Opinion Essay Family Structures In China

China’s Traditional Cultural Values

The cultural values of a country influence its national psychology and identity. Citizens’ values and public opinions are conveyed to state leaders through the media and other information channels, both directly and indirectly influencing decisions on foreign policy. The traditional cultural values that influence the psyche of the Chinese people are harmony, benevolence, righteousness, courtesy, wisdom, honesty, loyalty, and filial piety.

Zhang Lihua
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Of these, the core value is harmony. Harmony means “proper and balanced coordination between things” and encompasses rationale, propriety, and compatibility. Rationale refers to acting according to objective laws and truths. Propriety indicates suitability and appropriateness. The value of harmony advocates “harmony but not uniformity.” Properly coordinating different things by bringing them together in the appropriate manner allows them to develop from an uncoordinated state to one of coordination; from asymmetry to symmetry; and from imbalance to balance. Modern Chinese society tries to maintain harmony between humankind and nature; between people and society; between members of different communities; and between mind and body.

Benevolence, the core value of Confucianism, extends from the importance of familial ties and blood connections and is held in high esteem by the Chinese. “A peaceful family will prosper (jiahe wanshi xing, 家和万事兴)” is a famous and widely embraced saying. This benevolence, although based in familial ties, extends to friendships and social relationships, producing a full set of values that include justice, courtesy, wisdom, honesty, loyalty, self-discipline, and commitment.

Righteousness refers to justice and correctness. As Confucius said, “the gentleman understands what is moral; the small man understands what is profitable (junzi yu yu yi, xiaoren yu yu li, 君子喻于义,小人喻于利).” There are not only individual benefits but also collective and social benefits. All people should seek what benefits both the individual and the society. As two Chinese sayings put it, “Everybody is responsible for the rise or fall of the country (tianxia xingwang, pifu youze, 天下兴亡,匹夫有责)” and “Be the first to show concern and the last to enjoy yourself (xian tianxia zhi you er you, hou tianxia zhi le er le, 先天下之忧而忧,后天下之乐而乐).” If the country suffers foreign invasions and perils, the people should “expel the foreign invaders [and] resuscitate the Chinese nation (quchu dalu, huifu zhonghua, 驱除鞑虏,恢复中华),” brandishing their weapons and struggling for the glory of the country.

Courtesy stresses modesty and prudence. It is about respecting laws and preventing misconduct. Traditional Chinese culture respects the importance of rites and has special rites for various occasions, such as the emperor’s sacrifice to heaven, the common people’s sacrifice to ancestors, weddings, funerals, and courteous exchanges. As the saying goes, “It is impolite not to return what one receives (lai er buwang fei li ye, 来而不往非礼也).” Confucius particularly stressed courtesy in daily life.

Wisdom requires that one distinguish right from wrong, place capable people in suitable positions, know oneself, and be resourceful. Confucius said, “Benevolence means to love and wisdom means to understand others renzhe airen, zhizhe zhiren, 仁者爱人,智者知人).” One must have a loving heart to love others, and one must have wisdom to understand others. People should have not only a loving heart but also wisdom to distinguish good from evil and right from wrong. They should have the wisdom and resourcefulness to control evil and promote good.

A number of prominent figures who loved and understood others have carved their names into Chinese history, such as Wei Qing (卫青), the Han dynasty general during the reign of Emperor Wudi; Wei Zheng (魏征), the Tang dynasty prime minister during the reign of Emperor Taizong; Hai Rui (海瑞), an honest and upright Ming dynasty official; Qi Jiguang (戚继光), a famous Ming dynasty general who fought Japanese pirates; and two upright Northern Song dynasty officials, Kou Zhun (寇准) and Bao Zheng (包拯).

Honesty refers to trustworthiness, integrity, and credibility. “People should obtain their fortunes reasonably and properly through their labor,” said Confucius, “and not through fraudulence and cheating.” He emphasized honesty in daily behavior. Honesty is a moral virtue greatly valued by the Chinese. Many Confucian businessmen insisted on the principle of honesty in running enterprises in the past and established time-honored brands.

Loyalty stresses service to the motherland. It is an emotion and a value that evolves from blood ties and means that in cases of foreign invasion citizens should exert all efforts to protect their country as they would protect their own homes. Loyalty also means faithfulness to family and friends.

Filial piety is another important value in Confucianism. According to Confucius, “Respecting and supporting the family’s senior members and handling their funeral affairs (zunlao, jinglao, yanglao, songlao, 尊老、敬老、养老、送老)” are duties of younger generations, and “caring for the old and nurturing the young (lao you duo yang, shao you suo yi, 老有所养,少有所依)” are fundamental family virtues.

Harmony in China’s Foreign Relations

The Chinese traditional cultural values of harmony, benevolence, righteousness, courtesy, wisdom, honesty, loyalty, and filial piety are embodied in China’s diplomacy through the concept of harmony, the most important Chinese traditional value.

Harmony But Not Uniformity

According to the concept of harmony, the universe unites diversity. Difference does not necessarily equal contradiction. Differences sometimes evolve into contradictions, but sometimes they constitute a necessary condition for harmony. There are many examples in which differences complement each other in nature and society. Uniting diversity is the basis for the generation of new things. Confucius said, “The gentleman aims at harmony, and not at uniformity (junzi he er bu tong, 君子和而不同).” Thus, a gentleman may hold different views, but he does not blindly follow others. Instead, he seeks to coexist harmoniously with them.

In the 1950s, the People’s Republic of China put forward the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence—mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty; mutual nonaggression; noninterference in each other’s internal affairs; equality and mutual benefit; and peaceful coexistence. These principles show how China’s diplomatic strategy embodies the value of harmony. Over the past five decades, the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence have been widely accepted by most countries and have become important criteria for standardizing international relationships.

On December 24, 2002, former Chinese president Jiang Zemin visited the United States and delivered a speech on China’s diplomatic concept of harmony but not uniformity. Jiang said, “More than 2,000 years ago, the Chinese thinker Confucius brought forward the idea that ‘the gentleman aims at harmony, and not at uniformity.’ It meant that harmony promotes coexistence and co-prosperity whereas differences complement and support each other.” The law of harmony but not uniformity is important for social development and as a standard for people’s conduct. It is also the foundation for coordinating the development of civilizations. All the world’s civilizations, social systems, and development modes should communicate with and learn from each other through peaceful competition. They should pursue co-development by seeking commonalities while preserving their differences.

At the end of 2003, then Chinese premier Wen Jiabao spoke at Harvard University and said, “‘Harmony without uniformity’ is a great idea put forth by ancient Chinese thinkers. It means harmony without sameness and difference without conflict. Harmony entails coexistence and co-prosperity, while difference conduces to mutual complementation and mutual support.” In May 2005, then Chinese president Hu Jintao advanced the concept of a “harmonious world” at a high-level UN meeting.

Noninterference in other countries’ internal affairs is an important foreign policy directive for the Chinese government. When one country has problems in its internal affairs, China believes that interfering, such as stirring up trouble by supporting one side in attacking another, is immoral. In recent centuries, China suffered invasions, humiliation, and much interference in its internal affairs, most notably by Western powers that forced China to sign a series of unequal treaties. The Chinese are thus opposed to the interference of other countries in a nation’s internal affairs.

From these current examples, it is clear that the concept of harmony has an impact on China’s modern-day diplomacy. It is also paramount in guiding the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence and China’s policy on intervention—both cornerstones of China’s foreign relations today.

Mutual Respect Between Countries

According to Lao Tse’s Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing, 道德经), “A great state is like a low-lying, downward-flowing stream; it becomes the center to which tend all the small states under heaven. . . . Stillness may be considered a sort of abasement. Thus it is that a great state, by putting itself on a lower level than small states, wins them over and that small states, by showing their deference to a great state, win it over. For the great state, showing humility leads to gaining adherents. For the small states, it leads to procuring favor. A great state only wants to unite and nourish people; a small state only wants to be received by, and to serve, the other. Each gets what it desires, but the great state must learn to show deference.”1

This means a bigger state should win the trust of a smaller state by acting modestly and vice versa. So the great state should not have an excessive desire to control the small one, and the small one should not grovel to the greater one. To achieve their respective goals, the great state should be particularly modest.

Lao Tse also said, “The rivers and seas are paid tribute by all the streams because of their skill in being lower than the streams—it is thus that they are the kings of them all.2 So it is that the sage ruler, wishing to be above men, puts himself by his words below them. . . . Therefore all in the world delight to exalt him and do not weary of him. Because he does not strive, no one finds it possible to strive against him.”3 This implies that if only people could turn away from fighting and internecine strife and instead make a concerted effort to move toward cooperating on coexistence and mutual development, human society could have a promising future.

This view applies to China’s foreign strategy because China sees all countries, big or small, as equal. Big and powerful countries should not bully small and weak ones. Big countries should not measure other countries against their own values and political systems nor should they despise, attack, or even exterminate those countries that do not comply with their own values and world view. Regardless of size, all countries should respect each other, learn from each other, and pursue coexistence and mutual development.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson delivered a speech in 2012 on the EU’s ban prohibiting its members from importing oil from Iran and imposing sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank. He said that China insists on solving international disputes through dialogue and consultation. China is opposed to the unilateral sanctions on Iran and particularly disapproves of the expansion of these sanctions. Pressure and sanctions cannot solve the problems in Iran. On the contrary, they will make the issues more complicated and severe by intensifying antagonism and disturbing regional peace and stability. The parties involved should strengthen dialogue and cooperation to solve the Iran issues through negotiations.

China’s aid, investment, and trade to African countries do not attach any political conditions, a practice that demonstrates how a big country can show respect for smaller and poorer countries. China has endured many unequal treaties and has had conditions added on to loans by foreign powers. As a result, China opposes investment and loans to developing countries that carry additional political conditions. It tries to go by the traditional tenet, “Do not do to others what you would not like to be done to you.”

As for China’s relationship with its neighbors, the government pursues a policy of “fostering a harmonious, secure, and prosperous neighboring environment.” For instance, the Chinese government has pushed forward the Six-Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program and played the role of mediator in resolving U.S.–North Korean disputes.

Based on the principles of mutual benefit, cooperation, and win-win development, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was established by China, Russia, and the five Central Asian countries. It has racked up impressive achievements over the past ten years. China also exchanges and cooperates with the Association of Southeast Nations, India, Pakistan, and other neighboring countries equally. All these initiatives reflect the principle that big countries should respect small ones.

Lonely at the Top

The value of harmony stresses a comprehensive and logical view of every issue. The Qian Diagram (qian gua, 乾卦) in the Book of Changes (yi jing, 《易经》) says, “the proud dragon repents (kang long you hui, 亢龙有悔).” This means that things in the extreme do not last long, just as dragons suffocate, freeze, and fall when they fly too high. And according to Lao Tse’s Dao De Jing (Dao De Jing, 《道德经》), “When things have attained their maturity, they become old (wu zhuang ze lao, 物壮则老).” According to these golden sayings, big countries should not go to extremes or pursue ultimate power.

At a press conference on March 14, 2010, Wen Jiabao said, “China’s development will not impact any other country. China does not seek hegemony when it is developing, and China will never seek hegemony even if it is developed in the future.” Wen’s words embody the concept of it being lonely at the top (gao chu bu sheng han, 高处不胜寒).

Lao Tse said, “He who stands on his tiptoes does not stand firm; he who stretches his legs does not walk easily. He who displays himself does not shine; he who asserts his own views is not distinguished; he who vaunts himself does not find his merit acknowledged; he who is conceited has no superiority allowed to him.”4 According to this line of thought, when a country grows more powerful, it should not become arrogant and conceited, nor should it aim to be a superpower.

As for China’s relationship with the United States, China does not challenge the United States’ position of primacy or seek to directly counter the United States on issues that do not involve China’s core interests. China’s skill in balancing and coordinating interests and contradictions between the two countries and maintaining a neutral, “neither friend nor enemy” relationship with the United States indicates that China’s political practices encompass this wisdom.

Reasonable Struggle

The value of harmony insists that nonantagonistic conflicts should be handled through consultation, coordination, and balanced means to achieve equilibrium. But in certain cases, such as foreign invasions, one should firmly fight back in self-defense and counter injustice with a just war. As the old Chinese saying goes, “Those who do not offend will not be offended. Those who offend will be offended (ren bu fan wo wo bu fan ren, ren ruo fan wo wo bi fan ren, 人不犯我我不犯人,人若犯我我必犯人).”

In the face of insults, oppression, and aggression from other countries, people should be brave and succeed in their struggles by leveraging political wisdom and other means. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (Sunzi bingfa, 《孙子兵法》) elaborates on using wisdom to fight against the enemy. Thus, traditional Chinese culture includes not only Confucianism, which focuses on the cultivation of virtues and the maintenance of ethics, but also the Art of War for military strategy and tactics.

For instance, in the case of the South China Sea, where the Philippines’ provocations threatened China’s territorial sovereign right to the islands, the Chinese government tried to solve the issue via diplomatic means and peaceful negotiations. However, to defend the integrity of state sovereignty, territorial waters, islands, and islets, China may engage in struggle if necessary.

A World of Universal Harmony

The ideal society according to traditional Chinese cultural values is “a world for all (shi jie da tong, 世界大同) and a world of universal harmony (tian xia wei gong, 天下为公).” In order to realize this ideal, the value of harmony advocates mutual respect, peace, cooperation, coexistence, and win-win development, which are embodied in China’s diplomatic policies.

Since the beginning of the new century, peaceful development, harmonious society, mutual benefit, and win-win development have become China’s diplomatic maxims. On September 23, 2009, Hu Jintao advanced the notion of “[fostering] a new security concept featuring mutual trust, mutual benefit, equality, and coordination” at a UN conference.

The aim of building a harmonious world advanced by Hu Jintao directly embodies China’s traditional value of harmony, which is an unprecedented concept in international society. Building a harmonious world requires making civilizations coexist. The idea of building a harmonious world is completely distinct from the values of the “law of the jungle,” or power politics, and presents a new way to solve international conflicts.


2 江海所以能为百谷王者,以其善下之,故能为百谷王。

3 以其不争,故天下莫能与之争。

4 企者不立,跨者不行。自见者不明;自是者不彰;自伐者无功;自矜者不长。

This article was published as part of the Window into China series

End of document

Many challenges await the Western businessperson in China, but one factor that may escape immediate notice is the significance of the Chinese family. While family in China is primarily a social issue, its centrality within Chinese everyday life, as well as the changes and pressures forced upon it by the rapid rise of the Chinese economy, often create an inescapable impact on businesses in China.

Why are Chinese employees more likely to resign after the New Year holiday than at other times of the year? Why are Chinese employees passive and not prone to take the initiative? Why do Chinese employees seem to feel an inordinate amount of pressure? Understanding these issues and the role of the family in China can help Western businesses to better manage their operations in China as well as maintain better relationships with their employees.

The History of Family in China

Family has long been a key component within Chinese society, and many aspects of Chinese life can be tied to honoring one’s parents or ancestors. In fact, the majority of the “five relationships” espoused by Confucius were directly centered on the family. Due to this focus on the family, it was common for the Chinese, even when fully grown with children of their own, to not only remain in or close to their hometown, but also have many, if not all, living generations of a family living under the same roof (四世同堂). Chinese who may have done business far from home, or may have been appointed to government posts far away, would normally have found time to return home on a regular basis, giving rise to the popular Chinese saying: “falling leaves returning to the root of the tree that sired them.” 

The concept of family in China was so important that it was one of the few moral and ideological concepts to survive the decade-long turmoil and chaos of the Cultural Revolution relatively unscathed. While many Chinese elders lament the fact that young adults born in the 1980’s or later possess no clear moral compass or strong standards of behavior, no one in China has forgotten the importance of family.

The Chinese Family Structure

The Chinese family structure has traditionally been rigid and hierarchical, with elders still receiving the largest degree of reverence, respect and obedience, a practice that has continued into the modern age. And while Confucius may have preached that showing respect and filial piety to one’s elders did in no way require blind obedience, in actual practice throughout Chinese history and today, many parents and grandparents expect their children/grandchildren to do as they are told. Within the traditional Chinese family structure, each family member has a specific form of address in Chinese, with different forms of address for older and younger brother, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandfathers and grandmothers, on both the maternal and paternal sides of a family.

And while this naturally can appear complicated to the uninitiated Westerner, in fact, it was and is incredibly important to the Chinese family structure. A significant aspect of life in the Chinese family is showing the proper amount of respect to the appropriate members of the family. For example, a father’s elder brother will accordingly rank higher than his younger brother, and there exist separate terms to differentiate the two, to both members of the family as well as to outsiders. And these terms also offer insight into the position of a girl within the traditional Chinese family unit. Many of the terms for family members on the maternal side of the family begin with the character “Wài (外),” literally meaning “outside, ” indicative of the fact that Chinese women, even after marrying into a new home were still considered to be outsiders.

China’s Rapid Economic Growth and Working Away from Home

In the new China, the Chinese family faces many challenges and contradictions to the old way of life that threaten its traditional stability. As China’s economy continues to grow and expand, many young and seasonal workers have been drawn to the bigger cities in the more prosperous regions in China. They come to find better jobs and more money, in many cases sending much of what they earn to their families, who may reside in small towns where income is very low. But as Chinese young adults enter their late twenties, they come under increasing pressure from family to marry, have children and settle down, which much of the time requires moving back home.

Also, unlike Westerners, many young Chinese have a hard time away from home and do not do well alone and on their own. Every year as the Spring Festival rolls around, almost all Chinese living away from home begin the long and sometimes arduous journey back to their hometowns. Free from the stress, loneliness and toil of the big cities, it is not uncommon for young workers to decide abruptly to “take a break,” quickly giving notice (if at all) to their current employers, and it is common for workers to take off weeks or months at a time. And while some Western employers may be prone to assume that their young employees lack loyalty, morals or good character, it is important to remember that family is the highest priority in China and trumps loyalty to all else.

The One Child Policy

The situation with family in China is in some ways made worse by the Chinese One Child Policy, which was first implemented in the late 1970‘s. The policy had previously allowed parents only one offspring, leading to an upset in the traditional structure of the family. Instead of the usual bottom-heavy structure, one child is now supported and brought up by two parents and four grandparents, resulting in an inordinate amount of attention and pressure placed upon the child.

With regard to the workplace, this can potentially have two negative side-effects. First, with only one child available to succeed and support them in their old age (expected by parents in China) parents and grandparents will aim to be even more in control on their child. In modern China every aspect of a child’s life, including courses of study, careers, friends and free time is decided and managed by the parents and other relatives. When those children later enter the workplace, they generally not only have little to no experience thinking and making decisions on their own, but also as a result of a school system focused on memorization and diminished free thinking, they have been specifically taught to avoid such things. Second, under the sole focus and care of so many family members, Chinese children of the post 1980’s generation have acquired a reputation for being spoiled and self-centered, also known as the “Little Emperor Syndrome.” One result is that young talent in China is more likely to become dissatisfied with their current employment. They are much more likely than their Western counterparts to switch jobs after short periods, chasing happiness or a larger paycheck.

Throughout the entire scope of a Chinese person’s life (including study, work, and life in general), family signifies a type of responsibility, though there exist both positive and negative aspects to this. The traditional interpretation of familial responsibility is that Chinese children are expected to study, work, and live life in a “proper” manner. Therefore Chinese people’s personalities tend to be both cautious and introverted. Many times when a Chinese child or young adult is preparing to make an important decision about their future, they will often take into consideration the feelings of their parents and their responsibility to their family. So in many respects the “family” plays a large role in influencing a person’s decisions, even going so far as to cause an individual to sacrifice their own aspirations and goals to satisfy the needs of the family. In China, it is commonly said that parents live for their children, and children also live for their parents. However when parents and children are all sacrificing their own interests, neither is able to live for themselves.

-Sarah Zhao, White-collar Worker, Shanghai

What to Be Aware of as a Westerner

Westerners in China unfamiliar with the Chinese family and the local talent market can find themselves with workers that they don’t understand, an unproductive office staff, high turnover rates and endless headaches. However, with patience, the right mindset and proper planning, the impact of these issues can be reduced. First of all, many young Chinese (and older ones as well) can indeed adapt to a “Western working model,” but it is unfair to immediately expect them to change their ways. Remember that in a local Chinese company (or even among their own families), showing initiative, displaying individuality or offering suggestions to managers will not only likely be ignored, but can also lead to workers being criticized or ostracized by their colleagues and managers. It is important to be patient while these workers learn, and show that you are willing to listen to them on a consistent basis, and not just when it’s convenient.

Also, be ready for the likely event that not all workers will want to be managed in a Western manner. In this case it’s important to acquaint oneself with the basic concepts of Chinese culture, and be sure to give them the proper amount of face and respect for a job well done and not to take it away in front of others. With regard to possible the high turnover rates you might experience around the time of the Chinese New Year, make sure to plan ahead and have potential candidates identified by HR early before it’s too late. And remember that a Chinese worker’s loyalty is to their family first; it’s not that they have no loyalty or have shoddy principles, that’s just the way the culture is. For a western business or businessperson in China, in order to succeed it’s important to learn and adapt.

Thanks for reading!

 Do you have any more questions on the family in China, or on the effect it can have on both life and work? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Categories: Culture & Society

Tags: Family in China, Family Structure, Filial Piety, One Child Policy, 家庭

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