The East Asian Region: Confucian Heritage and Its Modern Adaptation

The East Asian Region: Confucian Heritage and Its Modern Adaptation

by Gilbert Rozman

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The contributors to this volume range over 2,000 years of history as they show how Confucian values spread throughout the region in premodern times and how these values were transformed in an age of modernization. The introduction by Gilbert Rozman discusses the special character of East Asia. In Part I Patricia Ebrey analyzes the Confucianization of China; JaHyun Kim


The contributors to this volume range over 2,000 years of history as they show how Confucian values spread throughout the region in premodern times and how these values were transformed in an age of modernization. The introduction by Gilbert Rozman discusses the special character of East Asia. In Part I Patricia Ebrey analyzes the Confucianization of China; JaHyun Kim Haboush, that of Korea; and Martin Collcutt, the much later diffusion of Confucianism in Japan. In Part II Rozman compares types of Confucianism in nineteenth-century China and Japan and their adaptability in the twentieth century, while Michael Robinson adds an overview of modern Korean perceptions of Confucianism.The contributors to this volume range over 2,000 years of history as they show how Confucian values spread throughout the region in premodern times and how these values were transformed in an age of modernization. The introduction by Gilbert Rozman discusses the special character of East Asia. In Part I Patricia Ebrey analyzes the Confucianization of China; JaHyun Kim Haboush, that of Korea; and Martin Collcutt, the much later diffusion of Confucianism in Japan. In Part II Rozman compares types of Confucianism in nineteenth-century China and Japan and their adaptability in the twentieth century, while Michael Robinson adds an overview of modern Korean perceptions of Confucianism.

Editorial Reviews

The collaborative efforts represented here were guided by the image of an emerging, though still vaguely defined, field of study, the primary concern of which is how one region in the world differs from other major regions. The contributors show how Confucian values spread throughout East Asia over a period of 2,000 years and how those values endure in modern times even if they remain in the background. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
From the Publisher
"[An] informative volume of immense sweep . . . brimming with ideas. . . . Its call for regional studies is most welcome; one hopes it will be followed by other works as sensitive to the complexities and ambiguities of history and society."—Conrad Schirokauer, The Journal of Asian Studies

"A thought-provoking book that repays close study."—Wolf Mendl, Pacific Review

"These distinguished essays make a major contribution to the debate over how Confucianism has affected East Asian modernization."Orbis

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The East Asian Region

Confucian Heritage and Its Modern Adaptation

By Gilbert Rozman


Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05597-8



Patricia Ebrey

It is already well known that the Chinese state and the ruling class of literati had strong commitments to the values identified as Confucian in the Introduction. There have been many studies of the history of Confucian ideas, the history of education in the classics, the competition of Taoism, Legalism, and Buddhism for the allegiance of the elite, the importance of Confucian ideas in government organization and policy, the role of Confucian ideas in the ethos of the educated class, and the establishment of Confucianism as a state orthodoxy. Rather than retread that familiar ground, in this essay I examine a different historical issue, the process by which ordinary, uneducated Chinese came to share many Confucian values and practices. This process was, I believe, in one fundamental respect unlike the process of "Confucianization" in Korea and Japan, for much of what has come to be called "Confucian" by outside observers was in China simply the dominant set of social and cultural values, associated especially with the ruling class, and not an alien ideology that could be inculcated only by formal teaching.

In examining the "Confucianization" of ordinary people, I will concentrate largely on family practices and attitudes. Historically these were the social relations considered most relevant for the general population. Over the centuries officials and scholars who wished to promote proper social relations and thereby a harmonious society thought first of filial piety, brotherly harmony, wifely submission, and the ritually correct marriage and funeral practices that would instill them. Confucians did not call these attitudes and practices "Confucian social relations" but ethics and propriety (wu-lun and li); they saw their task not as "Confucianization" but as "transformation" (hua). Although not indifferent to more abstract Confucian virtues such as loyalty, sincerity, and integrity, they believed these values were best nurtured by attention to family behavior—a filial son will be a respectful subordinate and a loyal subject. As it says in the Analects (1.2), "Rare are those who are filial to their parents and deferential to elder brothers yet are fond of causing trouble to their superiors." Moreover, Confucian scholars firmly believed that the need to cultivate family virtues was universal. Not everyone became a student or an official, but everyone had relatives whom they should treat in ethically correct ways.

Traditional Confucian scholars are not alone in seeing family behavior as the central feature in the moral life of ordinary people. Modern observers have also often explained the values of working people called "Confucian" in the Introduction by reference to the ideas and practices of the family system. For instance, Chinese willingness to work hard and defer rewards is often explained by reference to family organization:

The importance of the future generations can be seen by the anxiety of the parents to see their sons married, and to accumulate property for their children. With this in mind they work hard and live thriftily so that they can save some capital for the prospective children. They feel guilty when unusually good food is eaten or extra money is spent, not because they cannot afford these things, but because they want to have something to leave to their descendants.

Much the same point is often made about the behavior of Chinese emigrants:

The Chinese peasant had a definite place in the temporal continuum of kin.... His world view was, therefore, historical and kin-centered, and in this context his industriousness and thrift served ends transcending his individual life. His primary goal was not individual salvation, but lineage survival and advancement. Protracted labor and extreme thrift were the means to these strongly sanctioned ends.

Other scholars have argued that Chinese attitudes toward authority are based on father-son relationships: "From such a childhood pattern of relations with family authority seems to grow the adult concern for the presence of a strict, personalized, and unambiguous source of (political) authority who will impose order on potentially unruly peers and provide a clear source of guidance for all." In the vocabulary of traditional Confucians, the mixture of fear, respect, and dependence that Solomon saw as characterizing sons' relations toward their fathers had a name—filial piety—and they would not have been surprised to learn that filial sons make willing subjects.

Family values and practices are important also simply because they were shared. The relative success of the Chinese in the twentieth century in reestablishing a strong state, in improving educational institutions, in promoting new political ideas, and in mobilizing people for industrialization probably owes much to a strong core of common culture shared by nearly all Chinese, a very large component of which related to the family. Because Chinese already shared so many assumptions about human relations, it was possible to get them to share even more through compulsory education in standardized curricula.

A further advantage of focusing on family practices for an examination of "Confucianization" is that something can be said about them. It would be desirable to know what Chinese peasants over the centuries thought about rulers, officials, and government methods and whether these attitudes were in any specific sense "Confucian" before mass education in the twentieth century, but there is very little in the way of evidence. Whatever ideas they held would not have made much of a difference in their behavior. Nor did literati care much about what peasants thought so long as they were not rebellious or insubordinate. Ordinary people, however, were fully empowered to act in family roles, and thus the degree of "Confucianization" of family practices can be judged in terms of what they did, even without evidence of how they conceived of their actions.

Labeling Chinese family practices "Confucian" may seem to imply that they were a product of ideology that spread from the intellectual elite to ordinary peasants through indoctrination from above or imitation from below. This, I believe, is too simplistic a view. An underlying assumption of this paper is that values and attitudes did not spread simply by becoming known. Family relations can be analyzed into mental or cognitive elements (ways of categorizing people and beliefs about desirable behavior), but they did not spread simply by publicity. It is clear that the verbal formulation of social values was conveyed through many means (preaching, circulation of tracts, elementary education, and so on). Yet I would contend that the social, economic, and political structure played an enormously important part in making it possible for certain ideas to gain acceptance and adherence. For instance, filial piety, in its manifold meanings, was repeatedly urged in school texts, magistrates' lectures, popular religious tracts, plays, and so on. But would this barrage of indoctrination produce "filial" children in our society? Or, more to the point, did people in China become more filial over the course of history as the society was more thoroughly saturated with this message? The perceived need for this indoctrination and the degree that it achieved its purpose cannot be separated from the family as a political, economic, and religious unit. At least as important in fostering the practice of filial submission was the evolution of a patrilineal and patriarchal family structure throughout the society. This in turn depended on the development of the state and economy. Often a practice related to family life may have spread first simply as a ritual act or as an accommodation to a changing social, economic, or political environment. The belief that the practice was preferable may well have taken some time to gain hold.

To trace the development of the Chinese family, I will concentrate on a few key features that were widespread in all strata of society by the nineteenth century. I have organized these into two groups, those that made the Chinese family patrilineal and those that made it patriarchal. In sociological terms, these were the features that established the structure of the Chinese family.

Patrilineality (concepts of descent and kinship)

a. Everyone had patrilineal surnames. These were crucial to their sense of identity.

b. Nearly everyone practiced patrilineal ancestor worship as a domestic rite and as a key feature in funerals and seasonal festivals (some also practiced it as a descent group rite).

c. There was widespread and very strong belief in the need for a male heir for anyone who reached adult status. Therefore everyone had to marry, and if no children were born turn to other strategies—concubines, adoption of relatives, or adoption of strangers—to acquire an heir.

d. Kinship obligations were recognized to a wide range of kin, asymmetrically distributed (heavily patrilineal). This was particularly expressed in mourning obligations.

e. Exogamy rules reinforced patrilineal concepts by forbidding marriage with anyone of the same surname.

Patriarchy (property and authority structures)

a. Property, especially land, was conceived largely as family property rather than individual property. Thus it belonged to the men of the family, and when it was divided sons received approximately equal shares.

b. Fathers had great legal authority over women and children, including the rights to marry children, sell them, and dispose of their labor. Especially important in this regard is that there was no real age of emancipation—the only issue was coresidence. Women in a household were jural minors, usually looked on as comparable to younger children, though husbands were not supposed to sell wives.

c. Women were seen as morally and intellectually less capable than men; their roles were to revolve around obedience and nurturing and the highest virtues for them were chastity and fidelity. This was softened by a belief in complementarity: men were not ritually or socially complete without wives.

d. Marriage was arranged relatively early and began in the home of a senior relative.

Some of these features have a clear basis in the Confucian classics, but others did not; the classics do not advocate equal division of property among sons, ancestor worship by commoners, or early marriage. Such practices are "Confucian" not by derivation from the classics but because they came to be accepted as standard, orthodox practices that the Confucian elite in time agreed were suitable for everyone. In the West, canonical sources were treated in a similarly selective fashion: certain Old Testament commandments such as "Honor thy father and mother" were endlessly reiterated, yet practices accepted as normal in the Bible, such as polygyny and the levirate, came to be labeled barbaric and un-Christian.

How did it come about that there was a high degree of uniformity in the ideas and practices underlying the late traditional Chinese family across classes, regions, dialect groups, and economic systems? In some parts of the world (such as France) inheritance practices varied from one prefecture to the next; in other places (such as India) large segments of the society followed matrilineal descent reckoning while the majority were patrilineal. It is probably more common, in comparative terms, for societies to show diversity in family practices, and therefore the relatively high level of uniformity found in China should not be taken as natural.

In examining the spread of these ideas and practices I will try to assess the relative importance of such agents as schools, texts, government and literati-led preaching, popular religion, and state regulations in the spread of Chinese family values and practices. Popular religion is important because religious attitudes toward ancestors provided much of the ideological substructure of the family system. Through performance and observation of funerals and ancestral rites, people learned about the need to get spirits settled and the need to provide for them thereafter. Thus the spread of ancestral rites throughout the society and the political acceptance of this development marked a major stage in Chinese family history. There is, of course, a large Confucian literature on the subject of funerals, ancestral rites, and duty to ancestors. However, this theorizing almost always lagged behind the actual changes that were occurring in society. In Korea ideas about ancestor worship may have come as part of a total package of Neo-Confucian family practices. In China there never was a large-scale politically encouraged change of system, and ancestral rites and funerals remained closely tied to popular religion into modern times.

The state had a pervasive effect on the organization of the family through its law codes, control of social mobility, and direct efforts at indoctrination. Chinese law dealt with family matters in several ways. Status differences within the family were strongly reinforced in criminal law; for instance, it was a much more serious offense for a nephew to strike his uncle than for an uncle to strike his nephew. Marriages and adoptions, to be fully legal, had to conform to the requirements of the law. Property law regulated inheritance and placed legal restrictions on holding and transmitting property. It has been well demonstrated for other parts of the world that patterns of inheritance affect family structure. Do sons and daughters all inherit? Are shares equal? Can an heir get his or her share early or only at the death of the father or father and mother? The authority of family heads, the relations among siblings, the ties to close relatives, and even age at marriage are all shaped by the way family property is controlled and distributed. The effect of property law is, however, largely limited to those with some property: a landless laborer has relatively little control over his adult son, for he has nothing of a material sort that the son needs, nor can he direct his son's labor if the son must go elsewhere to seek work. Thus periods when the government fostered small proprietorships would help spread a smallholder mentality and patriarchal family structure. Naturally the government has always played a major role in institutionalizing property law. During some periods it denied full rights to pass land on to children (in various "equal-field" schemes). Systems of taxation also changed—sometimes favoring undivided patrimonies; sometimes, early division.

Social stratification, again very much shaped by the state, is relevant to the history of the family system because it affects the process by which ideas and practices cross class lines. In socially fluid periods, people of rich peasant origin could marry into long-established elite families, bringing with them customs and habits of thought that could in time influence the old elite. At the same time, in relatively fluid periods, it was easier for people who aspired to high status to imitate the manners and customs of their betters, leading to a trickle-down of customs from the elite. Marriage practices are particularly relevant here: since child-raising was largely performed by women, when wives could be taken from lower social strata there would be more homogenization of social customs than when high social status depended on having a mother and wife of eminent families.

The family practices of ordinary people were shaped not only by these cultural and institutional background factors, but also by the direct efforts by scholars and officials to educate commoners. What they wished to teach commoners and how they attempted to do it naturally varied over time, depending on philosophical priorities, challenges to influence on commoners, and the intensity of elite-commoner interaction. "Good" or "persuasive" local officials set examples, posted placards with warnings or advice, opened schools, gave lectures, and used their courtrooms to foster trust and respect. Scholars wrote books of advice, guides to family rituals, and moral tracts; they promoted forms of local organization considered morally uplifting, especially village compacts and descent groups, sometimes contributing money to them; they helped found and fund local schools. Generally speaking, the saturation of the population by these educational efforts increased over time. It was greatly advanced in Ming and Ch'ing times by the examination system, which produced a vast surplus of educated men, many of whom remained in the countryside.


Excerpted from The East Asian Region by Gilbert Rozman. Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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