Go to Jordan's main page,
China Resources main page.
This page requires Unicode.
Date Created: 060320
decorative graphic

The Traditional Chinese Family & Lineage

Arguably there has never been a stable human society in which any institution has been more important to the participants than the family. Thus China is by no means unique in considering the family important, and scholars of Chinese life are well served by focusing attention upon it.

photo

The strong institutionalization of the family in traditional China would seem to have made familism even more central in that society than in most.

It is not possible to do justice to the complexity and diversity of this institution on a simple web page, but this page attempts at least to provide a few coordinating principles and define a few terms. (Given the state of college teaching about Chinese society, this web site is probably the only place you will ever have the Chinese terms revealed to you if you happen to be studying Chinese. Copy them now!)

Because this page is devoted to the traditional Chinese family system, I have tended to use the past tense (and the pictures are mostly from the 1800s). Many of the institutions, beliefs, and values discussed here are still present in China, but I have preferred to focus on the past in order to stress traditionalism and to avoid dealing with the complexities introduced by the modern growth of industries, urban populations, and foreign influences, especially foreign influences on law.

For the text of the family-related passages of the late imperial legal code, click here. For underpinnings (or reflections) of family life in the words used in Chinese philosophy, click here. Occasional additional links are provided further down the page.

This page uses simplified characters, printed in red. When the traditional and simplified Chinese orthographies differ, the traditional equivalents are added in blue.

Page Outline

  1. The Family
  2. Descent Lines, Lineage, & Clans
  3. People Not in Families
  4. Marriage
  5. Sexuality
  6. Adoption & Other Fictive Kinship

I. The Family

Definition: The traditional Chinese family, or jiā (colloquial: jiātíng 家庭), called a "chia" by a few English writers, was a (1) patrilineal, (2) patriarchal, (3) prescriptively virilocal (4) kinship group (5) sharing a common household budget and (6) normatively extended in form.

(It was not the same thing as a descent line, lineage, or clan, all of which also existed in China.)

This means:

1. Patrilineal
The term means that descent was calculated through men.
A person was descended from both a mother and a father, of course, but one inherited one's family membership from one's father. China was extreme in that a woman was quite explicitly removed from the family of her birth (her niángjiā 娘家) and affiliated to her husband's family (her pójiā 婆家), a transition always very clearly symbolized in local marriage customs, despite their variation from one region to another.
Reverence was paid to ancestors (zǔxiān 祖先). For a man this referred to his male ancestors and their wives. For a woman it referred to her male ancestors and their wives only a couple of generations up, but was extended also to all of her husband's male ancestors and their wives.
In popular belief ancestors depended upon the living for this reverence (usually seen as provisioning them with sacrificial food, literally feeding them), and therefore the failure to produce (or, if necessary, adopt) male offspring was considered an immoral behavior or, if accidental, a great misfortune. In popular religion, dead people without male descendants to look after them tended to be thought of as potentially dangerous ghosts. Among the living, people of age to be parents but without children tended to be looked down upon.
2. Patriarchal
The term means that the family is hierarchically organized, with the prime institutionalized authority being vested in the senior-most male, who was considered to be responsible for the orderly management of the family. (A fascinating late Imperial text of instructions to family heads is available on this web site [Link])
No two members of a Chinese family were equal in authority. "A state cannot have two monarchs," a widely cited proverb held, "or a family two heads" (Guó wú èr jūn, jiā wú èr zhŭ 国无二君,家无二主.) Officially at least, (1) senior generations were superior to junior generations, (2) older people were superior to younger ones, and (3) men were superior to women. ("Men are high, women low" — nán zūn, nǚ bēi 男尊女卑— said another old proverb.)
Normatively (that is, in what most people thought of as the ideal form), a family would be headed by a man who was older and/or of more senior generation than anybody else. However, whatever the deference due to older people or older generations, if it was a choice between an adult man and his widowed mother, say, it was the man who became the household head. (Click me.)
In actual practice, there is no known family system in which members do not contribute to the collective welfare and decision making, with their differential knowledge, perspectives, and skills. Thus patriarchy is a "jural norm," but is differentially salient in different families. Obviously, personality has much to do with how the members of a family actually behave. In China there were always families dominated by women, old people whose lives were run by their children, and so on, just as elsewhere.
engraving Family hierarchy was very emphatically symbolized in the concept of xiào (colloquial: xiàoshùn 孝顺 / 孝順), which is usually translated "filial piety," but is more accurately rendered "filial subordination." When wills clashed, it was expected (and legally enforced) that the will of a family superior should prevail over the will of a family inferior. Traditional law held a child's insubordination to a parent to be a capital offense, and a daughter-in-law's insubordination to her parents-in-law grounds for divorce. (The picture shows a son, lower right, begging a court to allow him to suffer the punishment for his father's crime.)
At the same time, popular morality made it the right or even obligation of a child to point out the risk if a parent or monarch was about to embark on an ill-advised course of action. The action is usually referred to as "remonstration." (Link)
Grief over the death of a parent was considered the deepest kind of grief, calling for the longest period of mourning. (In contrast, in some regions it was considered inappropriate to mourn the death of a child, since the child had proven its unfiliality by dying first.) Mourning was highly stylized in traditional China and was structured to throw kinship relationships into high relief. Click here for a separate page on the famous Wǔfú 五服, or traditional Chinese mourning categories.
Acts of heroic sacrifice in the support of one's parents were the commonest and most important genre of Chinese moral tales, and were considered especially fit material for the education of children. (The most important group of such tales is a collection called the Twenty-Four Filial Examplars, available elsewhere on this web site. Link)
3. Prescriptively Virilocal
The term means that there was a strongly held preference and expectation that a newly married couple should live with the groom's family.
It was considered ideal for all men in a family to marry and bring their wives to live on the family estate, and for all women born to a family to marry and go out to live with their husbands. The change of families was of course a defining event in the life of a woman, and the traditional, even prescriptive, sentiment was great sorrow at leaving her girlhood home, only sometimes mitigated by a sense of adventure or excitement about assuming her new status as married woman. In some parts of western China there is a tradition of women's musical lamentations on this theme, and the days leading up to marriage may be celebrated with carefully structured sessions of ritualized sobbing involving the bride-to-be and her unmarried friends or younger sisters.
engraving In actual fact, sometimes a family lacked the resources to support additional personnel. A man with two daughters whose income derived from carting goods in a wheelbarrow had little chance of becoming the head of a unit with sons and married-in daughters-in-law, after all. Thus many other arrangements in fact were found.
Sometimes —probably in about twenty percent of all marriages— the groom in fact went to live with the wife's family. (This practice is called "uxorilocality," from the Latin word uxor "wife.") Sometimes this was merely a matter of economic convenience, but often it was because the wife's family had no son, and the son-in-law was accepted in lieu of a son, sometimes changing his surname (which was an act of disgraceful unfiliality towards his own parents, if living) or more often promising that the first son born to the marriage would take the name of the wife's father.
Because uxorilocality broke the cultural prescription for virilocality, it was considered a last resort, and uxorilocal husbands, whatever their personal merit, tended to be viewed with suspicion and scorn. An uxorilocal marriage was disparaged as a "backward-growing sprout" (dǎozhù miáo 倒住苗), and a man who married uxorilocally was (and is) referred to as a "superfluous husband" (zhuìxù 赘婿 / 贅婿), even though he was, obviously, considered necessary.
4. Kinship Group
The "kinship" part of this means that members of the family were related genealogically, i.e. either by having common ancestors or by being married. The "group" part means that they had known boundaries and shared activities or resources with each other that they did not share with outsiders.
A family is not a household. A household included whoever lived in the same building, which might mean tenants, servants, apprentices, sometimes a resident priest, or whoever. Although a household is a useful census unit, and can be used as a proxy for families if one has data on households and not on families, it is not the same thing.
Just as a household can incorporate people who are not part of the family, the family can incorporate people who are not part of the household. Many Chinese throughout history have lived for longer or shorter periods away from the families. Shorter separations might involve living during the summer in a small shed to protect fields from the theft of irrigation water, for example, or traveling over the countryside as a peddler. Longer separations might occur if a member went away to serve in the army or to study or to set up a business in another location.
Despite this close and rather legalistic definition of a family as a kinship group, the word could also be extended metaphorically, as in English, to refer to all relatives.
Membership in a family was sometimes accorded people by adoption. In cases where a couple had no son, an "extra" son of a close relative might be adopted, although there was wide variation between families in the extent to which the child was actually assimilated into family life. Less often a son might be adopted from a distant relative. In most regions at most periods, it was considered undesirable to adopt a son from an unrelated family, but the practice was in fact by no means uncommon, even when it was considered unfortunate.
It was not unusual for friends of roughly the same age to swear oaths of fidelity to each other that brought them into a relationship of sworn brotherhood (or less frequently sworn sisterhood). In theory, and occasionally in practice, such alliances were honored by families as creating family ties, although never, to my knowledge, was the assimilation of sworn siblings actually complete enough to change official genealogies.
5. Sharing a Common Household Budget
This means that the possessions, income, and expenses of all family members were pooled, and decisions about resource distribution were the legitimate business of all family members, and were ultimately taken through the patriarchal authority structure of the family.
It has been convincingly argued that the common budget is one of the most important defining characteristics of Chinese families. One effect of this custom is to define who is in or out of a family by means other than kinship. Kinship makes one a potential member of a family. But close kinsmen can be in different families if the family has decided to stop sharing a budget.
It is possible for the same family budget to be shared by a family that crosses several households. One can imagine a family with some members living in a farming village and others living over their shop in a small town, for example. In modern times, Chinese families have been studied that have had members living in several different countries, but all sharing a common budget.
Sharing a budget is a strictly economic way of viewing what families shared, but sharing went beyond that. In the religious sphere, families tended to share luck. A family in which one member was chronically sick while another had bad habits and a third tended to make bad investments might seek to treat all of these as symptoms of a single ill, the inharmony of the family as a whole. (For more on this, see my book, Gods, Ghosts, & Ancestors. The full text is available on this web site.)
Family division (fēnjiā 分家) is therefore a critical event. When family members decided that their union had become economically or socially unviable, they would agree to a division of the family's resources and the creation of financially separate new families. Typically this occurred after the death of a senior generation had left two brothers and their wives and children as a common economic unit. Although there might be natural affection between the brothers, differences in their economic productivity and differences in the numbers of their children often led to arguments that were most easily solved by family division. A usual mediator would be a sympathetic but disinterested third party, traditionally the brother of one of the older married-in women, and usually a contract would commit the agreements to writing. While memory of the old, united family was still fresh, each of the new units tended to be called a "segment" (fèn ).
Because of the cultural value placed on family unity, size, cooperation, and mutual support, family division was always considered an unfortunate event.
The family as an economic unit was symbolized by the stove, and at division the new units would always maintain separate stoves, even if it meant somebody cooked on a small charcoal burner in the courtyard while everyone continued to occupy the same house.
Members of the same family might occasionally live apart, sometimes for decades at a time. (An example might be a family member away at school, or working in a different region.) Married couples also might live apart. When marriage is defined by its attendant duties rather than its emotions, this is perhaps easier than in societies with a strong stress upon romantic love in marriage, and even today Chinese couples sometimes endure separations so long as to seem heroic (or bizarre) to people in some other societies.
Since the family was the unit of ownership (even down to the level of sharing toothbrushes), there was nothing that quite corresponded to inheritance. An important debate emerged early in the XXth century as western-inspired law sought to guarantee inheritance for women as well as for men. This was strongly resisted by many tradition-minded Chinese, who argued that there was no such thing as inheritance, and that women were provided for in the traditional scheme in that they were members of the families and segments to which their husbands belonged. One effect of switching from corporate ownership to individual inheritance and of including married daughters as legitimate inheritors from their parents would logically be the greater segmentation of land into ever smaller fields with different ownership. (As events actually unfolded, land was subject to other redistributive schemes throughout the XXth century, so that the issue of inheritance tended to recede into the background.)
Ancestor veneration was a fundamental duty of every Chinese, and this followed genealogical lines. Accordingly family division had no effect on the need to engage in ancestor worship. At family division a slightly larger share of property was accorded one party (traditionally the oldest son if there was one) to cover the costs of ancestral sacrifices and of housing the shared ancestral tablets. When possible, cadet lines would assemble at the altar of the senior line on occasions requiring ancestor worship. Occasionally (and controversially) cadet lines unable to send representatives to the senior altar would make copies of the tablets for worship off-site.
photo Ancestor veneration was also practiced at grave sites, and the solar (!) festival of Qīngmíng 清明 (usually falling on April 5) is associated with tomb "sweeping" followed by presentation of incense and sacrificial foods or other gifts to the dead. (The sacrificial food was often then consumed in a graveside "feast," as shown here.)
Although individual ancestor worship was more or less inevitable for ancestors actually remembered, it tended to become more casual for those who had faded from memory. Importantly, ancestors from whom one had not inherited economic goods were soon forgotten, and their cult folded into the general sacrifices offered to ancestors in general on a calendrical schedule that varied from place to place and period to period.
6. Normatively Extended in Form
This means that it ideally included a descent line of men and their wives and children. The usual Chinese term was simply "big family" (dàjiā 大家, colloquial: dàjiātíng 大家庭). This is more precise than the popular usage of the term "extended family" in English, but somewhat less precise than the English term "extended family" as used by sociologists, which is sometimes placed in contrast to "stem family" to provide a technical term for cross-cultural application.)
As envisioned by those inclined to sentimentalize about it, the ideal Chinese family might be headed by an elderly patriarch and his wife, and include their five sons and their wives, and the children of all these people, including perhaps some adult grandsons who already had wives, but excluding any daughters who had married out and become members of other families.
Since the population of China was increasing only very slightly or not at all through most of Chinese history, the average number of sons that a married couple had was in fact only slightly more than one. When there was a second son, there was tremendous pressure to make the lad available to a relative who had no son at all or to provide him as an uxorilocal husband (and heir) to a friend who had no son. Thus in most cases, a family could not in fact include two adult brothers.
Throughout most of Chinese history the mean age at death was quite low, and one's sixtieth birthday was an event of awe and celebration. Accordingly, it was unusual for elderly people to live to see their grandchildren grow to adulthood. For this reason, although three-generation families were common, four-generation families were rare, and five-generation families truly remarkable. (In funerals of elderly people, it was conventional to write the number of generations they had spawned on funeral lanterns, usually adding a couple of generations to make it sound better. Five was a common number.)
Hence, although Chinese families were normatively extended, and although many Chinese spent at least some years living in families of considerable complexity, it was unusual for a family to conform to the ideal image of a truly large group of relatives living together and sharing a budget. Mean family size in most villages was between four and five people.

Return to top.


II. Descent Lines, Lineage, & Clans

A distinction should be made among (1) a descent line, (2) a lineage, and (3) a clan (which, in the case of China, is more conveniently called a surname group).

In Chinese, all three entities can be called a zú (colloquial jiāzú 家族), which tends to add to confusion. (Caution: The syllable zú that refers to a descent group is different from the syllable zǔ that refers to an ancestor. English authors who do not mark tone sometimes get them mixed up.)

In each case, the fundamental concept is that a person (male or female) is "descended" from a succession of ancestors. Although this normally means being the biological son or daughter of a parent, it is possible to be adopted into (or ejected from) a descent line; what is at issue is social classification, not biology.

Chinese descent is patrilineal, which means that traditionally descent was calculated through male links only (the same way that surnames have traditionally descended only through male links in Euroamerican society). If I am Chinese, my significant ancestors are my father, father's father, father's father's father, &c. Although wives of male ancestors are considered also to be ancestors, a person's mother's mother's mother's mother's mother, for example, is not an ancestor in a patrilineal descent system. In traditional Chinese genealogies married-in women, even when they produced children, were sometimes recorded with only a surname: Woman Named Wáng, Woman Named Chén, and so on.)

A distinctive feature of traditional Chinese patrilineal descent is that a woman, at marriage, is assumed to be removed from her own descent line (except for the acknowledgement of her immediate parents and grandparents) and assimilated into her husband's descent line. (In most patrilineal descent systems around the world, a person keeps his or her affiliation throughout life. China is unusual in this.)

1. A Patrilineal Descent Line (or Patriline)
Definition. A patrilineal descent line is the line of fathers and sons making up all of my male ancestors. In theory I can regard it as going back to an atomic globule, or as starting at any ancestor and continuing down to me. I can also regard it as continuing down through my sons, their sons, their sons, and so on.
Size. One characteristic of a descent line is that there is only one person per generation when I count up (since a person has only one father), but there may be many people per generation looking down (since a person may have many sons).
Dying Out. Another characteristic is that all ancestral generations successfully produced children —that is where I came from— but descending generations may or may not produce sons: any descent line has the prospect of dying out in the future.
Collateral Lines. Since any man, ancestral or descendant, may have a brother, and since the brothers of my ancestors are not ancestors to me, there are any number of "collateral" lines made up of their descendants. My father's brother's son (my patrilateral parallel cousin, in anthropological jargon) is a collateral to me because I have an ancestor (my grandfather) shared with him, but also a more recent ancestor (my father) not shared with him.
2. A Patrilineal Lineage (or Patrilineage)
Definition. A patrilineage is an organized group of descendants of a single, specific ancestor. The ancestor is referred to as an "apical" ancestor because he is at the "apex" of the genealogy by which the lineage membership is determined, and the descent links to this person are known (or anyway written in a genealogy where they can be looked up).
Exogamy. In China, as in other lineage systems, it was (and is) regarded as incestuous to marry (or mate with) a member of the same lineage.
Women & Lineages In China a woman is a member of her father's lineage at birth, but at marriage she is transferred to her husband's lineage. As noted, cross-culturally this is an extremely unusual arrangement. One effect of it is that it is usual for all members of the same family to be members of the same lineage. (In most lineage systems around the world, members of the same family belong to different lineages.) Women did not usually participate very significantly in lineage worship, however, and their level of interest in lineages was far less than that of men (even though they cooked the sacrificial food).
Geographical Distribution Lineages were an optional feature of Chinese social structure. Although every person by definition had a descent line, organized lineage groups were nearly universal in some periods and regions (particularly the southern, Cantonese-speaking world), but a rarity in others.
Lineage Property. Where they existed, lineages owned property. In some cases this consisted of little more than an ancestral hall, or a few fields that were rented out to provide income used for the worship of shared ancestors. In other cases lineages had substantial holdings, and could afford to maintain loan funds, catastrophe insurance, student scholarships, or even schools for the benefit of lineage members.
Genealogies. Because lineage membership had potential benefits, most lineages maintained written genealogies, which began with their apical ancestor and then included all lines descended from him. Written genealogies allowed a lineage to be very clear about who was and who was not entitled to various lineage benefits.
bildo Ancestor Veneration. The prime collective activity of a lineage was ancestor worship, and whatever else it did, it always did this. Many a lineage would maintain a modest (or occasionally pretentious) "hall" (táng ) for this purpose, usually with provision for the permanent storage of ancestral tablets. The commonest procedure was for members to move tablets from family altars to the lineage hall as the tablets got older. In some regions there was a general rule about this —tablets over five generations old would be moved out of private houses and into the hall, for example. In other regions tablets would be moved in whenever the hall was rehabilitated. In some cases members who wanted to put tablets in the hall would pay for the privilege, the income going to the maintenance of the hall. Not infrequently tablets were recopied or consolidated under cover terms (like "five generations") when they were moved to the hall. (The hall altar shown here is from the Hong Kong Heritage Museum.)
Social Class. Because lineages were based on kinship, and because different descent lines from the apical ancestor might have fared differently with the passing of generations, many lineages cross-cut social classes. To the extent that richer members tended to provide lineage resources which were used by poorer members, this tended to recycle wealth and reduce social class difference, but it also potentially alienated the rich members from the lineages as these organizations began to be a financial drain. "Anti-poor" measures sometimes included the payment of fees for the enjoyment of full lineage benefits.
Lineages & Politics. At times and places where lineages were strong, they were sometimes charged by the government with local administrative functions ranging from tax collection to dispute settlement or defense. There is a tradition of lineages supplementing their genealogical documents with "family instructions" (jiāshùn 家顺 / 家順), moral injunctions by elderly members passed down to their descendants, sometimes with rules for the conduct of lineage business, and often with general instruction on citizenship and moral behavior.

Lineages lost face if their members engaged in illegal or immoral acts, and they had provisions both to punish errant members and, if necessary, to eject members and expunge their names from the written genealogies.
Lineage Benefits. Lineages sought to promote the welfare of their members, and since this might be at the expense of non-members, conflict between lineages was not unusual. In times and places where lineages have been strong, local warfare has been an occasional result. Even when open violence does not occur, there is a tendency for residence with lineage-mates to be more comfortable when there is inter-lineage tension. The result, even today, is the existence of single-lineage villages, or villages where most residents are members of a single dominant lineage.
Lineage Division. Lineages normally could not divide, like families, but since any ancestor could be taken as the apical ancestor of a new lineage, the work-around for lineage division was for a dissident group to contribute property as an endowment of a new lineage centered on a lower-level ancestor whose descendants included "the right people" and excluded "the wrong people." When Lineage B was centered on a genealogically lower apical ancestor than was Lineage A (that is, when the apical ancestor of Lineage A was an ancestor of the apical ancestor of Lineage B), Lineage B was said to be a "branch" (fāng ) of Lineage A. (The same vocabulary is sometimes used of multi-household families.) Anthropologists sometimes use the term "sublineage" instead.
Lineages in the XXth Century. Lineages have, at least in concept, been prestigious (except briefly during the Communist period), and few Chinese willingly concede that the system is not universal in China, even though it patently is not. In many cases, this derives from confusing lineages with clans. (See below.) In fact, the "lineage system" was so frail by the time the Communists came to power that no official steps needed to be taken to end such organized lineages as remained. Once ownership of private property was restricted, lineages usually lost their financial base and collapsed on their own.
Higher-Order Lineages. Lineage membership is based in genealogy, but participation in lineage affairs is difficult if a member is not living with lineage mates. Many anthropologists studying Chinese rural life have found it convenient to impose upon the definition of lineage the need for it to be localized. This generates the need for a term to refer to lineages that are diffuse or are localized in more than one concentration. (A lineage might have two localized settlements at considerable distance from each other for example.) A lineage that is not completely localized, for whatever reason, is called a "higher-order lineage" in that case.
3. A Clan
Definition. A clan, as the term is used today by anthropologists, is a wannabe lineage. That is to say, it is a property-holding group made up of descendants of an apical ancestor, but the details of the descent lines from that ancestor are unknown. In some cases the ancestor is clearly mythical and in some societies the apical ancestor may even be non-human (a sweet potato, say).
Clans & Surnames. In China, clans were created on the basis of common surname, usually asserting common descent from a real or fictitious ancient person of that name.

Some such surname groups were exclusive, considering themselves to be branches (fāng) of an imaginary greater clan. They thereby excluded some people of the same surname. But more commonly they were inclusive, and anybody of the same surname could potentially participate. (Confusion is avoided if one simply calls such clan entities "surname groups.")
Clan Benefits. Clans provided a way in which Chinese who traveled away from their home regions could locate putative kinsmen and procure assistance from them if necessary. In the expansion of Chinese from north of the Yángzi River into the southern half of China, and later in the migration of Chinese from China into southeast Asia and other parts of the world, a fundamental mutual-aid device has been the same-surname association.
Clan Ancestor Veneration. Although worship of the putative apical ancestor occurs in clans, the lack of genealogical records successfully linking other members and branches to each other makes more specific ancestor worship less common (even potentially embarrassing in some cases), and clans are inevitably centered on the mutual protection and shared risk functions of lineages more than on ancestor worship.

Return to top.


III. People Not in Families

Circumstances. Not all Chinese were able to live in family groups. Flood, fire, famine, war, banditry, plague, infertility, flight from the law, madness, and willful disregard for social mores were all reasons why some individuals might be left alone to wander the world without family ties.

Attitudes. People outside of families were usually regarded with a mixture of pity, suspicion, and contempt. They were unable to attain positions of economic security or social prestige, and tended to live at the margins of society as prostitutes, beggars, and casual laborers, so far as historians can determine.

photo

Monasteries. The principal exception was the world of celibate monasticism, especially Buddhist monasticism —Daoist monasticism was much less common. Individuals might take Buddhist vows (and receive initiatory scars by burning small cones of incense on the scalp that made the vows difficult to reverse). This removed them from their original families (if any) and affiliated them in perpetuity to the Buddhist clergy as monks and nuns.

A fully ordained monk or nun received the dummy surname Shì  / , the first syllable of the full name of the Shakyamuni Buddha (Shìjiāmóuní 释迦牟尼 / 釋迦牟尼). He or she was regarded as the disciple of a specific master, took on the burden of offering "ancestral" reverence to the master and his/her line of earlier clerics, and was in turn to be reverenced on temple "ancestral" altars by a line of later ones.

photo

Fully ordained clerics were permitted to change monasteries at will (in theory) and carried their ordination papers with them so that they could be fitted into monastic hierarchies wherever they went. Life was no picnic for them —on the contrary they were permitted to own nothing and were held by their vows and by the authority of their abbots to hundreds of behavioral restrictions. They usually worked hard in monastic gardens or in the performance of liturgy. However they had the consolation that they were gaining religious merit, and they seldom starved.

In addition to ordained clerics, monastic establishments also were home to unmarriageable people, wandering children, abandoned old people, battered women, and other people who did not take full vows, but had no place else to go (or in some cases simply preferred the ambiance of the monastery). The most important categories were:

Not all such shelters were orthodox monastic institutions. The general organizational principles were sometimes copied by small-scale sectarian or even non-religious societies to provide shelter to people (especially women) outside of the family system, although typically such groups had at least a veneer of Buddhist trappings.

Finally, monasteries sometimes served as hospices for the dying, as asylums for the disfigured, diseased, and insane, and in general as shelters for people unable to care for themselves. In all parts of the world, care for such people in premodern societies was shocking to modern understandings, but Chinese Buddhists did what they could, even if it was not much. (I visited one monastery and saw a frighteningly violent "lunatic woman" who had been kept caged for decades in a small outbuilding built by her brother to contain her.)

Values. Did people outside of families have the same values about families that other Chinese held? One study based on interviews in the 1970s with Hakka-speaking nuns and prostitutes in Taiwan found that in general they did share general Chinese values about families, and they also shared the general social view of themselves as tragic failures. In most cases their life stories involved grinding poverty, premature deaths, abusive husbands, family alcoholism, and a host of other untoward circumstances. The same interviews collectively seemed to imply (but not to demonstrate) that women who had once been driven to prostitution may have tended to become zhāigū later in life. (Hsiu-kuen Fan Tsung 1977 Moms, Nuns And Hookers: Extrafamilial Alternatives for Village Women in Taiwan. Ph.D. dissertation, Antropology, UCSD.)

Return to top.


IV. Marriage

One does not teach about the traditional Chinese family system to sexually enthusiastic California college students without being asked (1) whether the Chinese nation can't be retroactively compelled (perhaps by armed intervention) to stop using matchmakers and (2) whether there were homosexual alternatives to married life. The answers are no and no, in that order. This section elaborates on marriage, the following one on sexuality.

Arranged Marriage. Traditional Chinese marriage was not the free union of two young adults to establish a new household. Rather it was thought of as ideally a union of families of different surnames for the purpose of providing descendants to one of them (the groom's) and some level of mutual benefit to both. For practical purposes, it was the movement of a woman from her natal family (or niángjiā 娘家) to her married family and her assimilation into her married family as an economically productive member of the family corporation and the mother of her husband's children. (The importance of this "transfer" was dramatized in an elaborately ritual-encrusted procession of the bride and her dowry to her new husband's abode. The picture here, probably taken about 1890, shows a bride, in her embroidery-covered, closed palanquin, closely followed by the simpler palanquin of her matchmaker.)

photo

In thinking about the social structural constraints on this, it is more useful to think of the in-marrying bride being like a newly hired corporate employee than being like a modern bride. She depended upon her parents or other favorably inclined people to find her the best "job" possible, and the family "hiring" her sought to get the best "worker" available. As with all things else, the final decision lay with the hierarchically senior decision maker in each family, although as a practical matter both parents of the potential groom or bride had a voice, and not infrequently even the young people themselves dared to voice advisory opinions.

(Chinese theatre, folklore, and fiction is full of marriages undertaken by lovestruck people who don't consult anybody. That may be largely fantasy, but it also suggests that we should not imagine the system was entirely rigid. A separate page on this site includes a range of traditional love stories. Link)

Matchmakers Although friends and relations were constantly alert for possible mates for young boys and girls, sometimes professional help was required (particularly if one had an only marginally marriageable kid on one's hands), and professional matchmakers (méirén 媒人) were (and are) a constant feature of the Chinese social scene.

painting

The modern painting at left shows an eligible girl in about 1900 serving tea to a professional matchmaker, with two anxious parents looking on at the right. (The man standing with his back to us is more likely a son of the family than the prospective groom.) The artist captures the self-presentation of a professional matchmaker, who wanted to be seen as accustomed to associating with high quality people, and hence likely to know many worthy potential spouses. Although often suspected of lying to clients in the interest of making a quick "sale," matchmakers were also sometimes celebrated, the most famous and most sympathetic of them being a certain Hóngniáng 红娘, whose name has become a generic term used when matchmakers refer to their profession today. (Story link)

(Professional and semi-professional matchmakers still operate today. A conference paper I wrote on modern matchmakers can be found elsewhere on this web site. Link)

Age Differences. The ideal age for engagement and marriage has varied over time and space, although it has nearly always been believed that the bride should ideally be slightly younger than the groom. Although data are lacking, it seems likely that competition between matchmakers could depress the age of engagement in some areas, sometimes into early childhood, and that socioeconomic stress (war, famine, or simply the cost of an unexpected funeral) could lead to deferral of marriage for at least some people.

Two factors seem especially likely to have produced mismatches between husband wife. One was the desire of older men for younger brides or concubines. A man willing to pay a high brideprice or accept a low dowry was in a good position to be matched to a girl of modest means who was much younger than he.

The second factor was that in some cases a girl might be wed to a little boy in the hope that she would help in raising him. (This seems to have been especially frequent with adopted daughters-in-law, described below under adoption.)

Divorce. Late imperial family law, based on earlier moral and legal codes, provided seven grounds for divorce and three protections against divorce, and it is easy to understand them by thinking of the analogy just mentioned of a corporation hiring a worker. In essence. the new family member had to prove herself a valuable team player, capable of doing the job for which she was recruited, of getting on with the other members of the family, and of advancing (or anyway not hindering) family interests. When she had been in a family for a reasonable period, she was "off probation" and could no longer be divorced. With this in mind, let us look at the two lists:

Seven Grounds for Divorce (Qī Chū 七出)

As Phrased in Imperial LawSeen From a Modern Corporate Standpoint
She is insubordinate to a parent-in-law.
(bú shùn fùmǔ 不顺父母 / 不順父母)
She is insubordinate to authority.
She fails to bear a son.
(wú zǐ 无子 / 無子)
She fails in the main job for which she was hired.
She is lewd and vulgar.
(yínpì 淫僻)
She attracts unfavorable comment and offends clients.
She is envious.
(jíwù 嫉妒)
She sows discord among the staff.
She is foully diseased.
(èjí 恶疾 / 惡疾)
She is not able to perform her assigned duties.
She is talkative.
(duōkǒushé 多口舌)
She reveals company secrets to outsiders.
She is inclined to theft.
(qièdào 竊盜)
She pilfers company property.

Three Protections Against Divorce(Sān Bùchū 三不出)

As Phrased in Imperial LawSeen From a Modern Corporate Standpoint
She has nowhere to return to.
(yǒusuǒqǔ wúsuǒguī
有所取无所归 / 有所取無所歸)
Enough time has passed that it is cruel to turn her out.
She already observed full mourning for a parent-in-law.
(gònggēng sānnián zhi sàng
共更三年之丧 / 共更三年之喪)
She has passed probation and earned job security.
The family was poor when she entered and is now rich.
(xiān pínjiàn hòu fùguì
先贫贱后富贵 / 先貧賤後富貴)
She has been a significant contributor to corporate success.
(This famous list is not always identically worded. This version is from Le P. Guy BOULAIS 1924 Manuel du Code Chinois. Shanghai: La Mission Catholique, p. 301. The Chinese expressions are not quite those used in the law code, but rather are those used in an earlier document to which the law code alludes. The differences are trivial.)

Concubinage. Until well into the XXth century, most Chinese regarded it as a reasonable thing for a man to take more than one wife, especially if the first wife did not produce male offspring, and so long as the family budget could afford the additional person. (Secondary wives still exist, although today they are often kept in secret, sometimes in a different country.)

However, there was always a distinction between the first wife or qī (colloquial fùqī 妇妻 / 婦妻) and a secondary wife (concubine), who might be called by a variety of terms, usually involving the syllable qiè . (In modern Chinese a wife is normally referred to as an àirén 爱人 / 愛人 or a tàitài 太太, while a concubine is referred to as a "little tàitài" 小太太.)

In some far western regions under Tibetan influence, a woman could have more than one husband, but for "mainstream" Chinese society that was not possible.

photo

Remarriage. Traditional China always honored "chaste widows" or guǎfù 寡妇 / 寡婦), literally "lonely wives," who, on the death of a husband (or fiancé), did not remarry, but remained attached to the husband's household and continued to serve his family. An important consideration was such a woman's economic security, since she was legally entitled to continuing support from her dead husband's family just as she was obligated to continue her service to it. In the case of young widows, the practice of remarriage seems to have been far more common than not, since women who did not remarry after early widowhood could be honored for this by the erection of stone "chastity" arches (zhēnjié páifāng 贞节牌坊 / 貞節牌坊), some of them quite elaborate. (The photo here was taken in Sìchuān 四川 Province in about 1911.)

Such a convention was not always comfortable for all parties concerned. Some law cases turned on efforts by other family members to eject or marry off younger widows, or to sell them as prostitutes or servants. Others turned on the "escape" of widows from intolerable servitude, or their voluntary abduction by lovers. As far as I know, we lack detailed data on actual practice, but it seems likely that most younger widows, especially without children, probably did eventually remarry in most periods (with varying levels of enthusiasm or family approval), while most older widows probably did not.

Not surprisingly, men were expected to remarry after a decent interval following the death of a wife if she had not given birth to a son. If a man already had a son, remarriage was regarded as largely a matter of his comfort and was left to his discretion. In general, growing old without a wife was considered a greater tragedy for a man than growing old as a chaste widow was for a woman, so "re-matchmaking" for elderly men was probably always a feature of Chinese life, just as it is today.

Return to top.


V. Sexuality

Traditional Chinese society was as prudish about sex as any other society, but since the population reproduced itself it is hard to believe that very many people were fooled by the rhetoric.

photo

The Confucian view was that sex properly occurred between married people and was for the purpose of producing heirs. Beyond that it was undignified.

The Daoist view was that it was probably dangerous unless accomplished using various esoteric techniques (when it could prolong life).

The Buddhist view was that it tended to distract one from the business of improving one's karma.

In short, no respectable philosophical school advocated unrestrained whoopee-making. But, as anywhere else, a lot of whoopee was, of course, made. (The "coin" shown here purports to be a copy of a late dynastic brothel token, with suggested sexual positions molded into it.)

Sexual Intercourse. Sexual intercourse was traditionally considered dangerous for men, since they lost semen, which was identified as a man's "yáng-essence" and was thought to be a non-renewable resource necessary for life, a belief that is still widespread. (Daoist longevity exercises involved attempts to avoid ejaculation and instead, through meditation, to recirculate semen up the spine and into the top of the head. Appropriately enough, the "god of longevity" is represented in art with a vertically elongated head.)

photo

Folklore includes tales of lonely scholars seduced by maidens who turn out to be yáng-sucking she-devils, often transformations of dreaded fairies whose real form is that of a fox. It is not clear what level of worry the prospect of losing their yáng essence would actually have stimulated in most young men. The introduction of an unknown bride into a young groom's life may have been somewhat more traumatic for some because of this belief. But clearly, rampant promiscuity was not something that one boasted of, at least in the presence of folklorists.

Extramarital Sex & Homosexuality. Since marriages were usually (and ideally) by parental arrangement, the sexual attractiveness of the spouses (at least to each other) was at best a very secondary consideration. So was their emotional or intellectual compatibility. This is not to say that married people didn't love each other, but their love was expected to grow up over years of association as spouses, not to be an initial or immediate infatuation . The modern expression for this is "wed first, love afterward" (xiān jiéhūn, hòu liàn’ài 先结婚后恋爱 / 先結婚後戀愛). Unfortunately, "afterward" could be a long time coming, and it should not surprise us if many people believed there was greener grass in other fields.

A woman was not free to engage in extramarital sexual liaisons (although of course they did occur sometimes), since children she might bear were to be the family heirs and hence should not be fathered by outsiders. However there was no similar constraint on men, whose extra-marital sexual affairs were usually regarded as unfortunate but as significant only if they threatened to drain family wealth away from legitimate claimants. If they fathered (and acknowledged) children, these might be subordinate to "legitimate" children, but were often more or less successfully assimilated into the man's family.

This tolerance comprehended both heterosexual and homosexual affairs, it appears, and some of the warm friendships and sworn brotherhoods celebrated in Chinese poetry, folklore, and history were almost certainly homosexual relationships. (The compact language of Chinese verse can easily leave the gender of both speaker and lover unclear.) Although it was not (and still is not) feasible for homosexuals to establish marriages and households together, intensely affectionate same-sex companionship was ignored or even admired so long as familial obligations were also observed.

(I do not know of a study of family values among Chinese homosexuals similar to the one mentioned about prostitutes and nuns; there is some hint that family values in this group today are largely mainstream, and that, when a gay person is in an arranged or reluctantly accepted heterosexal marriage, his or her emotional investment in offspring somewhat offsets the absence of sexual attraction to the assigned spouse.)

Today, there is still a strong concern to maintain descent lines (and support of elderly parents), and this still normally requires that gay men (known colloquially as "comrades" or tóngzhì 同志) marry women and father children, usually concealing their sexual preference in order to remain marriageable. The wife of a tóngzhì is called a tóngqī 同妻, and such marriages are referred to as tóngqī marriages. The descent-line argument should perhaps be less compelling for lesbian women, but it appears that they too enter heterosexual marriages in the interest of social conformity.

One 2012 estimate, by the director of the Chinese affiliate of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) (Tóngxìngliàn Qīnyǒu Huì 同性恋亲友会), a gay-support group, is that about 90% of gay Chinese youths hide their homosexuality and enter heterosexual marriages to avoid disapproval by their families (The Economist 120915, p. 42).

(Some of my students have suggested that open endorsement of gay marriage for men could help alleviate the imbalance in numbers of marriage-age men and women in modern China caused by the combination of the one-child policy and selective abortion of female fetuses. This is logical, and arguably could even provide better old-age security for the parents of both partners, but in China there appears to be little support for such an idea.)

photo

Infanticide & Its Alternatives. Contraception and abortion were both practiced, but both were dangerous and unreliable. Since boys could carry on the family descent line and girls could not, boys were considered more valuable children, and if families simply could not afford additional mouths to feed, they sometimes sold newborn girls or killed them, typically by drowning them. This practice was considered outrageous, and various religious and other moral societies carried out a constant propaganda war against it, —the picture here is from a tract condemning it. However, the grinding poverty that underlay infanticide was widely acknowledged, and poverty was inevitably the pretext provided by families caught practicing it. (For an interesting condemnation of the practice by the XIth-century poet and essayist Sū Dōngpō 苏东坡 / 蘇東坡, click here.) (Click me.)

Today abortion is much safer than in the past and has become routine in China, partly in response to the famous "One-Child Policy." It is technically illegal to identify the sex of a fetus in order to abort girls but not boys, however the greater number of boys than girls being born suggests that selective abortion is common. In Taiwan (and Japan) aborted fetuses are sometimes believed to become restless ghosts (called yīnglíng 婴灵 / 嬰靈), and specialized exocists and mortuaries have grown up to attend to them. (The most extensive study is Marc L. MOSKOWITZ 2001 The Haunting Fetus. Honolulu: U. of Hawai'i Press.)

Adopted Daughters-in-Law. When an unwanted additional girl was not killed, she might be given or sold to a wealthier family to work as a serving girl. Alternatively, she might be transferred, at any age from shortly after birth to about ten or eleven, to a poor family where she would be raised as an "adopted daughter-in-law," intended to become the eventual wife of the family's son. This avoided the cost of an engagement, extensive entertaining, and wedding gifts.

In most parts of China, such an "adopted daughter-in-law" was called a "daughter-in-law raised from childhood" (tóngyǎng xí 童养媳 / 童養媳). Pending that marriage, she would work essentially as a servant in the family, sometimes charged with the care of the little boy who would later become her husband. When the wedding day arrived (selected by a fortune teller), it was only very modestly celebrated. Like infanticide, these kinds of arrangements were obviously also adaptations to extreme poverty.

Not surprisingly, given their association with poverty, such marriages were held in very low esteem, and it is easy to see how they would have seemed disagreeable to the bride and groom. The custom seems to have been most widespread in Taiwan (so much so that the term "minor marriage" is sometimes used for it in English). In that region it was most common at the end of the Qīng dynasty and well into Taiwan's Japanese period (1895-1945).

Taiwanese adopted daughters-in-law are frequently discussed in English-language anthropology, based especially on the life-long research of Arthur Wolf, who calls them "sim-pua marriages," from the Taiwanese Hokkien term sim-pū-á, "little daughter-in-law" (usually written 息婦仔 or 媳婦仔). Wolf has argued that, in addition to the stigma of poverty, such marriages were disliked by participants because, after they had spent all or part of their childhood together, mating would have felt incestuous, at least subconsciously. The resistance to these matches by the bride and groom and the very low fecundity and high divorce rates linked to them are taken by some writers, following Wolf, as ethnographic evidence of a psycho-biological basis for the universal taboo on brother-sister incest. In making this argument, some writers pay little attention to the custom's low prestige deriving from its link to extreme poverty. (For more see Arthur P. Wolf & Chieh-shan Huang 1980 Marriage and Adoption in China, 1845-1945. Stanford: Stanford U. Press.)

Return to top.


VI. Adoption & Other Fictive Kinship

Given the critical importance of kinship in Chinese society (as elsewhere), it is not surprising to find adoption and other forms of fictive kinship. Such arrangements can establish by cultural convention relationships thought badly handled by fickle nature. (Kinship, after all, is a cultural idea with a biological inspiration; where nature fails, culture makes the necessary repair.)

In Chinese, the syllable yì  / , "righteous," was frequently used as a prefix to designate adoptive relationships. For example, an adopted son would be called an yìzǐ 义子 / 義子 or "righteous son" and his father an yìfù 义父 / 義父 or "righteous father." However other terms are found in local use, sometimes with more specialized meanings.

Adoption ranged from full responsibility for a child to a kind of superficial god-parenthood, depending upon the period, place, circumstances, and personalities involved. In general, adoption occurred when:

A child needed to be cared for.
An example might be a daughter born to a family too poor to raise her. Another example might be a child whose parents died.
Someone needed an heir (1).
An example might be a couple who had failed to produce a son, and who adopted a son from a relative. Such adoptions varied in actual detail, although they were nearly always boys. Such an "heir adoption" was often purely nominal, the only actual transfer being the boy's eventual obligation to tend to ancestral rites for the adopting parent. At the other end of the scale, a child might be transferred to a new family, given a new surname, and cut off from any continuing reltionship with his natal family. But many intermediate forms are found. For example, parties would somtimes agree that the adoptive son's first child (or first son) would be filiated to the adopting descent line and subsequent children to the adoptive son's original line (or vice versa).
Someone needed an heir (2).
Occasionally an heir was needed but no appropriate boy was available to be adopted, and a couple lacked a daughter whose husband could be made their successor. In such a case, a girl might be adopted, whose eventual husband would be treated as the son for purposes of continuing the family line. In a kind of "pre-nup" contract, parties would agree to a division of future children between descent lines for ritual purposes, more or less the way plans would be made in the case of an adopted son, just mentioned.
A daughter-in-law was needed.
This is the comparatively rare case of the adopted daughter-in-law mentioned above.
An especially frail child was born.
Such a child could be reassigned to a friend or relative who had conspicuous success in raising children. Often there was no actual change of residence, and the adoption can be considered largely a matter of ritual. In some parts of China —my impression is especially western China— this practice became quite common.
A friend of the family seemed likely to contribute to the welfare of the child.
Such a friend might be a prominent scholar or even a Buddhist priest, who was not expected to raise the child, but merely to express concern about its general welfare and provide benign moral guidance. Sometimes an affluent friend might have such a relationship and also contribute materially to the child's welfare.
photo by DKJ

Sworn siblinghood was created by the parties themselves by means of a simple oath, usually accompanied by made-up ceremonial trappings and a shared meal. The model for the oath was one taken in a peach orchard during the Three Kingdoms period (220-280) by three flamboyant warriors, who pledged to die together in shared loyalty to each other. (They are shown here in a temporary festival chapel in Yúnchéng city, Shānxī province 山西省云城市.) (Oath Text)

Depending upon whether the group was male or female, they were thereafter described as "sworn brothers" (jiébài xiōngdì 结拜兄弟 / 結拜兄弟) or "sworn sisters" (jiébài jiěmèi 结拜姐妹 / 結拜姐妹), although other terms also can be applied. I have written in more detail about this in an article reproduced elsewhere on this web site. (Link) Sworn siblinghood could occur when:

Two or more people (usually of the same sex unless the group was large) felt a special affinity to each other.
Two or more people (usually of the same sex unless the group was large) joined in a common cause (commercial, military, criminal, political, or other).
Communities required a code of laws, which could be incorporated into an oath among their leaders. (Click here for an extreme example of such a case.)

A striking feature of sworn siblingship is that it can entail responsibilities between family members of the parties involved, even though it may be undertaken, even by young people, without consulting other family members. There is little research on this topic, but it may be one of the very few spheres in which traditional Chinese society permitted autonomy in formalized social relations for young people.

Return to top.


Picture sources:

DINGLE, Edwin J. 1911 Across China on foot.: life in the interior and the reform movement. Briston: J.W. Arrowsmith, Ltd. (Chinese family, p. 132. Priest, p. 237. Graveside feast p. 273.)

KENDALL, Elizabeth 1913 A wayfarer in China: impressions of a trip across west China and Mongolia. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. (Arch commemorating a virtuous widow, p. 168)

MacGOWAN, John 1912 Men and manners of modern China. London: T. Fisher Unwin. (Bridal procession page 253; White Deer Monstery Priest, p. 145.)

MATIGNON, J. J. 1936 La Chine hermétique: superstitions, crime et misère. Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner. (Female infanticide, plate 26.)

PHILLIPS, E. C. 1882 Peeps into China: or the missionary’s children. London: Cassell. (Newlyweds engraving, p. 185.)

WILLIAMS, S. Wells 1883 The middle kingdom: a survey of the geography, government, literature, social life, arts, and history of the Chinese empire and its inhabitants. Revised edition. Vol 1. (Court scene, page 504.)

Dīngcūn Folklore Museum, Shānxī Province 山西丁村民俗博物馆. (Matchmaker, from a museum mural.)

Hong Kong Museum of Art. (God of longevity.)

Private collection. (Brothel token.)

Yúnchéng Municipal Guāndì 关帝 Festival, 1992. (Peach Orchard Oath.)

Return to top.


This page has received since 130817.