Ming-era picture of an outing in a park

Traditionally, sons and their wives lived with the son’s parents until the parents died at which time the sons divided the household and property. In some cases the older son inherited a larger share than the others and often got the house. Married daughters were usually left out of the equation (they were taken care of by their husband and his family) unless they were unmarried or the family had no sons.

Parents have traditionally ruled with absolute authority. The idea that children are independent entities worthy of respect in. their own right is a relatively new concept in China. One child families have given children more power. Inheritance was usually passed on from father to son.

Traditionally, fathers ruled the roost and sons resented their father because of the their absolute authority but were bound to follow their fathers' authority due to Confucian filial obligations. By the same token sons and mothers were often very close, with mothers often competing with wives for the love of the son-husband. The relationship between mothers and daughter-in-laws has traditionally been very stormy, especially when they lived in the same household.

According to the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: “In its earliest history, China was a matriarchal society, until Confucius and Mencius defined the superior-inferior relationship between men and women as heaven-ordained more than two thousand years ago. In traditional Chinese society, women should observe the Three Obediences and the Four Virtues. Women were to be obedient to the father and elder brothers when young, to the husband when married, and to the sons when widowed. Thus the Chinese women were controlled and dominated by men from cradle to grave. [This may not apply to the lower class and marginal people. (Lau)] [Source: Zhonghua Renmin Gonghe Guo, Fang-fu Ruan, M.D., Ph.D., and M.P. Lau, M.D.Encyclopedia of Sexuality =]

China was, and in many ways still is, a Confucianist country. Confucianism said that: “There are three things which are unfilial, and to have no posterity is the greatest of them.” In Chinese society “having posterity” means “having a male child.” Therefore, having no boy is regarded as the worst possible problem a family can have, psychologically, economically, and sociologically. =

Importance of Family in Traditional China

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 /+/ ]

“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.” /+/

Zhu Ziqing on Family

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: ““Zhu Ziqing (1898-1948) achieved fame as a writer of poetry, criticisms, sketches, and essays in the decades immediately following the May Fourth Movement. As a 1920 graduate of Beijing University, Zhu was certainly influenced by the cultural debates of the May Fourth period. The essay below concerns his views on his family, and particularly his five children. [Source:Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

In “My Children”, Zhu Ziqing wrote: “I am now already the father of five. Thinking of the metaphor that Ye Shengtao1 likes to, quote about the snail that carries a house on its back makes me feel uncomfortable. Recently one, of my relatives teased me, saying, “You are getting ‘skinned’!” That disturbed me even more. Ten years ago when I had just married, I read Hu Shi’s Sundry Notes2 where he says that many, famous men never got married. He also quotes Bacon to the effect that whoever has taken a, wife has his life “set.” That startled me as if awakening me from a dream, but my family had, married me off and I had had nothing to say about it. What could I do? Once I had a wife, along, came five children, a heavy burden for my two shoulders; I really wonder how I can go on. Not, only is my life “set” but I also worry about how the children will grow up. [1 Ye Shengtao (1894-1988), a leading writer and editor; 2 Hu Shi (1891-1962), leading philosopher and writer][Source: “My Children” by Zhu Ziqing, Translated by Ernst Wolff from “Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook”, edited by Patricia Buckley Ebrey, 2nd ed. (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 391-395; Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, ]

You have probably read Lu Xun’s ‘‘The Happy Family.” Mine is indeed such a happy, group. At our daily lunches and dinners, two tidal waves seem to be descending on us. First, the children keep running to and fro between the dining room and the kitchen to check on things, urging Mother or me to give out the order to serve food. The hurried patter of many little feet, accompanied by much hilarity and shouting, lasts until that order is given. Then the running and shouting resume as the order is transmitted by many mouths until it reaches the maid in the kitchen. Then back again they rush for the fight for stools: one shouts “I want to sit, here”; the other complains “Brother won’t let me sit”; brother retorts “Sister hit me”;, whereupon I have to assume the role of peacemaker. At times, though, they become so adamant, that I cannot stand it. I start shouting and, if that does not settle it, I may lose my temper, and, down comes my heavy hand on someone. Then finally, after a few tears, all will find their seats, and order will be restored. Next the arguments will break out about large bowls versus small, bowls, red chopsticks versus black ones, rice or gruel, tea or soup, fish or meat, bean curd or, carrots, with mutual accusations of dipping too often into the meat and vegetable dishes.

“Mother, as usual, tries to calm everyone down, but with little obvious effect. Then my rather, irascible nature will not be able to stand it any longer and, of course, I will apply the oldfashioned, method, thereby managing to subdue them instantly. More tears, but finally everyone, will be busy with bowls and chopsticks, some wiping tears from reddened eyes. When the meal, is over and they leave their seats, off they go helter.skelter, leaving behind a mess of food, droppings, rice, sauce, bones, crumbs, and a jumble of chopsticks and spoons in the pattern of a, colorful map.

“Apart from eating, the children’s main pursuit is play. The big ones come up with big, ideas and the small ones with small ideas, and no one will go along with the others’ wishes. Then the quarrels start again, and either the big ones bully the small ones, or the small ones, manage to browbeat the big ones; anyhow, the victimized party will personally bring his or her, complaint to Mother or me. Most likely I will again apply the old-fashioned method of settling, the argument, but sometimes I just pay no attention. The most annoying are the fights for toys. “Even if both have similar toys, one insists on the other’s, and no one will give up anything he, has. In a situation like this, inevitably tears will have to flow from someone’s eyes. Not all of, this happens every day, but a good measure of it does. If I want to read a book or write, something at home, I can guarantee that my attention will be diverted several times every hour, or I will be forced to get up once or twice. On rainy days or Sundays, when most of the children, are home, it has happened that I could not read even one line or write one word. I often tell my, wife, ‘‘All day our home is like a battlefield with large armies in motion.” This goes on not only, during the daytime, but even at night when there is the commotion of babies being fed or the sick being tended to.

“Yutong once said: “Only if we have our children graduate from universities can we say, that we have fulfilled our parental duties.” S. K. disagreed: “Consider also in this context your, own economic ability and the children’s capabilities and goals. If they graduate from middle, school and cannot, or will not, go on to higher studies, let them do something else; even, becoming workers, for instance, would not be improper at all.” Of course, a person’s social, value and success do not altogether depend on his school education. By insisting that our, children be university educated, we only follow our personal prejudices. I cannot decide these, issues now, especially since the times are so unstable. How can one possibly foresee the future? It is a good thing the children are still small; we can wait and see what happens. All that we can, do at present is to give them basic strength, breadth of mind, and good judgment. Since they are, still children, it is of course too early to talk about high and objectives; we should rather, start out slowly from what is near at hand and basic. This, quite naturally, will proceed from the way I am. “It is up to each individual to solve for himself the mysteries of life!” Be it glory, misfortune or an undistinguished fate that awaits them, let each exert himself to the utmost of, his strength. I only hope that with all these reflections I will from now on do well as a father;, that would satisfy me completely. The call of the “madman” to “rescue the children”7 is a, frightening warning to all of us!

Neo-Confucianism and the Defining of Family Life in China

Joshua Wickerham wrote in the “Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender”: Comparatively very little is known about the structure of the Chinese family before the Song Dynasty (960-1279), when printing was invented and written sources became more widespread. It is known that the male was the undisputed official head of the household. Rank, though varying over time and locality, was generally reckoned based on gender and age. The oldest patriarch directed the family's finances. Younger brothers were subservient to older brothers. Mothers could beat their own sons, even in adulthood. Until the Warring States Period, it was legal for a man to kill his own son. Several generations lived together in a single house. Daughters were "married out." [Source: Joshua Wickerham, “Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender: Culture Society History”, Thomson Gale, 2007]

“Daughters were generally undesirable because of economic and patrilinial considerations. Only males could carry on the family name and daughters required dowries to attract male suitors — or a suitor's parents, as was usually the case. Unwanted daughters were often killed at birth or sold into slavery at age five or six. These trends strengthened with the rise of Neo-Confucian orthodoxy, starting as early as the Tang dynasty when scholar Han Yu (768-824) beginning calling for restraint in "unbridled passions."

“Gaining strength in the Southern (Later) Song dynasty (1127-1279), Neo-Confucianists promulgated an extreme form of the ancient philosophy. From references in the classics that men and women should not freely associate, scholars and officials justified gender segregation in all spheres of life. This required them to overlook almost all references to romantic and sexual love in the poetry of the classics. This Neo-Confucian philosophy, though pervasive, was not omnipresent or totally stifling. In many ways, masculinity was still seen as degrees of femininity. The well-positioned man took on elements of the female to gain favor and show loyalty to his superiors. But a man had the ability to change masters, whereas women were confined to the husbands (and husband's family) they were betrothed to and eventually married. Men, meanwhile, were still free to sleep with whomever they wanted. During Neo-Confucian times, concubines, who had historically been confined to the households of the most elite, became more affordable for the common man. Concubines who had been trained in singing and literary arts could be rented for the day or the hour, thus blurring the distinctions between concubinage and prostitution.

Confucianism, Families and Filial Piety

20080225-confu2 brook.jpg
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. Some young Chinese today scoff at the tradition. A man forced by his mother to follow his father and six generations of ancestors to be a Peking Opera actor against his will told the Los Angeles Times, “A young man should be able to follow his heart, instead of being burdened by Chinese perceptions and family loyalty.”

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 responded. "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.” One Chinese woman who worked in marketing told The New Yorker, “In both the U.S. and China, people say that the family is the No. 1 priority. But in the U.S. they really mean it. In China, everything is about career and getting ahead.”

Traditional Ideas About Family in China

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 /+/ ]

“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

20080225-filail piety Ma Hezhi.jpg
Filial piety
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 /+/ ]

“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

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 /+/ ]

“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. /+/

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 /+/ ]

“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.” /+/

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 /+/ ]

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 Domestic Units in China

Ancestor images

Stevan Harrell wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “The Han domestic unit was usually coterminous with the property-holding unit. Its developmental cycle was the result of the processes of virilocal marriage and family division. Sons and their wives were expected to reside with the parents until the parents' death, at which time the sons would divide their household and property. If a couple had more than one son, their household would progress from nuclear (a married couple with children, recently separated from the husband's brothers) to stem (the couple with sons, unmarried daughters, and the wife and children of one son), to joint (the couple with sons, their wives, and their children), and back to nuclear when the original couple died and their sons divided their household and property. Demographic differences, of course, meant that not every family went through all the phases of this cycle in every generation — a couple with only one son, for example, could never be the head of a joint family, and an eldest son whose own son had children while his parents were still alive would never head a nuclear family. Censuses of local communities usually show from 5 to 20 percent joint families at any one time, with the balance about equally divided between nuclear and stem families. [Source: Stevan Harrell, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia — Eurasia / China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994 |~|]

“This familial configuration produced a constellation of alliances and rivalries. Sons, for example, often resented the absolute authority of their fathers, but cultural norms of filial devotion prevented them from expressing this resentment. Sons and their mothers, by contrast, often remained close throughout their lifetimes, making the position of the son's wife, a potential rival for her husband's affection, a very difficult one, especially in the early years of her marriage. Mother-in-law/daughter-in-law rivalry is a recurrent theme of literature and folklore. Brothers, because of their increasing loyalty to their wives, developed rivalries over the course of their adult lives, culminating in almost inevitable family division when their parents died or sometimes before. |~|

“In recent times, the developmental cycle has simplified in most cases. In urban mainland China, the nationalization of property and housing has removed the economic hold parents once had over their adult children. The emotional ties remain, and they can be satisfied through a network of linked nuclear and stem families, who share child care, meals, and sometimes financial resources, but who do not coreside. In rural areas, collectivization of property spelled the end of joint families, but one son continues to reside with the parents after his marriage. In Taiwan many families have become geographically extended, retaining some common property rights though often scattered over a series of houses and/or flats. In addition, the rapidly declining birthrates in both areas mean that the personnel to form joint families are rarely available anymore; this trend will become even more acute in the future. |~|

Traditional Stratification and Families in China

Before 1950 the basic units of social stratification and social mobility were families. Although wealthy families were often quite large, with as many as thirty people in three or four generations living together on a common budget, most families contained five or six people. In socioeconomic terms, late traditional China was composed of a large number of small enterprises, perhaps as many as 100 million farms and small businesses. Each was operated by a family, which acted not only as a household but also as a commercial enterprise. The family head also was the trustee of the estate and manager of the family business. Families could own property, such as land or shops, and pass it on to the next generation. [Source: Library of Congress]

About 80 percent of the population were peasant farmers, and land was the fundamental form of property. Although many peasant families owned no land, large estates were rare by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Peasant families might own all of the land they worked, or own some and rent some from a landowner, or rent all their land. Regardless of the form of tenure, the farm was managed as a unit, and the head of household was free to decide what to plant and how to use the labor of family members. Land could be bought and sold in small parcels, as well as mortgaged and rented in various forms of short-term and long-term contracts. The consequence was that in most villages peasant families occupied different steps on the ladder of stratification; they did not form a uniformly impoverished mass. At any time, peasant families were distinguished by the amount of land that they owned and worked compared with the percentage of their income they paid in rent. Over time, peasant families rose or fell in small steps as they bought land or were forced to sell it.

Most non-farm enterprises, commercial or craft, were similarly small businesses run by families. The basic units were owned by families, which took a long-term view of their prospects and attempted to shift resources and family personnel from occupation to occupation to adapt to economic circumstances. In all cases, the long-term goal of the head of the family was to ensure the survival and prosperity of the family and to pass the estate along to the next generation. The most common family strategy was to diversify the family's economic activities. Such strategies lay behind the large number of small-scale enterprises that characterized Chinese society before 1950. Farming and landowning were secure but not very profitable. Commerce and money-lending brought in greater returns but also carried greater risks. A successful farm family might invest in a shop or a food-processing business, while a successful restaurant owner might buy farmland, worked by a sharecropping peasant family, as a secure investment. All well-to- do families invested in the education of sons, with the hope of getting at least one son into a government job. The consequence was that it was difficult to draw a class line dividing landlords, merchants, and government workers or officials.

Male-Female Ying-Yang Family Dynamics

In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “A traveller through China often notices in the villages along his route that in the early morning most of the men seem to be assembled by the roadside, each one squatting in front of his own door, all busily engaged in shovelling in their food with chopsticks (appropriately called “nimble-sons”), chatting meantime during the brief intervals with the neighbour nearest. That the entire family should sit down to a table, eating together and waiting for one another, after the manner of the inhabitants of Western lands, is an idea so foreign to the ordinary Chinese mind as to be almost incomprehensible. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“This Chinese (and Oriental) habit is at once typical and suggestive. It marks a wholly different conception of the family, and of the position of woman therein, from that to which we are accustomed. It indicates the view that while man is yang, the male, ruling, and chief element in the universe, woman is yin, “dull, female, inferior.” The conception of woman as man’s companion is in China almost totally lacking, for woman is not the companion of man, and with society on its present terms she never can be. A new bride introduced into a family has visible relations with no one less than with her “husband.” He would be ashamed to be seen talking with her, and in general they seem in that line to have very little to be ashamed of. In those unique instances in which the young couple have the good sense to get acquainted with each other, and present the appearance of actually exchanging ideas, this circumstance is the joke of the whole family circle, and an insoluble enigma to all its members. We have heard of cases in which members of a family where there was a newly married couple, kept a string in which was tied a knot, every time that they were heard to speak to one another. This cord would be subsequently exhibited to them in ridicule of their intimacy!

“A Chinese bride has no rational prospect of happiness in her new home, though she may be well dressed, well fed, and perhaps not abused. She must expect chronic repression through the long years during which she is for a time in fact, and in theory always, a “child.” Such rigorous discipline may be necessary to fit her for the duties of her position, when she shall have become herself a mother-in-law, and at the head of a company of daughters-in-law, but it is a hard necessity. That there are sometimes genuine attachments between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law it would be a mistake to deny, for in such rare cases human nature shows its power of rising superior to the conventional trammels in which it finds itself by iron customs bound.

Myth of the Big Chinese Family

Yuan era painting

Ken Pomeranz and Bin Wong wrote: “One of the great myths about China is that of the Chinese family that so desperately wants a son that they have as many kids as possible and end up having enormous families. Although Chinese families did very much want sons, they were also perfectly conscious of the fact that their ability to support children was limited and that, in the long run, they didn't improve their odds by simply having the maximum number of births. And, in fact, births per woman in late imperial China are actually, on average, probably somewhat lower than in early modern Europe. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

“There are various theories as to what kinds of birth control were practiced during this time. This is actually quite controversial and hard to reconstruct, but we do know that one way or another, they seemed to keep births down. This is very different from the traditional image of China as this land of Malthusian horror where, because they couldn't restrain their population, it was only kept in check by floods and famines.

“That's not the story at all. And it's again a good example of how we find the things we're trained to find. Western-trained demographers understood that in Europe, population control worked as people delayed marriage in hard times. They assumed that this was the main mechanism for fertility control available to premodern societies, so it didn't even occur to them when they looked at societies like China to think about the possibility that there might be effective birth control within marriage. Therefore, when they looked at China, they saw that access to marriage wasn't economically regulated the way it was in Europe — the average age at marriage doesn't seem to get older at hard times, women marry young anyway — and they said, "Aha, society with no control on fertility. Therefore, if fertility is unchecked, they must have had all these enormous problems of overpopulation."

“It turns out the Chinese found ways to control fertility within marriage, which many scholars thought simply did not happen before modern chemical and mechanical contraception. Population growth was concentrated not in the advanced regions of the coast, which were running out of land and realized it, but out on the frontier”.

Story of One Modern Chinese Family

Taiwan-born Chinese-American Chihoung Chen told his son, Leon Chen: When I was young, your grandfather wasn't the type to tell stories. Your grandmother was the one who told the stories. In China, family is very important. When your grandmother was very young, her mother died, so her father took care of her. On your grandfather's side, your great-great grandfather was born and raised in Hangzhou (Hongzhou). When he was twelve, the Taiping rebels attacked the city and killed all of their family members except for him, one brother and sister, and an aunt. After the rebellion ended, your great-great grandfather returned to Hangzhou and rebuilt the family. He married and had three sons. The youngest of the three was your great grandfather. Your great grandfather had several daughters and a son, who is your grandfather. During the Communist attack, he fled to Taiwan and eventually settled there. [Source: interview of Chihoung Chen conducted by his son, Leon Chen; Freer Gallery of Art ]

"In the past, entire generations of a family would live together in a big house. But society changed, and those large families disappeared, and they split into smaller families. You know how your grandparents live with us? To us that seems pretty normal, but that's because we're still into Chinese traditions. Anyway, in the past people would live in a big house. The head of the family would have a very big responsibility because he has to take care of everybody in the family.

"In those big houses, there would be an ancestral hall. That's a special building used to worship ancestors. It housed the portraits and ancestral tablets. Normally, it would be used as a place for kids to learn, because schools weren't very common. Family meetings were also held there. This hall is pretty important. In the past, the ceremonies are a form of education. The kids would learn respect for their elders. The worship ceremonies were pretty important. But after the family sense split, the worship ceremonies would become more simplified. Our family tried to maintain as much as possible, so you would be able to pass it on to your children. To me, the process itself is a kind of education. It teaches you to respect where your coming from and to take the responsibility to pass the moral standard to the next generation.

“Does our family have photos of our great grandparents? Yes. We even have a picture of your great-great grandparents. Your great grandmother and great-great grandfather were devout Buddhists. They were strict vegetarians. One of your grandfather's sisters was also a strict vegetarian. Because of this, I started being Buddhist when I was in sixth grade.

Image Sources: 1) Posters,Landsberger Posters ; 2) Family photos, 3) 19th century men, Universty of Washington; Wiki Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2021

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