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.