FAMILY AND GENDER IN TRADITIONAL CHINA

IMPORTANCE OF FAMILY IN TRADITIONAL CHINA


Yan Guifei, one of China's four beatuties, mounting a horse

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “ It is true of virtually every era of Chinese history that the family has played a greater social role in Chinese culture than in most world cultures. This does not only mean that family was more essential for individuals in ancient China than it is for most people today, but that it was in many respects more essential than it was for most societies in the ancient world. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“There was in ancient China a very strong view of the integrity of the family and a very weak view of the independence of the individual. There existed no clear notion that each individual possessed a unique inner core, particular to himself or herself, that constituted an independent or unchanging identity. Such an idea, associated with the concept of an immortal soul in the West, can serve to sustain a belief in the value and autonomy of individual people. In China, the absence of such a concept guided people towards thinking of individuals as representatives of the human network that brought them into existence: their family. /+/

“The importance of the family was reinforced by highly elaborated family and clan structures. Households normally included several generations living under a single roof, and even if there was some physical distance between the homes of brothers or cousins, extended families generally continued to live in close proximity, to share property and privileges, and to join together in ritual activities that brought large numbers of clan members together on a regular basis. /+/

“The centrality of the family and the social view of people as first and foremost family members contributed to the worldview of the first philosophical school in China, the Confucian School. But this cultural tendency did not mean that it was impossible for Chinese people to think in other ways and to view the person as less integrally linked to family. Indeed, the most important reaction against Confucianism, the school of Daoism, placed little or no emphasis on family, and pictured the individual as organically linked not to the family, but to the world of Nature.” /+/

Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge; 5) Gutenberg.org e-book gutenberg.org/files ; Links in this Website: Main China Page factsanddetails.com/china (Click History);

Traditional Ideas About Family in China


Ming-era picture of an outing in a park

Dr. Eno wrote: “If one were to set out to demonstrate that early Chinese society possessed all the main features characteristic of early Western societies, it is possible that it could be done. Chinese society was regionally diverse with a wide variety of distinct local styles, and individual cases may probably be found to illustrate most any set of patterns or values. But taken on the whole, ancient Chinese social patterns appear strikingly different from those of the West. This is particularly true if by “the West” we mean the modern West, with which we are best acquainted. While it is certainly more valid to compare ancient China to ancient Rome rather than to Indiana or Ohio, still, when we wish to grasp the character of ancient China it is its distance from ourselves that we need to understand – and it is distant indeed. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“The fundamental unit of ancient Chinese society was the family. While it was as clear to the Chinese as to us that people come packaged individually, the perspectives of ancient China seem to have laid great stress on the fact that the individual human, at birth, was not much more than a biological animal fit only for crying and feeding, while immersion in the culture of the family transformed this infant into a fully “human” being, possessing manners and feelings for others. What the individual person drew from the family seemed so far greater than what he or she brought to the family that the individual self truly did not seem fully detachable from the family context within which it had been nurtured to maturity. /+/

“Moreover in a society of agricultural subsistence, such as ancient China’s, it was almost impossible for the ordinary individual to survive outside the context of the family’s socio-economic system. The family was a factory – the men raising food and providing shelter, the women growing silkworms for fabric and providing clothes – the interdependence of the family members was far greater than we might initially think. In such a context, the place of the individual in society tended to be conceived in terms of responsibilities rather than rights. Larger social groupings, the village, town, and state, were granted far greater powers over the individual than would be tolerable in the modern West. These larger units were generally conceived on the model of the family. The king or emperor of China was called the Son of Heaven, drawing great respect by association with his august “kinsman,” and he was also called “the Father and Mother of the People,” providing him with unmatched authority.” /+/

“Because the stakes were so high, Chinese men of means often supported, in addition to a wife, “concubines,” a type of secondary spouse, by whom husbands could have additional sons. Common peasant men could rarely afford to take advantage of this opportunity to expand their family and their odds of having surviving male descendants, but in wealthy households, men might have a number of concubines, whose male children might inherit the role of family leader, if the principal wife bore no sons. /+/

Traditional Views About Family Obligation in China


Ancestor altar

Dr. Eno wrote: “The authority of the parent was the strongest force within ancient Chinese society (and remained so into this century). No traditional value could, in practice, supersede the value of “ filiality,” that is, reverence for and obedience to one’s parents. The key to understanding the importance of family in traditional China is probably the fact that historically, the core religious practice of Chinese culture has been “ancestor worship.” The meaning of this term, at root, relates to twin beliefs: first, that after death, people continue for a time to exist as spirits, in a form that requires for sustenance some form of ordinary food, and second, that these spirits retain their interest in and expectations of the members of their family. The basic act of traditional Chinese religion is the regular offering of food and drink to deceased members of the family, and the basic expectation is that if ancestors are properly nourished in this way, they will employ their powers as spirits to continue to aid their families. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“These structures of practice developed alongside a view of people principally framed in terms of their membership in families. Whereas in the modern West, we tend to picture people as independent being, foregrounding the fact that each of us is a biologically self-sustaining creature with thoughts and feelings that are known only to ourselves, in Chinese tradition much less attention was paid to the fact that we are physically separate, possessing private thoughts, than was paid to the fact that we survive and grow only with the care and support of our families. Indeed, the character of individual people was seen much more as the product of family nurturance and tradition, rather than as a trait possessed by people independently. There was a greater sense that people begin as nurtured products of a social group – the family – and this sort of idea naturally leads to a view that the family has priority over the individual. /+/

“In this way, the “family” was actually pictured as a sort of corporation, a league of the living and the dead, working together to perpetuate and strengthen the lineage. Families of higher social standing traditionally maintained detailed genealogical records, often regarding a very large number of related nuclear family units as belonging to a single “clan,” which might have a highly organized structure of mutual obligations and support, focused around regular ceremonies at a complex of ancestral temple buildings. The social cohesiveness of clans, which united and organized all the component clan families who continued to reside within a geographical area, made them a powerful social force on the community and state level. However, the importance of family was not confined to these great clans; even among the poorest farming families (or “peasants,” as farmers who do not themselves own the land they work on called), there was a high consciousness of family ties. /+/

Traditional Ideas About Individualism, Kinship and Clans in China


Ancestor images

Dr. Eno wrote: In ancient China, “individuals were not pictured as coming into the world in possession of unique talents and dispositions that animated their personalities and made them who they were. An individual’s qualities were pictured as emerging from the nurturance provided by the family and community in which that person was brought up. One’s character was, in a very fundamental sense, a product of the micro-society of the family, and in this way, personal identity was pictured as organically linked to this family source, and never fully independent of it. A person separated from his or her family was not quite fully human. For this reason, traditional culture placed very strong ethical emphasis on the importance of fulfilling one’s family role and, in particular, learning dedication to family through the exercise of filial conduct towards one’s parents. Filiality — treating one’s parents with obedience and dutiful graciousness — was a cardinal and much honored social value in China long before and long after the Classical era. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“The status of individuals in China, particularly prior to the latter Classical era, was largely dependent on the status of their families. Wealthy and powerful families (who belonged to a class we call the “ patricians”) generally achieved and perpetuated their status by belonging to larger kinship organizations, generally called “ clans.” Most Chinese, and all members of the patrician elite, were highly conscious of their place within a large lineage group with complicated branch features (in many cases too complicated for later analysts to figure out!). These groups were joined and distinguished through a complex religious system of ancestral sacrifice. /+/

“Every patrician lineage traced its ancestry back to some “founding” progenitor who was worshiped at a shrine in his honor. Worship consisted principally of scheduled offerings of food and drink, and in complex ceremonies surrounding the sacrificial offering. The ancestor’s spirit was pictured as materially present in some form at these sacrifices, and the sustenance of the food and drink was real. Ancestors needed descendants to sustain them in their spirit form (although it was occasionally noticed that the ancestors never cleaned their plates). In addition to worshiping the founding ancestor, clan members would worship the eldest male members of recent generations and their wives as well. /+/

“Eldest sons carried seniority within such a system; younger sons frequently became “founding ancestors” of junior or “cadet” branches of the lineage. These various lineage branches would then share some levels of ritual activities and not others. These graded ritual groups constituted collectives of social, economic, and political power in ancient China. Kinship was a powerful social tool. /+/

Clan Religious Practices

Dr. Eno wrote: “One pivot of social and political life among the patrician ranks during the Zhou was the system of clan religious practice. Ancient Chinese society is probably better pictured as an interaction among patrician clans than as an interaction among states, rulers, or individuals. The identity of individual patricians was largely governed by their consciousness of their connections to and roles in various clans, all visible periodically within the context of the ceremonies of sacrifice offered to ancestors. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

In the story “Han Qi Visits the State of Zheng”: Kong Zhang is the senior member of a “cadet” (junior) branch of the ruling clan’s lineage, hence the specific ritual connections described here. By means of this description, Zichan is exculpating himself from any blame concerning Kong Zhang’s conduct — he is documenting the rituals which show that Kong is a fully integrated member of the governing clan: his conduct is the state’s responsibility (the ruling clan’s responsibility), not Zichan’s.

According to the text story of “Han Qi Visits the State of Zheng”: “The position that Kong Zhang occupies is one that has been settled for several generations, and in each generation those who have held it have performed its functions properly. That he should now forget his place – how is this a shame to me? Were the misconduct of every perverse man to be laid at the door of the chief minister, this would signify that the former kings had given us no code of punishments. You had better find some other matter to fault me by!” [Source: “Han Qi Visits the State of Zheng” from The Zuo zhuan, a very large historical text, which covers the period 722-468 B.C. ***]

Traditional Ideas About Marriage in China

20080224-wedding 22 u wash.jpg
Newlyweds in the 1930s
Dr. Eno wrote: “Among parents, the father was supreme. Although there is some evidence that China was at one time in prehistory dominated by matrilineal tribes, patriarchal structures were firmly established by the dawn of the historical era. The family name, or surname (which precedes the personal name in Chinese, perhaps symbolizing the priority of family over individual), was passed through the male line. Married women effectively entered the families of their husbands and were “lost” to their natal families. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“Kinship was more than a matter of birth, it could also be forged through marriage. China was relentlessly “exogamous”: that is, two people of the same surname could not marry no matter how distant their relation, even if there was no known relation at all. A marriage was first and foremost a contract between two independent corporate groups. For this reason, the selection of marriage partners was always viewed as a family rather than as an individual matter. Love and romance were well known phenomena, but largely separate from marriage. Marriages were arranged by the parents so as to yield the greatest benefit to the extended family; the bride and groom were often not even consulted before the engagement. The divorce rate was low. /+/

“The political nature of marriage lay behind the “polygamous” nature of Chinese society. Men of wealth and status not only could afford to support more than one wife, they remained in demand even after marrying several women because they continued to be viewed principally as sources of power and patronage, rather than as sources of loyal affection. From the point of view of women, being one of a group of wives and “ concubines” (secondary mates) was not only inherently demeaning, it fostered bitter competition. Only one woman could be designated as the “principal wife,” whose son would be the principal heir, but that designation could be shifted by the husband at any time. In wealthy families, this made for a grisly psychology, and in high political circles where a throne was at stake it made assassination a popular sport.” /+/

Traditional Ideas About Gender in China

20080225-bride groom family 1923.jpg
Bride groom's family in the 1930s
Dr. Eno wrote: “Within families – as within Chinese society as a whole – authority lay with the males, and among males, seniority was the principal index of authority. Because marriage within even the most extended of clans was forbidden, only males were full members of the family lineage – brides were married “out of” their natal families, meaning that young girls were destined before long to leave, and older women were outsiders to varying degrees, depending on how long since they had married into the family. For individuals, knowing that after death they would be dependent on their descendants for sustenance as spirits, nothing was more important than having children, and as daughters would marry out of the family and participate in feeding their husbands’ parents, rather than their own, each man and wife knew they would ultimately be dependent upon their sons. This contributed to the very high valuation of male children by both parents, and by society as a whole, while daughters were often regarded as an unwanted burden, useful only if an opportunity arose to marry them off to families higher up on the social and economic ladder. /+/

“The focus on the male-dominated family fostered authoritarian patterns. One of the cardinal human virtues in Chinese tradition was “filiality,” service and obedience to parents by children, especially male children. This stress on authority and obedience created a dynamic where young people who had been given few opportunities for initiative and independent thinking found themselves, upon the deaths of their fathers, called upon to exercise a relatively high degree of both. Among the educated classes where this was most true, the gap was filled by high emphasis on education outside the home, under the tutelage of male teachers other than one’s father.” /+/

The best way to approach our Classical Chinese thought with regard to gender issues is to recognize that the classical texts were written exclusively by males, and that the intended audience was also male. The assumption is that in discussing human ethics and human excellence, it is men of whom the text is speaking. But the texts also do not generally present any barriers that prevent us from reading their lessons as gender-free when we look to them for inspiration in our own, presumably less sexist age. /+/

Male Dominance in Traditional China


Yuan era painting

Dr. Eno wrote: “It is generally true that premodern societies worldwide gave dramatic priority to men over women. China was no exception, and in some respects male dominance was more profound than in other major world cultures...As we will see, the status and role of women, when explored in detail, was more complex than this brief characterization of subservience may suggest. However, when speaking of the main actors of cultural history in traditional China we will find ourselves with only a few exceptions speaking solely of men. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“Male dominance was not fully established at the start of Chinese civilization. When we explore the earliest evidence we have for Chinese culture, we see isolated instances of women playing significant public roles, and some scholars believe these were vestiges from the prehistoric past – there is a theory that at some distant time, perhaps before the advent of agriculture in about 7000 B.C., China was a “matriarchal” society, where women were dominant, though the evidence for this theory is very sparse. In time, Chinese traditions of male authority grew increasingly explicit, and whereas it is possible to read the early evidence as indicating that gender role differentiation reflected an idea of divided labor, rather than male superiority, by the early imperial era orthodox thought tended to celebrate men not only as stronger and more able public figures, but as better than women in a moral sense. /+/

“Sometime in the tenth century AD, the subordinate status of women was made physically explicit through the gradual spread of a unique custom, “footbinding,” in which the feet of young girls were intentionally reshaped through a long and painful process. The result of the process was to render women’s feet terribly small. This was perceived by Chinese as a reflection of grace and femininity, and was erotically attractive to men, but it rendered women physically unfit for any serious labor, and made it difficult for them even to exercise the independence of walking. /+/

Oppression of Women in Traditional China


China in 1975

While most developed traditional cultures in world history have been controlled by men at the expense of women, with of women confined to the home and men dominating community and state sectors, China was probably worse than most in its treatment of women, who were often viewed as little more than commodities. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

Dr. Eno wrote: “It is probably correct to say that with only a few known exceptions, traditional cultures worldwide accorded much higher status and privilege to men than to women. China was not only no exception in this regard, its social values were probably more skewed towards male privilege than most societies. For example, in traditional China women were substantially separated from their birth families after marriage, girls were not provided with education, males possessed almost sole effective rights of property (widows were an exception), and men were permitted to take as many “secondary wives” (sometimes called “concubines”) as their wealth and status made socially acceptable. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“The extreme sexism of ancient China will seem deplorable to most modern Westerners, and certainly, it should be clearly acknowledged. However, ancient China cannot now be changed, and in this course we will not dwell overmuch on this aspect, except perhaps to note unanticipated aspects in which women may have been viewed or treated differently, or escaped somewhat the constraints placed on them. When discussing political activities, ethical ideals, and so forth, it will be pointless to employ the non-sexist language of “his or her,” “he or she.” Admirable ideal types, sages and rulers, will always be male, even in the abstract; it’s too bad, but to ascribe non-sexist ideas to the literate elite of ancient China would be a distortion. /+/

“Despite these cultural features of the traditional Chinese environment, it is interesting to note that philosophical texts almost never make a claim that women are in any way inferior to men. The most they will say (and many do say this) is that women and men are different in their natural capacities and should perform different functions in the world. The theme of this distinction is most essentially that the role of women is properly confined to the non-public sphere of family life. Chinese popular views of women in public life was traditionally that they were basically a dangerous force in that context. There were many stories of queens, empresses, and royal concubines who employed the power of their sexual allure to influence government — always for the worse. Most early thinkers seems to have accepted such accounts at face value and assumed that their students or readers would understand without saying the danger of women in public life — but it is also a fact that no ban on women’s aspirations was proclaimed or any statement made that they were, by nature, unfit or unable to achieve ideal forms of human excellence. And, in fact, one school of ancient thought, the Daoists, tended to celebrate female qualities as superior to male ones, and the key to human excellence. /+/

Family, Ghosts and Religion in Traditional China


Burning joss paper during the Hungry Ghost Festival

Dr. Eno wrote: “Early China’s family-centered orientation was expressed in religious practice. Although ancient Chinese society included a wide variety of religious cults and practices, the most basic of all religious activities was the family cult known as ancestor worship. People in ancient China believed in a type of life after death. In their view, certain components of the person — including aspects of consciousness, physical needs, and worldly powers — did not cease to exist with death, but persisted for generations in a semi-physical state. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“Ghosts of the dead continued to inhabit the local space of their former homes, continued to need physical sustenance in the form of food and drink, and possessed the ability to influence events in the world. It was the duty of the lineal descendants of these ghosts — their sons and grandsons — to provide regular nourishment in the form of sacrificial foods and drink, and to behave in ways that accorded with the good examples set by former generations. If lazy children allowed dead ancestors to go hungry or brought disgrace to their names, ancestors had the power to wreak vengeance. On the other hand, dutiful fulfillment of ritual sacrifices, respectful salutations of the dead, and upright social behavior by descendants would attract the blessings of ancestors, who had the power to provide protection and bestow rewards. /+/

“The most regular form of religious activity for every person in ancient China was the offering of scheduled sacrifices to one’s ancestors. These rituals occurred in homes at every level of society. Among the privileged classes, elaborate ancestral halls served as religious centers for extensive clans. The most aristocratic of clans were entitled to construct large walled temple complexes devoted exclusively to the ancestors of their clan.” /+/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; 1930s marriage; Bucklin archives

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2016

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