Thursday, November 17, 2011



Since ancient times, the family has played an important role in Chinese culture. Reflecting the path of Confucius, the initial loyalty of the Chinese was to the family. In traditional China, the individual, as inseparable from the family unit, was expected to act first for the benefit of his family. It was inconceivable to think of oneself as a separate personality, independent of one's family. 

One indication of the importance of family in the Chinese culture can be found in the frequent use of words derived from the vocabulary pertaining to family in the Chinese language. A nation is (mín)() - literally: children of the nation. A state is (guó)(jiā)  - literally: the family of the state. "Everybody" is ()(jiā)  - literally: a big family. Thus, both a philosophical school and the structure of the house are (jiā), also meaning both "house" and "family".

The form of the character (jiā) is associated with the life in ancient China. The upper part of the character is an abstract drawing of a roof, and underneath it there is an abstract drawing of a hung pig. A roof is, of course, an essential element in every house, but a pig inside the house is unique to China. Throughout Chinese history pigs have been a valuable source of meat. Pork was eaten at ceremonies and at special events where sacrifices were offered. The richer people had their pigs kept in separate structures.

While in the West a family unit is composed of a father, a mother, and children, in traditional China the family unit was much bigger, incorporating grandparents, parents, married sons and grandchildren. Thus, together under one roof, lived uncles, aunts, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, etc. The bride and the groom, after the wedding, would receive a room of their own in the house. Children would grow up together with their cousins, considered as members of the same generation rather than as children of particular parents. Often they would be called "second son" (of the generation), "fifth daughter", etc. Under the watchful gaze of the many adults, they would be subject to criticism and comparisons.

The Chinese family adapted itself to the conditions of the land, which is mostly rural, and was strongly connected to the soil. It would live in the same place where its          ancestors had lived, and where its descendants would live. For its economic needs, the family felt an obligation to live and work together. Every member of the family respected the hierarchy, based on age and generation. These circumstances strangled individualism. The young were expected to obey the older, and women were expected to obey the men and be polite, quiet and well-mannered. Everything was based on extent - the extent of age difference, the extent of closeness and the degree of relationship. Demonstration of too much affection from a wife toward her husband was perceived as improper behavior.

The rules of behavior at home were very clear. According to the law during the Tang   (táng) dynasty (618-907 CE), a son who raised his hands against his parents would be sentenced to beheading. Likewise, a person who struck his older brother or sister would be sentenced to two and a half years of forced labor. On the other hand, a father who had broken his son's bones was punished less severely than if he would have broken the bones of a stranger.

The extended family was an ideal school for living in society. As a sort of micro-state, the family educated its children to obey and be loyal to the ruler. Thus, the family institution served as a model of moral behavior, ethics, and basic functions in society as a whole. The oldest member of the family served as its head and held supreme authority, in complete control of the family possessions and income. Since ancient times it had been he who was responsible for the deeds of each and every member of the family. If one of them did something wrong the entire family felt shamed. Filial piety (xiào)was a basic element of morality, and obedience to parents was considered the greatest obligation, from which were derived all the other social obligations. Children were required to obey their parents without any right to object; and in any event, the law backed the parents. The young would wait impatiently for the moment when they themselves would become parents and be given respect by their children. The respect paid to the parents was not paid to them as individuals, but as a part of the ancestor worship. Following the death of the father, the family members would worship his spirit and maintain the documentation of the family history.

Marriage was a means to ensure both the continuity of the dynasty and that of ancestor worship. Married couples were expected to produce sons because, according to Chinese traditional belief, of all the deeds which were considered a violation of the rules of filial piety, there was none more severe than dying without leaving an heir who would continue the family dynasty.

In traditional China there was a fixed family hierarchy designed to ensure an harmonious society. For the husband's family, a new bride in the family meant additional help in the household and a wife who would give birth to children. Nonetheless, she also had the potential to undermine the family stability that had existed before her arrival. A woman who controlled her husband, flouting the rules of the hierarchy, was considered to violate the equilibrium between yin and yang, and thus cause chaos. This occurred, for example, when an empress ruled and dictated to men what to do.

The individual could not be independent of others. The more numerous his family members were, the more respected he was in society, and the greater his self-confidence. Society as a whole reflected a relationship between families and individuals.

This tight relationship between the structure of the family and that of the ruling system found its expression during the Qin (qín) 221-207)BCE) and Han (hàn) (220-206 BCE) dynasties, when families were organized in groups of five or ten. Each such group of families was a "bao" (bǎo), and ten baos were "jia" (jiǎ). Whenever one of the family members committed any kind of offence, the other four or nine families were held similarly responsible for it, and were punished equally severely, as were both the individual who had committed the offence and his family. This system of mutual responsibility for the offence of one person has been controversial throughout Chinese history. The supporters of the system believed that this was an effective way to create a kind of "neighborhood surveillance", and prevent crime; while the opponents of the system claimed that it was not fair to punish innocent people not involved in the crime.

During the Song (sòng) dynasty (960-1279 CE) the bao jia (bǎo)(jiǎ)system became institutionalized throughout China. The community was divided into units, each comprised of ten families (bao). Every family sent a representative to the monthly meeting of the unit, and every unit selected a leader who would represent it in the next higher unit (jia). Every family was also required to send one of its members to the army.[1]

Under the rule of the emperors of the dynasties following the Song dynasty, the bao jia system alternately flourished and disappeared, and often existed more in theory than in practice. During the Qing (qīng)  dynasty (1644-1911), the system was renewed, until being abolished by the Communist Party in 1949.

The hierarchy in the family served as a model for social relationships – between a giver and receiver, upper class and lower class. Society had a patriarchal nature – the obligation of the citizen toward the state was an expansion of his obligations toward his family. A loyal citizen was considered a product of filial piety. If the emperor deserved to be obeyed, it was because the citizens had accepted him as a father.

The importance of the family in Chinese society finds its expression in the rich vocabulary used to define the different family members and the relations among them. In the oldest Chinese dictionary (ěr)()  , from the 2nd century BCE, there are more than 2,000 terms signifying family members, for most of which there are no parallels in English. Today there is a clear distinction in the Chinese language between the relatives from the father's side and those of the mother, and between the young and the old. There is a particular word to signify an older brother ()() , younger brother ()(), older sister (jiě)(jiě), younger sister (mèi)(mèi), grandfather from the father's side  ()()   , etc.

When speaking with neighbors and people from the community, it is customary to address them respectfully as "uncle"  (shū)(shū),“aunt"  (ā)(),“grandfather" ()(),“grandmother"  (nǎi)(nai)-  according to their age.

Another element which testifies to the importance of the family in Chinese society throughout its history is the use of family names since ancient times. Whereas in Europe the use of family names began only between the 13th and 15th century, the Chinese were already using these from about 2,000 years BCE. These names were determined by the mother's name. Hence the character    (xìng)  "family name", comprising both the characters () (literally: woman) and (shēng)(literally: birth). The family name is sometimes derived from the name of the village of origin. The nobility had tribal names, originating from a title or a territory. In present-day China the family name is determined by the father's family name but, unlike the Western custom, women do not change their family name upon marriage.

According to a text titled "A Hundred Family Names" (bǎi)(jiā) (xìng), written by an anonymous writer from the Tang dynasty, there were 507 family names, among them 441 comprising a single character and 66 comprising two characters. Here, as in many other Chinese phrases, the word "hundred" signifies "many" or "all". Thus, the expression "hundred family names" means "many family names" or "all the family names".  Originally, these names referred to government officials, whose social class differed from that of the common people. Only in modern times has the term "the hundred ancient family names" (lǎo)(bǎi)(xìng)begun to be associated with the entire population and become a synonym of "the common people".

 Chinese people with the same family name are considered members of the same family, as in the expression: "[having] the same family name [means belonging to the same] one family" -   (tóng)(xìng)(shì)()(jiā).

The first family name that appears in the list of the "Hundred Family Names" is Zhao   (zhào) , the family name of the Song dynasty. Today there are more than 10,000 family names in China, originating from different sources such as ancient states, cities, titles of government officials, professions, etc. However, the list of "Hundred Family Names" is still valuable, because ninety percent of all the family names in use today originate from it. 

In traditional China, family names gained respect due to their association with the long history of the family, which is why people never changed their family name. Changing a name, including the first name, was considered a severe offence, and a person who did so would have to move to another place and begin a new life.

Millions of Chinese have identical names, like Wang   (wáng)  and Li (), but this does not mean that they all come from the same family. There is a special significance to the poem from which each name is derived, which helps to distinguish between true family members and imposters. Each member of a generation (meaning siblings and cousins of the same generation) shares a generation name ()(bèi)  , which has no equivalent in the West. This name is comprised of a single character from a poem specific to each lineage. Each successive character in this poem becomes the generation name for successive generations. After the last character of the poem is reached, the poem is usually either recycled or extended. These poems were written by the committees of the elders of the families whenever a new lineage of the family was established through geographical emigration or social elevation. Many Chinese adopt their generation name as the first part of their two-character given name.

Until the establishment of the Chinese republic in 1911, people having the same name were considered relatives, though several generations and a long geographical distance may have separated between them. Even when they had no blood relationship, they would still be considered members of the same family, and not allowed to intermarry. The exceptions were those who could prove that they had not been blood-related for at least 2,000 years. Families kept their family trees dating back to prehistoric periods, but usually only those starting from the 13th century CE are reliable.

Today there are many families in China whose family tree dates back to hundreds of years ago.  A continuity that dates back to the 6th century BCE can be found in the family of Confucius – the Kong (kǒng)family. Kong de Mao (kǒng)()(mào), a daughter of the 77th generation, documented the story of the family in a book published in 1984. In her book she writes that the family of Confucius has never moved to the capital city and has never interfered in political matters, but has remained in Qufu ()() , a town in Shandong (shān)(dōng) province and the birthplace of Confucius. Since the Han dynasty, the family has maintained the heritage of Confucius, being a kind of nobility within the nobility. With the passage of time the position of the family was elevated and, at a certain stage, reached the status of emperors. However, whereas Imperial dynasties rose and fell, the Kong family has survived.

When the Communists came to power in 1949 they attempted to abolish the tribal relations and the search for ancient family roots. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) the Red Guards destroyed tribal temples and burnt family-tree texts (jiā)()  which had been preserved by families through the centuries. Today there is a return to searching for one's roots, and genealogy books are being reconstructed.


Children are not considered a part of society until thirty days after their birth, when they receive their names. It was customary for the father to carry his son to the temple, and report to the ancestors and the gods on his birth, and also update the Earth God ()(), who serves as the registrar of births, marriages, and deaths. On the altar, incense would be burnt, candles lit, and offerings placed. After the ceremony, the roasted pig and other foods would be taken home. Portions of the roasted pig would be given to the relatives and friends, who would bring presents for the baby. The parents and grandparents would hold a festive dinner, at which hard-boiled-eggs painted red, and pickled ginger – both symbols of new birth, would be served. One year after birth, the baby's birth would be celebrated again with red eggs and pickled ginger.

In traditional China an adolescent was considered fit to marry at the age of 16. Upon reaching the age of 20, the coming of age ceremony would be held for him. After this ceremony, called (guàn)() (literally: hat rite), he would begin to wear a cap under which he would gather up his hair. In this ceremony the character () , which would serve to address him courteously, would be added to his name

   Boys and girls differ in the attitude of their parents to them after their birth. In traditional China the birth of a boy was a glad event in the family, especially when the newborn was the eldest, in which case he was considered an important asset, ensuring the continuity of the family and of ancestor worship. After his wedding, a son would remain with his wife and children in his parents' house, ensuring that the parents would be taken care of in old age.

Whereas boys were spoiled, girls were discriminated against from the cradle to the grave. As opposed to the birth of a son, the birth of a girl was not a joyous event, especially for the poor families. Being both one more mouth to feed and requiring        a future dowry, girls were considered to impoverish the family. Nails with medusa-shaped heads, stuck on the gates, were intended to improve the chances of giving birth to a son.

There were parents who did not even give names to their daughters, and instead simply called them "eldest daughter" ()(mèi), "second daughter" (èr)(mèi), "third daughter" (sān)(mèi), etc. When asked about his family, a man in traditional China would usually answer by referring only to his sons, even though he might have had daughters as well.

In traditional China boy and girl twins were looked upon as a pair of ghosts and, consequently, it was permitted to kill them. In Taiwan it was customary to kill one of the twins at birth, and in Qinhai (qīng)(hǎi) province in north-west China twins were believed to bring bad luck, especially when they were not of the same gender.



Literally: An order of parents and a word of a matchmaker

This modern expression refers to the traditional marriage, which was arranged without the consent of the betrothed couple.



One family does not know the hardships of another


(jiǎ)()(chī)(jiǎ)() (liù)(qīn)()(rèn)

The soft-shelled turtle eats the soft-shelled turtle - refuses to
acknowledge the six family relations[1]

Said of a person who turns his back upon family and friends.



When out of doors, look at the color of the sky [and] when entering home look at the facial expressions [of the family members]

When you go outside look at the sky in order to know the weather, and when you enter home look at the facial expression of the members of the family in order to know their mood.
This is advice given in traditional China to a woman who lived with her husband's



If not dumb and deaf, you will be inadequate parents-in-law[1]



Literally: The son is responsible for the son's deeds; the grandfather is responsible for the grandfather's deeds.

One is responsible for one's own deeds



The predecessors work the land [and] the next generation collects [the fruit]

Every generation enjoys the fruits of the former generation's labor.

The same idea is found in the proverb: 


The predecessors plant trees [and] the next generation cools off in the shade
We should not forget that our enjoyment results from the previous generation's work.

[1]In Chinese, there is a distinction between parents‑in‑law of the husband and those of the wife. Here ()(gōng)means parents of the husband. The idiom refers to them because, traditionally, the wife would live with her husband's family.

There is also an idiom relating to sons suffering from the deeds of their parents:
The son [must] pay his father’s debts
In the Bible it is written:
אבות אכלו בוסר ושני בנים תקהינה. (ירמיהו, ל"א , 28).
The fathers have eaten sour grapes,
         and the children's teeth are set on edge. (Jeremiah, 31, 28)
[Though] a tree may grow ten thousand feet high, the leaves will fall back to the roots
Man, living far away from home, will eventually return to his native land. 

A child who steals a needle will grow up to steal gold
The boatman's son can float on water
A son of a family that occupies itself with a certain profession will know something about that profession.

[Just as] when there is much salt the food tastes bad, when there are many children, the mother is bitter
Literally: Tiger the father, tiger the son.
In English they say:
The apple does not fall far from the tree.
Like father like son

Literally: Hopes that his son will become a dragon.
Has great expectations for his son.

A small tree, though green, does not cast shade
Children, though clever, cannot achieve greatness.
 [Just as] the same tree has both sour and sweet fruits, the same mother [may] have both stupid and able children
Grandmother's dog (mother's mother) leaves right after finishing eating
Said lovingly by grandmothers about their grandchildren after their visit.

[1] The six relations (liù)(qīn) are father, mother, older brothers, younger brothers, wife and children.

[1]See also the chapter on war, peace, army and strategy.  


  1. Many years ago I saw a saying that was said to be an Chinese proverb. I haven't been able to find it again. Have you run across it?
    God gives you your relatives. Thank all the gods you can choose your friends.