The Significance of the Family in East Asian Thought

More than two thousand years ago, an essential part of East Asian thought belonged to Confucius and his doctrine. The main idea of his tenets is that the state cannot be balanced and amicable if its families do not have order. Confucius, like other thinkers, prized and cherished a family and was confident that it was an imprescriptible constituent of a wealthy society. In Confucianism, a person could not exist without a family, and each family member depended on the others and was not regarded as an individual. A family was the first position of the state. A village, a city, a state, and the whole society were formed by the families. However, their structure and formation began within the family. That is why it was of high importance to create a household and be aware of personal function in it. According to Confucius, a family was a tiny society, and the society was a large family. The interests of the entire family exceeded those of an individual. One significant rule for the family was to keep order and be in a proper place. It means when a man is a father, he has to be only a father and no one else (De Bary et al. 56). The Confucian family system got implanted into the Chinese community, and the citizens esteem it till today. For the successful government of the country, a regent must be able to nurture and adjust his personal household; otherwise, he will not be a good sovereign. 


The Confucian Family System

The first rule, which a person has to obey in order to achieve harmonious order in a family, is the rule of self-cultivation. “Unless one’s person be cultivated, one cannot regulate the family” (De Bary et al. 332). It means that a person should cultivate him/herself, otherwise he/she will not be able to behave properly with family members. Moreover, if a ruler is not self-cultivated and cannot regulate his personal family, it is obvious that he will not be able to regulate his state as well. The state begins with the family, and the family begins with self-cultivation and self-improvement. At the same time, the principle of the correction of names takes place here. This principle was taught by Confucius, and it means that every person should act in accordance with his or her name. For example, if a person is called a minister, he should not behave like a king because he will break the proper order. Proper order was another important concept of East Asian thought. If there is order in the family, there will be order in the state (De Bary et al. 332). Quite the reverse, If the sovereign’s family has problems, they may stimulate chaos in the community. Confucius believed that harmonious family relationships will lead to harmonious and peaceful society (Yao 33). Thus, as well as one man could ruin the state, so the same man could bring peace and order to it.

Every household originates with a father, or a man. A father is a model for his sons and a gentleman for his spouse. Children must honor and cherish both father and mother.

Confucius said, “Our body, skin and hair are all received from our parents; we dare not injure them. This is the first priority in filial duty. To establish oneself in the world and practice the Way; to uphold one’s good name for posterity and give glory to one’s father and mother – this is the completion of filial duty” (De Bary et al. 326). 

From these words, it becomes obvious that the philosopher put the parents on top of his worldview. Filial duty was the first virtue in East Asian thought. This notion means that a son must obey his father and continue his business after his death. If a son obeys his father, he will later obey the ruler, and there will be order in the state. If there is disorder in the family, and the relations between family members are not honorable, a mess in the society will for sure appear. Every son should show reverence to his father because the father dominates the family. Besides, one should respect not only personal parents but also somebody else’s. If a person values his or her father or mother but does not esteem other aged people, he/she cannot revere a ruler. It, in turn, will cause aggression and insubordination in the society. Every father should be favourable and stringent concurrently. “If a father is not loving, the son will not be filial” (De Bary et al. 545). When a son or a daughter makes something wrong, a father should teach them how to improve it. If they do not obey him, he should use punishment; however, if they love and honor him, he should be kind to them. However, the household originates not with a father and son but with husband and wife. 

Husband and wife are identified with yin and yang, black and white, male and female, sin and righteousness. A woman is associated with negative and dark, and a man – with positive and bright. A husband and wife together complete each other and become one integrate union. A husband dominates his wife. He should adore and value her, and a wife should meet the terms of her gentleman and listen to his words. The aim of a woman is to correct her man gently when he does something wrong (De Bary et al. 830). A husband should be fair and just; otherwise, his wife will not obey him. He should control his wife; otherwise, he will lose his authority (De Bary 413). A wife is a keeper of the family hearth and customs. She supports her husband and shows him the way. However, she should not be the one who leads him to make evil deeds. If she does not listen to her husband, she destroys the natural order and ruins the main principles of harmony. If a woman is intelligent, she should use this intelligence for educating her children, especially daughters. A woman was expected to give birth to a son because a son got the entire heritage after his father’s death. A daughter left the house after marriage and did not inherit something. However, if a wife was pregnant, it was of no importance whether she expected a son or a daughter. She was protected by the high spirits, and no one was allowed to insult her. After the delivery, a mother needed to rest and feed her child. The aim of a husband was to look after his children and wife, to protect them from enemies and disasters, to provide them with necessary means of subsistence. A wife, in turn, should serve her husband and his family; help him in his deeds, obey and care his parents, make sacrifices for their dead ancestors, and “assist in the procreation of new life to keep the families bloodline going” (De Bary 411). Moreover, when a wife shows deep respect for her husband’s parents, she does not allow him to forget about his filial duties. A woman regulates proper order in a household and thus, she maintains order in the society. That is why the role of a woman is of high importance in China, although it seems to be minor at first. 

Children did not choose a couple for them; it was the aim of the parents to choose an appropriate wife or husband for their children. No one thought of love because it was an eternal tradition, to marry a person who was chosen by the parents. It proves that the interests of the whole family were of higher importance than the interests of a man or a woman. Besides, Confucius wanted people to create big families because it could strengthen their status in the society. Parents should show their love for children, and this kind of love was the biggest one. However, if children behave badly, their parents should punish them to save order and harmony in a family. If children are not punished, they cannot understand the importance of rituals and traditions, as well as respect for aged parents. When parents are alive, children value and respect them. After father’s death, his older son gets the biggest part of the inheritance and becomes the head of the family. Younger brothers have to obey him and respect him. However, if the eldest brother is not friendly with them, they are not obliged to listen to him. Nevertheless, all the sons with their families lived in their father’s house, and only after his death they could think about separation. When the father died, the ritual of funeral was a significant part of the son’s reverence. Children had to bury their father in accordance with old traditions and customs and make sacrifices for him. Moreover, after father’s death, his sons were allowed to retire from all their deeds and grieve for their parent for three years. If a mother, a wife, or an eldest son died, the period of mourning was the same – three years (De Bary et al. 75). If another relative died, the family grieved from five months to one year. By these actions, the children showed their respect for parents and conventions of their ancestors. 

Confucius paid much attention to education. Every person had to be well-educated because it could help in the process of self-cultivation. Education began in a family. Parents taught their children the rules of etiquette and behavior among other people. They passed the old traditions on from one generation to another. East Asian countries valued old traditions; that is why it was necessary to give knowledge to children from the smallest age. However, male education was more widespread than the female one. Probably, the association of women with yin was the reason of such principles. Nevertheless, some women were allowed to be taught (mostly in rich families), and in such situation they were not allow to show their intelligence. They used it for giving advice to their husbands and educating their children. In Confucianism, five different relationships were taught by the philosopher for the establishment of the harmonious state. They are the relationships between governor and subject, husband and wife, father and son, elder brother and younger brother, and relations between friends. One can notice that three of them are the relations within a family. 

The family of the time of Confucius differed from the modern one. The terms between family members were polite and official. Such attitude was the beginning of the communication within the society. In “Sources of Chinese Tradition,” William De Bary writes: 

As for maintaining proper respect between father and son, one cannot allow too much familiarity; in the love among kin, one cannot tolerate impoliteness. If there is impoliteness, then parental solicitude is not matched by filial respect; if there is too much familiarity, it gives rise to indifference and rudeness (544).

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These words show that everything should have its limits, and then harmony will arise. The highest virtue of Confucius thought was humaneness. This virtue started in a family as well. If a person was kind to others and benevolent towards them, he was named “noble.” However, if a person thought only about his/her personal benefits and did not listen to others, he or she was called “fallen.” A nobleman should serve others and be not selfish. The aim of every noble man was to achieve the virtue of humaneness because it was the main mission in creating an ideal society. One more important custom was to live in the same place, not to move from one town to another. If a human being relocates in another town or village, he or she has to come back to the land of their birth before the death. It was indispensable for a man or woman, to be interred in the same soil where their ancestors lay.  


The significance of a family in East Asian thought is obvious. People revere their traditions, value their families, and tend to achieve harmonious order in their homes and the society. When a child is born, it is taught to esteem and worship its parents, respect elderly people, comply with its father and elder brother, and be kind and reasonable. When a child becomes older, his/her parents provide a spouse for him/her, and a scion cannot dispute about it. This habit is still popular in some East Asian countries. Children are sure that their parents can choose a best wife or husband for them. When children obey their parents, they demonstrate their worship and regard. A husband always controls his household, and his spouse aids him in his occupation. When every family observes rituals and traditions, it establishes harmony, which originates the harmonious community and the state. Thus, a household is a tiny society, and a society is a big household, and everything is inter-reliant.

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