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Confucian norms shaped traditional Chinese families

Author  :  KONG DELI     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2017-11-07


The picture shows Shili Hall in Qufu, Shandong Province, where Confucius educated his son about the importance of studying songs and etiquette.

Families are the basic cells of society as well as safe havens to seek emotional refuge. A person’s cultural literacy, habits and personal aspirations are significantly shaped by his family education.

According to the Great Learning, the purpose of education is to illustrate illustrious virtue, improve one’s knowledge and pursue the excellence. The book states that one should follow eight principles to achieve this purpose. Extending the scope of one’s knowledge, being sincere in one’s thoughts and rectifying one’s heart are all aspects of cultivating one’s personality. Guiding one’s family is the prerequisite for governing the state and calming the world. Cultivating personalities and regulating families represents the transitional phase when a person transforms from individual cultivation to caring about the outside world. 

Mencius said: “The world is based on the state, the state on the family and the family on the individual.” The concept of “family” for Chinese people is not only where one is born and raised, but also the foundation for education.

This family-oriented ethos, which came into shape through long-term guidance from family regulations, instructions, rites, rules and teaching, became a family’s cultural tradition. In traditional agrarian China, a big family clan would inhabit in a region for generations. A person’s birth, education, passage into adulthood, marriage and funeral were always performed via the family, with the elderly presiding over all the rites. Family etiquette guided the ways in which people distinguished intimacy from social distance and was a way to integrate the family through jointly offering sacrifices to common ancestors and celebrating a life event of a family member. 

A good family ethos could help build proper social customs. Family instructions and rules regulate the behaviors of the family members so that their behaviors abide by social norms. Explicit family regulations and instructions were usually hung in the ancestral halls, or as Mozi said, “written on bamboo and silk and engraved on metal and stone.”

Confucius is the founder of the family culture of educating the young with poetry and etiquette. Confucius once asked his son Kong Li, “Have you studied the Songs?” Kong Li replied with “not yet.” Confucius said: “If you do not study the Songs, you will find yourself at a loss in conversation.” Another day, Confucius asked his son again: “Have you studied etiquette and rituals?” Kong Li replied with “not yet.” Confucius said: “If you do not study etiquette and rituals, you will find it difficult for you to set foot in society.” 

The Book of Songs and the Book of History represented the knowledge system of ancient China, which were the continuation of cultural memory and traditional experience, without which one cannot communicate with others. The etiquette, rites and music represent the behavior system that provided people with behavioral rules, without which, one would find it difficult to interact with others.

These teachings of Confucius later became the basis of education for many families. Confucius said wenzhi binbin, ranhou junzi which means that harmony between internal goodness and external elegance makes a true man of virtue. A man with internal moral awareness who complies with social norms and regulates his behavior is a true gentleman. 

According to the Book of Han, the folk saying goes that “Leaving the children a classic book of the sage would be far more valuable than a basket of gold.” The life value and aspiration of Chinese people lie in becoming a virtuous and erudite person through studying as well as caring and serving the people. As the Great Learning points out, “When (the leading) family is ren (loving), the whole nation will follow its model and being loving. When (the leading) family is rang (courteous), the whole nation will also follow and become courteous.

A good family ethos requires the parents to behave as a model to their children, whether in pursuing truth or adhering to social norms. The good ethos of a nation can only be expected when the ethos of thousands of families is well established. 


Kong Deli is from the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Beijing Jiaotong University.

Editor: Yu Hui

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