opinions can’t be considered objective or scientific. Nevertheless, the impressions he recorded are of great historical value and I think it’s worth examining them in the context of the Western contact with Chinese society. Most especially because – as we shall see – he criticized in a very interesting way the common understanding Westerners had of Chinese filial piety and family:
Their [the Chinese’] manners in domestic life are little calculated to produce that extraordinary degree of filial piety, or affection and reverence towards parents, for which they have been eminently celebrated, and to the salutary effects of which the Jesuits have attributed the stability of the government.
Filial duty is, in fact, in China, less a moral sentiment, than a precept which by length of time has acquired the efficacy of a positive law; and it may truly be said to exist more in the maxims of the government, than in the minds of the people. […] The first maxim inculcated in early life is the entire submission of children to the will of their parents.
The tenor of this precept is not only ‘to honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long in the land;’ but to labour for thy father and thy mother as long as they both shall live, to sell thyself into perpetual servitude for their support, if necessary, and to consider thy life at their disposal. So much has this sentiment of parental authority gained ground by precept and habit, that to all intents and purposes it is as binding as the strongest law.
It gives to the parent the exercise of the same unlimited and arbitrary power over his children, that the Emperor, the common father, possesses by law over his people. Hence, as among the Romans, the father has the power to sell his son for a slave; and this power, either from caprice, or from poverty, or other causes, is not unfrequently put in force. A law that is founded in reason or equity seldom requires to be explained or justified. The government of China, in sanctioning an act of parental authority that militates so strongly against every principle of nature, of moral right and wrong, seems to have felt the force of this remark. […]
No previous conversation [between bride and bridegroom] is allowed to take place, no exchange of opinions or comparison of sentiments with regard to inclinations or dislikes; all the little silent acts of attention and kindness, which so eloquently speak to the heart, and demonstrate the sincerity of the attachment, are utterly unfelt. In a word, that state of the human heart, occasioned by the mutual affection between the sexes, and from whence proceed the happiest, the most interesting, and sometimes also, the most distressing moments of life, has no existence in China.
The man takes a wife because the laws of the country direct him to do so, and custom has made it indispensable; and the woman, after marriage, continues to be the same piece of inanimate furniture she always was in her father’s house. She suffers no indignity, nor does she feel any jealousy or disturbance (at least it is prudent not to shew it) when her husband brings into the same house a second, or a third woman.
The first is contented with the honour of presiding over, and directing the concerns of, the family within doors, and in hearing the children of the others calling her mother. It might be urged, perhaps, on the part of the husband, that it would be highly unreasonable for the woman to complain. The man who purchased her ought to have an equal right in the same manner to purchase others. The case is materially different where parties are united by sentiments of love and esteem, or bound by promises or engagements; under such circumstances the introduction of a second wife, under the same roof, could not fail to disturb the harmony of the family, and occasion the most poignant feelings of distress to the first. But a Chinese wife has no such feelings, nor does the husband make any such engagements.
It has been remarked that this unnatural crime [prostitution] prevails most in those countries where polygamy is allowed, that is to say, in those countries where the affections of women are not consulted, but their persons purchased for gold—a remark which may lead to this conclusion, that it is rather a moral turpitude than a propensity arising from physical or local causes. The appetite for female intercourse soon becomes glutted by the facility of enjoyment; and where women, so circumstanced, can only receive the embraces of their proprietors from a sense of duty, their coldness and indifference, the necessary consequence of such connections, must also increase in the men the tendency to produce satiety. (John Barrow: Travels in China, Chapter IV)
Barrow’s word are not unbiased. They refer to a society that doesn’t exist any more, so that it’s impossible for us to verify his description. Furthermore, China has, of course, experienced radical social changes and modernization in the past two hundred years. Children and wives now enjoy a great degree of freedom that was unimaginable in the 18th century.
Nevertheless, Barrow expresses a contrast between Eastern and Western family structure which, surprisingly enough, has still some validity nowadays. While Westerners tend emphasize love, affection, communication and warmth as the ideal (and I stress the word ideal) of marriage, Chinese, instead, tend to emphasize stability, formality, filial piety, sacrifice and economic welfare. That is not meant to suggest that Chinese marriage is devoid of love or that in the West material concerns play no role; it rather shows different general tendencies and communication strategies.
Harmonious Society and Emotional Barriers
In many respects, the Chinese concept of family indeed contributes to social stability. When every individual has defined roles, and breaking the positive law is sanctioned by the society, individual decisions are subjected to strict social control.
The stability of the Chinese family is a major factor in what is commonly called “the harmonious society”. It is nevertheless necessary to question the term “harmony” and try to take a closer look at its nature. To this purpose, we shall examine some fundamental characteristics of the Chinese family.
Obedience is an important requirement of filial piety. Generally speaking, filial piety is not based on mutuality. While in the past, the term obedience could be understood literally, today this word can rather be described as the yielding of the children to parental pressure. Parents exert pressure on their children in order to discourage the formation of self-determined wishes that might run against what is considered socially acceptable.
“In Chinese parenting, parents would usually encourage children to pursue socially approved ‘vertical goals’, hoping to receive thereby more social achievement […]. However, for the ‘horizontal goals’ that children personally embrace, Chinese parents would not necessarily give the same support. Although Chinese have a concept of ‘family as a whole’, compared with vertical distinctiveness, parents feel a lesser degree of having or not having face as a result of their children’s achievement or failure in horizontal goals.” (Hwang / Han 2012, p. 493)
Material success and marriage are usually the two main points on which Chinese parenting focus. Parents inculcate in their children the need to be successful in school and work, even if that means neglecting friendship or leisure. The same as to marriage: parents discourage their children from trusting their feelings of love and the pursuit of happiness, and put pressure on them to choose their partners in order to enhance their social status and their financial well-being. A reflection about the ultimate reason why marriage is a goal per se, while love or happiness are seen as having low priority, are, too, discouraged.
Communication between parents and children therefore tends to be vertical, that is, hierarchic. It is not a mutual understanding in which both parents and children share their feelings and thoughts. A feedback from the children is possible, but parents will exert as much pressure as possible in order to influence their children. As a recent article on the BBC shows, pressure from the family to find a marriage partner can go so far as to become cause of anxiety and stress for children.
We should, however, be careful not to mistake parental pressure for despotism. While in old China fathers might have been despotic, this is, generally speaking, not the case in modern times, and children enjoy a high degree of freedom. They can also openly disregard parents’ advice, as long as they have the strength of character to act against parental and social norms.
We can describe parental influence as a “benign authority” which claims to be based on a knowledge and a common sense that children are seen as incapable of obtaining on their own. Parental pressure is therefore – if I may use this word – a kind of light and benevolent “indoctrination” based on what society views as right or wrong. It is the result of century of development in which “family ideology” was the foundation of the old Empire.
Western people sometimes misunderstand the meaning of the harmonious society. First of all, we must understand the formal, ritual and social character of Chinese marriage practices. Chinese often think of their own society as superior because divorce rates are lower than in the West. However, this is a misunderstanding. Unhappy families exist both in the West and China. But while in the West this may often lead to divorce, in Chinese culture social stability is seen as having priority. If, for example, the husband has another woman, or if there are serious problems between parents and children, a Chinese family is more likely to keep up the appearance by avoiding divorce, despite the fact that all the individuals of the family might be unhappy and have deep conflicts. Especially if parents didn’t get married because of the feelings they felt for each other, alienation might eventually occur. But while divorce rates can be easily measured, family unhappiness and conflicts cannot.
On the other hand, because marriage is based on rational considerations that have the purpose of maintaining stability, love, affection and warmth are of lesser importance. You may find that members of Chinese families tend not to express their feelings to each other, but keep a wall surrounding them. For instance, the feeling of love is seldom expressed verbally.
If parents push their children to get married, maybe telling them that love isn’t important, or putting pressure in order that their children may marry a certain person, they definitely have the well-being and happiness of their children in mind, however they are often not ready to change their own view or to discuss it with their children, even when they are aware they might be sacrificing their children’s happiness. This is what I would call an “asymmetric communication strategy”.
I would like to illustrate this point by the following example. I once met a Taiwanese man who worked for a big IT company. He complained with me that his Western customers were often not very nice to him and his colleagues. In fact – he argued – the Taiwanese company always sent people to pick up Western business partners at the airport and invited them to eat. But the Western partners didn’t do the same for the Taiwanese when they travelled to the West.
I explained to him that his Western customers didn’t see the necessity of engaging in social activities with them, because it was just a business matter. The Taiwanese side assumed that Taiwanese formal business rules could be applied to Western people and please them. However, dinners in which business partners gather, eat and drink in a semi-official atmosphere might not necessarily suit Western preferences. The Taiwanese should have instead asked their Western customers what they wanted to do and if they needed anything.
In fact, a Westerner might be less content with a situation of formal kindness, than with something he or she really needs and wants, which can make him or her truly happy. This is what I would call an asymmetric communication strategy: when two parties communicate vertically, that is, when one side does not ask the other and does not try to understand the feelings or wishes of the other before making any decision, but rather demands formal compliance with his or her wishes. Asymmetric communication strategies are the reason why Asian people are often considered “indirect” by Westerners. In reality, we shall see in the next posts that Asians and Westerners are both direct or indirect, but in different situations.
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