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The following article appeared in
For this web presentation, the paper has been revised to include Chinese characters. Mandarin words have been respelled in normal Pinyin, with tones, and Hokkien spellings have been returned to their correct forms. If you are using a recent version of a common web browser, all Chinese characters and Roman font diacritics (and occasional Russian words) should display correctly.
The paper has also been slightly reformatted for better web access by breaking long paragraphs into two or three shorter ones. Italics are avoided insofar as possible.
For citation purposes, I suggest that the original reference be given, followed by the notation, "Corrected Internet edition, 2003" plus the URL.
The article includes an appendix containing two extremely interesting sworn brother oaths from the late XIXth century used as codes of law in communities on the Sino-Russian border. These were collected by Russian ethnographer L. Ivanov and published by him in 1914 and are here presented in English translation from the Russian. They are on a linked page to avoid excessive download time for either part of the article.
Overview. Both in literature and in ethnographic report, mention is made of the Chinese custom of "sworn brotherhood" (jiébài xiōngdì 結拜兄弟).(Footnote 1) Some men enter such a relationship to emphasize or prolong especially close friendships or in the interest of economic or political advantage. Sometimes political leaders, criminal societies or village headmen organize themselves into sworn brotherhoods. Some groups are very large, involving hundreds of people. Others include only two close friends. Although most groups are all male -hence the term "brother"- a few include women or are made up entirely of women.
Footnote 1. For their comments on earlier drafts of this paper, I am grateful to John L. McCreery, Chou Ying-hsiung, Chu Hai-yuan, Eleanor R. Gerber, Katherine Gould-Martin, Bruce Holbrook, Murray Leaf, Michael Meeker, and Elizabeth Perry, all of whom pointed out additional aspects of the problem and helped me to broaden my views about it. I remain responsible both for the errors that remain and for the stubbornness with which I resisted some very helpful suggestions.
The present study is based largely on interviews with four informants whom I knew in the mid-1960's when I was living in an agricultural village north of Táinán 台南 city, and upon interviews conducted in 1976 with many more informants in eight other sworn brotherhood groups in Táinán, Táiběi 台北, and the same village.
For financing the fieldwork on which this paper is based, I am grateful to the (U.S.) National Institute of Mental Health and the University of Chicago (1966-68), and to the Chinese Cultural Center of New York and the University of California (1976). And for their constant friendship and encouragement in all my fieldwork, I am much indebted to the members of the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica.
When its purpose is intimacy among close friends, sworn brotherhood stands on the border between friendship and kinship. It is analogous to other sorts of Chinese fictive kinship, particularly adoption of the god-parent type, and yet at the same time it is different because its fictive quality remains vibrantly in the consciousness of the participants, and no attempt is made to forget the artificiality of its creation. It is closer than friendship, not so close as kinship, different from both, and similar to both, and it generates secondary relationships that are different from itself, such as kinsmen of Ego's sworn brother, or sworn brother of one of Ego's sworn brothers.
When larger groups are involved, friendship is less prominent than common goals; then sworn brotherhood can come to assume aspects of a religious association, of a common-origin society, of a trade guild, of a credit union, or even of a local government.
This custom raises a host of questions for the student of Chinese society. For example, when such relationships are undertaken by politicians, local or national, they can have effects on the manipulation of political power. Among former schoolmates they can be a force for the vertical integration of society across differences of wealth and social class. When they are undertaken by merchants, they can result in changes in the way in which business is done. Among the poor, they can provide economic shelter in time of financial stress. When they are associated with secret societies, they seem to create serious problems in the maintenance of public order. And so on.
Problem. None of these functions technically requires the idiom of kinship, however. Political alliances, mutual aid societies, and the rest can be organized quite differently. In fact, both in China and elsewhere these functions usually are not phrased in the idiom of sworn brotherhood. If such functions can be adequately accomplished outside the custom of sworn brotherhood, then why should sworn brotherhood exist at all? Why should men who are already friends, colleagues, or comrades find it necessary or desirable to remold that relationship in the idiom of kinship? (Footnote 2) Why is it better to be a Chinese brother than a Chinese friend?
Footnote 2. Other Chinese fictive kinship statuses involve adoption across generations. They range from god-parent-like yì 義 relationships to more step-parent-like gān 乾 relationships; but same generation relationships established in this way occur, in my experience, only as derivatives from the fictive parent-child ties (as when two adopted children share a same adoptive parent, making them "siblings"). One does not "adopt" a sibling directly in those forms. Similarly, an adoptive kinship idiom is used of religious masters and disciples or of master craftsmen and their apprentices (and hence co-disciples or co-apprentices are, reflexively, "siblings"). Sworn brotherhood differs in the explicit generational equality of the participants in the core relationship, vertical extensions, if any, being the reflexive ones.
Outline. In this paper, I shall try to answer that question by considering what sworn brothers I have interviewed have told me about their sworn brotherhoods. The paper has three parts. The first deals with the functions of sworn brotherhood. The second deals with the kinship metaphor and the logic that makes it better to be a sworn brother than a friend (or ally), and the third deals with the ritual by which sworn brotherhoods are established.
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The ideal case. According to my informants, sworn brotherhood normally occurs among people who are already close friends. The purpose of converting friendship into mock kinship is to allow the relationship to become "more intimate" and "longer lasting" than ordinary friendship, they maintain, and to provide mutual assistance in case of untoward events in the life of any partner to the alliance. The relationship is established by mutual consent in a ritual conducted in a temple at which an oath of mutual assistance and loyalty is sworn and incense is offered. The text of the agreement with the names of the contracting parties is burnt to place it forever in the celestial archives. A meal together, with wine, is also an integral part of the ritual. In the course of things, each brother cuts his finger and allows the blood to flow into a cup of wine, which is afterward drunk by all parties to the pact. The continuing relationship among the sworn brothers is subsequently symbolized by the use of kinship terms among them, and kinship terms are also used for the members of each other's families. Similarly, other forms of kinship behavior are extended to each others' families, including most importantly (or most saliently) contribution to the dowry of a sworn brother's daughter or to the expenses of a funeral in a sworn brother's family, and formal mourning obligations upon the death of a sworn brother's parents. (Footnote 3)
Footnote 3. A variant on the use of oaths is the exchange of cards bearing the names, addresses, and birth times of the parties to the oath, and sometimes genealogical information as well. This is called oā*-tiap in Hokkien (huàntiě 換帖 in Mandarin), and the parties to such an exchange are called oā*-tiap-ê, or "oā*-tiap brethren." Some informants maintain that it is not quite the same thing as sworn brotherhood and does not require full mourning for one's brother's parents. Others (including lexicographers) maintain that it is identical. (At least one informant was unaware that the two customs were related to each other.)
Some of these formal elements may be missing in any given sworn brother relationship. But considered together they do constitute a fairly tight functional unit,, and it is not difficult to see how these elements create a relationship which is congruent with commonly held Chinese values, as well as with the material needs of Chinese individuals and families. The "traditional" sworn brother relationship which informants describe probably owes part of its credibility to this congruity with Chinese society as viewed by these same informants.
Their description, nevertheless, does not accurately represent any of the sworn brother relationships to which these same informants were parties. In other words, although they seemed to share a view of how such a relationship was established and of what the potential of such a relationship might be, they did not necessarily establish it this way, and did not necessarily exploit this potential. In some instances they did not apparently expect to do so even when the relationship was first established. Instead, I have the impression that different groups selected those elements of the relationship that were primary for them, and stressed ritual and obligations most harmonic with them.
The Gallins' typology. There is curiously little published specifically on the subject of sworn brotherhood in China, excluding brief notes in the course of discussing other topics. In a recent article Bernard and Rita Gallin (1977) have made an analytical distinction between two polar types of sworn brotherhood that they found in the course of fieldwork in Táiwān 台灣. Acknowledging that their informants, like mine, believe sworn brotherhood should include both mutual affection and mutual advantage, they still see one or the other of these as potentially dominant over the other, and they use this as the basis for a typology. At one pole lies an ideal type they describe as "affective sworn brotherhood," characteristically undertaken by young or by poor people seeking to tighten friendship ties and to expand members' networks of relationships. This is the kind of sworn brotherhood that figures most prominently in the anthropologist's field notes.
At the opposite pole is "instrumental sworn brotherhood," characteristically undertaken by older or higher status people and characterized by a more explicit goal of economic and sociopolitical gain through mutual aid. This is the kind of sworn brotherhood one is more likely to read about in newspaper accounts because it has wider social effects. The Gallins mention several distinguishable subtypes of instrumental sworn brotherhood.
One subtype is found in the world of the liúmáng 流氓 or "hoodlums," and can be used to provide moral guarantees of loyalty to a group practicing dangerous activities. A second subtype involves businessmen organizing to minimize competition and maximize cooperation among themselves. Yet another is designed to maximize economic and sociopolitical opportunities for a heterogeneous membership. Here we enter the world of local political alliances, as well as mutual loans of money.
Noting an increase in the number of sworn brotherhoods in Táiwān in recent years, the Gallins propose that a "decline in the effectiveness of certain large-scale associations" with modernization has resulted in a situation where "occupational and regional groups in Táiwān no longer appear to be able to protect and promote viably the interests of their members," leaving the members to the vagaries of individually contracted alliances.
Other functions. Earlier work includes material that illustrates some other functions for the instrumental sort of sworn brotherhood, functions that can no longer be found in Táiwān today. One of the most interesting of these is the use of sworn brotherhood to provide the basis of local government. In this case, the family heads of an entire community swear an oath of sworn brotherhood and use the occasion to make explicit the rules which are to govern the public life of the community.
Two examples are to be found in an article by L. Ivanov (1914). Ivanov was apparently living on the Sino-Russian frontier, near modern Vladivostok, at the time when both the Chinese and the Russian empires were disintegrating at the turn of the century. There he collected sworn brotherhood oaths taken by elders of two communities. We may readily imagine a power vacuum in local: level administration in such a circumstance, and each oath presents us with an entire "Code of Hammurabi" for the conduct of village affairs. (Because Ivanov's documents are particularly interesting, but have been available only in a relatively inaccessible Russian source, an English translation of them is appended to the present article.)
Sworn brotherhood is not necessary to ensure law and order in Táiwān today, and one no longer finds local law codes written into sworn brotherhood oaths. This function of the institution therefore cannot be studied ethnographically, but it has two morals for us which need to be kept in mind. One is that sworn brotherhood, like so many other cultural institutions, is an empty vessel, into which a very wide variety of different contents may potentially be poured. There can be no closed list of the purposes to which it may be put.
The other is that the custom has a long history that provides a wide variety of models from which latter-day sworn brothers may take inspiration. Historical and literary precedents provide a wealth of imagery which may be invoked in the rhetoric with which new fraternities are founded or from time to time renegotiated in the course of their use. The historicity of sworn brotherhood is one of its most salient qualities to many informants. In joining a brotherhood one is joining a tradition, or more exactly a group of traditions, which help to constrain and structure the expectations and aspirations of the participants.
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Whatever other functions sworn brotherhood may accomplish, the function that is most important for most informants, is preserving intimate relations among the parties to it. They stress that a friendship which is turned into a sworn brotherhood lasts longer and is more intimate than ordinary friendship. It is intimacy and stability which participants seek to preserve when they undertake a sworn brotherhood, especially when they assume it on the basis of a friendship which is not of very long standing and which has not yet shown itself already characterized by these qualities. One informant described the situation when he joined a sworn brotherhood in the army:
They thought everyone's relationships were pretty good, and we ought to become sworn brothers. Everybody's relationships would be maintained longer that way.
Another described her group of sworn sisters at the time of their union:
Swearing sisterhood is nothing very special. It is just that reciprocal feelings are a little warmer … . What makes it a little different [from friendship] is that this sort of friendly feeling stays in one's mind longer. It's not like ordinary friends, who are forgotten after a few years.
There is good agreement that sworn siblingship occurs when and because the participants feel a need to preserve an intimate relationship over a longer time than ordinary friendships: to increase its longevity. (Footnote 4) But how exactly does swearing an oath of brother-or sisterhood actually contribute to this goal? What is there about the custom that could have such a result? It seems to me that sworn brotherhood is stronger than friendship for at least six reasons:
Footnote 4. One sociological survey of recent Táiwān graduates (CCHP 1976: 933-88) asked who gave the most help or understood them best when they had problems. Although "father and mother" were far and away the highest scorers in this, siblings and friends came out very close to identical. The expectation may not be so much that sworn siblingship will make a relationship more intimate than it already is, but rather that it will prolong the relationship and clear away some obstacles to taking full advantage of its already existing intimacy.
Muting conflict. When discussing friendship, Chinese informants will sometimes allude to the dissolution of friendship when the parties to it become estranged by distance or by quarrels. These forces are also dangerous to a sworn brotherhood. Sworn brothers take particular care to avoid quarrels and to nullify the effects of distance. We shall see how the availability of economic resources of one's sworn brothers can reduce the probability of a strain on the relationship in time of economic difficulty. This in itself may reduce the likelihood of a quarrel. But there are in addition direct ideological supports to the notion that quarreling is not allowable. Part of the logic of the familial metaphor seems to be that both parties' interests and ideally their opinions are nearly identical, and that therefore disagreement should be minor.
Before we became sworn sisters, the three of us had really become very close; our attachment seemed much deeper than among most people…. Our three outlooks were not dissimilar, and our attachment was no less congenial than for our own sisters.
The keyword for many informants is tóujī 投机 (Hokkien: tâu-ki), which means to get along well, specifically including the idea of agreeing with each other. (Thus, not to tóujī means to have a dissidence of opinion which results in estrangement.)
Our mutual affections were very friendly, and we got along well in conversation (literally: "our speech was tóujī"). At that time we were all as one; as the proverb says, "When there was fortune it was enjoyed together; when there was sorrow it was borne together."
Indeed one sworn brother advises against undertaking a brotherhood for exactly this reason: it is a nuisance to have to restrain oneself from disagreement because of someone being one's sworn brother!
Using family resources. If being a sworn sibling provides a rationale for avoiding conflict of opinion, it also provides a rationale for helping one's transformed friend. In fact, among the sworn siblings I have interviewed, economic assistance of any very great scale is rare. On the other hand, it is uniformly and eagerly described as inherent in the relationship, and this is often given as one of the axes of difference from relationships of friendship. Although the issue may be academic and aid may rarely be needed or offered, the relationship of sworn brotherhood permits it to be offered more easily than the relationship of friendship does, and this seems to contribute to the constancy of the relationship.
Friendships take second place to family responsibility in China. If Huáng 黃 needs money and Wú 吳 is his friend, then Wú may lend him a little money, or, if Wú is wealthy, he may give Huáng a little money. But in no case will Wú endanger his family's resource base to do so. This is as true if Wú is a paterfamilias as if he is a small child, for the familial resources do not properly belong to any single individual (Freedman 1966: 49f). Brotherhood, on the other hand, implies a certain amount of resource sharing. If Huáng and Wú are sworn brothers, Wú may very well go much further toward helping Huáng, including possibly imposing hardships on the Wú family (or, fictively, on the rest of "their" family). As a friend, Wú may wish to help, but he may have no good "excuse" to offer, particularly to his own family, for doing so. As a sworn brother, Wú therefore has ideological supports to help Huáng weather an economic crisis.
There is morality to a friendship, to be sure. You help him as far as you can. But with [sworn] brothers, that is not enough: it becomes an obligation; it becomes compulsory. When there is nothing you can do, you still have to think of a way to help him. … If you don't help a sworn brother, people will criticize you. Sworn brotherhood provides a legitimation at least at the time of swearing the oath for treating a friend as one wishes one could treat him. (Footnote 5)
Footnote 5. Natural brothers share much or little depending in part upon whether they have partitioned the family estate or not. Even among brothers whose families have divided their estate, however, there are still expectations of generalized reciprocal exchange, particularly in time of trouble. Sworn brotherhood clearly implies a fairly exchange-prone model of brotherhood, as revealed in the very common observation of informants that sworn brothers are often both closer and more helpful than natural brothers.
In a group of more than two or three members, the economic aspect of the relationship rapidly becomes considerably more important, and money changes hands more often than in the case of pairs or trios of sworn brothers. The point I want to make, however, is that the kinship idiom in which such assistance is phrased overcomes the argument that a person is helping his friend at the expense of his natural family,, since his sworn brother may arguably constitute part of his family. Sworn brothers are less likely than mere friends to stand around and watch one's fortunes deteriorate in an emergency and are more likely to help, since they have a rationale for helping which may be offered to anyone who doubts the wisdom of their stepping in and risking their own family's resources: they are, after all, brothers.
Competition and cooperation. The same logic that allows sworn brothers to marshal their private resources to help each other also allows them to restrain themselves from competition with or exploitation of their sworn siblings, even when such competition would be to their private advantage. Such restraints do not operate as clearly in the case of friendship. One informant explained this with an example.
Let us suppose that I am thinking about setting up a noodle stand on a certain corner. I may ask a friend whether he thinks it is a good idea. If he thinks it is, he may tell me it is not, and then when I abandon the project, he may set one up himself and make a lot of money. A sworn brother could never do that. If he thinks it is a good idea, he must tell me, and not use it himself.
Restraint of competition is implicit in family relationships, and hence in sworn brotherhood relationships, and this makes sworn brotherhoods a beneficial form for merchants in many circumstances. But the point to be noted in connection with the longevity of the relationship is that it also avoids an important source of eventual destructive quarreling, which could endanger the relationship.
Hierarchy. Quite aside from a rule to the effect that one ought not to argue and disagree, sworn brotherhood brings about a change in the relationship that may have some effect on the way in which potential disagreements may be resolved. Chinese friends are equals. Chinese brothers are junior and senior. Traditional wisdom distinguishes friendship and brotherhood as two different items of the set of Confucian five relationships (wǔlún 五倫). The stress in the Confucian texts is upon finding friends whose example is worthy for one to follow. One seeks friendship, ideally, with morally superior people, with whom one seeks a mutually edifying association. Should a given individual prove unworthy, one discontinues the relationship. Disruption of friendship which has ceased to be either uplifting or profitable is thus encouraged.
Brotherhood, on the other hand, involves inequality. Fraternal love (tì 悌) is a complex relationship. It is true that one can treat friends with brotherly love, and that brothers are friendly toward one another, but Confucius also speaks of "serving" (shì 事) one's elder brothers in a way similar to the way one serves one's father. (Analects IX, 15). In their article, the Gallins stress that sworn brotherhood is normally undertaken by a group of status equals, and my cases agree with this. It is intriguing therefore to note that by changing the relationship from one of friendship to one of brotherhood, one is theoretically changing it from a relationship of equlity to one of hierarchy. The older (or eldest) friend becomes First Brother, and the rest are numbered after him in chronological order of birth.
Although usually ignored in practice, the theoretical rule is that first brother's opinion is normally to prevail; he is to be given precedence in passing through doors, sitting at tables, and etc.; the other brothers follow along, theoretically in numbered order. Kinship terms, among sworn brothers as among ordinary brothers, signal these distinctions at every turn, and their salience is witnessed also by the fact that every sworn sibling I have interviewed could easily tell me the ordering of the sibling set. In theory the younger brother owes his elder brother obedience and, eventually, nurture. Within limits, this means that it is the elder brother's will which is to prevail in the event of disagreement, though of course the younger brother may be able to argue persuasively enough to bring his senior around to his point of view. Among sworn siblings, as among natural siblings, this hierarchical ordering is self-conscious but weak. Can it then have any effect upon the longevity of sworn siblings' relationships?
A particularly interesting paper by Eugene Anderson (1972) on "Some Chinese Methods of Dealing with Crowding" provides a very useful perspective on hierarchy that we can apply quite well in the present case. Anderson argues (p. 68) that "… seniority hierarchy is often abused, but it gives a solid structure of life; everyone knows how he stands relative to almost everyone coming into the household." In other words, interpersonal conflict is avoided when a cultural rule prescribes that one person's opinion is to take precedence over the other's. Sworn brotherhood establishes the convention that one "brother's" opinion is superior to the opinion of another "brother," and the same mechanism for avoiding conflict that Anderson argues helps allow Chinese to live in crowded conditions without serious mishap assures the group of sworn brothers that they will have fewer serious arguments. To the extent that arguments lead to estrangement and that fraternal hierarchy, however muted, helps to avoid arguments or reduces their intensity, establishing a pact of sworn brotherhood contributes to the longevity of good relations among the participants.
In practice, so far as I can tell, this hierarchical principal, although strongly in focus in describing the general theory of brotherhood, sworn or natural, is seldom very prominent in actual dispute settlement. Unlike subordination to a father, subordination to an elder brother seems to be only rarely a basis for action, despite its being marked in differentiated terms of address and reference. The difference between close friends and close brothers is slight as far as the overt hierarchical quality of their daily interaction is concerned. The point is, however, that there is potential for dispute resolution that would not exist for a pair of friends. The fact that the ideology of hierarchy is shared and is continuously being marked in speech and etiquette means that it is available for appeal when disagreements do not seem to be resolvable in other ways, that it is a rhetorical resource that friendship lacks and sworn brotherhood possesses. If all else were equal-and it is not-this would still give sworn brotherhood a slight competitive advantage over friendship alone as a long-lasting relationship. (Footnote 6)
Footnote 6. Traditional China was in many ways a society dominated by hierarchy. Not only were kinship positions ranked, but hierarchy dominated most other institutions from the civil service system to the supernatural realms and religious orders. Given this strong and positive emphasis upon the idea of hierarchy itself, there is a possibility that many or most Chinese feel more comfortable in a hierarchical relationship to another person than in a relationship of equality. I lack the clinical evidence necessary to sustain an argument on this point, but it suggests the intriguing possibility that there may be limits to the potential intimacy of a relationship between equals such that, as friends become more and more intimate, certain strains begin to be felt which can be resolved only by shifting to a hierarchical pattern of interaction. If this is so, then psychological pressures entirely congruent with the cultural and economic ones just discussed make a hierarchizing device such as sworn brotherhood the more inevitable in China.
Families of sworn brothers. There is yet another way in which sworn brotherhood represents a bond of greater durability than the bond of friendship. Sworn brothers assume an obligation towards the family members of their fictive brethren. Informants uniformly stress this, putting particular emphasis upon the formal symbols of this wider set of obligations: kinterms, wearing mourning garb, contributing money at marriages and the like. We called our sworn brothers' parents by the same terms our sworn brothers used, and if the parent of a sworn brother dies, then the rest of us sworn brothers must wear hemp and mourn.
A sworn brother's wife was called a-só 阿嫂 (EBrWi). Children were to address the sworn brothers as a-peh 阿伯 (FaEBr) or a-chek 阿叔 (FaYBr), and the same with the sworn brothers' wives, whom the children were to call a-ḿ 阿母 (FaEBrWi) and a-chím 阿嬸 (FaYBrWi). Further, when a sworn brother's child got married, we were to give a "red package" [of money], the same as one must give in the case of "real" brothers. If the father or mother of a sworn brother should die, we were to wear hemp and mourn.
It is important to maintain a degree of skepticism about the claim that kinship terms are extended identically to their usage in natural kinship. The Hokkien terms a-chek and so on are used also with close friends of one's parents, and their use in sworn brotherhood relationships does not distinguish sworn brotherhood from close friendship very clearly. (In Mandarin, parents' close friends are often addressed by surname plus kinterm, while parents' sworn siblings are normally addressed by kinterm alone. In Hokkien, the kinterm alone is normal in both cases.) Bruce Holbrook (personal communication, 1976) points out that the relationship differs both from natural kinship and true adoption in that the term "brother" or "sister" in sworn siblingship is not conceived as "same parents' child" and therefore the extensions of kinship terms are very limited. He writes:
I have found exceptions …. in which even sworn brothers' parents are not called (in reference or even address) fu/pa, mu/ma. Rather what I would call the "familiar" terms are used, i.e. those used for- natural father's or mother's friends, po fu and po-mu/po po. In either case it is clear that the use of parental terms derives from the use of brother (or sister) terms …. This is the weakest variety of such extension, as is symptomized by the fact that extension to natural kinsmen of sworn kinsmen is most delimited … . For example, one does not … call one's sworn brother's natural brother's son (not living with sworn brother) chih-erh. In the same vein, although there may be mourning obligations, … natural son's sworn brother is not …. able to inherit nor expected to perform fully as a natural son.
In other words, sworn brotherhood is not quite like brotherhood; in formal terms, it is a much watered down version.
Nevertheless a relationship is set up with the family of a sworn brother, and the relationship can be an important one in preserving the longevity and intimacy of the sworn brotherhood. To the extent that parties to the brotherhood actually interact with each others' families (which is partly a function of geography), an intimacy can build up between a brother and the family of his sworn brother which may contribute to the maintenance of the relationship between the brothers themselves. One village informant, discussing the problems of maintaining the necessary intimacy with sworn brothers living in other parts of Táiwān, was quite clear on the importance of iris sworn brothers' families in keeping ties alive.
However when they are separated too far apart, their mutual feelings can gradually become distant, and although you occasionally write a letter, still your feeling aren't really the same as they were earlier when you were both doing military service. If you have some period of contact with each other, then the feelings don't change. Or if the sworn brothers introduce us so their parents know us, then relationships are a little more familial; if we go to our sworn brother's house and he is not there, but his parents know us, then they treat us like their own son, and moreover we don't feel unnatural about it. But if you don't know your sworn brother's parents, so that when you go to his house you are regarded as an unfamiliar person, then no matter how intimate you were with him there well be a deterioration of your feelings. As the time gets longer, all that remains is the form of the sworn brotherhood.
My informants universally report undertaking oaths of sworn brotherhood without consulting their families ahead of time. One man said: "My father brought a man home and told us we were to call him 'uncle,' so we called him 'uncle'; I didn't know just who he really was." Another man said: "When I brought my sworn brother home and introduced him, all my father said was, 'Oh yes, you young people do that a lot.'" Here is evidence, if any were needed, that at least initially the promise of real familial integration of the sworn brother is more potential than actual.
Still, the celebration of the founding of the brotherhood with oaths in a temple, witnesses, feasting, and the like would presumably have helped force the undertaking into the open enough that the related families are probably rarely entirely unaware of the enterprise.
Obviously a sworn brotherhood undertaken without the knowledge of the families would have the weakness that the brothers would be prevented from behaving toward each other as true brothers if their families did not agree to such behavior. Particularly if real economic sharing came into question, this could be awkward. Given these constraints, it seems clear that a sworn brotherhood, like a friendship, must continue to be cultivated and must mature over time and gain family acceptance if it is to realize its full potential.
On the other hand, family commitment is potentially involved, and when the new "brothers" start using kinship terms for each other's families, it is hard for the relationship to be unnoticed. This can make the family and neighbors moral enforcers of the implications of sworn brotherhood. To quarrel with a sworn brother is perhaps not so serious as to quarrel with a brother, but because it is a breach of contract in another respect it is a great deal more serious than quarreling with a friend, and this can bring on not merely a feeling a guilt, but broader moral censure.
Boundaries of obligation. Friendship is an amorphous thing. Some friends are closer than others, and it is not entirely clear where friendship grades into mere acquaintance. Siblingship is different. One is or is not the sibling of a given person. Whatever the state of human relations, the fact of kinship, if not quite immutable, is nevertheless a great deal more clearly defined than the fact of friendship. This makes it preadaptive to the administration of rights and obligations in a way that friendship cannot be. (This principal applies to all sorts of organizations, of course, one Táinán informant was approached to join the Rotary Club, which was described as "barbarian sworn brotherhood" (hoan-á kiat pài 番仔結拜). An obligation undertaken with this, he was told, would be always to patronize the businesses of fellow Rotarians in preference to others. Such a rule is possible only because it is clear who is and who is not a Rotarian.)
None of the village cases I collected had, to my knowledge, involved any sort of economic exchange at all. On the other hand three of the urban groups (F, G, and H) exchanged money continually. They provide a perfect example of the Gallins' "instrumental sworn brotherhood."
Group F was founded in Taipei in 1954 by eight migrants from various southern cities. It was eventually expanded to twelve, then two members were expelled for "outrageous behavior," reducing it to ten, from which it has gradually grown to over twenty members, including two women. The group established a rule which outlawed money lending between any two members, but encouraged those in need to bring their problems to the group as a whole in a regular and secret bimonthly meeting, where money lent was registered in an account book for later repayment. The logic of the arrangement was that this would prevent disputes between individual members over money and would allow group pressure to come to bear effectively upon the late payer who had no good excuse to offer.
Two other groups in Táinán City (H and G with five and twelve members respectively) allowed money lending between individuals, through group efforts had also occurred. Only one of the members of Group F lives in Táinán. Although he is proud of his membership, so attenuated is the sense of intimacy with the other members of the group that new members have sometimes been admitted whom he has approved by letter and met face to face only after they had become his "siblings."
So taken was this man with the principle of a group of reciprocal money lenders based on metaphorical kinship that he founded another, similar, group, Group G, in Táinán, originally consisting of six small businessmen, and later expanded to twelve, including five from outside Táinán. The charter members swore an oath in 1966, burned a list of their names, birthdays, and addresses in a local temple, and have engaged in mutual feasting and reciprocal money lending ever since.
In a group of this kind, with clear financial rights and confidential meetings at which the finances of the constituent families are discussed and loans made, it is crucial to maintain clear boundaries of membership. Sworn brotherhood, unlike friendship, provides a mechanism for doing this, both by clarifying who is and who is not a member, and by setting up constraints on exploitation that make candid discussion of the affairs of constituent families a possibility. (Footnote 7)
Footnote 7. Discussion of family problems outside of the family itself is regarded as very bad form in China. Informants tell me that this is because outsiders are likely to take advantage of a family's weaknesses, or at least to gossip, which will be detrimental to the family's prestige. Accordingly friends, as outsiders, have a limited ability to assist in family difficulties unless the difficulties are too obvious to be hidden. With the ideology of sworn brotherhood comes a suspension of the insider/ outsider constraint on the flow of information. Note that an extension of the incest taboo to include the sworn sibling's family members also makes candor more possible both between cross-sex sworn siblings, and between men concerning their wives and daughters.
Thus even when there are no fraternal emotions to be preserved against the ravages of time, the same mechanisms which help to preserve intimate feelings of a personal kind can also help to maintain a support group for constituent families based on mutual advantage rather than sentiment. The idiom of metaphorical kinship, by stressing various aspects of Chinese brotherhood, far surpasses friendship alone in making relationships lasting and satisfying, whether that satisfaction is "affective" or "instrumental."
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One of the members of Group G was already a member of Group H when he joined Group G. Group H, founded in 1961, consists of five Táinán men, four of whom were originally from outside of the city. All of them work or have worked in the carpentry and rooftile repair business at one time or another, and three of them are in the same firm.
All three of these groups -F, G, and H- exchange money at various times, and all seem more instrumental than affective in tone. Nevertheless many of the same mechanisms for the avoidance of conflict and the mediation of human relations that we saw inherent in the metaphorical extension of kinship are found here as well. An interesting case arose in 1976 that illustrates both these points as well as another problem: that of intersecting memberships. If the family of my sworn brother is my family, what of the families of my sworn brother's sworn brothers in another group? We can gain some insight into this through the case of Bully Cài 蔡.
We saw that Groups G and H in Táinán have a member in common. We may name the linking member Wáng 王. Because Wáng was a member of both groups, several other members of each had a chance to meet members of the other group and knew each other slightly. A man whom I shall call Bully Cài is a member of Group G.
In the early 1960s Bully Cài had also been a member of a group of a hundred or so young toughs (liúmáng), but the group had been forced by the police to disband. In 1976 Wáng and two other members of Group H completed a carpentry job at a local temple and were unable to collect their fee. Because Wáng was also a sworn brother of Bully Cài, Cài volunteered to help them. He rounded up a friend from his Young Tough days and went to call on the man who had refused payment. He collected NT$5,000 (about US$130) for the three carpenters. In gratitude they made him a gift of NT$1,000.
A few weeks later, Bully Cài, apparently in need of money, asked Wáng's permission to go and help collect the rest of the debt. Permission was granted, and Cài and his Young Tough friend went again to the recalcitrant temple keeper and collected NT$1,000. However this time he did not repay the carpenters of Group H, but rather spent the money and did not say anything more about it. The matter lay quietly for three weeks. Sworn brothers of both groups were disturbed about it, however, for in effect it constituted a theft from the carpenters. But the carpenters themselves declined to take action.
Maybe poor old Cài needed money-again-and took it as a loan. Maybe poor old Cài had to pay a debt of some embarrassing sort to some of his old Young Tough associates and the borrowing was unavoidable. Since he is Wáng's sworn brother, he will certainly repay it eventually. We cannot object to helping a sworn brother [sic!] even if he took our money without asking for it.
In Cài's own Group G the same sort of reasoning prevailed. But, better acquainted with Cài, they were more worried. The unauthorized "borrowing" of a thousand dollars was a small thing, they maintained, but their concern was that this was more and more typical of Bully Cài. "Alas, poor old Cài is falling back into his evil old ways."
The case was interesting for a number of reasons, but what is germane to present purposes is that great circumspection was displayed about condemning Cài as a thief, and rationalizations were being made up on his behalf to avoid becoming openly angry with him. The surface attitude all around was more like concern and disappointment than anger. Yet the situation was tense, and the annoyance that they individually felt did not seem to me to lurk very deep beneath the surface. (It is true that any attempt to force Bully Cài to repay the money might have been met with rebuff by his Young Tough friends. On the other hand, also in danger were the delicate relations between the two groups, which were linked by the almost innocent person of poor Wáng.)
Wáng had been remodeling his house, and in celebration of its completion the sworn brothers of Group G held a dinner in his new front parlor. Some members of both of Wáng's sworn brotherhoods attended. Cài conspicuously and predictably absented himself and sent his wife instead, who announced that he was unable to come because he had to work that evening. This was interpreted by all as a confession of his awareness of his wrongdoing. Two weeks later his brethren of Group G held a meeting to discuss his problems with him and to "urge him to be a better person." I was not permitted to attend the meeting, which was formally secret, but I was given to understand that Cài submitted himself gracefully enough to this. He was, after all, their "brother," and in fact their "youngest brother," and their interest in his "borrowing" of NT$1,000 had to be construed by him as fraternal concern rather than nosy prying. I was eventually told that the money had been paid back.
Bully Cài was introduced into the carpenters' business because of a connection through Wáng, the linking member of the two groups. His misbehavior reflected an under-appreciation of the delicacy both of metaphorical kinship and of intergroup relations. Care was taken not to hold Wáng responsible, but for that matter care was also taken on the part of the members of Group H not to hold Cài responsible. It was, in the end, his own group of sworn brothers, Group G, stirred by their loss of face before Group H and by their concern about Bully Cài's morality, that led to action. The interest in protecting the relationship between the two groups was more than merely an interest in saving Wáng's or Cài's face or money.
All members of both groups had become involved with the matter: the groups had earlier decided that, since all members were sworn brothers with Wáng, they were ipso facto sworn brothers with each other, or at least sworn half-brothers. Kinship terms were extended to the members and families of the "other" group (though mourning obligations were not), and small favors of various kinds were apparently justified on the basis of this logic. When the action came, it took the form of a "familial" inquest, with Cài's place as youngest brother playing neatly into their hands as an additional reason for him to listen to them. The resolution in the end was satisfactory to all concerned. And the carpenters had successfully collected the bulk of their bill.
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Several references have been made so far to the ritualism of sworn brotherhood. Not only are certain ritualistic obligations assumed by sworn brothers (the red envelopes, kinship terms, mourning clothing, and so on that we mentioned earlier), but ritual is involved in the establishment of the relationship. The Táiwān informants did not, for the most part, practice as much ritual as they knew about, but 'almost all of the brotherhoods involved at least some.
The full form. The full form described by informants involves a feast, including wine and an oath, ideally sworn in a temple. The oath is sometimes written, with the participants' names and birth dates (and hence birth order), and burned for registration in heaven. In some cases (though none from Táiwān, to my knowledge) participants take on new names in these documents, so that the entire sibling set may share a common syllable in the given names, as sets of natural siblings often do. Some informants, as indicated earlier, mention cutting their fingers and mixing the blood of the new siblings in the wine. Chinese social compacts in general are sealed with feasts, and temples are used to send all sorts of messages about changing social relationships for registration by supernaturals, whether gods or ancestors.
Accordingly none of the sworn brotherhood ritualism is bizarre; rather it is especially appropriate, in the context of Chinese symbolic expression, to the purpose at hand. For the analyst it illustrates many, of the points we have already made concerning the way in which the idiom of kinship serves to meet the goals of the sworn brotherhood. Family involvement is almost inevitable, given the adoption of kinship terms at the time of the initiation ritual. The introduction of hierarchical potential is assured by incorporating birthdates in the charter documents. The boundaries of the relationship are firmly established by the introduction of blood into the wine, by the adoption of new names with a common syllable or simply by the fact of jointly subscribing to the vows and eating the feast. Mutual aid is also symbolized by communal feasting, for the cost of the feast is shared.
Models. We mentioned earlier the influence of literary and historical models upon these rites. By far the most important model and most famous of all sworn brotherhoods is the union of Liú Bèi 劉備, Guān Yǔ 關羽, and Zhāng Fēi 張飛, heros of the Warring States period and subjects of the brilliant romantic novel by Luó Guànzhōng 羅貫中 (ca 1330-1400) Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sānguó Yǎnyì 三國演義), set in that period. The text, as represented in that novel, reads as follows:
We three, Liu Pei, Kuan Yu, and Chang Fei, though of different families, swear brotherhood, and promise mutual help to one end. We will rescue each other in difficulty, we will aid each other in danger. We swear to serve the state and save the people. We ask not the same day of birth, but we seek to die together. May Heaven, the all-ruling, and Earth, the all-producing, read our hearts, and if we turn aside from righteousness or forget kindliness may Heaven and man smite us! (Translated by Brewitt-Taylor 1925: 5-6)
Guān Yǔ was canonized in 1594, and his temples are particularly popular places to swear oaths of sworn brotherhood. This alliance for deeds of derring-do (and others as well) lends to the institution of sworn brotherhood literary precedent for social rebellion and probably contributes to its popularity among delinquents, soldiers, and other young men intrigued by common efforts and courageous deeds.
A quite different model is provided by, for example, the tale of Yú Bóyá 俞伯牙 and Zhōng Zǐqí 鍾子期 of the Zhōu 周 dynasty, who met on a boat, discovered a common love of music, and despite differences of social class swore to be brothers till death. In this case personal affection, not really common purpose, provide a Chinese equivalent of the Old Testament friendship of David and Jonathan, and the martial theme is missing entirely. This model too is popularly available, for the tale is found in the popular collection Wondrous Sights Past and Present (Jīngǔ Qíguān 今古奇觀) which circulates in Táiwān both in the original Míng 明 dynasty version and in modern colloquial redactions. [For a retelling, click here.]
Popular literature provides a range of intermediate models as well. Xú Yū's 徐紆 (1972) Traditional Folktales From Táiwān (Táiwān Mínjiān Liúchuán Gùshi 臺灣民間流傳故事), for example, is made up of a series of stories about two sworn brothers and their adventures, and even the popular temple figures, General Fàn 范 and General Xiè 謝 are sworn brothers famed for their fidelity to each other. [For a retelling, click here.] (Some groupings of locally important gods are also described as sworn brothers, but people less often know tales about them that could serve as models for human sworn siblingship.)
"Gold and Orchid" oaths. In Táiwān the taking of oaths is quite various. One village informant told me simply that "We just said we'd do it, and that was that." Another, who became a sworn brother to a number of fellow soldiers during military service in Jīnmén 金門, reports that the group went to a local temple, where a pre-printed oath was administered to them by a temple attendant. The oath was so literary that, according to my informant, none of the participants actually understood what it said. A third informant reports an oath taken at the banquet. No temple was involved. He paraphrased it as follows:
After we have become sworn brothers, no brother may violate the blessings of brotherhood, nor turn his back upon fraternal loyalty. If any forgets the blessings or violates the blessings or turns his back upon the pledge, he shall …
At this point a bystander to the interview interrupted to complete the (apparently familiar) sense of the commitment: "… be struck dead by lightning, have no descendents, and suffer a generation of poverty."
Chinese at other times and in other places seem to have favored more elaborate oaths, a few of which are preserved. The written form is called a jīnlánpǔ 金蘭譜, probably best translated as "Register of Gold and Orchids," where gold and orchids are somewhat threadbare symbols of the durability and "fragrance" (attractiveness) respectively of the sworn brotherhood relationship. (Footnote 8) Such a document includes the names, addresses, and birthdays of all participants, listed in order of age seniority, preceded by the text of the oath itself. A Russian observer, writing from Manchuria in 1910 and signing himself simply I. D., comments as follows about them:
Footnote 8. In his article on jīnlánpǔ, Ivanov translates the phrase as "golden pacts of brotherhood" (золоте акты побратимства) (1914: 5), which probably wrongly segments the Chinese as gold orchid-registers rather than gold-orchid registers. His segmentation makes sense in view of his observation on page 7, where he distinguishes between jīnlánpǔ, or the texts of the oaths themselves, and lánpǔ 蘭譜, documents containing only the identification of participants without the text of the oath taken. I am unable to find any confirmation of this distinction, which may have been peculiar to the Vladivostok area where Ivanov lived, or even to one of his informants. Lánpǔ is regarded by most lexicographers as merely an abbreviation of the longer phrase. The abbreviated, simpler lánpǔ containing only names lvanov associates specifically with civil servants. In Táiwān this simpler form, with names, addresses, and birth data only, is the commoner, and is often written as a human record, even though the oath itself is only oral.
The content of the oath was essentially always the same, but varied in expression depending on the extent of the author's knowledge of the flowery language of the classical books. (I.D. 1910: 186)
He then adds a translation of a "typical" variant, presumably from Manchuria:
We, people of the same thoughts and aspirations, burn incense before Buddha, and wish to bind ourselves with the fragrance of golden orchids, in accordance with the example set before us in the Peach Garden. Though born at different times, we wish to die at the same time, year, month, and day. If there be riches, we shall spend them together. If there be misfortune, we shall suffer together. If happiness shine upon us, we shall enjoy it together. If our hearts be not one, but two, then let the spirits punish us. (1910: 186f)
The phrase chin-lan, by the way, while clearly designating sworn brotherhood, is sometimes loosely used. After World War II, Táinán area soldiers returning from the front founded a Jīnlán Shèng Hùi 金蘭勝會, or "Gold and Orchids Victory Association," which met once a year for commemorative feasting. (Footnote 9) Although a metaphor of sworn brotherhood (itself a metaphor of brotherhood) was applied, there was not, so far as I have learned, any oath of sworn brotherhood in the sense that concerns us here.
Footnote 9. An error or play on words may be involved. Shèng Huì 勝會, "Victory Association," is homonymous with shènghùi 盛會, "magnificent assembly," a more common phrase sometimes used to refer to banquets of sworn brotherhood groups.
A rather more prolix jīnlánpǔ document, sworn to in Xiàmén 廈門 in 1888, came into the hands of Henri Borel, who has provided a full French translation, including some notes on the Chinese, but not the full Chinese text (Borel 1893). The oath was taken by four nineteen-and twenty-year-old men. In this text the candidates first invoke the precedents of Guǎn Zhòng 管仲 and Bào Shúyá 鮑叔牙, men of the Eastern Zhōu dynasty famed for maintaining an intimate friendship despite enormous differences in wealth, and of Lěi Yì 雷義 and Chén Zhòng 陳重, two Han dynasty scholars whose devotion was said to have made them as inseparable as lacquer mixed with glue." (Footnote 10)
Footnote 10. It is important to bear in mind that Borel's document may not have been composed by the parties to it, but may have been a more general form of sworn brotherhood oaths taken in Fújiàn 福建 in the late Qīng 清. Indeed, it is entirely possible that the subscribing parties were even ignorant of exactly what it said, the same way my village informant was ignorant of the terms of the oath he took in Jīnmén.
… We live in the same village and we follow the same occupation. We have been attached to each other since long ago, and furthermore ours is . an acquaintance of not merely a day. But fearing that time may interrupt the continuation and that our friendship shall be loosened over time, we open our hearts and take a blood oath, respectfully informing the gods (as follows): Our relationship shall be eternal, like metal or rock, and we shall be no less intimate than the sounds of the ocarina and the bamboo flute.
Your father shall be my father, and we shall inquire after their sleep when we mount to their quarters. Your children shall be mine, and they shall follow me when I am walking and they shall embrace my knees in their turns.
We shall respectfully salute our mothers and our sisters-in-law on holidays, and shall respectfully congratulate them, following the traditional propriety [due to one's own family]. We shall entertain each other's elder and younger brothers and shall drink and have banquet. We shall not show ourselves disrespectful. Friends must follow their hearts, and it is better to exhort each other to follow the way and apply oneself entirely to it than to oppose one another.
When the circumstances of our lives are no longer the same, he who is honored shall not forget him of low condition. And even though there be between them such distance as lies between the clouds and the mud, they shall not because of this seek new friends. We shall share our likes and our dislikes. We shall not be envious of one another, but shall love each other always. In affliction and in sorrow we shall sympathize. Our surnames are different, but there shall be no difference among our hearts. We shall not wait until we have read the text of Tang Ti [Book of Songs II.i.IV.I in Legge's translation, Legge 1872: 250] to obey the law of brotherhood of carriages [i.e., of the rich] and of straw hats [i.e., of the poor]. Henceforth we shall scrupulously observe these words. Should one forget and transgress the law of brotherhood, Heaven and Earth shall condemn and chastise him and the gods and buddhas shall see him and judge him. (Borel 1893: 421-424)
At the end of this text are added the names of the five sworn brothers together with their dates and hours of birth and their noms de fraternité, taken at the same time and designed to include a common syllable.
With the exception of the adoption of this new set of names, there is little in this oath that is not part of the conception of sworn brotherhood we have already described for Táiwān. What is being ritualized is the same prior friendship and the same desire to extend this over time and add to its effectiveness and stability. We note the same injunctions against unfilial behavior once the relationship is established, and the same stress on the "adoption" of one sworn brother's family by another. Obligation to the children and parents of a sworn brother are mentioned. The reference to maintaining the relationship even when the participants come to differ in wealth and social standing, stressed more by the Gallins' informants than by my own, is also found in Táiwān.
This does not mean that the Táiwān brotherhoods are traditional in every detail, but it does suggest that many of the objectives and understandings about sworn brotherhood which Táiwān informants express are traditional ones, and that there is ideological continuity between the institution in contemporary Táiwān and the institution as a feature of late imperial Chinese society.
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We began this inquiry by asking why it was better to be a brother than a friend. In the course of our exploration of this topic, we have seen that the custom of sworn brotherhood uses the metaphor of kinship to create a social form of great flexibility, which can help to sustain intimate relationships over a long period or can create alliances that promote the well-being of participants' businesses, political goals, or family affairs.
Brotherhood is an appropriate and useful metaphor —though it is only a metaphor— because 1) it allows associated families to treat selected outsiders as insiders, 2) it obviates commercial competition, and 3) it includes a provision for dispute settlement through the assertion of an ideology of agreeableness and through the imposition of hierarchy. A friendship strengthened into a sworn brotherhood is perhaps not brotherhood as such, but it is friendship indeed.
Sworn brotherhood, in other words, works. But that is only the beginning of what we need to know about it. Does it have any relationship to modernization? Are there different patterns across social classes? How does it affect political life? How closely do the relationships it engenders resemble adoptive (yì 義 or gān 乾) relationships? How in fact do individuals choose which friends they want to convert to sworn brothers? Are such relationships commoner or less common than they were a generation or two ago? How much are they affected by fashion? The data are still lacking to answer these questions. Yet the distributional ones in particular are crucial if we are to understand the full implications of this flexible and long lived custom.
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