CONFUCIANISM AND SOCIETY, FILIALITY AND SOCIAL RELATIONSHIPS

CONFUCIAN BELIEFS ABOUT SOCIAL RELATIONSHIPS


Confucius with children

Confucius was not interested in individual salvation or individual rights. What he cared about most was the collective well being of society. He promoted virtues such as courtesy, selflessness, obedience, respect, diligence, communal obligation, working for a common good, social harmony, and empathy. The code of behavior he described was based on a system of harmonious, subordinate relationships based on the notions of filial piety, a well-ordered family, a well-ordered-state and a well-ordered world.

Confucians stress that a person's worth is determined by public actions. The concept of li defines a set of social relationships and clearly described how people are supposed to behave towards one another. Fealty in Confucian terms takes five forms: 1) subject to ruler, 2) son to father, 3) younger brother to older brother, 4) wife to husband (woman to man), and 5) younger person to older person. Under the concept the li, the dominate person receives respect and obedience from the subordinate person but is by no means a dictator. He is supposed to reciprocate with love, goodwill, support and affection towards the subordinate person.

The Confucian code of subordinate relationships also extended to professions, with scholars at the top; peasant farmers in the middle; and artisans and merchants at the bottom. Confucian scholars grew their fingernails long to show they didn't do physical labor. Under Confucian leadership, crimes were often dealt with by ostracism and humiliation rather than physical punishment.

Good Websites and Sources on Confucianism: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; Confucianism religioustolerance.org ; Confucius.org confucius.org ; Religion Facts Confucianism Religion Facts ; Confucius .friesian.com ; Confucian Texts Chinese Text Project ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu; Cult of Confucius /academics.hamilton.edu ; Confucian Temple China Vista ; Virtual Temple tour drben.net/ChinaReport Qufu Wikipedia Wikipedia Travel China Guide Travel China Guide ; UNESCO World Heritage Site: UNESCO

Books on Confucianism and Confucius: There is a classic account of Confucius’s biography by Herrlee Creel: Confucius, The Man and the Myth (New York: 1949, also published as Confucius and the Chinese Way), and a recent book by Annping Chin, The Authentic Confucius: A Life in thought and Politics (New York: 2007). According to Dr. Robert Eno: “Among the many translations of the “Analects” , well crafted versions by Arthur Waley (New York: 1938), D.C. Lau (Penguin Books, 1987, 1998), and Edward Slingerland (Indianapolis: 2003) are among the most accessible published. The “Analects” is a terse work with an exceptionally long and varied commentarial tradition; its richness and multiple levels of meaning make it a living document that reads differently to each generation (as true in China as elsewhere). Responsible interpreters vary in specific choices and overall understanding, and no single translation can be viewed as “definitive.”“

Good Websites and Sources on Religion in China: Chinese Government White Paper on Religion china-embassy.org ; United States Commission on International Religious Freedom uscirf.gov/countries/china; Articles on Religion in China forum18.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Council of Foreign Relations cfr.org ; Brooklyn College brooklyn.cuny.edu ; Religion Facts religionfacts.com; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy stanford.edu ; Academic Info academicinfo.net ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies sino.uni-heidelberg.de

Confucianism, Structure and Hierarchy

Prof. John Howkins wrote in the Australian,"The Chinese are always conscious of rank and position. One hesitates to say class, but it's the right word. Everything has its place, and knowing one's place produces the much-loved harmony. But creativity thrives by being different, and art weaves its magic by being shocking and disruptive." [Source: The Australian July 28, 2008]

Confucianism is credited with making Chinese society fiercely patriarchal and defining its social stratification with: 1) scholar-bureaucrats at the top, because they had the knowledge and wisdom to maintain social order; followed by 2) farmers, because they produced the necessary goods; and 3) the artisans, because they possessed necessary skills. At the bottom were 4) merchants. All they did was buy and sell things.

Society began to change when the merchant class made money and used it to increase their power, prestige and education level. Some argue that traditional stratification has broken down and been replaced by a new hierarchy with merchant-bureaucrats at the top, farmers are at the bottom, and artisans being replaced by factory workers and migrant labor and scholars being repressed by the government.

Structure and hierarchy have traditionally been very important in all levels of Chinese society. People are expected to observe mores on rank and position and show humility and deference to their superiors. By showing deference one tends to raise their own position in the view of others rather than lower it. See Confucianism.

Today there is some confusion as to what the most important structures and hierarchies are. Tim Doctoroff author of Billions: Selling to the New Chinese Consumer, told the Times of London, “All Chinese people are struggling between a very ambitious goal-oriented rigid social structure and the importance to conform to clearly defined social structures. There’s a need to advance without shattering the crystal plate.”


Classic of Filial Piety


Traditional Social Structure in China

Throughout the centuries some 80 to 90 percent of the Chinese population have been farmers. The farmers supported a small number of specialized craftsmen and traders and also an even smaller number of land- and office-holding elite families who ran the society. Although the peasant farmers and their families resembled counterparts in other societies, the traditional Chinese elite, often referred to in English as the gentry, had no peers in other societies. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The national elite, who comprised perhaps 1 percent of China's population, had a number of distinctive features. They were dispersed across the country and often lived in rural areas, where they were the dominant figures on the local scene. Although they held land, which they rented to tenant farmers, they neither possessed large estates like European nobles nor held hereditary titles. They achieved their highest and most prestigious titles by their performance on the central government's triennial civil service examinations. These titles had to be earned by each generation, and since the examinations had strict numerical quotas, competition was fierce. Government officials were selected from those who passed the examinations, which tested for mastery of the Confucian Classics. Elite families, like everyone else in China, practiced partible inheritance, dividing the estate equally among all sons. The combination of partible inheritance and the competition for success in the examinations meant that rates of mobility into and out of the elite were relatively high for a traditional agrarian society. *

The imperial state was staffed by a small civil bureaucracy. Civil officials were directly appointed and paid by the emperor and had to have passed the civil service examinations. Officials, who were supposed to owe their primary loyalty to the emperor, did not serve in their home provinces and were generally assigned to different places for each tour of duty. Although the salary of central officials was low, the positions offered great opportunities for personal enrichment, which was one reason that families competed so fiercely to pass the examinations and then obtain an appointment. For most officials, officeholding was not a lifetime career. They served one or a few tours and then returned to their home districts and families, where their wealth, prestige, and network of official contacts made them dominant figures on the local scene. *



Traditional Social Stratification in China

Traditional thought accepted social stratification as natural and considered most social groups to be organized on hierarchical principles. In the ideal Confucian scheme of social stratification, scholars were at the highest level of society, followed by farmers, then by artisans, with merchants and soldiers in last place. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In society at large, the highest and most prestigious positions were those of political generalists, such as members of the emperor's council or provincial governors. Experts, such as tax specialists or physicians, ranked below the ruling political generalists. Although commerce has been a major element of Chinese life since the early imperial period, and wealthy merchants have been major figures in Chinese cities, Confucianists disparaged merchants. Commercial success never won respect, and wealth based on commerce was subject to official taxes, fees, and even confiscation. Upward mobility by merchants was achieved by cultivating good relations with powerful officials and educating their sons in the hope they might become officials. Although dynasties were founded by military conquest, Confucian ideology derogated military skill. Common soldiers occupied a low position in society and were recruited from its lowest ranks. Chinese civilization, however, includes a significant military tradition, and generals and strategists usually were held in high esteem. *

Most of China's population was composed of peasant farmers, whose basic role in supporting the rulers and the rest of society was recognized as a positive one in Confucian ideology. In practical terms, farming was considered a hard and insecure life and one that was best left if an opportunity was available. In Chinese communities the factors generating prestige were education, abstention from manual labor, wealth expended on the arts and education, a large family with many sons, and community service and acts of charity. Another asset was an extensive personal network that permitted one to grant favors and make introductions and recommendations. There was no sharp line dividing the elite from the masses, and social mobility was possible and common. *



Confucianism and Families

Under Confucianism, the oldest male and the father are regarded as the unchallengeable authorities. They set rules, and the "duty and virtue" of everyone else is to follow them. The oldest male and father, in turn, are supposed to reciprocate this reverence by supporting and looking out for the best interest of the people subordinate to them. Love and respect are principals that are practiced in the context of the family. Confucians do not ascribe to the idea of loving all people equally.

Confucius promoted the concept that it was important to worship one's parents while they are still living and old people should be venerated because even though they are weak physically they at the peak of their knowledge and wisdom. This sentiment is best expressed during the "elders first" rite, the central ritual of the Chinese New Year, in which family members kneel and bow on the ground to everyone older than them: first grandparents, then parents, siblings and relatives, even elderly neighbors. In the old days a son was expected to honor his deceased father by occupying a hut by his grave and abstaining from meat, wine and sex for 25 months.

Filial piety is regarded as the most important Confucian duty. Confucian filial piety encourages the younger generation to follow the teachings of elders and for elders to teach the young their duties and manners. Both children and adults are taught to honor their parents no matter what age they are and obey their commands and not do anything that would bring suffering or pain to them.

Sons have traditionally been taught to give whatever money they make to their parents. To do otherwise would incur a loss of face. This unquestioning acquiescence was expected to be maintained regardless of how their parents respond. "In early times," one Chinese man told National Geographic, "even if your parents were not nice to you, you were still responsible to them in their old age."

Sometimes family comes before conventional morality. In The Analects, after being told about a man who bore witness against his father for stealing sheep, Confucius said: “The honest men of my country are different from this. The father covers up for his son, the son covers up for his father...and there is honesty in that too."



Analects on Social Obligations

Dr. Robert Eno of Indiana University wrote: “Confucius modeled the qualities that the junzi [noble gentlmen] would demonstrate in social action on an ideal picture of the ultimate “family man.” Society in Confucius’s time continued to be strongly oriented around lineage groups (the small extended family for the common people, huge clan descent groups for the upper patrician class). Confucius tended to view the state as a large scale version of the family, with the ruler representing “the father and mother of the people.” The junzi who could exemplify perfect political virtue then was one who was fully socialized into the domain of the family.For this reason, Confucius and his followers greatly stressed the importance of the traditional virtue of “filiality” (xiao), which means obedience and service to one’s parents, particularly to one’s father.” /+/

“The disciple Master You said, “The man who is filial and obedient to his elders will rarely be insubordinate to his superiors, and never has a man who was not insubordinate brought chaos to his state. The junzi applies himself to the roots of things, for once the roots are firm, the Way can grow. Filiality and obedience to elders are the roots of ren, are they not?” (1.2) This creates something of a paradox in the political ideal of the junzi. The junzi is to be a moral exemplar, leading all people towards a more virtuous society, yet he is also a follower, obeying his parents absolutely, as well as playing the junior role to all who are older than he.” /+/

Eno wrote: “For the Confucians, this was, in fact, no paradox. The absolute imperative of filial obedience was the fundamental means of broadening the self. Children are born with only self-regarding desires, born selfish. To acquire the fundamental skills that will allow one to view and treat others with as much regard as one does oneself, a long period of discipline must train the person to see the interests of others as his own. This is the function of filiality in Confucian thought. No man who was so selfish as to regard his own desires as more important than his parents’ could conceivably become a junzi, a man who must weigh the needs of his neighbors and even of his distant fellow countrymen as heavily as he does his own.” /+/

Analects on Social Roles, and the Five Relationships

Dr. Eno wrote: “The concept of ritual li which was so central to early Confucianism did not imply that everyone who aspired to become a junzi must embark on memorization of endless action codes. Rather, li were thought of in terms of the responsibilities and forms that accompanied different social roles: the li of a filial child, the li of a clan elder, the li of a minister, and so forth. As a person moved through life, he or she would broaden control over li by mastering sets of responsibilities and forms that marked the assumption of emerging social roles. The individual was, in a sense, pictured almost exclusively in terms of the social roles that he or she had mastered and the characteristic style with which he or she had mastered (or failed to master) the basic structures of those roles. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]



“Confucian texts did not speak of roles in the abstract. Instead, individuals were simply described and evaluated most regularly in terms of their roles and the state was described and evaluated in terms of the fit between role norms and actual social behavior. For example, in a famous passage of the “Analects” , Confucius pictures the ideal state as the perfect fulfillment of all role assignments: “Duke Jing of Qi asked Confucius about government. Confucius replied, “Let rulers be rulers, ministers ministers, fathers fathers, sons sons.” (12.11), The notion of social roles also provided Confucians with certain ways of adjudicating between competing commitments. For example, as the following passage makes clear, in the ideal state individuals privilege the role of the filial child over the role of the loyal subject: The Lord of She spoke to Confucius saying, “In my precincts there is an upright man. When his father stole a sheep, this man gave evidence against him.” “In my precinct the upright are different,” Confucius replied. “Fathers cover up for their sons and sons for their fathers. Uprightness lies therein.” (13.18) Furthermore, Confucians came to link the fulfillment of social role obligations with one’s legitimate claim to a role and its title. For example, rulers who did not act in accord with the normative (value.positive) features of the ruler’s role description were not actually entitled to the designation “ruler” at all.

“In extreme cases, this could license the deposing of a ruler, very much in harmony with the ethical implications of the Mandate of Heaven doctrine. This feature of Confucian role ethics came to be known as the doctrine of the “Rectification of Names” (a term that took on other meanings later). It is only suggested in the “Analects” , but seems to lie behind passages such as this one: “Duke Ding of Lu asked how a ruler should employ ministers and ministers should serve rulers. Confucius replied, “If the ruler employs his ministers according to li, the ministers will serve the ruler with loyalty.” (3.19) The notion of making the obligations of one role contingent on the proper performance of another did not apply to “natural” roles, such as the child’s. Filial duties were absolute.” “ /+/

“Eventually, Confucians brought together many of these ideas in a doctrine known as the “Five Relationships.” In it, all social roles were conceived as existing in essential polarity with some other complementary role, in the manner that the role of child is intrinsically defined as a complement to the role of parent. Confucians held that the myriad actual roles through which we live our social lives could ultimately be seen as variants on five paradigmatic polar relations, which may be listed as follows (the traditional version is on the left, a more universalized modern version on the right): Father / Son Parent / Child Elder Brother / Younger Brother Senior / Junior Ruler / Minister Superior / Inferior Husband / Wife Spouse / Spouse Friend / Friend Friend / Friend. The first three of these were viewed as intrinsically hierarchical and they are the relationships that attracted the most interest in the Confucian scheme. The last two were seen as egalitarian in theory (although the marriage relationship was clearly not so in practice). The Five Relationships can be understood as a way to bring coherence to the ideal of a completely ritualized society, and to give individuals an important conceptual tool in allowing them to pursue self-ritualization in the context of everyday social life.” /+/

On Women and Servants the Analects says: “Women and servants are most difficult to nurture. If one is close to them, they lose their reserve, while if one is distant, they feel resentful.” (17:25)

Analects on Filiality

As we said before, reason, Confucius and his followers greatly stressed the importance of the traditional virtue of “filiality” (xiao), which means obedience and service to one’s parents, particularly to one’s father. According to “Analects”: “ Master You [You Ruo] said, “Among those who are filial toward their parents and fraternal toward their brothers, those who are inclined to offend against their superiors are few indeed. Among those who are disinclined to offend against their superiors, there have never been any who are yet inclined to create disorder. The noble person concerns himself with the root; when the root is established, the Way is born. Being filial and fraternal — is this not the root of humaneness?” (1:2) The Master said, “Those who are clever in their words and pretentious in their appearance, yet are humane, are few indeed.” (1:3) Ziyou asked about filial devotion. The Master said, “Nowadays filial devotion means being able to provide nourishment. But dogs and horses too can provide nourishment. “Unless one is reverent, where is the difference?” (2:7). [Source: “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 45-50, 52, 54-55; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>]



Other selections from the “Analects on filial piety: 1) The Master said, “When a person’s father is alive, observe his intentions. After his father is no more, observe his actions. If for three years he does not change his father’s ways he is worthy to be called filial.”, 2) The disciple Master You said, “The man who is filial and obedient to his elders will rarely be insubordinate to his superiors, and never has a man who was not insubordinate brought chaos to his state. The junzi applies himself to the roots of things, for once the roots are firm, the Way can grow. Filiality and obedience to elders are the roots of ren, are they not?”

3) The Lord of She spoke to Confucius saying, “In my precincts there is an upright man. When his father stole a sheep, this man gave evidence against him.” “In my precinct the upright are different,” Confucius replied. “Fathers cover up for their sons and sons for their fathers. Uprightness lies therein.” 4) The disciple Ziyou asked about filiality. The Master said, “Those who speak of filiality nowadays mean by it merely supplying food and shelter to aged parents. Even dogs and horses receive as much. Without attentive respect, where is the difference?” 5) The disciple Zixia asked about filiality. The Master said, “It is the outward demeanor that it difficult to maintain! That the youngest shall bear the burden at work or that the elders shall be served first of food and drink, is this all that filiality means?”

“The patrician Meng Yizi asked about filiality. The Master said, “Never disobey!” Later, the disciple Fan Chi was driving the Master in his chariot and the Master said to him, “Meng Yizi asked me about filiality and I answered, ‘Never disobey!’” “What did you mean by that,” asked Fan Chi. [Source: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ]

“The Master replied, “In life, serve parents according to li. In death, inter them according to li and sacrifice to them according to li.” (2.5) The patrician Meng Wubo asked about filiality. The Master said, “One’s parents should need to worry only about one’s health.” (2.6) The disciple Ziyou asked about filiality. The Master said, “Those who speak of filiality nowadays mean by it merely supplying food and shelter to aged parents. Even dogs and horses receive as much. Without attentive respect, where is the difference?” (2.7) The disciple Zixia asked about filiality. The Master said, “It is the outward demeanor that it difficult to maintain! That the youngest shall bear the burden at work or that the elders shall be served first of food and drink, is this all that filiality means?” (2.8)

Classic of Filiality (Xiaojing)

Patricia Buckley Ebrey of the University of Washington wrote: “The Classic of Filial Piety, a text composed between 350 and 200 B.C., teaches a simple but all-embracing lesson: beginning humbly at home, filial piety not only ensures success in a man’s life but also brings peace and harmony to the world at large. During the Song dynasty, the text became one of the thirteen classics of the Neo-Confucian canon and remained a cornerstone of traditional Chinese moral teaching until modern times.” [Source: Patricia Buckley Ebrey, University of Washington, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv]


Classic of Filiality by Niu Shuyu


According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Classic of Filiality” (Xiaojing, also translated as “Classic of Filial Piety”) “was written during the Former or Western Han dynasty (206 B.C.-.8 CE). Although it is not a classic in the sense of being a document dating from the Zhou period, “The Classic of Filiality” has been a popular and highly respected text throughout East Asia up through the twentieth century. The text is cast in the form of a conversation between Confucius and Zengzi, one of his students. In the text, “Confucius” explains the concept of filiality, or filial piety, and its central importance in family, community, and spiritual and political life. [Source:Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>]

“The Classic of Filiality” (Xiaojing) reads: “Confucius was at leisure, with Zengzi in attendance. He asked Zengzi, “Do you know by what surpassing virtue and essential way the early kings kept the world in order, the people in harmony both with their relatives and at large, and all, both high and low, uncomplaining?” Zengzi, rising from his seat, said, “Unenlightened as I am, how could I know that?” Confucius said, “Filiality is the root of virtue and the wellspring of instruction. Take your seat and I shall explain. [Source: “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, 2nd ed., vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 326-329; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>]

“Our body, skin, and hair are all received from our parents; we dare not injure them. This is the first priority in filial duty. To establish oneself in the world and practice the Way; to uphold one’s good name for posterity and give glory to one’s father and mother.. this is the completion of filial duty. Thus filiality begins with service to parents, continues in service to the ruler, and ends with establishing oneself in the world [and becoming an exemplary person]. <|>

“As it is said in the Daya [of the Classic of Odes]: ‘Forget not your forebears; cultivate the virtue received from them.’ “ 2. The Son of Heaven The Master said, “Loving one’s parents, one dare not hate others. Revering one’s parents, one dare not be contemptuous of others. When his love and reverence are perfected in service to parents, [the ruler’s] moral influence is shed on all the people and his good example shines in all directions. …” 5. Scholar-officials (Shi) As one serves one’s father, one serves one’s mother, drawing on the same love. As one serves one’s father, one serves one’s prince, drawing on the same reverence. The mother draws upon one’s love, the prince on one’s reverence. Therefore, if one serves one’s prince with the filiality one shows to one’s father, it becomes the virtue of fidelity (loyalty). If one serves one’s superiors with brotherly submission it becomes the virtue of obedience. Never failing in fidelity and obedience, this is how one serves superiors. Thus one may preserve one’s rank and office and continue one’s family sacrifices. This is the filiality of the scholar-official. 6. Commoners In keeping with Heaven’s seasons and Earth’s resources, by one’s industry and frugality one supports one’s father and mother. This is the filiality of the common people. From the Son of Heaven down to the common people, if filiality is not followed from beginning to end, disaster is sure to follow. <|>

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons,

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.

Page Top

© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated September 2016

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.