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China

Regulations Of Family Relationships

Confucianism is the dominant philosophy and doctrine of proper ethics and conduct of the Chinese people. It is nearly synonymous with traditional Chinese civilization. Over the centuries, Confucians have developed an ideology and social system designed to realize their conception of the good society, a harmonious and hierarchical social order in which everyone knows and adheres to their proper stations (Stacey 1983). According to Confucianism, the family must first be put in order, and only then can the state be ruled. A well-ordered family is thus the microcosm and the basic unit of sociopolitical order. With the great importance of the family order emphasized by Confucius and his disciples, the relationships among family members are regulated by the pecking order that results from generation, age, and gender.


Generation, age, and gender (beifen-nianlingxingbie) hierarchy. Confucianism provides a protocol for proper family life. Therefore, the hierarchy of generation-age-gender defines an individual's status, role, privileges, duties, and liabilities within the family order accordingly. Family members know precisely where they stand in the family by referring to this order: to whom each owes respect and obedience. Position in the family is more important than personal idiosyncrasies: people of the elder generation are superior to those of the younger; within each generation, the elder are normally superior to the younger; men are absolutely superior to women (Baker 1979). Everyone in the family owes obedience to the eldest male because he is superior in generation, age, and gender.

For Chinese, increasing age is accompanied by higher status. Even when it is impossible to increase the material comforts of the aged, there is no denying the respect and deference shown to them. Neither the wealthy nor the poor would abandon the elderly, nor does the thought arise (Levy 1971).

In traditional Chinese culture, the world is created by the interaction of yin, meaning tender, passive, inferior, and referring to female, and yang, meaning tough, active, superior, and referring to male. Therefore, women were appointed to a dependent status; they were secondary to men (Lang 1968). Surnames, being considered highly important, were passed on through the male lines. Only male children were counted as descent group members and had rights to the family's property. Females were not eligible to inherit the family estate, even their husbands', nor did they have primary position in any single crucial ceremonial role.

Female children were considered a bad economic and emotional investment, particularly in poor families. Their names were seldom proclaimed, for once they were married and became members of the husband's family, they were known by their husbands' surnames or their own surnames prefixed by their husbands'. Throughout their whole lives, Chinese women were expected to conform to Three Obediences (san-tsong): obedience to their fathers before marriage, to their husbands after marriage, and to their sons after their husbands die.

Although generation is definitely superior to age in hierarchy, it is not always the case that age is superior to gender. The heavy emphasis on male superiority in Chinese society may sometimes override the age consideration. For instance, a younger brother can easily see that he owes obedience to his older brother, yet, he may feel that he is superior to his older sister-in-law because of his gender. As generation-age-gender works to coordinate individuals' rights and obligations in the family, the essence of the order in family is expressed through filial piety that is considered the foundation of all kinds of virtue.


Filial piety (xiao). Filial piety is the basis of order in Chinese family. The father-son relationship is the elementary and the most important one in the family and all other relationships in the family system are regarded as extensions of or supplementary to it. Filial piety refers to the kind of superior-inferior relationship inherent in the father-son relationship. As it often appears, filial piety means children, especially sons, must please, support, and subordinate to their parents (Hsu 1971).

The obligations of children toward their parents are far more emphasized than those of parents toward children. As it is stated in the Xiao Jing (Classic of Filial Piety written some three thousand years ago), "the first principle of filial piety is that you dare not injure your body, limbs, hair or skin, which you receive from your parents." This principle establishes how a filial child practices filial piety in its rigorous form. In addition to duty and obedience children owed to their parents, parents' names are taboo since using it is considered a serious offence toward one's parents. To avoid using the name of one's father, a filial child would deliberately mispronounce or miswrite the word, or even refuse an official title that is similar to the name of his father or grandfather in ancient time (Ch'u 1965).

Since the relationship between father and son is indisputably most important, the major duty of a man is, thus, to his parents and only second to the state. With the emphasis on filial piety, a son could even be absolved from responsibility for reporting the infractions of his father in the Imperial China, except in the case of treason. In the mean time, sexual love can also be pressed into the service of filial piety, which is incumbent upon any man to continue his male line. Mencius (a great Chinese philosopher second only to Confucius) said that of the three unfilial acts, failure to produce an heir is the worst. It is so because the whole continuum of ancestors and unborn descendants die with him. Children who die young are considered to have committed an unfilial act by the mere fact of dying before their parents do. They are not qualified as potential ancestors (Freedman 1970).

It is believed in Chinese society that an individual exists by virtue of his ancestors. His descendants, then, exist only through him. To worship an individual's ancestors, thus, manifests the importance of the continuum of descent.


Ancestor worship (ji-zu). The cult of the ancestors is no mere supernatural cult. It lays stress on those moral aspects of the family that tend towards unity and good order. A young and incapable son is fed, clothed, and housed by his parents. As he grows up, he begins to take the same care of his parents. A parent's death merely alters the form of the duty. The transfer of goods from this world to the next is achieved primarily by burning symbolic paper models. Food, on the other hand, can be offered directly. As the annual Grave-sweeping (qing-ming) festival in early April arrives, it is the duty of the living descendants to weed and clean up the grave-sites of the ancestors. The ceremony not only serves to keep family solidarity alive; it also enhances the authority of the family head. In the case of a daughter, the reciprocity is performed to her husband's parents.

It is believed that the ancestor's real power begins when he dies. At that moment, he is transformed into a spirit of powers. The spirit ancestors depend on their descendants for food and a comfortable life after death, in the form of sacrifices. The descendants, meanwhile, need the supernatural support in return for the sacrifices and service (Creel 1937).

Kinship (qing-qi-guan-xi). Kinship is one of the most important principles of social organization in Chinese society. Almost all interactions among individuals are based on their relationships in the social network built by kinship. The term "kin" (qing-qi) in Chinese is defined as those relatives for whom one wears mourning. Kin are divided into three groups: paternal relatives, maternal relatives, and the relatives of one's wife. The length of mourning depends on the closeness of relationship and varies from three years for one's father or mother to three months for distant cousins (Lang 1968). Because an orderly relationship of the individual and his kin is of great importance, the Chinese have a very elaborate kinship terminology system to properly address the person with whom they interact. All relatives have their specific titles: father's elder brother (bo-fu), second maternal aunt (er-yi), third younger paternal uncle's wife (sanshen), and so on.

Extensions of the conception of family include the lineage (zong-zu) and clan (shih-zu). Same surname, common origins, shared ancestors, and worship of a founding ancestor all are common conditions for the foundation of lineages and clans (Wu 1985). Law and customs insist on mutual help among members of the lineage and the clan. Moreover, the Chinese make a great deal of social organization along the surname line. Surnames, considered very important in the family domain, are always put before personal names.

In Chinese society, a family (jia) can be vast yet ambiguous, even extended beyond the scope of the lineage and the clan. Because the family has been proven effective as an organizational force, the adoption of its values and institutions has become attractive in non-kinship situations. "My own people" (zi-jia-ren) is thus used to include anyone whom you want to drag into your own circle, and it is used to indicate intimacy with that person. The scope of zi-jia-ren can be expanded or contracted according to the specific time and place. Compared with the outsider, zi-jia-ren always enjoys favoritism (Fei 1992). This explains why Chinese seek connections in higher places and do things for the sake of relationships. However, responsibility and obligations are also expected according to closeness.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsChina - Regulations Of Family Relationships, Tradition—persistence And Transition