In China’s early dynasties, China was not yet a unified empire. Citizens of one province considered themselves to be different from the Chinese in another province. On first glance, it appeared there was no thread that they had in common. However, all Chinese seem to have had the same basic values, and no value appears to have been championed more than the family. In ancient China, the view of the family was so powerful, it became intertwined with art, politics, and philosophy.

Chinese art shows the importance of the family. In the Book of Songs, one of the songs is entitled “I Beg You, Zhong Zi. ” This poem appears to tell the tale of a young man who is not approved by the family of the woman he loves. The woman tells him not to risk angering the parents and brothers. This means that the family is more important to the woman than her lover. Also, she states several times “Not that I mind about the [vegetation] ." The woman does not value these earthly goods as much as she values honoring her family. The last stanza changes slightly; instead of the woman fearing her parents and brothers, she now fears “what people may say.” This implies that the Chinese considered their neighbors to be an extended part of the family, and that it was important to keep them happy.

Other songs in the Book of Songs show this attitude of holding the family needs/wants above one’s own needs/wants. “Cypress Boat” is a poem very similar to “I Beg You, Zhong Zi” in subject matter, but it shows us a slightly different take on the problem. Consider the lines “Brothers too I have;/ I cannot be snatched away./ But lo, when I told them of my plight/ I found they were angry with me.” The young lady has a problem, and the first attempt to solve it involves going to her family. This suggests that the family members in ancient China were expected to help each other out in times of need. Upon being rejected by her family, the woman falls into a state of despair. However, through it all, she takes no action that would be contrary to the wishes of her family.

In ancient China, not even death weakened familial bonds. The fifth poem in the Book of Songs, “Glorious Ancestors,” describes a scene of worship for departed family members. The living give sacrifices for the dead, including wine and rice. This suggests that the family was going to feed and provide for their relatives, even through death. This shows that the value of the family was very strong.

It is not just Chinese art that shows the importance of family. This concept was so important to the Chinese, it became reflected in philosophy. The Book of Documents contains Yi Yin’s Mandate of Heaven , which laid the groundwork for Chinese political philosophy for years to come. In the very first paragraph, we see several examples of honoring the family: a sacrifice is made to the heir-king’s father, and the ceremony takes place before his grandfather’s shrine. This ancestor worship shows that even the kings and emperors did not want to risk upsetting their family, even though the family members were dead.

The next paragraph describes how the last of the Xia kings disregarded the example set by his ancestors. Yi Yin then states that it was this disrespect for the family that resulted in the downfall of the Xia. This shows the Chinese believed that betraying your family could only bring ruin. The new king is then told “To set up love, it is for you to love your relations; to set up respect, it is for you to respect your elders. The commencement is in the family and the state.” Since the king is now a figurative father for all the people in his kingdom, he must treat his subjects as his family. Only in this way will prosperity come to China. The very last line in the Mandate of Heaven warns the new king about the penalties for failure as a ruler- the “ruin of [his] ancestral temple.” No matter what happens, the king has his original family, and it is up to him to make his family proud.

The Analects of Confucianism has an entire section devoted to Xiao, or “Filial Piety.” The concept of the family was so strong that You Ruo stated, “filial piety and brotherly obedience are perhaps the root of humanity.” In Confucian thought, honoring a dead parent reinforces moral character. This shows that being loyal to your family will not only benefit the family, but it will also benefit you. This explains why ancestor worship was so common in ancient China; in addition to any tangible benefits brought by the ancestral approval, honoring dead relatives served as the self-cleansing portion of religion.

The Confucianist view of government has several similarities with the Mandate of Heaven. Both stress the idea that a ruler must be the head of his country’s proverbial family. Confucius says to kings “If you are filial and loving, [your subjects] will be loyal.” Just as the father who did not respect his family found no respect in return, a non-filial king would find no loyal feelings among the ruled. Also, the word “filial” is used before the word “loving.” This is suggestive of what the priorities in ancient China were.

In addition to this shared value in the Analects and the Mandate of Heaven, both documents heavily encourage rulers to surround themselves with capable ministers. Confucius likens a strong cabinet to the North Star; the Mandate of Heaven warns against ignoring the words of sages. Since these advisors were expected to be very close to the king, they almost constituted a second family for him. As such, it was very important for a king to construct the best secondary family possible. Both documents state that the end result will be loyalty from both ministers and subjects, and are very suggestive of the role that the family played in Chinese society.

Even opposing viewpoints of the time, such as Daoism and Legalist policy, showed value for the family. According to “The Classic of the Way and Virtue” , “if we could renounce our benevolence and discard our righteousness, the people would again become filial and kindly.” This suggests that the Daoists did not believe current Chinese society was honoring the family enough. Apparently, the Daoists held the family to be so important, not even the current attitudes towards filial piety were sufficient. Also, the placement of the word “filial” before “kindly” is again suggestive of where the priorities lay.

The writings of Han Fei and Sima Qian also show that the Legalists found the family to be important. Fei, when speaking of the Two Handles , warns the ruler to keep both the power of punishment and reward in his hands instead of in the hands of ministers. This implies that Fei felt it was important for the king to keep his place as the undisputed head of the proverbial household of China. In The Records of the Grand Historian, Qian mentions the inscription on Qin Shuangti’s monument . Part of it reads, “There is harmony between fathers and sons.” Later on, a line reads “Kinsmen care for each other.” This shows that Qin Shuangti felt that increasing the bond between family members was an accomplishment worth inscribing in stone. The fact that the Legalist political system, which so often clashed with Daoism and Confucianism, shares its elevation of the family with these other philosophies is a tribute to how strong the Chinese core belief of the family was ingrained in Chinese culture.

The philosophy, art, and politics of ancient China show how valuable the family was considered to be. Even as new ideas came and went, a substitute for the family never came to the ancient Chinese. The family was a very important concept, and the Chinese culture shows it in many ways.

Node your homework

The Book of Songs,” in Alfred Andrea and James Overfield, eds., The Human Record: Sources of Global History, Fifth Edition (Boston: Houghtan Mifflin, 2005), 30.
The Book of Documents,” by Yi Yin in Alfred Andrea and James Overfield, eds., The Human Record: Sources of Global History, Fifth Edition (Boston: Houghtan Mifflin, 2005), 28.
The Analects,” in Alfred Andrea and James Overfield, eds., The Human Record: Sources of Global History, Fifth Edition (Boston: Houghtan Mifflin, 2005), 92.
The Classic of the Way and Virtue,” by Laozi in Alfred Andrea and James Overfield, eds., The Human Record: Sources of Global History, Fifth Edition (Boston: Houghtan Mifflin, 2005), 88.
The Writings of Master Han Fei,” by Han Fei in Alfred Andrea and James Overfield, eds., The Human Record: Sources of Global History, Fifth Edition (Boston: Houghtan Mifflin, 2005), 98.
Records of the Historian,” by Sima Qian in Alfred Andrea and James Overfield, eds., The Human Record: Sources of Global History, Volume I, Second Edition (Boston: Houghtan Mifflin, 1994), 170.