One of the major differences between China and the West is the importance which the family – with its hierarchical structure and its complex web of social roles, regulations, duties, and moral values – has in Chinese society (see: Filial Piety in Chinese Culture). Despite major social and economic changes, the Chinese-speaking world has retained some of the core elements of the traditional Confucian family. This is also demonstrated by the fact that the legal system of countries in the Chinese-speaking world has been heavily influenced by Confucian values.

The Confucian worldview is based on the idea that human relationships are functional and hierarchical. The individual exists only as part of a network in which interaction is regulated by age, gender and social position. It is no coincidence that many Chinese who visited the West during the late-Qing and early Republican era were troubled by the lack of hierarchy, social roles, and rules of propriety in Western societies.

It is very interesting to read nowadays, with the benefit of hindsight and the knowledge accumulated in two centuries of contact between East and West, what Chinese travellers thought about the West at the turn of the 20th century. One of the most captivating books about the Chinese perception of the West is America Through the Spectacles of an Oriental Diplomat by Wu Tingfang.

Wu Tingfang (1842-1922, 伍廷芳; pinyin: Wŭ Tíngfāng), also known as Ng Choy (伍才; pinyin: Wŭ Cái) was born in the so-called Straits Settlements, in what was then a part of the British Empire. Wu Tingfang was a politician and diplomat who spent several years in the United States. He was a monarchical reformist, an advocate of the movements that tried to modernize Imperial China. However, before the Chinese Revolution of 1911, he became a supporter of Sun Yat-sen, championing the overthrow of the Manchu Dynasty and the establishment of the Republic of China.

Wu Tingfang played an important role in the 1911 revolution. He served as a foreign affairs representative for the Shanghai Military Government and subsequently for the revolutionary government. Afterwards he was appointed as the chief Republican delegate in the negotiations between the Republican revolutionaries and the Manchu government which lasted until the abdication of the imperial dynasty on 12 February 1912 (see Linda Pomerantz-Zhang: Wu Tingfang (1842-1922): Reform and Modernization in Modern Chinese History, 1992, p. 193).

Indeed, his name was even mentioned in an edict issued on December 1911 by the Empress Dowager, in which she declared that

the representative of the People’s Army (i.e. the Revolutionaries) Wu Ting-fang, steadfastly maintains that the mind of the People is in favor of the establishment of a republican form of government as its ideal […]. This is a matter that should not be decided by one part of the nation alone […] Therefore it is advisable to call a provisional National Convention and leave the issue to the Convention to decide (see Harley Farnsworth MacNair: Modern Chinese History – Selected Writings. Vol. 2. 1927, p. 717).

Wu Tingfang was in many respects a product of the British colonial experience in Asia. Born to a merchant family in Singapore and raised in Guangzhou and Hong Kong, Wu was educated in missionary schools before going to Great Britain for professional legal training. A pioneer in modern journalism, Wu was the first Chinese to receive British training as a barrister, the first Chinese to practice as a barrister in Hong Kong, and the first Chinese to serve as a member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (Pomerantz-Zhang 1992, p. 1).

In 1896 Wu was appointed China’s Minister to the United States, Spain and Peru (ibid. p. 3). After several years in the United States, Wu Tingfang wrote down his impressions of American life, customs, and society. These impressions became the book America Through the Spectacles of an Oriental Diplomat (1914). One of the chapters of the book deals with ‘American women’. Coming from a Chinese background, Wu was astonished by the independence of American women and by the fact that they chose their husbands by themselves, an inconceivable thought in China at that time:

One very conspicuous feature in the character of American women is their self-control and independence. As soon as a girl grows up she is allowed to do what she pleases, without the control of her parents […] This notion of independence and freedom has modified the relation of children to their parents. Instead of children being required to show respect and filial obedience, the obligation of mutual love and esteem is cultivated. Parents would not think of ordering a girl or a boy to do anything, however reasonable; in all matters they treat them as their equals and friends; nor would a girl submit to an arbitrary order from her mother, for she does not regard her as a superior, but as her friend and companion.

I find it is a common practice among American girls to engage themselves in marriage without consulting their parents. Once I had a serious talk on this subject with a young couple who were betrothed. I asked them if they had the consent of their parents. They both answered emphatically that it was not necessary, and that it was their business and not their parents’. I told them that although it was their business, they might have shown some respect to their parents by consulting them before committing themselves to this important transaction. They answered that they did not agree with me, and as it concerned their own happiness alone, they had a perfect right to decide the matter for themselves. This shows the extreme limit to which the Americans carry their theory of independence. Unless I am greatly mistaken, I fear this is a typical and not an isolated case. I believe that in many cases, after they had made up their minds to marry, the young people would inform their respective parents of their engagement, but I question if they would subordinate their own wishes to the will of their parents, or ask their consent to their engagement.

The following section of Wu’s work deals with the Chinese family. As we shall see, some of the characteristics he mentions are quite outdated, since the Confucian family structure in the Chinese-speaking world has undergone major changes and is now more similar to the West’s (Wu Tingfang himself noticed the shift that was taking place, as we shall see). Nevertheless, what has not changed is the importance of hierarchy and social roles, which are still major elements of the Chinese family structure and are more or less consciously accepted by a large number of people. In the following excerpt, Wu explains why in his opinion the Chinese family is superior to the Western family:

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Now let us see how all this [i.e. engagement and marriage] is managed in China. Here the parties most interested have no voice in the matter. The parents, through their friends, or sometimes through the professional match-makers, arrange the marriage, but only after the most strict and diligent inquiries as to the character, position, and suitability of temper and disposition of the persons for whom the marriage contract is being prepared. This is sometimes done with the knowledge of the interested parties, but very often they are not consulted. After an engagement is thus made it cannot be broken off, not even by the young people themselves, even though he or she may plead that the arrangement was made without his or her knowledge or consent. The engagement is considered by all parties as a solemn compact. On the wedding day, in nine cases out of ten, the bride and bridegroom meet each other for the first time, and yet they live contentedly, and quite often even happily together. Divorces in China are exceedingly rare. This is accounted for by the fact that through the wise control of their parents the children are properly mated.

In saying this I do not wish to be supposed to be advocating the introduction of the Chinese system into America. I would, however, point out that the independent and thoughtless way in which the American young people take on themselves the marriage vow does not as a rule result in suitable companionships. When a girl falls in love with a young man she is unable to perceive his shortcomings and vices, and when, after living together for a few months, she begins to find them out, it is alas too late. If, previous to her engagement, she had taken her mother into her confidence, and asked her to use her good offices to find out the character of the young man whom she favored, a fatal and unhappy mistake might have been avoided. Without interfering, in the least, with the liberty or free choice, I should think it would be a good policy if all young Americans, before definitely committing themselves to a promise of marriage, would at least consult their mothers, and ask them to make private and confidential inquiries as to the disposition, as well as to the moral and physical fitness of the young man or lady whom they contemplate marrying. Mothers are naturally concerned about the welfare and happiness of their offspring, and could be trusted in most cases to make careful, impartial and conscientious inquiries as to whether the girl or man was really a worthy and suitable life partner for their children. If this step were generally taken many an unfortunate union would be avoided. It was after this fashion that I reasoned with the young people mentioned above, but they did not agree with me, and I had to conclude that love is blind.

Before leaving this subject I would add that the system of marriage which has been in vogue in China for so many centuries has been somewhat changed within the last few years. This is due to the new spirit which has been gradually growing. Young people begin to exert their rights, and will not allow parents to choose their life partners without their consent. Instances of girls choosing their own husbands have come to my knowledge, and they did not occur during leap-year. But I sincerely hope that our Chinese youth will not go to the same lengths as the young people of America.

The manner in which a son treats his parents in the United States is diametrically opposed to our Chinese doctrine, handed down to us from time immemorial. “Honor thy father and thy mother” is an injunction of Moses which all Christians profess to observe, but which, or so it appears to a Confucianist, all equally forget. The Confucian creed lays it down as the essential duty of children that they shall not only honor and obey their fathers and their mothers, but that they are in duty bound to support them. The reason is that as their parents brought them into the world, reared and educated them, the children should make them some return for their trouble and care. The view of this question which is taken in America seems to be very strange to me. Once I heard a young American argue in this way. He said, gravely and seriously, that as he was brought into this world by his parents without his consent, it was their duty to rear him in a proper way, but that it was no part of his duty to support them. I was very much astounded at this statement. In China such a son would be despised, and if he neglected to maintain his parents he would be punished.

I do not believe that the extreme views of this young man are universally accepted in America, but I am inclined to think that the duties of children toward their parents are somewhat ill-defined. American parents do not apparently expect their children to support them, because, as a rule they are, if not rich, at least in comfortable circumstances; and even if they are not, they would rather work for their livelihood than burden their children (America Through the Spectacles of an Oriental Diplomat, Chapter 9).

We can see that Wu Tingfang was shocked by and disapproved of the lack of hierarchy and defined social roles in American families. He assumed that the Christian precept ‘Honour thy father and thy mother’ had the same meaning that filial piety has in Confucian thought. Yet the actual meaning of Confucian filial piety was to ‘Serve and obey thy father and thy mother’, which was far stronger than the Western concept of ‘honouring’.

Wu Tingfang’s preference for parental influence, for ‘inquiries’ about the children’s future mate on the part of parents, and for the selection of the mate according to social status and reputation rather than on the basis of a couple’s feelings and mutual understanding, is deeply rooted in the Chinese acceptance of hierarchy and social roles. In this system, a spouse is not a person, but a function; a mate needs to fulfill certain socially defined prerequisites that are supposed to help maintain the stability and the hierarchical structure of the family. From this point of view, the principles implied by Wu Tingfang have not changed in contemporary mate-selection in the Chinese-speaking world.

To a Westerner, Chinese-style mate-selection may seem strange, and even immoral. After all, how can a mother even think of knowing better than her daughter or son whom she or he should marry? How can ‘inquiries’, however accurate they might be, reveal the future spouse’s personality and suitability? Yet from a Chinese point of view all this makes perfect sense. The inquiry aims at finding out the mate’s reputation, family background, profession, income etc. From the perspective of hierarchy and social roles, an individual’s social value is defined by how well he or she can fulfill his or her social obligations. Feelings are of secondary importance.

In 1914 Wu Tingfang warned the Chinese youth that it should not go the same way as the American youth. One hundred years later, we know that not only did the American youth go even further, but that Asian people have joined the trend of incorporating love and individual freedom of choice in the selection of a mate into their own understanding of family. However, the main elements that make up the core differences between marriage in East and West have remained virtually the same. Westerners still tend to emphasize love – however unstable it may be, as Wu Tingfang rightly observed -, equality of children and parents, and individual choice. Chinese and Asians, generally speaking, still tend to value hierarchy, social roles, and stability.

One may wonder if such characteristics have really maintained their paramount importance in Chinese thinking. After all, hasn’t Asia changed radically since 1914? Haven’t Asian countries absorbed Western thought, modernized and industrialized? This question is absolutely legitimate. The answer must take into consideration the fact that Westernization is often a very superficial process that tends to affect only certain aspects of society. In general, old traditions and values have evolved, but they have not disappeared. They are still part of the way of life and thinking of Asian societies. However, they do not monopolize society, but often coexist with new ideas, some of which are clearly ‘imported’ from the West (see Arland Thornton, Hui-Sheng Lin: Social Change and the Family in Taiwan, 1994, Chapter 7, and Dudley L. Poston, Jr., Wen Shan Yang, D. Nicole Farris: The Family and Social Change in Chinese Societies, eds, 2013).

Such traditional values are indeed still so important that a guide to Singapore published in 2006 introduces Singaporean society to Westerners in the following way:

The concept of group, harmony and mutual security [in Singapore] are more important that that of the individual […] The cornerstone of this group concept is the family, which is the centre of the social structure and emphasises loyalty, unity and respect […] Despite claiming to be an egalitarian society, strong hierarchical relationships can be observed in the relationship between parents and children, teachers and students, and employers and employees. Seniority and rank are highly respected in Singaporean society […] (Marion Bravo-Bhasin: Culture Shock! Singapore, 2006, pp. 58-59).

The same book explains that in 1996 Singapore passed a law that “compels children to assume the financial responsibility for their elderly parents” (ibid., p. 60). Similar legislation in various Chinese-speaking areas reveals the old concern for the protection of the Confucian ideal of filial piety and of ‘giving back to parents what parents gave to children’. Such preoccupation with maintaining the ‘proper’ hierarchical relationship between parents and children clearly echoes Wu Tingfang’s fears that the new generations of Chinese might become more ‘Americanized’. In fact, not giving back to parents for the sacrifices they made for children is considered utterly immoral in Chinese thinking. Little wonder Wu Tingfang was so horrified by what to him might have appeared like a complete lack of the most basic moral principles.

The importance of filial piety and hierarchy is constantly stressed by Singapore’s politicians. For example, former Prime Minister of Singapore Goh Chok Tong warned his countrymen in a speech made in 1994 that Singapore should not make the same mistakes as the West, which, in Goh’s words, has “seen a sharp rise in broken families, teenage mothers, illegitimate children, juvenile delinquency, vandalism and violent crime.”

We […] intend to reinforce the strength of the family … The government will channel rights and benefits and privileges through the head of the family so that he can enforce the obligations and responsibilities of family members (see Greg Sheridan: Asian Values, Western Dreams: Understanding the New Asia, 1999).

The current Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, emphasised the same ‘Confucian’ values in his Chinese New Year’s speech on February 2013:

The best way to strengthen our Singapore core is to encourage more Singa­poreans to marry, and have more children. This remains our top priority […] Families are the basic building blocks of our society. They shape our identity and sense of self, transmit values and anchor us in a rapidly changing world. Our families comfort us when we are down, and encourage us to reach for the stars. They inspire us to be better people, not just for ourselves but for others.
Chinese New Year is an important occasion to celebrate with our families. It is a time to thank our elders for their sacrifices bringing us up. It is when we shower love on our own children, and teach them to respect their elders and stay together as one family. It is an opportunity to catch up with relatives and friends, especially those we have not seen for a long time, at reunion dinners and home visits. These traditions are part of our heritage and remind us of the truly important things in life (note).

We can see how the political establishment embraces traditional values and makes them the official policy of the state. Maintaining hierarchy and social roles, as opposed to the equality and instability of the West, demonstrates the old Chinese concern with order, ‘proper’ social relations, and the virtue of filial piety.