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The traditional concept of Family in China

I’ve had a few requests now to do a post on the idea of “family” in modern China, but first I think it’s important for us to first look at the traditional Chinese family as it existed for most of China’s history.

~2,000BC-1949AD

Anthropologists would call Chinese families patrilineal (ancestors are only traced through the male line) and patrilocal (brides move in with their husband’s family). This probably was the norm before Confucianism, but Confucian values reinforced this pattern which made the family the most important unit in Chinese culture.

Sons would make small offerings to their ancestors during festivals, and this ensured that the ancestors would bless them with good fortune and health. This made sons the most important part of the family (read more on this in my discussion of the one child policy). Parents without a son would be uncared for in the afterlife, so families who did not produce a male offspring, would “adopt” their daughters’ groom. This adoption was always of a male of lower class, since an upper-class male would never be permitted to leave his own lineage.

Concubines were only a feature of the wealthiest homes, but have become a popular memory of China’s past. Concubines typically came from lower class families as well. This was not a problem for Confucians, as these offspring would still all be able to make offerings to the same set of male ancestors.

Typically a family would live in a small compound with 3 buildings opening onto a shared courtyard. The kitchen was considered the center of the home. The entire village typically was made of a few clans who could trace their families back to a common ancestor (this wasn’t the case in cities). This gave people few reasons to ever leave their village, and made it difficult to move to a different village. Some villages would construct ancestral halls to honor their common ancestors which helped to preserve family trees. In such a society, family is more important than any other unit in society, even the government.

Families also showed their clan’s cohesion by choosing generational names. So if your name was WANG xiao-yun your brother’s name could be WANG xiao-hui, and your cousin might be WANG xiao-yan. These generational names follow a pattern, usually based on a famous poem, and repeat after several generations. This naming pattern helped people to easily identify who in their clan was their equal and who was their elder. This naming convention is still practiced by many families, although it was suspended in favor of patriotic names for a few decades.

This importance of ancestry is apparent in the Chinese language too, which even has a distinct word for an aunt who is your father’s elder brother’s wife. Interestingly, your father’s mother is your ZuMu (Zu meaning ancestor) while your mother’s mother is your WaiPo (Wai meaning outsider), the language itself reflects and reinforces the Confucian idea of family and patrilineal descent.

Tomorrow we’ll look at ancestral worship and family structure in modern China.


7 Comments

  1. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    In the late 1960’s I lived in Singapore and I remember entering an ancestral hall in the village near my home. It made a huge impact on me, the strangeness of the culture, my desire to learn more about it. There wasn’t much literature available at the time – China was closed to the West, it was the Cultural Revolution era. I read books by Han Suyin (wonder what happened to her). She’d left China to live in the West but wrote evocatively about filial piety and the lowly place of women in China prior to 1949. Apparently some daughters were named “son comes next”.

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