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.