Filial Piety in Chinese Culture and the Myth of Collectivism (Part II) – Concubinage, Mistresses, Wives

As I explained in my previous post, we should be very careful when we discuss the topic of harmony in Chinese and other East Asian cultures. Harmony is often mistaken for altruism or a moral respect for others. In reality, as I hope to have shown in the last article, this assumption is highly questionable. What the defenders of Asian values call harmony is, in fact, something else: it is hierarchy and stability.

Traditionally, throughout Chinese history the family was the nucleus of the society, a self-regulating social unit that guaranteed the stability and order the Chinese so greatly valued. It is thus not surprising that advocates of Asian values see in the family one of the major strengths of their culture and society; however, they selectively choose those aspects of the institution of marriage that appear to them ideologically acceptable in order to both maintain certain power structures and find a compromise between their own cultural tradition and Western-shaped modernity.

For instance, they omit traditional practices such as foot-binding, concubinage, the custom of selling and buying daughters, infanticide etc. Paradoxically, many contemporary Asian leaders who defend traditional Asian values have themselves enjoyed a Western-style education, or have been deeply influenced by Western ideas. No Asian leader would, today, say that Asian countries should re-introduce concubinage or foot-binding.

Their idea of family is therefore partly shaped by Western ideals of marriage. It is a mix of old and new, of traditional Asian values and Western influences. The People’s Republic of China was, in this respect, a powerful force of Westernization. With the Marriage and Family Law of 1950, which was subsequently revised in 1980 and 2001, the PRC sought to abolish the old customs of arranged marriage and the Confucian family structure that gave little freedom to children. The Marriage and Family Law secured the right of every individual to marry the person of his or her own choice; it affirmed the principles of equality between men and women, of monogamy, and the legal protection of the rights of women, children and elderly (Mow / Tao / Zheng 2004, p. 159). In 2001 a new provision was added, which prohibited “domestic violence, created a system of compensation for losses due to divorce, and strengthened and improved the joint marital property system” (ibid.). The main purpose of this law was to guarantee the freedom, equality and individual rights of the members of the family, which did not exist in the traditional Chinese family.

Concubinage in Old China

Concubinage and polygamy were for centuries a normal part of Chinese marriage customs (as they were in other East Asian countries such as Japan). It is important to remember that in China marriage was not about love or romance, but about continuing the family lineage and thus showing filial piety towards one’s parents. According to the philosopher Mencius, in fact, of all unfilial actions not providing the family with a male heir was the worst (see Lang 1946, pp. 3-4). Starting a family and having a son that could continue the family name was an obligation of children towards parents.

But because marriages were often arranged by parents and devoid of true love and affection, it was usual for men who had enough financial resources to take concubines. Polygony was thus very common in China (ibid., pp. 49-51). This is clearly shown by the practice of Chinese emperors to have hundreds, or even thousands of concubines in their palace. The fact that the supreme ruler, who was in the official imperial ideology like a father to his subjects, followed this custom makes clear that polygamy was officially accepted, though it was not unchallenged:

Chinese emperors, from the First Emperor of Qin (r. 221-206 BC) on, surrounded themselves wit attractive young women. Many let the number of palace ladies increase unchecked until it reached several thousand. […] Despite Confucian criticism, dating back to the Zhou period, of rulers who let themselves become befuddled by women, no dynastic founder ever proposed refraining from setting up a harem or keeping only two or three women. Even Hong Xiuquan, the nineteenth-century rebel Taiping emperor, who insisted that his followers practice monogamy, ended up with what looked very much like a harem (Ebrey 2002, p. 177).

I would like to show you an example of how a traditional polygamous family looked like in modern times. I will do it by quoting here a few passages from the autobiography of Irene Cheng Ho Tung (1904-2007). Born and raised in British Hong Kong, Irene Cheng Ho Tung was the daughter of the famous Eurasian Hong Kong businessman Sir Robert Ho Tung (1862 – 1956). In her autobiography Intercultural Reminiscences, Irene Cheng Ho Tung describes her family and her childhood as follows:

Although we were Eurasians, ostensibly we were brought up in the Chinese tradition. We spoke Cantonese at home, honoured Chinese festivals, and lived according to the Lunar Calendar. […] We had three parents: my father, Sir Robert Ho Tung; my mother, Lady Clara Ho Tung (née Cheung), whom we were taught to call Mamma; and father’s first wife, Lady Ho Tung or Lady Margaret (née Mak), whom we called Mother. […] Father was born on December 23, 1862, the first year of the Emperor Tung Chi’s reign. Lady Margaret was born in 1865 and Mamma in 1875, the first year of Emperor Guang Shu’s reign. Father married Lady Margaret in 1881, but she remained childless. […] 

In traditional Chinese thinking it was a serious matter for Father not to have any offspring. As the saying goes: “There are three kinds of unfilial behaviour and, of these, the worst is to have no heir.” Consequently, in accordance with recognised Chinese custom, Father’s younger brother, Third Uncle Ho Fook, was obliged to allow his eldest son, Ho Wing (Ho Sai-wing), to be adopted into our branch of the family. […] He even had to call his own parents Uncle and Aunt. […] 

Father and Lady Margaret still wanted to have children of their own, if possible, so Father took a concubine whose surname was Chau. This was also according to Chinese custom and fully approved by the Laws of the Qing Dynasty, which at that time were officially recognised in Hong Kong. [C]hildren would be taught to call her Ah Jeh (Elder Sister), which was the appropriate way of addressing the concubine of one’s father (Cheng 1997, pp. 1-2).

In her book, Irene Cheng depicts a happy family; but we see that, no matter how happy, this family has little to do with what Westerners understand as a normal family. It is a family in which there is no gender equality, and where the husband enjoys more rights than women. I would like to emphasize this point. The argument put forth by advocates of Asian values that the West stresses individual rights while Asian cultures stress collective obligations isn’t exactly true; in fact, Asian cultures tend to give more rights to certain individuals, like the parents, the husband, the mother-in-law etc., at the expense of those who are hierarchically inferior to them. So the balance of rights and duties is different from the West. For example, in the West the rights of parents are less emphasized than in Chinese culture. As I explained previously, this is part of the collectivist paradox: when you treat people as unequal and give certain individuals more rights and power, you will create a hierarchical system that will paradoxically appear more collectivist.

By Chinese standards Irene Cheng’s family was not only a stable, but also indeed a harmonious one. However, in many cases families were not as happy. The hierarchical and ritualistic structure of the Confucian family created plenty of tensions and problems, which could not be handled by discussion. In fact, the hierarchical structure was rigid and did not leave any room for solving problems through verbal confrontation. Let me give you two examples.

In the worldwide best-seller Wild Swans, Chinese-born author Jung Chang tells the story of three generations of Chinese women. One of them is the writer’s grandmother. She was extraordinarily beautiful, and her father saw her as a sort of capital. Chinese parents often used to see their children as a kind of old-age insurance, according to the proverb “grain is stored against famine; sons are brought up against old age” (see Lang 1946, p. 26). 

Jung Chang’s grand-grandfather decided to arrange a meeting between his daughter and the powerful general Xue Zhi-heng. The meeting had to look as if it was accidental, so he brought her into a temple where he knew Xue Zhi-heng would go. The general fancied the beautiful girl, and he offered to take her as a concubine. The father had not expected anything else; he was poor, and his social status made it improper for his daughter to marry into a wealthy family. Chang’s grandmother was not even consulted, but simply informed of her father’s decision. Since Chinese filial piety presupposes that parents are superior to children, any protest would have been unthinkable. “To question a parental decision was considered ‘unfilial’ – and to be unfilial was tantamount to treason” (Chang 1993, p. 39). Despite all her crying, Chang’s grandmother had to marry a man she’d never even spoken to.

Another example is the very low status of daughters-in-law in Chinese families. When a woman got married, she became part of the husband’s family, and her basic function was that to serve and please her parents-in-law. As the the Book of Rites ( 禮記; pinyin: Lǐjì), one of the classical texts of Confucianism, states: 

If he [the son] very much approves of his wife, and his parents do not like her, he should divorce her; if he does not approve of his wife, and his parents say, ‘she serves us well’, he should behave to her in all respects as a husband, – without fail even to the end of her life” (Lang 1946, p. 47).

The implications of this hierarchical structure were tensions and bitterness within the family. Mothers-in-law sometimes maltreated their daughter-in-law, and in this situation the son could not side with his wife because he would have been unfilial to his mother had he done so.

The existence of tensions and conflicts within a rigid framework of hierarchical roles in which open communication could not serve as a means to overcome interpersonal frictions is best illustrated in a book by American author Margery Wolf. In the 1950s she lived together with her husband, the renowned anthropologist and sinologist Arthur Wolf, in the house of a Taiwanese family in the countryside:

A visitor to the home might conclude that these arrangements function quite smoothly. The family’s meals are always well cooked and served at regular times; the children are usually as neat or neater than the neighbors’ children; the house is kept reasonably clean and in good repair; the family’s land is always cultivated and the general appearance of the fields is neat and orderly; the factory seems busy most of the time. In short, the various members of the family perform their particular duties efficiently and effectively. 

To see the less fortunate effects, one has to look beneath the surface of the family’s daily routines. As Lim Chui-ieng once told me, “If you look at the face of our family, it looks good, but if you look at its bones, it’s not like that.” In the “bones” of the family there is ceaseless friction […]. [F]or the most part their conflict is wordless, expressed only by the emotional distance between them, but on occasions the tempers flare, revealing the true intensity of the tensions below (Wolf 1968, p. 35).

The examples I showed are not meant to suggest that all Asian families or the majority of them have conflicts or tensions. I simply want to make clear that not even the old, traditional Chinese family was per se harmonious, at least not in the sense that Westerners might assume. 

Let us take a look again at the collectivist paradox. To begin with, I would like to quote again the definition of collectivism given by lawyer Goh Bee Chen:

Collectivists internalize the norm of being of service to others, without doing any sort of utilitarian calculation. It is not a case of ‘What’s in this for me?’ As a consequence, what is valued is collaborative action. This necessarily precludes the individual’s self-assertions, for one’s assertiveness would run counter social harmony. The dictates of social harmony place value on compromises, and a preoccupation with the interests, not the rights of the members within a particular unit (Goh 1996, p. 26).

But this definition actually contradicts the very hierarchical nature of the Confucian family. In the examples given above there is no collaboration or emotional consideration between parents and children or other members of the family. As a matter of fact, we saw how children were controlled or not consulted by parents; how the feelings of daughters-in-law were not taken into consideration; shortly, we saw that the people who have a higher position in the hierarchy might act egoistically and assert themselves towards their inferior. Moreover, they obviously do think about ‘what’s in this for them’. Otherwise, why would parents see their children as an old-age insurance? Why would parents influence their children in order to satisfy their own expectations? Why would they use their daughter-in-law to serve and please them? 

The same thing can be said about other areas of Asian life. It is obvious that a company boss works for himself and doesn’t share equal dividends to his employees; it is obvious that children want to get a good grade for themselves and are very competitive, etc. If you look at the motivation behind individual ambition, it may appear as though they were doing all these things for others, most especially the family. But in reality, it is a chain of self-centred ambitions: parents want to be proud of their children and be supported by them in their old age, so they goad the children into being hard-working; children become ambitious, want people to praise them and gain more ‘face’, and so on. 

Defenders of Asian values manipulate the historical reality by idealizing certain aspects of the Chinese family and ignoring others. I am not suggesting that Asian families were ‘bad’, and I am not suggesting that Asians are more selfish than Westerners. The point is that we should be objective and see every aspect of the society, not just the bad ones, but not just the good ones, either. That is why we cannot simply idealize the Asian family without considering its darker sides.

You can find great families both in Asia and in the West; but there are also many problematic and unhappy families in both cultures. The biggest difference is, perhaps, that Western marriage, based on love and romanticism as it is, tends to be dissolved when there are big conflicts; while relatively more Asian families keep together and learn to live with these conflicts, though not happily.

It should also be remarked that marriage behaviour has been changing over the last few decades. For example,

In Taiwan, 30% of women aged between 30 and 34 are single; only 30 years ago, just 2% of women were. In three decades, “remaining single and childless” merged from a rarity to a commonplace, and appears to be picking up momentum. In a 2011 poll of Taiwanese women under 50, a huge majority claimed they did not want children (note).

My point is, however, that a preference for not marrying is not a sign of selfishness or lack of responsibility. It is rather a rebalancing of rights and obligations, a restructuring of hierarchical relationships.

The Issue of Family Conflicts – West vs East

Since the Western family in the last few centuries has developed towards a non-hierarchical structure, the result is that individuals, regardless of gender, age or role, tend to be equal to each other and reclaim the right of being equal. This, combined with the fact that Western families are usually based on volatile feelings such as love and affection, has led to a rising instability of the institution of the family, and to a loss of authority by parents.

Advocates of Asian values assume that the high divorce rates in the West as well as the fact that many children are born out of the wedlock (a staggering 47.2% in the UK, according to recent figures) are a proof that the West is decadent.

However, we need to put it in perspective. I would argue that happy and unhappy families exist both in Asia and in the West. As far as I could observe, there are numerous families in Asia with huge problems and conflicts. The real difference between the two societies is that Asian people tend to maintain marriage for its own sake, while Westerners seek divorce. Since in Asian culture marriage was not about love and romance, and not even about mutual understanding or communication, and because divorce is still perceived as negative, people tend to keep up the appearance of happiness and harmony.

Only to name one example, I have often heard of families in which the husband had extramarital affairs. It is not uncommon for men, but it is a phenomenon that is harder to quantify than divorce; there are no statistics about extramarital affairs, and people are not likely to discuss openly about their private matters. I personally have heard of many such cases; one of the most bizarre was that of a wealthy man who kept several mistresses and even ate together with all of them at home. But he required them to leave when his wife came back. Although she knew about her husband’s affairs, she did not divorce him, both because of ‘face’, but also because she was financially dependent on him. He, on the other hand, respected her function as a wife and kept wife and mistresses hierarchically and spatially separated from each other. 

It is thus erroneous to consider stability and harmony as synonymous. Although the family is a powerful tool that generates stability, it cannot be seen as a positive value per se. Defenders of Asian values stress only the virtue of the family as a source of order, but they fail to see the human destinies hidden behind the veil of harmony; they tend to ignore the cases of suffering and frustration, of inequality and humiliation, because they value stability and social customs above all. 


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2 replies »

  1. Indeed, the traditoanl culture regarded “stability ” as “harmony”.Before the Chou dynasty, women had a comparably more fair or even a high social stauts than men. However, the equality between male and female changed after Chou dynasty as it adopted the culture of admiring the sun(尚陽),which is a symbol of the male power.It can be proved by the classic Chinese philosophic book “Yi-Jing”(易經).
    You've written a really great article to explain the culture and phenomenon of Chinese marriage.However, I would like to give some comments based on your arguments.
    Firstly,you've just simply interpreted the purpose for men having concubines is to marry a woman he likes.Yet, it is so common to see cases for men having concubines for political or financial benefits. In the past, government officals would marry daughters from rich family as concubines for financial supports.
    Secondly,I think you might overrate the value of divorce. You've regarded divorces in western cultures as a kind of release from marriage. It is true that in Chinese culture, we prefer not to divorce when there are still other ways to deal with conflicts.It does not necessarily mean that Chinese couples avoid getting divorce just for responsiblity.It's just because we cherish marriage so much. And we would like to try our very best to find ways to solve problems encountered in our marital relationships.

    P.S. I really enjoy reading your article. Maybe you can write more articles about Chinese marital culture next time. And I would recommend you to read the classic poem”孔雀東南飛”,which is a well-known poem about the Chinese marriage in the past.


  2. Hi, thanks for your comment: ) You gave me some very nice points to think about and also some really useful suggestions. I am always looking for new things to read about Chinese culture, so I welcome every recommendation.

    “It is true that in Chinese culture, we prefer not to divorce when there are still other ways to deal with conflicts.It does not necessarily mean that Chinese couples avoid getting divorce just for responsiblity.It's just because we cherish marriage so much. And we would like to try our very best to find ways to solve problems encountered in our marital relationships.”

    This is a fair point. I agree that Chinese cherish marriage and try not to divorce. But I wonder if they really solve their problems. I always base my articles either on cases that I know of or books I've read; I also make some interviews, which of course remain anonymous. My impression was that in a quite large number of cases of families that have serious problems, they do not manage to actually solve them. The most extreme example is that of an old woman who was beaten by his husband but did not divorce because to her – who had a very traditional mindset – there was nowhere to go if she had divorced. Of course, I am talking about those families that have conflicts, not about families in general. So I wonder if staying together is not an attempt to solve conflicts, but a decision made on the assumption that stability and social acceptance are fundamental for one's life and identity.

    By the way, I have already written a few more posts about marriage. I think it's an interesting topic, and it helps people understand Chinese culture better. Cheers: )


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