The Family Dynamics in Traditional Chinese Society

Family Reverence in Chinese Culture

Since time immemorial, the family has been a central social institution arguably as a social unit where an individual’s character, mannerism, and personality is first shaped. People are born and bred in families where the parents, siblings and other family members are the first people an individual interacts and forges relationships with. Every person is an invaluable link to an infinite chain of mankind that binds all people in a family or society. Every individual has a moral duty to family members aimed at creating cohesion and ambient co-existence in the family, community, and the society at large. In the Hebrew Bible, a child is obligated to honor and respect their father and mother and promised to live for if they do so (Exodus 20: 12). Poškaitė (99), the relationship between parents and children has attracted significant attention and concerns in the contemporary society especially with the impact of Western cultures on East Asian societies especially in China resulting from globalization and modernization. The family dynamics of traditional Chinese society with reference to a Confucian family which was multigenerational and extended family defined by moral obligations. Rosemont and Ames (xii) note that Xiaojing 孝经, a Confucian classic translated as “Classic of Family Reverence” and common to English audience as “Classic of Filial Piety” is a basic and central family value and ethics in the traditional Chinese culture and continues to shape the contemporary Chinese family values and culture. Therefore, this paper seeks to understand and elucidate how “family reverence” affect lives in twentieth and twenty-first China.

The Significance of Filial Piety in Chinese Culture

Filial piety (xiao 孝) is almost unanimously agreed by sinologists as sincere, unconditional, self-sacrificing, and reverent care for the elderly person’s especially one’s parents both while alive and after deaths to be a central and general value to the traditional Chinese culture and the foundation of developing moral people in the Confucian ethics (Poškaitė 99). The Confucian classic filial piety is considered as one the most contradictory and complicated family ethics in Chinese as well as among the Westerners where it is treated with both approval and criticism. As opposed to Confucian extended family and communism values, the modern Western family culture advocates for nuclear families and individualism values which Rosemont and Ames (31) noted to be a powerful liberal myth. The liberal myth disregard the rigid primordial loyalties ingrained in the feudal family systems and advocates for a modern family based on contractual relationships between consenting adults that are liable to termination provided the mutual self-interests fail to be sustained. The modern Western culture has continued to penetrate the Chinese Culture in the twenty and twenty-first century creating contentious and conflicting family ethics in modern China.

The Centrality of Family in Chinese History

The centrality of the family is a major theme permeating the economic, religious, moral, metaphysical, and sociopolitical dimensions of Chinese history stemming from the early Neolithic eras. Rosemont and Ames (xi) point out that all the cosmic relations in Chinese cultures are embedded in the familial terms where filial reverence was believed as a critical condition for developing and indoctrinating qualities of excellence in any human being. Confucian protagonists posit that cultivation of family feelings was a ground for personal realization and human morality. In Chapter 1 of the Xiaojing translation by Rosemont and Ames (105), Confucius considered as the first teacher in China asked his student Master Zeng whether he understands why former kings were able to consummate excellence (de 德) hence bringing the empire into accord (shun 舜) and harmony (he 和). Confucius argued that xiao (filial piety) was the foundation of excellence and a source of jiao (education). He further noted that family reverence begins within individual’s vigilance to ensure harm does not come to your person which begins by taking care of one’s parents and transcends to offering service to the lord and culminates with the service to the world. Equally, Confucius argued that in order remember your ancestors, an individual is obliged to cultivate and elevate the excellence of the ancestor, meaning that a son ought to be better than father using the family tree as a source of reference and inspiration. This ideology resonates in the modern Chinese culture which is built on communism however the extent of the veneration is significantly hampered by the individualism and liberalism myths of Western culture (Poškaitė 101). For Confucius, a genuine concern and care of one person for another is the most defining component of humanity.

The Conflicts of Filial Piety in the Modern World

Xiao ethics emphasizes the children’s unconditional obligation towards their elders (parents) and reverent to their authority till their demise. Rosemont and Ames (2) cited Walter S. Slote a critic of Confucianism arguing that the unconditional obligatory and obedience of children towards the elderly as advocated by filial piety is an authoritarian relationship. This relationship is contradictory and perceived and oppressive by the Western culture which argues the relationship creates a basis for parents to violate the rights of children (Poškaitė 100). According to the espousers of Western culture, liberation from children from the authoritarian doctrine of xiao promotes children’s autonomy hence free to view their parents as potential violators of the rights. The argument has been increasingly adopted by the global community with the establishment of children’s rights departing from the filial piety principles of children fulfilling family duties. These new views make minimal sense to the espousers of xiao ethics as children were to reverent their parent’s authority. Although filial piety is still relevant in inculcating values of obedience and respect to the elderly it is inhibited by the autonomous concepts advocated by Westernized urban elites (Rosemont & Ames 34, Chow 32). An increasing shift from the extended families and communism principles of classical filial piety to nuclear families and individuals is recorded across China. However, Rosemont and Ames argue that the concept of humans being autonomous, free and rational is a perverted concept of the Western societies because over two-thirds of the Asian, Middle East, and African population do not consider themselves as free and autonomous hence filial piety would work better for them (34). Poškaitė (101) point out they Rosemont and Ames implores not only contemporary China to evaluate individuals on the basis of right-bearings but should consider alternative philosophies such as the Confucian ethics of family reverence.

Confucianism and Foreign Relations

Jiwei Ci as sited by Rosemont and Ames (3-4) noted that the Confucian relationships are founded on kinship and hierarchy-reciprocity; individuals who embrace the Confucianism ideologies to define their human interactions and relations are prone to ethically and socially finding themselves at sea when they interact with foreigners and strangers because the kinship and hierarchy-reciprocity are nonexistent. Wasserstrom (28) note that the Chinese dynasties interactions with foreign countries drawing their values from the Confucian principles expected the head of foreign states to treat them with the utmost deference and in return provide the foreigners with benevolence and protection. Majority of dynasties approached the international relations with suspicions believing that the relations were dangerous and unnecessary. For instance, Qing decided to limit the international trade as eel as the entry of missionaries in China. The complex and contradictory relationship of the Qing dynasty and foreign affairs is cited to be one reason for the fall of the dynasty as the because the Confucian filial piety principles complicated the relation (Wasserstrom 29). Samaruga (18) points out that basing on Confucians principles, at the state of the twenty-first century China introduced the term “harmonious world” in its foreign policy as a commitment to promoting peaceful coexistence and a harmonious Chinese society. Li 礼 (ritual propriety) is a central theme of family reverence as it consummates a conduct of a person (ren 仁) and argued as the root in which an entire tradition grows. Harmony is a central principle of Confucius hence Chinese foreign policy adopted to the philosophy. It is used as the Chinese motto for national revitalization and avoiding on international confrontation especially with U.S. (Samaruga 18).


In summation, despite the filial piety increasing decline of its influence it still remains a critical value for regulation and control of children behaviors towards elders as well as forging cohesive coexistence within communities. Even though it has limitations, the contemporary Chinese society can integrate Confucianism with other Western modernized cultures worth enabling it to sustainably and effectively enhance the welfare of the society. The overarching theme in the Confucian classical filial piety is for human respect and harmonious interaction even though some of its deep requirements are contentious.

Work Cited

Chow, Nelson. "The Practice of Filial Piety and Its Impact on Long-Term Care Policies for elderly People in Asian Chinese communities." Asian Journal of Gerontology " Geriatrics 1.1 (2006): 31-35.

Poškaitė, Loreta. "Filial Piety (Xiao 孝) For The Contemporary and Global World." Asian Studies 2.1 (2014): 99-114.

Rosemont, Jr., Henry and Roger Ames. The Chinese Classic of Family Reverence: A Philosophical Translation of the Xiaojing. Honolulu: University Of Hawai‘I Press, 2009.

Samaruga, Melisa. The Influence of Confucianism in Chinese Foreign Policy (1971-2013). Project Work. Beijing Shi, China: University of International Relations, 2013.

Wasserstrom, Jeffrey N. China in The 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know. 2. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

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