HIST 4091: History of China to 1600
15 April, 2005
Review of Family and Kinship in Chinese Society
The compilation of essays presented in Family and Kinship in Chinese Society represents the body of knowledge on Chinese families available to the date when published in 1970. Maurice Freedman, editor of Family and Kinship in Chinese Society, arranged works on Developmental Process in the Chinese Domestic Group, Child Training and the Chinese Family, The Families of the Chinese Farmers, Family Relations in Modern Chinese Fiction, Land and Lineage in Traditional China, The Chinese Genealogy as a Research Source, Ritual Aspects of Chinese Kinship and Marriage, Chinese Kinship and Mourning Dress, Chinese Kin Terms of Reference and Address, and Japanese Kinship: A Comparison.
The first essay, Developmental Process in the Chinese Domestic Group, by Myron L. Cohen, makes two arguments. The first of these arguments acts as a caveat to inexperienced Chinese scholars of the ambiguity of the term jia. Cohen compares the meaning of fang and jia where fang can mean a genealogical group or a conjugal group. On the other hand, jia as I had first learned to mean 'family' can also mean an "economic family" or an "extended family" (Freedman 22). Cohen goes on to describe fang as a term that more closely resembles my western idea of the term 'family'.
After laying the groundwork for understanding the subtleties of Chinese language in reference to family, Cohen describes the basic lifecycle of the jia. Marriage meant a person would move from their natal jia to the jia of the one they married. This person was usually the female (Freedman 35). Siblings that did not marry into another jia would usually remain in the same "economic family" unless the members decide to divide the estate in an action known as "dividing the jia" or fen-jia (Freedman 25). Fen-jia did not always happen and was more common when the different fang were living in the same house (Freedman 36).
The most interesting essay came from Margery Wolf titled Child Training and the Chinese Family. M. Wolf describes the situation of different family members in raising children. Fathers treat sons differently until the age of six. Before this age, fathers and sons share an informal relationship. When the child throws a tantrum, the mother takes over calming the child down (Freedman 40). After the age of six or seven, the father becomes distant and heightens his dignity in his son's presence. The father becomes a disciplinary figure for the boy. The father never shows the child praise even on occasions when the father brags about the son's deeds to others. The father's attitude toward his daughters is less formal because he has less stake in her adult life whereas his sons will be caring for him in his old age. This reminds me of what I learned about Confucius. Particularly "Confucius clearly was more concerned with the obligations of sons to their parents than with those of daughters to theirs" (Hansen 71).
The role of the mother depends not only of the gender of the child but also the prominence of her mother-in-law. Because the mother is somewhat of an outsider to the family, she is under the influence of her husband's mother. M. Wolf explains how because the grandmother has so much influence, child rearing is kept very traditional. Here we can see the influence of filial piety on the family; the husband will side with his mother over his wife. As the mother's family grows and she becomes more established in the community, she gains more control and her mother-in-law becomes more passive. Though mother-child relationships are more intimate than father-child relationships, the Chinese consider it taboo for either parent to show too much affection for a child (Freedman 44).
During the early years, parents tell siblings that the older must yield to the younger. However, once the siblings come of age and marry, the younger in turn yields to the older. M. Wolf points out that the coming of age and reversal of roles can be a shock for the younger brother and lead to fen-jia (Freedman 53). Another cause of fen-jia arises from the wives of the siblings. As M. Wolf puts it, the older wife uses the younger as a scapegoat from the mother-in-law thus creating hostility between the two sister-in-laws (Freedman 52).
Jack M. Potter's essay Land and Lineage in Traditional China illustrates a very interesting aspect of Chinese culture indeed. The main argument here is that ownership of collective property causes asymmetrical segmentation of lineage in China. After an ancestral land is established, the members who own the land become the wealthier members of the lineage. These members can then establish an ancestral property for a sub-lineage causing asymmetry. Since the original corporate properties still exist, members can trace back the lineage centuries, finding distant relations with a large number of people. The rights to a portion of the ancestral land also means a member could have right to land further along the line; making some lines very wealthy (Freedman 125).
This corporate land also gave many poorer members reason to continue living in the same village creating strong solidarity. The poor members of a lineage were often able to make use of the land without actually owning it by either sharing the excess land with other members or renting it for a lower price (Freedman 128). The advantage this gave poor farmers outweighed most prospects that lie in other villages or cities. To the members who owned the estate, maintaining solidarity within the lineage ensured that they would keep a share of profits the land produced. These members were able to spend time practicing for imperial exams thus further extending the asymmetry with wealth to maintain ancestral halls.
Ritual Aspects of Chinese Kinship and Marriage, by Maurice Freedman describes domestic ancestor worship, the Kitchen God and, the Six Rites of marriage. Domestic ancestor worship involves creating a tablet for every adult who has died. Freedman notes there are many exceptions to this rule. Most exceptions rely on living relatives willing to pay respects to these ancestors. The last deceased ancestors to get a tablet are those who died very young because this person is unable to fulfill their filial duties (Freedman 166). At this I recall learning that according to Confucius of the "three thousand offenses… none is greater than lack of filial piety" (Ebrey 67).
In Chinese culture, households generally worship the Kitchen God separately. Since almost every household has its own kitchen, it follows that every home should have its own shrine for the Kitchen God. The concept of worshipping the Kitchen God at the domestic level ties in great importance to the Chinese bureaucracy as a whole (Freedman 165). As discussed in class, Chinese notions of afterlife curiously resemble an earthly bureaucracy.
The rituals involved in marriage, center around the transfer of the bride to her new home but before that, the exchange of genealogical data. In addition, the newlyweds' status becomes elevated after marriage. Now, they have rights to claim personal wealth not of their parents (Freedman 182).
The essay Chinese Kinship and Mourning Dress, by Arthur P. Wolf is an interesting one as well. In contrast to western mourning dress, which is traditionally conservative and black, Chinese mourning dress is a symbolic short hand for describing kin relations through colors and textures (Freedman 190). A. Wolf gives a great amount of detail about the employment of different colors in mourning dress but in the end, he leaves the argument incomplete. A. Wolf states there is just too much information to explain fully and he stops short to avoid confusing the reader even more (Freedman 207). The part that I found most interesting was how the colors used for different generations mirrored colors used by imperial officials. Notably, the textures become less coarse for each generation removed from the deceased (Freedman 191).
Finally, Japanese Kinship: A Comparison, by John C. Pelzel compares Chinese kinship to Japanese kinship. This is useful in showing what aspects of kinship I have studied so far are unique to China and what aspects are Asian social constructs. For example, usage of terms referring to older and younger siblings is more an Asian construct than something unique to China. Japan also uses terms like household and lineage to describe things other than just kinship terms. From the reading, the term lineage was clearly defined in Chinese culture as "people claiming decent from a common ancestor" (Hansen 33). On the other hand, Japanese characterize secondary relationships using terms like 'older bother' when Chinese do not (Freedman 238).
The Families of the Chinese Farmers, by Irene B. Taeuber contains mostly tabular data and has little interest from a historical stand point. The Chinese Genealogy as a Research Source, by Johanna M. Meskill is also less important historically, but shows how families keep genealogies within the family instead allowing the public to view them as well. Family Relations in Modern Chinese Fiction, by Ai-Li S. Chin shows how today Chinese fiction tells very few stories about families and even fewer about joint families (Freedman 91). Like Taeuber and Meskill's works, Chin's essay does not have much to offer historians. Chinese Kin Terms of Reference and Address, by John McCoy provides a comprehensive look at Chinese kin terms. The table of terms could come in handy, as it lists not only the meaning of the term but also if that term is used to address that person.
In closing, Freeman has organized a group of essays into a very coherent text with a logical progression. I would recommend this to anyone doing research on or interested in learning about Chinese kinship. I found the details express in this book to agree for the most part with the assigned texts, two of which I sited in this review. As this book is about kinship, the common threads are topics such as filial piety and other Confucian ideologies. I also found this book helpful when reading Monkey. For example, Margery Wolf's essay explained Pigsy's relationship with his father-in-law.
Freedman, Maurice, ed. Family and Kinship in Chinese Society. Stanford: Stanford
University Press, 1970.
Ebrey, Patricia B., ed. Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook, 2nd ed. New York: The Free
Hansen, Valerie. The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600. New York: W. W.
Norton & Company, 2000.