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The Confucian Family

The Confucian thinkers viewed the family unit as a social ideal rather than a common reality; thus, the Chinese history regarded as a flexible institution composed of varied sizes and forms that can accommodate the changing needs of the society. According to the Chinese history, imperial law the hu (residential households) existed as the fundamental unit of the family, but they varied based on their composition and distant relations among the kin lineage. On the other hand, related hu operated together as a solid unit of one lineage while others functioned in complete independence. These differences came up as a result of the individual roles that each household assumed in the traditional society setting. Additionally, they regarded the family as a social unit that supported its members, nurtured and offered them companionship on top of its vital function in defining the economic ground of the members. For example, China’s families operated as economic enterprises that consumed and produced goods at the same time. In its function as an economic institution, the family offered a framework for pooling funds and resources to start projects that would be too hefty on individual members and social services provision to the elderly, needy, and young members, as well. Furthermore, viewed as religious units, the family operated together to carry out religious obligation to the spirit of the ancestors and gods. Therefore, in an attempt to highlight the problems that existed in the Confucian family in relation to molding the family as a unit of social tyranny and group harmony, this paper aims at critically analyzing the Confucian family institution, the values and ideas that surround it in the context of the Chinese culture.

The Background of the Family

During the early centuries, starting from the 16th through the 19th centuries, the conjugal family existed as the most common family type in traditional China with married couples staying together with their unmarried kids  under the same household. This family of two lived comfortably surviving through agriculture; where most of the farmers in China produced crops solely for domestic use rather than commercialization. However, the small size of such family units could only support an estimated number of dependents; at least three to six full grown family members. While most of the grown-up Chinese family members moved out to live alone in smaller households, the families who owned farms remained co-existing together as a solid unit in the villages rather than living in separate homesteads; though they met often to socialize. Despite this organized setting of the conjugal hu, the Confucians still dreamt of another form of the family unit referred to as the joint family. To them, the joint family meant all the extended members coexisting together in the same homestead; in that, the adult married children in the family would still live with their parents forming a gigantic multigenerational hu, sharing chores and the farms’ income.

The Confucian family setting involved a three generation unit of the grandparents, their children and their spouses and the smaller dependents, their grandchildren. On the other hand, the traditional Chinese joint family consisted of a five generation structure which went as far as having dozen family members while others harbored over hundred residents; so, they had to employ staff to do the chores such as cooks, maids and live-in domestic help. These families mostly existed in the wealthy class of the society because of the lump sum income they needed to keep the households afloat. For example, the rich merchants and farmers who owned large piece of land and collected surplus financial wealth from the lucrative business enterprises, enjoyed the rare legal privileges offered by the imperial system; that kept them in employment in government posts hence they had stood a better chance of supporting their families. Most of them invested in the fortunes of farms as they continued to live in the cities and even rented out some of their property to earn income. The real upper-class families lived in well-furnished homes, having grown cultivated fields and gardens with lots of children, servants and married adults; still, for need of supervising their farms, they also maintained their rural homes. Despite this collective amount of wealth, most affluent families faced challenges in maintaining the large households for long because that meant that their offspring had to produce numerous children who would then marry and bear kids.

Furthermore, such families sometimes broke often when the original heads of the family passed away, and since primogeniture had no place under the imperial law, the demise of such key leaders of a joint family unit put the family in a shaky situation. The sons of the family usually inherited the property in equal share and parted ways settling in separate households elsewhere; thus, breaking the joint family aspect as well as exposing those left behind to poverty. However, as challenging as this became, it also enlightened the heads of the joint families on the importance of securing the wealth considering each sibling in the share, and, as a result, they prevented future break-ups in the joint families lineage. Therefore, in an attempt to prevent the fragmentation of the family unit and strengthen the whole essence of family togetherness, the educated members of such families, for instance in South China, came up with descendant groups known as zu (lineages). These lineages descended down from the original male member of the family who acted as kinsmen in cultivating the sense of identity through conducting affairs uniformly and merging the existing genealogies. Another key function that these kinsmen played fell under the crucial responsibility assumed during prime ceremonies like weddings and funerals, and most strategically they took charge in performing the ancestral rites. Moreover, they also ran the education institutions for the family children, offered capital loans, and assisted the needy through charity. They also summed up the membership contributions from land owners and channeled it into reproducing revenues and investments that secured the future of the joint families. All in all, these efforts went into assisting the joint families to cope in case of a disaster or misfortunes occurrences in their lineage.

Nonetheless, the aspect of joint families still rarely existed; instead, a smaller version of this unit referred to as the stem family cropped up; in this case, the eldest son who married remained as the only person lived with the parents in the same household. The patrilinear fashion of this family form (the eldest father figure to the eldest son) represented the stem of the family, resulting from the break-up of the bigger households or the efforts of affluent couples to form joint families. A stem family benefited the parents in terms of care the live-in son’s wife would give them when aging; not forgetting the protection it had of the family property against claims from the younger generation. A stipulated hierarchy existed in the stem family households that regulated the order and time of things happening in the family. The nature of status in that family type based on the age, sex and the closeness of the family members to the family head. Accordingly, the traditions determined the principles governing the family hierarchy; in that, the woman figure assumed the second place junior to the males of the family and obeyed the original head without question. The only difference in status hierarchy arose from the difference in relationship with the patriarch and age. For instance, the children who descended from the patriarch lineage rated highest than any other child in the family and the first born sons, as well. This belief portrayed the position of  women in the Confucian context of family, being as a subordinate rather than the backbone of the family unit. Although they highly regarded  married women  in other household and moved away, but in case a firstborn turned out to be a daughter the family would receive the news with so much disappointment. The value of a woman only increased the moment she gave birth to a firstborn as a son, symbolizing the renewal of that family and lineage continuity. The closeness of a woman to the family unit existed within her relation to her own children, especially her sons, as opposed to her husbands’ relatives; therefore, without sons a woman would only be lost.

On the other hand, the male child received more attention than the girl in terms of education; a custom that saw the women oppressed and their feet bound to tame them as subordinates to the men. The aspect of group harmony came out vividly as discussed above and in marriage rites initiated by the patrilinear hierarchy. Childbearing and choice of spouses became a whole family affair, although they lack privacy in making their own decision as the patriarch held the last say to every decision. The couples intended for marriage had rules strictly forbidding them from interacting and getting affection with each other; thus, the romantic aspect of family and marriage had little meaning to the people. However, the group harmony aspect did not receive adequate support through the over- involvement of family and the in-laws into the lives of the married couples, which build tension between two couples; those, who regarded themselves as outsiders. In cases, where the married wife did not bear a son, a concubine would be sorted and adored by the family, especially if she fulfilled the task of bearing sons for the family lineage. This plight of the woman did not go unnoticed, as critics advocated for conformity to Confucian tenets through positive family behavior in the late 17th and 18th century. An additional set of social values to govern the Confucian family also became accepted, but some traditional practices that led to mistreatment of children and women never saw the light of day.

Analyzing the traditional approach of family viewed as a group tyranny, the Confucian thinkers supported the reasons that pulled their interests to the life of the family unit. They asserted that they had an interest to change the practice of authority in a view of achieving social harmony in the family. Viewing the family unit from the social tyranny perspective, the children in the Confucian family setting grew up from childhood mixed with their multiple cousins and siblings, and thus became adapted to live with other relatives at an unusually tender age. The kinship relationships and the definition of complex family households made sense in an effort to describe the hierarchy and gender of members in a family. Ultimately, the delicate approach on authority finally changed the submissive culture tied to the family as every one strived to achieve group harmony in the family unit; therefore, meaning as to why harmony and solidarity as a family group received additional importance in the Confucian family.

Key Problems

The biggest challenge in directing group solidarity and harmony in the Confucian family cropped up in establishing people’s outlook, which is obviously changed with time. The first problem lies in defining what a Confucian family is like, followed by the way the Chinese people regarded this family type and, lastly, the current view; that a westernized individual views the Confucian family. The major shift in values of one generation might become totally unacceptable in the generation of another; therefore, creating a lot of misunderstanding in the whole essence of harmony in the Confucian family. It became more confusing when dealing with individuals from diverse cultural and traditional backgrounds who viewed some of the beliefs and practices as offensive rather than objective. The biggest problem to this aspect came from the western influence on the Chinese younger generation, as they began to admire westernization and civilization; hence, regarded the Confucian family as a process of suffering and pure evil. Referring to the Ba Jin, 1920s China generation viewed the Confucian family as primitiveness because of the questionable authority that limited the growth of modernity and individualism in the family. Since they viewed the Confucian family as an outdated tyranny, they advocated a ban on China's traditional family aspect before adopting the new values and beliefs of the western culture and family institutions. The Chinese reforms went ahead and attacked the Confucian family through the 1916 first Cultural Revolution and the 1960s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Evidently, in the undying attempts, the Communist state broke down and reorganized the households into respectable communes that had clear living arrangements. This rebellion later failed because somehow any influence on the Confucian family affected the reformers and revolution altogether, arousing the irony that family and society existed in an intimate relationship.

Reflecting social history, the concept of the Confucian family seems like a hard nut to crack, but in an effort to solve this predicament, we need to analyze the Chinese traditional and modern view on family Looking at this issue from their own perspective, we will be able to differentiate between the ideal and practical implementation of the Confucian family unit or system. The next step in understanding the Confucian family, as the Chinese historians viewed it, is by finding ways to balance the conflicting views of the Chinese people in regards to how they perceive the institution of the family. This is because, despite the traditionalists building on the positives of family, the reformers conflicting them by stressing a lot on its faults; hence, the need for a new stance different from the Chinese tradition and the assumptions we might have about family.

In understanding the Chinese Confucian family before the modern times, the Miu lineage family instructions of the 16th century highlights the practical rules that directed the running of each household in the late 16th century. According to the instructions made on marriage, weddings, seasonal sacrifices, birthday celebrations, and the transition into adulthood, we picture the concerns regarding the complexity of large households and the extended family. In the painting of an upper class compound in the rural area, the structure, the dwelling of the rich joint Confucian families, and the organization they had planned in the family hierarchy. Analyzing the doctrine, the Confucius master argued that the principles of nature exist that contribute to the state of equilibrium and harmony that correlate in a unique fashion to ensure group harmony in a Confucian family.


In an effort, to define what the Confucian family was like. the comparison can be made that such families represent some context of the present families; ordinary people in the Ming China dynasty could not afford living a rich life, but they held the household unit with such importance that they had a unique hierarchy arrangement of family members in respect of the patriarch. In general, superiority of a man that no one has yet attained exists in the ability of a father to serve a son and the son to do the same; hence, this hierarchical duty obligation to each other asserts that in a family unit all the members practice their duties in singleness in an effort to promote the human, social tyranny aspect and group harmony. Shifting the view on family as a unit of socialization, in the current civilized society men and women exist socially on the same level, but basing on the Confucian teaching a woman could not share the same sitting mat with the husband, despite the bond of marriage, or even touch him while giving something by hand.

Regarding the relationship of members in the Confucian family, women exist as mere adjuncts in the family, as they dedicated their time to obey and serve their husbands. They had no say in whatever family aspect, and only when they bore sons were they are valued in the family lineage. The patriarch directed instructions on everything that happening; hence, tension existed in the Confucian family relationship when it came to the notion on the woman figure subject and family matters such as romance, divorce, fidelity, and child bearing. Disobedience and failure to respect existed as a rare occurrence, resultingin  the increased cruelty and abuse of daughter in –laws in the Chinese traditional families. Additionally, in the light of women in a society, the contemporary woman will not support this notion of women as servants because they know their rights and have vast knowledge on matters regarding their place in the society. However, these contrasts with the modern day family setting where grown-ups talk to each other in a civilized manner and children face minimal discipline from their fathers by the law.

The fact whether some stood out more than others clearly stood out in the way men dominated over the women as their superior in family matters, role play as heads and in education, as well. The young children had no place at all in the family decisions apart from when the reached five and had to go through the transitional rites into adulthood where they learnt how to be men and respectable women (Wiesner, 2002). That is why most family portraits never reflected their presence opposed to the case in the contemporary world. In view of the contemporary family portrait, a family should consist of all the family members coexisting equally and in respect.

A large joint family is likely to anticipate disagreement and misunderstanding when it comes to sharing chores and appreciation in the family and sharing the family property equally. In case of death, some of the younger sons in the family may cause trouble through fighting for their share of wealth while disregarding women figures in the family lineage. Therefore, in relation to the prevailing attitudes towards gender and age, we see that the men take the best positions in the family and hold high value, as opposed to the woman. Depending on the age attained, some members of the family never get the chance to make decisions or even stand before the elders. Additionally, the Confucian social interaction is rather strained as the family relationship based on how close one relates to the patriarch or the family head. Reflecting on the preventive measures taken to solve such problems, I object the seclusion of the woman figure in radical family decisions as they form the foundation of the family (childbearing). However, I strongly advocate for more open-table household meeting to instill positive virtues and discuss mistakes at the family level. On the other hand, contemporary family members cannot limit their freedom in the process of performing their duties in the family because westernization gave them the freedom of individuality which many strictly live up to, but some families are still traditional thus this may not apply to all members. As much as they know that family duty is necessary, they do not value it in the social order context as in the harmony; they believe in harmony more.

The architecture of the affluent families in the Confucian traditional families symbolized wealth, organization, and interest in family harmony. However, in some of the suburban homes this might never be the case, as people now believe in staying as small knitted family units and isolate from their extended family. Basing on the belief in the social order and harmony, the political behavior towards the family should strive in supporting the togetherness of a family unit;, instead of advocating for divorces, as seen in most family patterns. Examples of such role include self participation, caring for each other, accepting each other short comings, and correcting each other into becoming a better person in the future. Still, the Confucian family remains a fundamental step towards building a home and family in the traditional and contemporary world.

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