Memorial Arches, State, and Family Virtues in Imperial China

In imperial China the family was the nucleus of social order and state ideology. Unlike its Western counterpart, the Chinese family was not simply a social unit; it was an institution that over the centuries gave rise to an ideology that permeated the lives of every individual and shaped the structure of the state. 
 
Memorial Arch in China, built in 1825. It is located near the cemetery of Confucius, in Qufu
 
During the Qing Dynasty, the imperial state continued the practice of strengthening the family to maintain what was considered the proper, natural order of the world. Despite having a legal system that meted out brutal punishments to offenders, the imperial government did not rely primarily on repression and coercion, but on the self-regulating power of family ideology. Through education, public rewards and ceremonies, the state strove to propagate its message and to keep society peaceful. 
 
“Universal marriage and residence in a household based on [the] family system was the government’s goal for all the ‘people’, and that goal was aggressively promoted” (Susan L. Mann 2011, Chapter 3). On the one hand, Chinese philosophers such as Confucius, Mencius and Xunzi had devoted much of their work to the family system. Their theories helped shape and perpetuate a family-centred worldview in Chinese thought. The order of society rested on hierarchical, yet complementary social roles which depended on gender, age, blood relations, social standing etc. 

When people – both in East and West – talk about Asian “collectivism” as opposed to Western “individualism”, they actually refer to the fact that for centuries Chinese individuals were embedded in a rigid network of familial and social relations. The value of individuals as human beings depended on whether and how successfully people could fulfill their “proper” social roles as sons and daughters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, etc. Through the family, individuals were disciplined and made to fit into “proper” hierarchies.
 

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The Chinese Revolution of 1911 – The Founding of the Republic of China

The Chinese Revolution of 1911, also called Xinhai Revolution (辛亥革命) after the year of the Chinese calendar in which it occurred, was an uprising that led to the fall of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and to the foundation of the Republic of China (中華民國, ROC). The revolt began on October 9th when the accidental explosion of a bomb drew the attention of the local police to a house in Wuchang’s Russian Settlement. The house was searched and a list of names of revolutionaries was found. Since the incident had exposed their plans and identities, the insurgents decided to strike at once. On October 10th, the revolutionaries attacked and overwhelmed imperial forces in the city of Wuchang. The uprising spread to other cities and provinces, causing panic among Qing officials. The imperial house hoped to save itself by seeking the help of Western powers, but they chose to remain neutral. The dynasty that had ruled China for 267 years fell with astonishing rapidity, and the insurgents became masters of China. October 10th was later declared the National Day of the Republic of China (國慶日 / 国庆日; pinyin: Guóqìng Rì), also known as Double Ten Day (雙十節 / 双十节; pinyin: Shuāngshíjié).

1992 Double Ten Day celebration in front of the presidential palace in Taipei

One of the earliest references to the Double Ten Day commemoration can be found in a speech given by Sun Yat-sen on October 10, 1912, at a meeting of the Chinese World Student Association in Shanghai (Sun 1994, p. 100). The Double Ten Day celebration became an integral part of the rituals of power of the Guomindang one-party state on the mainland and later on Taiwan. Nowadays, the Double Ten Day remains the National Day of the ROC on Taiwan, while in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) the Xinhai Revolution is praised for having overthrown the feudal Qing Dynasty, but it is considered only a transition period that paved the way for the Communist victory of 1949. The Double Ten Day used to be celebrated in Hong Kong, especially in the Guomindang enclave of Tiu Keng Leng. It is also celebrated by some communities of overseas Chinese and by ROC sympathisers in the PRC.

The Founding of the Republic of China (1911-1916)

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Propriety and Ritualism in Chinese Society

To many Westerners China seems a mysterious and unfathomable country, and the behaviour and mindset of her people almost impenetrable. One thing that appears to have been puzzling Western observers for decades is the question of moral values and interpersonal relationships in Chinese society.
 
Among East Asian nations, China is the one that conceals best her true nature. While in Japan or Korea, for example, hierarchical structures are visible both in the deportment and in the language of the people, China at first sight appears to have a much less complex and stratified society. But when one looks more carefully, one can see that hierarchy, social roles, and ritualism are extremely important elements of Chinese culture. Without an understanding of them, one cannot understand China.
 
Of course, etiquette and rites have changed radically in the Chinese-speaking world over the centuries. However, what has not changed is the particular emphasis placed on ‘rules of proper behaviour’ and ritualism in Chinese thinking.
 
Chinese philosophers such as Confucius and Xunzi did not view etiquette and rites as mere formalities. They saw them as powerful tools that moulded individuals’ characters and made them fit in the hierarchical order of society. According to Confucius, “The whole world would respond to the true goodness of [a ruler] who could for one day restrain himself and return to ritual” (Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook, 2nd EdPatricia Ebrey 2009, p. 42). 
 
The Confucian scholar Xunzi, who believed that man is by nature bad, argued that rituals were one of the most important ways to educate people to good behaviour:
 

A warped piece of wood must be steamed and forced before it is made straight; a metal blade must be put to the whetstone before it becomes sharp. Since the nature of people is bad, to become corrected they must be taught by teachers and to be orderly they must acquire ritual and moral principles. When people lack teachers, their tendencies are not corrected; when they do not have ritual and moral principles, then their lawlessness is not controlled.

In antiquity the sage kings recognized that men’s nature is bad and that their tendencies were not being corrected and their lawlessness controlled. Consequently, they created rituals and moral principles and instituted laws and limitations to give shape to people’s feelings while correcting them, to transform people’s emotional nature while guiding it. Thus all became orderly and conformed to the Way (ibid., p. 25). 

Filial Piety (孝) in Chinese Culture

In order to understand Chinese culture and society it is fundamental to understand the Chinese family. The family in China was not only a social unit, but it represented a whole codified ideology that pervaded the state and the society for thousands of years. Many of the differences between Chinese and Western thinking are comprehensible only from the point of view of the unique place that the family has in Chinese culture.
 
 
Illustration from the Classic of Filial Piety (source: Wikipedia)
 
 
Without doubt, the pillar of the Chinese family structure was the concept of filial piety. In Chinese, filial piety is expressed by the character 孝(pinyin: xiào). The character xiao is made up of an upper and a lower part. The first part is derived from the character lao (老, pinyin: lǎo), which means ‘old’. The second part is the character 子 (pinyin: zi), which means ‘son’. There are different interpretations of the meaning of the character xiao
 
1) the old are supported by the younger generation; 
 
2) the young are burdened and oppressed by the old; 
 
3) the purpose of the family is the continuation of the family line (chronological, from top to bottom) (see Ikels 2004, pp. 2-3).
 
Filial piety was a central value in traditional Chinese culture. Its importance went far beyond that of the biblical commandment “honour thy mother and thy father”. Filial piety was and still is a value based on strict principles of hierarchy, obligation and obedience. It is no exaggeration to say that it was the very foundation of the hierarchical structure of the Chinese family and thus of the Chinese society as a whole. That does not mean that the idea of filial piety has not changed over the centuries or that children are always filial. But we need first of all to understand what xiao means, where it comes from, and how it was practised in the past, before we can examine the exceptions and the changes.