Neoconfucianism and China’s Internet Valentine’s Day

(source: Wikipedia)

On May 20 China celebrated the so-called Internet Valentine’s Day (网路情人节 / 網路情人節 pinyin: Wǎnglù Qíngrénjié). Chinese netizens believe that this day at 13:14 is the most auspicious time of the year for lovers. Those who already are in a relationship should declare their eternal love, while those who are still single have a good chance to find a boyfriend or girlfriend.

Before Internet Valentine’s Day, a Chinese netizen published a post called “The 2014 New Girlfriend Criteria” (2014女友新標準 / 女友标准, pinyin: nǚyóu xīn biāozhǚn), in which he listed off the characteristics that a perfect girlfriend should have: 
her height should be between 1.62 to 1.73 and her weight between 50 and 61 kg. She should have long hair. Her nature should be gentle and soft, and she should neither drink nor smoke. She must be able to cook, she should care about others and be a filial daughter (孝順父母). She should love animals, have elegant manners, she shouldn’t say bad words and not be suspicious without reason. She shouldn’t check her boyfriend’s mobile phone, and from time to time she should give him a little surprise. 

A girl who meets these criteria is someone worth marrying.

Does this Chinese-style male fantasy have any general cultural interest? I would say that it does.

In fact, these criteria echo a long tradition of Confucian social roles, about which I often wrote on this blog. I wonder how many Westerners living in China or Taiwan have heard with a certain feeling of surprise some of their Chinese or Taiwanese friends talk about the necessary criteria that a future husband or wife should have: tall, rich, white skin, gentle etc. It is as if one chose a partner on the basis of abstract patterns, long before meeting the actual individual they might eventually marry. 

This has to do with a specific element of traditional Confucian thought that has survived until today despite all political, social, and economic changes: the individual is subordinated to standardised social roles, hierarchies and power relations. The individual’s task is to conform himself to these roles, to fulfil them and repress his individuality whenever this comes into conflict with society’s expectations. 

One of the major concerns of Confucianism was indeed how to create a perfect state and a perfect society by using the family as its foundation. In this context, huge pressure was put on women so that they might dedicate their lives to repressing their individuality and committing themselves entirely to Confucian family ideology, in which they existed mainly as functions of the patrilineal family. As Kai-Wing Chow puts it in his masterful study The Rise of Confucian Ritualism in Late Imperial China: Ethics, Classics, and Lineage Discourse:

The ritualist ethics of the Han Learning scholars in most cases served to enhance the gentry’s effort to promote the ancestral cult and the cult of women’s purity–two of the most important values on their cultural agenda. [They put pressure on] women to conform to the cult of women’s purity. 

Purity is not to be understood in the Christian sense of the term – as many Westerners often mistakenly do. It does not make sense to interpret a non-Christian tradition by referring to the concepts of a Christian or Christian-derived system of ethics. Rather, we must understand purity in a thoroughly Confucian way, that is, from the point of view of an ideology in which women’s virtue was subordinated to the requirements of filial piety and the perpetuation of the husband’s family lineage. 

This ideal is best explained by the works of Zhu Xi (朱熹; 1130 – 1200), one of the most important neo-Confucian scholars (I will write a separate post about him). 
Zhu Xi saw the survival of the patrilineal family as depending from the compliance of the wife with the precepts of Confucian virtue. Zhu Xi writes:

[Taking] a daughter-in-law in marriage is to continue the family line. Some ancient people predicted whether a family would prosper or decline on the basis of the virtuous or vicious character of the daughter-in-law. The matter is of utmost importance. Should the choice be neglected? (Zhu Xi, Chapter VI).

Therefore, the choice of a wife wasn’t a son’s matter, but a family matter. The future wife had to meet ‘the criteria’ of virtue as envisioned by Confucians. She had to be docile and submissive, be able to work hard and sacrifice herself, and she had to accept her husband having other women. From the moment she was married on the meaning of her life was help maintain the prosperity, the proper hierarchies and rituals (what Chinese often call ‘harmony’) of her husband’s family.

Zhu Xi gives an interesting examples of a virtuous woman. He quoted the Song Dynasty scholar Cheng Yi, who wrote about his own mother:

My mother was known for filial piety and respectfulness in serving her parents-in-law. She and father treated each other with full respect as guests are treated. Grateful for her help at home, father treated her with even greater reverence. But mother conducted herself with humility and obedience. Even in small matters, she never made decisions alone but always asked father before she did anything. She was humane, altruistic, liberal, and earnest. She cared for and loved the children of my father’s concubines just as she did her own (Zhu Xi, Chatper VI, my emphasis)

The comparison of the respect between husband and wife and that proffered to guests shows how human relationships were viewed not in terms of mutual understanding and individual feelings, but in terms of standardised social roles and hierarchies. We see that it is expected of the mother to accept her husband’s concubines. Not even the son expressed any pity for his mother’s condition. This reveals that the family was not based on love in the Western sense, or on purity in its Christian meaning. 

As mentioned before, the individual was obliged to hide his true feelings and conform to social norms. This is exemplified by the following passage:

Shun served his parents well but they were on occasions still not delighted because his father was obstinate and his mother was insincere. They were absolutely unreasonable. But when parents have the nature of an average person and their love and hate do not violate principle, the son should obey them. He should do his best to entertain his parents’ dear friends so as to please his parents. He should do his best to prepare for the service of his parents’ guests, without figuring whether he can afford it. However, in supporting parents one must not let them know that one is straining one’s effort and resources. If they should became aware of the difficulty, they would not feel happy (ibid., my emphasis).

We see that a son had to subordinate his own happiness to that of his parents. The purpose of his life was to ‘serve’ them, make them happy and continue the family lineage. In the West, parents-children relationship was never understood on the basis of ‘service’ or life-long hierarchical subordination, at least not in mainstream discourse. Therefore, a Westerner might show understanding for children who do not love parents whose behaviour is bad. 

In the given example, the author admits that Shun’s parents had a bad character, although they formally complied with social norms (“their love and hate do not violate principle”). However, the son must repress his feelings and pretend. Some Westerners may view the parents who ignore their son’s feelings as selfish, and the son who doesn’t show his feelings as deceitful. To Chinese, on the contrary, not repressing one’s feelings and not subordinating to parents is perceived as selfish. 

The perfect woman of the 2014 list of criteria is modern only on the surface. In reality, this is a Confucian ideal of a docile, submissive, filial woman, subordinated to man. The perfect woman is not a real human being, an individual with a name, a face and a soul. It is an abstract pattern, a framework, an ideal – indeed, a Confucian-style social role. 

Many Chinese women end up conforming more or less sincerely to such standards, if they feel family pressure and social pressure to get married before getting too old. In the Chinese marriage market, this understanding of social roles often leads to tensions between feelings and social expectations, which may be manipulated for individual purposes, as I will show in another post. 


Categories: China, confucianism, zhu xi

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