"The Government Is Like A Father": Family and State in China

When I was in Berlin I once had a conversation with a Chinese about what “good governance” means. I was quite surprised when she told me that “a good government has to take care of its citizens like a good father takes care of his children“. This paternalistic view of the relationship between citizens and state runs against some of the most important principles of Western statehood (at least after 1945).

I have already written a few posts about marriage and family in Chinese culture. In this post I would like to highlight why the social and political role of the family has affected the notion of good governance in the Chinese-speaking world.  

Family, Hierarchy and Obligations in Chinese Culture 

First of all, we should bear in mind that the family was for thousands of years the most important social organization in the Chinese-speaking world. From cradle to grave, every individual was embedded in a network of family relationships. As Margery Wolf, who describes the structure of the family in Northern Taiwan, once put it: 

It is with his family, his parents and grandparents, his children and grandchildren, that he [the Taiwanese villager] takes the measure of his life. His relations with his parents may be strained, with his wife distant, and with his children formal, but without these people he would be an object of pity and of no small amount of suspicion. He would be pitied because he had no parents to “help” him and no children to support him in his old age, pitied because he had no place in a group, because he didn’t belong anywhere. […] A man not thoroughly imbedded in a network of kinship cannot be completely trusted because he cannot  be dealt with in the normal way. If he behaves improperly, one cannot discuss his behavior with his brother or seek redress from his parents. If one wants to approach him about a delicate matter, one cannot use his uncle as a go-between to prepare the way (Margery Wolf: The House of Lim: A Study of a Chinese Family, 1968, p. 23).

The Chinese family was a tight economic unit, and most of the problems the individual had to confront were related to his family: the life of every person depended on his age, gender and role in the family. Before being an individual, one was father or son, child or adult, male or female, husband or wife, mother-in-law or daughter-in-law, and so on. Every role had a set of duties and obligations, which did not depend on individual self-determination. Undoubtedly, individual character played an important part in shaping family relationships; however, everyone’s role in the family hierarchy was by far more important than in traditional Western thinking. For instance, the relationship between parents and children or parents-in-law and daughter-in-law was strictly hierarchic: 

Offences against parents-in-law were punished not less severely than offences against parents. [The daughter-in-law] had to display toward them great affection and obedience. The young woman had to avoid her father-in-law and her brother-in-law. And here the real drama of her life began. The harsh treatment of the daughter-in-law by the mother-in-law is one of the most striking features of Chinese family life. The cruel mother-in-law plays in Chinese fiction and folklore the roles that the wicked stepmother plays in European fairy tales. [T]he husband, out of filial piety, had to side with his mother, who often took advantage of it. Perhaps she avenged her own unhappy life and bad treatment when she was a daughter-in-law herself. [Y]et, if a woman committed suicide, her family could sue the husband’s family and revenge her in a direct way. The threat of a long and tiresome lawsuit and of “loss of face” was often strong enough to protect the young woman to some extent. (Olga Lang: Chinese Family and Sciety 1946, p. 48)

Nevertheless, family ideology was so pervasive, and the self-esteem of the individual depended so much on how one was perceived and treated by relatives, that, for instance, in 1935 of 1,353 suicides reported in 244 Chinese counties and in 22 provinces 26.0 per cent “were caused by domestic discord or matrimonial difficulties“. (C.K. Yang: Chinese Family in the Communist Revolution 1959, p. 107) Many of those who decided to end their lives were women. 

Today, China “accounts for 25 percent of all the world’s suicides, an average of 287,000 people” (2 per minute) every year. (note) Many of these suicides are caused by stress and future employment concerns among students, who receive much pressure from their family to obtain good grades and achieve social status; many young parents, too, cannot cope with the pressure from high costs of living, job, and children’s education (ibid.).

The low status of women – a burden that led to so many suicides – is shown by the practice called “buying and selling wives”. It was customary in the past for parents-in-law to arrange a marriage and pay a certain sum to the parents of their future daughter-in-law in order to “acquire” the woman and incorporate her in their own family. 

As the BBC reported, these traditional patterns still exist, especially in rural areas of mainland China. The low position of the wife within the hierarchic family system appears to be responsible for the fact that China is the only country in the world where women’s suicides exceed men’s.

In the countryside, “[m]any marriages are arranged and operate like business deals in which the groom’s parents ‘buy’ the bride, and she becomes part of their family.

‘They have their father-in-law to deal with, their mother-in-law, various uncles, sisters-in-law and so on. She’s got to gain everyone’s acceptance. When there are conflicts, she’s the weakest.’ ” (note)

The reason why young wives had to be submitted to the will of the parents-in-law was that only this “made it possible for the traditional family to assimilate a new female member into its intimate life and thus prevented the breaking off by the young wife and her husband into an independent family“. (Yang 1959, p. 107) This reveals the Chinese preference for stability and family unity, instead of individual happiness and independence.

The particular hierarchic structure of kinship is particularly important for our topic, because it shows the peculiar attitude of the Chinese, which often seems so strange to Westerners, to prefer order and stability, – embodied in hierarchic relationships and a ritualistic, ceremonious behaviour – instead of what Americans see as an inalienable individual right: the pursuit of one’s own happiness.

The Universality of Marriage

The pervasiveness of family ideology is shown by a historical comparison of marriage frequency in West and East. 

In 1905 marriage was universal and occurred at young ages among Taiwanese women. A large proportion of women married in their teenage years, and the majority had married before 30. In the same year, 47% of women aged 15-19 and 92% of women aged 20-24 had married. From 30 and above, 99% or more of all women were married. Men married later: of the men aged 15-19 only one-tenth was married, and of the men aged 20-24 one-half was married. However, by the age of 30-34 nine-tenths of all men were married.

One reason for this marriage pattern might have been the distribution of the population by gender, the number of men exceeding the number of women by 12 to 26%.

Even at the beginning of the 20th century, marriage behaviour sharply distinguished West and East. In Western countries, marriage propensity was lower than in Taiwan. Over 90% of 20-24-year-old Taiwanese women were married, while the percentage in fifteen countries of Western Europe ranged from 14 to 42%. The same as to men: in Taiwan 45% of men aged 20-24 was married, while in Europe the number was 4 to 17%. In Taiwan less than 1% of women aged 45-49 was unmarried, while in Europe the number was 10 to 29%. In mainland China data show a similar pattern, but with even lower age of marriage and higher universality.
In the following years, the age of marriage increased in Taiwan, but little or no decline in the universality of marriage. (Arland Thornton / Hui-Sheng Lin: Social Change and the Family in Taiwan 1994, pp. 203-210)

In recent years, marriage universality in Taiwan has sharply declined, but this might have to do with other traditional social standards. For instance, highly successful women may have difficulties in finding a husband, because due to traditional gender roles men are expected to earn more than women; other causes can be the shift of marriage age for women or the high expectations that women have from men etc. Anyhow, it is not the purpose of this post to discuss this particular subject. What we can maintain is that old marriage and family patterns still exist today, though in a modified form depending on the level of economic and social progress, both in Taiwan and mainland China.

The State As A Benevolent Father  

It can be observed that in traditional Chinese culture, the family was not only a social organization; it also served as the model after which extra-familial relationships and the state order were shaped (see my post about family in Chinese culture). The authoritarian Confucian family was a sort of “state in miniature”. As the Xiaojing or Classic of Filial Piety (Chinese: 孝經; pinyin: Xiàojīng) states: “Inside the smaller doors leading to the inner apartments are to be found the rules (of government). There is awe for the father, and also for the elder brother. Wife and children, servants and concubines are like the common people, serfs, and underlings.” (Lang 1946, p. 24)

The relations of every individual towards state representatives, superiors and even friends were modelled according to the family structure:

Beyond the kinship circle the individual might have to deal with government officials, with his teacher or his craft master, his colleagues, his employer or employees, and his neighbors and friends. But many of these social relations came through direct or indirect kinship contacts, and they were often patterned after the family system in structure and in values. Hence government officials were often referred to as “parent-officials” (fu mu kuan) and the people as “children people” (tzu min). The relationship between master and apprentice, or between teacher and student, operated on a simulated father-son basis. [T]he devotion and reverence expected of a student or apprentice by the teacher or master was of the same type expected from a son by his father. […] Friends and neighbors addressed each other in fraternal or other kinship terms. Conversations between friends were punctuated with appellations like “elder brother” and “younger brother” and “uncle”, even though the parties were not related as such. (Yang 1959, p. 5-6)

That is not meant to suggest that East Asian cultures are per se authoritarian. In fact, there are countries like Taiwan or South Korea which, despite having a strong Confucian tradition, are democracies that work even better than some of our own Western democracies. However, the way in which the Asian family functions and how it shapes the relationships of individuals towards each other even outside of the family is one of the reasons why the moral and social horizon of Chinese and East Asian people may differ from what Westerners often tend to expect. 


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