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Family in the Confucian Tradition

The system of beliefs and cults prevailing in ancient China played a huge role in establishing the foundations of traditional Chinese civilization. The values cherished by Confucianism existed in the culture of the Asian people long before Confucius enacted the irrational principle of religion and the glorification of rational ethics. His ideas had a significant impact on the lives and minds of the Chinese ethnic group and shaped the patterns of their behavior as well as the ways of thinking. Confucius’s creativity was aimed to transmit to people the will of Heaven using the accessible language, which the ancient sages could comprehend. Confucius considered the state to be one big family. With the help of the latter concept, he sought to develop the conditions under which the society in the state would be able to reach harmony. The essay describes the essential features of the family in the Confucian tradition.

Confucius and His Doctrine

The origins of the Confucius teachings lie in the primitive beliefs connected with the cult of the dead ancestors and earth as well as honoring their deity and legendary ancestor Shangdi. Being the supreme divine power, Shangdi became associated with Heaven and was believed to determine the fate of everything on the Earth while Confucius assumed the role of the guardian of the ancient wisdom. Such an order was part of the Chinese tradition. Consequently, Confucianism appeared, namely in the VI century BC during the reign of the Zhou Dynasty (Rainey 3). The fact that Confucius was the first of the ancient Chinese philosophers who comprehended the principles of society and the individual’s ability to live from the standpoint of ethics was his main contribution. He advanced the society of people with truly noble qualities (Rainey 3). In this regard, the Confucian doctrine emphasizes the notion of the ceremonial rules.

According to Confucius, a person, unlike an animal, has the mind and cannot be limited to ordinary material needs. Every human being has the “inner self,” and the essence of life lies in this core concept (Rainey 4). “Without respect, there is nothing existing which is worth to be watched and listened to. Without respect there is nothing to be said or done,” Confucius taught his disciples (Rainey 111). He highlighted the need for the strict adhering to the order where the citizen was the subject, the father had the role of the father, and the son was just the son. Confucius created a program to improve people in order to achieve harmony with Heaven. The nobleman (Chun Tzu) was the ideal source of morality for society (Rainley 244). Chun Tzu had a sense of harmony and a gift to live in a natural rhythm. The goal of the noble person is to transform and organize society, help it develop according to the laws of harmony that prevails in the Heaven, and protect all living creatures.

The doctrine of Confucius seems ethical and philosophical rather than religious. He lived in a period of implementing the denunciations system in Chinese society (Rainey 129). The philosopher knew how dangerous the spread of denunciation, especially among close relatives, was. Moreover, he understood that society with such values had no future. Confucius urged the development of the framework that would reinforce the moral principles and ensure that society itself rejects whistle-blowing. Confucius sought to restore the lost prestige of the monarchs and change people’s habits in order to make them happy. Moreover, the philosopher had the idea that the state was created to protect the interests of every individual with the assistance of the ancient sages.

However, the foundation of the teaching was intrinsically associated with the concept of family. Confucius promoted taking care of seniors and relatives (Fan 249). He believed that these actions would establish a link between the generations, ensure connections between a contemporary society with its past, and, thus, secure the continuity of traditions (Fan 195). Moreover, respect and love for the people living nearby played a significant role in shaping the teaching. The society imbued with this feeling is united and, therefore, capable of rapid and efficient development. Confucius’s views were based on moral values and categories of the Chinese rural community in which specific importance was attached to the observance of traditions rooted in antiquity. Therefore, the past and everything connected with it became an example of the contemporaries of Confucius. However, the philosopher introduced many new things to society such as, for instance, the cult of literacy and knowledge. He stated that every member of society should strive for knowledge, especially this of his own country. Using this foundation, Confucius succeeded in framing the concept of the family.

The Concept of the Confucian Family

The cult of the family and clan flourished in China due to the contribution of the Confucian to the promotion of ancestor worship and Hsiao standards. Confucius developed the doctrine of Hsiao, which is the basis of humanity. Hsiao is the obligation to serve parents in accordance with the ritual. One of the important pillars of social order was strict obedience to the orders of the elders, namely, the father, the ruler, and the emperor. Moreover, the burial and sacrifice to them should have taken place according to the ritual. The Hsiao standards contributed to the flourishing of family and tribal clan worship. The family was considered the heart of society while its interests were superior to the interests of a single individual (Fan 135). Confucius attributed the greatest importance to the five concepts of the happy family, which are consistency, ritual, humanity, duty, justice, knowledge, and trust. He regarded the ritual to be the means of acting as the warp and weft between Heaven and Earth, which would allow finding the place for every person, society, and the state in an infinite hierarchy. Confucius transferred these ethical rules from family to the state since, as he said, the latter was a big family while the family was a small country.

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In the Confucian family, son and daughter had to marry by the decision of the patriarch. It was considered a rule, and the question of love did not arise at that time (Fan 135). Love was primarily a personal feeling and might result in emotional issues, which had always been much less important than the interests of the family. The family duties were considered of the highest moral value. The concept of love might appear as a result of marriage, but it was never obligatory. However, emotions never interfered with the normal existence of the family and paying the social and family debt in compliance with the needs of families.

Hierarchy in the family followed the principles of knowledge, excellence, and degree of acculturation. A sense of proportion was pledged in a ritual. Moreover, it had the aim of attaching all the virtues to every human being. As the ritual had played a significant role in the life of a Confucian family, resorting to it helped the society to survive in extreme conditions and harmonize the needs of the population, including that with limited resources. The general idea of the ritual was expressed in the Shu Jing, an ancient source edited by Confucius, stating that the core of equality is in the division. Therefore, it became central to Chinese culture.

With the strict hieratical order, there appeared an upward trend in any family. Large undivided family – the concept that Confucius distinguished when he compared the family with the state – existed before the philosopher’s doctrines but mainly among the nobility (Fan 135). In Confucianism, in case someone had the desire to live together with relatives, the individual had no difficulties to do so (Fan 135). Such a principle led to the cohabitation of several generations of relatives to be typical. They could even create entire villages. Therefore, the stories about a large family, which united several wives, concubines, the head of the family, a considerable number of married sons with their spouses, and other relatives were common throughout the history of China (Fan 136). Family property and income were combined while management and usage of resources were the responsibility of the patriarch. This unity between family members was not limited to the material side. It was believed that the family had a common fortune. Thus, any health problems or business issues of a member were the problems of the whole family.

The property was inherited equally by the sons of the patriarch. In the case of the son’s death before the death of his father, his share was inherited by his children. Separation from the family was an event of great significance. It could occur when after the death of the patriarch, his married sons had long-standing disputes between each other or, for example, the descendants differed significantly in terms of their economic stability. As a rule, the separation of the family was held by the “arbitrator” who had been respected by everybody but did not have any family ties with them (Slote and De Vos 338). Thus, Confucianism stimulated the nourishing of a large family as the ideal.

There were numerous issues associated with the birth of children. Actually, the position of women in traditional Chinese families depends on whether or not she gives birth to boys. Sons were called to continue the story of the family and strengthen its position for centuries. Therefore, if women failed to have a son, she was likely to be returned to their parents. In addition, a woman had to obey her husband as well as look after his parents. The subordination of women, which was the Chinese family tradition dating back to the cult of the ancestors, was connected with the destiny of a person on earth, namely to continue to live and maintain the graves of the ancestors. The woman, who had lost all communication with the family of origin after marriage, was played a secondary role in society.

A wife in the Confucian family had no possibility of being jealous. It was considered the manifestation of bad taste. There was the right to divorce, but it belonged to men only (Huang 146). The reason for it could be the infertility of the wife, her dissolute behavior, disrespectful attitude toward her father, gabbing and gossiping, jealousy, and disease (Huang 146). Widowhood was a problem for the cult of ancestors (Slote and De Vos 219). Often, the widow married again, and such an event caused a strong concern to the relatives of the deceased (Slote and De Vos 219). Therefore, those widows who decided to stay with her husband in the house forever received encouragement.

As for the woman as a mother, her primary responsibility was to prepare children for their future married life. Still, only in very rare cases, the couple lived in peace and harmony. It happened mainly because the family life for the many was living with strangers under one roof. The woman was powerless with the sole duty of giving birth to children for the purpose of procreation. Even the death the husband was dictating rules of behavior to his wife as she had to live her life with dignity grieving for the spouse. Based on Confucian morality, society was on the side of a man, often dooming a woman to exist in unbearable conditions.

The Ethical Phenomenon of the Confucian Family

The spiritual core of Confucianism is the eternal human values. The basic principle of Confucian ethics is the concept of Jen (“humanity”), which serves as the supreme law of human relations both in the community and the family (Rainey 244). Jen is achieved through moral self-improvement on the basis of compliance with the etiquette, which is the list of norms of behavior, based on piety and respect for the elders, honoring parents, loyalty to the emperor, and courtesy. According to Confucian teachings, to comprehend Jen, one should be accepted by Chun Tzu, who were the representatives of the higher stratum of society. Confucius and his followers approved this opposition of the noble and commoners as well as the superiority of the first over the latter. Such an attitude proves the social orientation of Confucianism. Besides, the teaching had given significant attention to the so-called humane management, which originates from the idea of the deification of the ruler that existed before Confucianism. Nevertheless, it was developed and justified.

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In view of the prevalence of ancient traditions in Chinese society, not all family relationships were considered equivalent. Superiority was given to the Hsiao (“filial piety”), which was determined not just by the family formation but based on a religious foundation of the ancestor’s worship (Slote and De Vos 62). The relationship between father and son meant not just an emotional predisposition to each other but emphasized the worshiping attitude. The Confucius family had shown a definitely higher level of ethical development than the rest of the social environment. It had a beneficial effect on its members promoting the collective commitment to the development of an ethical code, suitable for socializing outside the family, as well as the desire of moral transformation through the study of the written heritage of the previous eras. To this day, Confucianism has an impact on certain layers of the population and continues to spread the cult of personality and the revival of nationalism.


For more than two thousand years of its existence, the Confucian doctrine has accumulated a sufficient number of very eloquent and expressive materials of fundamental importance for the entire Hsiao principle of Confucian ethics. Now, many states are at a lower stage of development than the Chinese society was at ancient times since it is unreasonable to believe that the solution to the economic problems could automatically eliminate all others. Discussed in the canonical texts, the ways how to create a society where taking care of people’s needs are of significant importance are relevant to this day. Using these teaching, Confucius and his followers tried to cultivate a new type of people who could turn them into Chun Tzu. Therefore, in the traditional Chinese state, all over the empire, the exorbitant power of the head of the family was reinforced in order to support and strengthen the patriarchal structure of the family. By giving the head of the family the unlimited power, the state assigned full responsibility for the execution of all family duties imposed on the patriarch.