The Traditional Roots of Parental Pressure and Academic Success in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan

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Song Dynasty Imperial Examination, 11th century illustration (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Chinese state media once called China a “world superpower in stress“. According to a 2012 survey, 75% of Chinese workers are stressed, compared with 47% in the United States, 42% in the United Kingdom, and 58% in Germany. Over 70% percent of Chinese white-collar workers suffer from overwork, which poses a serious risk to their health. China Daily cites rising home prices, long working hours, overtime work and living costs as the main sources of stress.

A survey showed that almost 70% of Chinese women believe that a man must have a house and earn more than 4,000 yuan (USD 634) a month in order to have a relationship with a woman and eventually ask for marriage. “The concept of marriage in China is becoming more practical nowadays,” China Daily quoted a Shanghai professor as saying. “No matter how self-confident a woman is, she will feel she is losing face if her boyfriend or husband doesn’t have a home.” Continue reading

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Directness, Hierarchy and Social Roles in Chinese Culture

Social hierarchies, “face” and etiquette have traditionally played an important role in Chinese society. These elements of social interaction are reflected in the way people talk and act. In particular, it has been argued that Chinese people “are much more vague and indirect than Westerners”. One may find such views even in authoritative news outlets. For instance, in an article published in The New York Times in 2009, a professor was quoted as saying that “Americans often perceive the Chinese as indecisive, less confident and not tough enough, whereas the Chinese may see Americans as rude or inconsiderate.”

But is this assessment true? Are Chinese people really less direct than Westerners? Or is directness simply related to social roles in different ways? In the present article we shall examine how the network of rigid relationships, of formalities and duties that bind people together in Chinese society shapes communication and social behaviour in a way that differs from the West.

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Face, Filial Piety and Work Motivation in Chinese Culture

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Civil service examination during the Song Dynasty (via Wikimedia Commons)

“Sometimes, kids feel that studying is hard and stressful because parents are over anxious and expect too much,” writes the Student Health Service website of Hong Kong‘s Department of Health. “If parents’ expectations go far beyond their kids’ ability, the kids would be discouraged and lose confidence as they are not able to meet their parents’ expectations … Avoid comparing your kids with others in their presence. Negative remarks, such as ‘You’re really good at nothing! Such poor marks! Look at your cousin. He’s always the top of the class every year.’ will only hurt them.”

The fact that a government department gives such advice to parents means that parental pressure on children is not only based on anecdotal evidence, but that it is a fact which affects the lives of a large number of Hong Kong children. In 2016 alone, 35 Hong Kong students committed suicide due to academic pressure.

Chinese parents’ insistence on academic performance is notorious. Studies have shown that Chinese students and adults have a high level of work motivation, which is often explained as a result of a “socially oriented”  drive to achieve success “not for personal glory, but for the good of one’s family, group, team, or nation” (Handbook of Chinese Organizational Behavior: Integrating Theory, Research and Practice, ed. by Xu Huang, Michael Harris Bond, 2012, p. 503).

In this article we shall analyse the particular connection between “face” (mianzi), filial piety and work motivation. We shall argue that the ancient Confucian tradition of subordinating children’s interests and desires to the needs and wishes of parents, and of sacrificing oneself to achieve “glory” for the sake of one’s parents, are a fundamental element of career drive in Chinese culture. Continue reading

“The House of Lim” and the Myth of the Harmonious Chinese Family

In 1959 the renowned American anthropologist and sinologist Arthur P. Wolf went on a study trip to Taiwan with his wife Margery. They spent two years in the house of the Lims, a “joint” family who lived in a small village in the countryside. Living side by side for a long period of time with a traditional Taiwanese family allowed the American couple to gain deep insight into the society and culture of the island.

This experience prompted Margery Wolf to write an account of those years, a book that is today almost forgotten, like many other great books, but which, more than fifty years after its publication, is still worth reading.

The House of Lim describes the life of rural Taiwan at a time when the modernization of its economy and society was still in its infancy. She depicts a world in which the old Confucian family system dominated life in an almost totalitarian way. Individuals were embedded in a network of relationships based on formality, hierarchy, social roles, and obligations. Continue reading

Western Values – Asian Values: A Chinese Revolutionary’s View on Western and Chinese Family

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.

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Confucianism And The Law In Singapore And Taiwan

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Image from the Classic of Filial Piety (via Wikimedia Commons)

In the previous posts we have shown how Legalist and Confucian values as well as the legal codes of imperial China have influenced the legal system of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). We have concluded that the Communist state emphasizes Legalist principles and legal traditions that aimed at protecting dynastic rule from rebellion and treason. Confucian values, by contrast, play only a secondary role. We shall now show how two other states belonging to the Chinese cultural sphere, the Republic of Singapore and the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan, have incorporated traditional Confucian principles into their legal system.

Singapore And Filial Piety

Singapore is a multicultural society with English as its main official language. However, because three-quarters of its population are ethnic Chinese, Chinese culture and traditional values have exerted a deep influence on the official discourse and the legislation of the city-state. During the first two decades following the foundation of the Republic in 1965 and the consolidation of power by the ruling party, the People’s Action Party (PAP), traditional values did not play a substantial role in policy-making. The government was too busy building up the state and the economy. At a time when the West still led the global economy, Singaporean leaders did not seem eager to emphasize Asian traditions. Continue reading

Law In Post-Mao China: Confucianism, Legalism, Imperial Traditions

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The Great Hall of the People, Beijing (photo by Thomas.fanghaenel, licenced under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikipedia Commons)

In the previous post we have described the similarities and differences between Maoism and Legalism, and in particular we have shown the parallels between Maoist and Legalist doctrines regarding the establishment of an autocratic, centralised state. Moreover, we have demonstrated that Mao Zedong rejected Confucian values, which he viewed as “reactionary”. In this post we will show how the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the post-Maoist era has preserved elements of Legalism, Leninism and of the imperial legal system; at the same time, however, it has also rediscovered Confucianism as a more humane and family-oriented ideology which helped the Communist state overcome the brutality and the excesses of Maoist class struggle. Beijing’s attempt at combining Legalism, Leninism, Maoism and ancient imperial traditions has created a state with ideologically inconsistent and weak foundations. Yet at the same time the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has succeeded in preserving power and consensus exactly because it draws upon such broad and various traditions.

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China’s Legal System And The “Ten Abominations”

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Escape of Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty during the An Lushan rebellion. In the Chinese legal system rebellion and treason were considered two of the “ten abominations” (by Li Zhaodao, Public Domain, wikimedia commons)

Before the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, China’s legal system differed from that of liberal Western states in three major aspects: First, the apex of the entire legal system was the absolute monarch; it was the emperor who issued and abolished laws, and the most serious crimes of the legal code were those which endangered imperial dynastic rule and desecrated the emperor and his property. Second, Chinese law incorporated major principles of Confucian ideology, most notably its emphasis on the family, on filial piety and on strict social roles and hierarchies. Third, the imperial legal system was designed to impose social norms – mostly of Confucian origin – with the aim of creating a self-regulating society. These three aspects of imperial China’s legal system are reflected in what imperial legal codes called “the ten abominations” or “the ten evils” (十惡), which were classified as the most heinous of all crimes. Even the emperor himself could not pardon subjects who had been found guilty of committing them.

The term “ten abominations” was invented by the Legalist school in order to identify those crimes which the state considered most threatening to political and social order (see: Charles Benn: Daily Life in Traditional China: The Tang Dynasty, 2002, p. 197). The first nucleus of the “ten abominations” can be found in the law codes of the Northern Qi kingdom (550-577 AD), which divided crimes into ten categories (see Xin Ren: Tradition of the Law and Law of the Tradition: Law, State, and Social Control in China, 1997, p. 37). Confucian scholars initially rejected written laws as a means of governance. However, the idealism of early Confucian thought did not suit the emperors’ need for a stable and strong state. Beginning with the Han Dynasty, Confucian scholars incorporated Legalist doctrines into their philosophy of state-building. Confucians thus compiled law codes, but they infused them with their own moral and social philosophy. The first comprehensive legal code that has survived to this day is the Great Tang Code issued in 653 AD (see Patricia Buckley Ebrey: Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook, 2009, p. 116). The following dynasties up until the Qing Dynasty built their legal system upon Tang law. In particular, the “ten abominations” remained almost unchanged throughout the centuries. We shall now examine the “ten abominations” as they were formulated in the last legal code of imperial China, i.e. that of the Qing Dynasty. Continue reading

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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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.