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The Theoretical Foundations of the Traditional Chinese Society in the Late Qing Period (1840-1911)

by Ambuj Thakur Historically speaking, the Chinese civilisation is one of the oldest in the world and can claim to its credit a rich legacy of socio-cultural, scientific and politico-administrative traditions. China has, for a very long time, remained an enigma to the outside world, especially to the western mind. The primary reason might have been the self-sufficient and self-obsessed nature of the people, apart from other factors such as its remoteness and geographical barriers, which prevented the Chinese or the outsiders from establishing and maintaining continuity in social, cultural and economic relations. In broad terms, her civilisational ethos has been centred round an inherent claim for superiority over other societies and cultures and this has been manifested in the concept of a Sino-centric world order with the Emperor as the linchpin. There has been an overriding influence of Confucianism in moulding the Chinese psyche towards adopting such a view, although the influence of other philosophies, such as Daoism and Buddhism, cannot be neglected. The Chinese society today is mishmash of a number of nationalities, with an overwhelming Han majority, and its composition and customs are very different from that in the imperial period. Therefore, the purpose of this study is to provide a theoretical framework while analysing the nature, constitution and sentiments underlying this society in the pre-republican period of its history i.e. in the last years of the Qing dynasty between 1849 and 1911. The primary reason for the consideration of such a small period, of roughly over half a century, with respect to this ancient and glorious civilisation, is the constraint imposed by the lack of knowledge of the Chinese language due to which original sources could not be analysed in the first hand, and there has been an overwhelming dependence upon secondary sources, available in the English language. The nature of the Chinese polity had a profound impact on its society. It is very difficult to take sides on the question whether the state is the outcome of the society, or is it the other way round. It is very contextual and depends on the historical and evolutionary processes as well as unexpected twists and turns which ultimately shape the fate of a society, nation and state/nation-state. The answer, maybe, lies somewhere in between. Man, if one may take both Platos and Aristotles words, ad verbatim, is both a social and a political animal. The

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evolution of both a state and a society arise out of the need for survival and sustenance. The entire concept of the state and the society is centred round one entity i.e. man. And so goes an old saying that no man is an island unless he chooses to live as a hermit. Alexander Wendt1 argues that the society is shaped and organised by shared understandings of the world among individuals. The Social Constructivists see social life as much more open-ended, depending upon how actors beliefs and expectations about themselves and others evolve. They hold that all institutions, including the state, are socially constructed, in the sense that they reflect an inter-subjective consensus of shared beliefs about political practice, acceptable social behaviour, and values. While describing the nature of imperial Chinese state and society, one can always hold that such views are 19th and 20th century European phenomena and inapplicable to the former. But, in my personal opinion, their opinions can hold true for the Chinese context too. For, there always exists the necessity of social and political institutions to organise human beings within a comprehensive framework to generate maximum benefits. The questions of morality, values and beliefs come much later when the society and the state start to evolve and mature. Therefore, the Sino-centric world view, exemplified by the concept of the Middle Kingdom (Zhongguo2), based upon Confucian principles was also such a manifestation of human thought and needs, albeit contextual in nature. Over the centuries a great many people who were originally not Chinese have been assimilated into the Chinese society through a process of expansion and consolidation of rule over an empire, whose rulers considered it to be the centre of the civilised world. Some nonChinese people like the Mongols (Yuan dynasty) and Manchus (Qing dynasty) conquered the Middle Kingdom, came to be its new rulers and often adopted Chinese ways of life. Whereas, the people in the western parts of the Peoples Republic of China were treated as tributary subjects, and most of them (Uighurs, Tibetans etc.) form the national minorities today. The majority of the population have been the Han people. They owe their origins to the Han dynasty (206 BCAD 220) which was considered the prototype for all later Chinese dynasties. So thoroughly did the Han dynasty establish what was, thereafter, considered
Social Constructivist thinker. In the opinion of pioneering China scholars like Norman Pritchard and John K. Fairbank, Sinocentrism reflected the philosophy of a universe within a universe, with China at the core and her vassal states at the periphery. The ruler was a universal emperor and the Son of Heaven (tien-tzu) who controlled all lands under Heaven (tien-hsia). The Chinese had the concept of state (guo) from the earliest stage of their civilization and the earliest written evidence is found in the Oracle Scripts of the An-yang civilization, corresponding to the Yin period (1401-1122 B.C) of the Chinese historical tradition. See, Chung, Tan (1978), China And The Brave New World: A Study Of The Origins Of The Opium War (1840-42), Allied Publishers Private Limited.
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Chinese culture that the Chinese word denoting someone who is Chinese means a man of Han. Entry into Han society has not demanded religious conversion or formal initiation. It has depended on the command over the Chinese written language and adherence to Chinese values and customs. Han ethnic unity is the result of two ancient and culturally central Chinese institutions, one of which is the Chinese written language, and the other being the centralized imperial state. Chinese is written with ideographs (or characters) that represent meanings rather than sounds, and so written Chinese does not reflect the speech of its author. Therefore, the script can be read all over China irrespective of the local dialects. And, thus, local languages have not become a focus for regional self-consciousness and nationalism among the Han people. On the other hand, although the imperial government never directly controlled the villages, it did have a strong influence on popular values and culture. The average peasant could not read and was not familiar with the details of state administration or national geography, but he was aware of belonging to a group of sub-continental stock. Being Han, even for illiterate peasants has meant conscious identification with a glorious history and a state of immense proportions. Traditional Chinese society can be distinguished from other pre-modern civilizations to the extent that the state, rather than organized religious groups or ethnic segments of society, was able to appropriate the symbols of wisdom, common good and morality. In analysing the nature of the Chinese society, the most recurrent theme that confronts an individual is the term Confucianism. It is often used as synonymous with the Chinese culture. Basically, Confucianism is a world view, a social ethic, a political ideology, a scholarly tradition, and a way of life. It can be understood as an all-encompassing humanism that neither denies nor attacks the concepts of God and Heaven. Although often grouped with the major historical religions, Confucianism differs from them by not being an organized religion. Nonetheless, it spread to other East Asian countries under the influence of Chinese literature and culture, and exerted a profound influence on their spiritual and political life. Both the theory and practice of Confucianism have indelibly marked the patterns of government, society, education, and family of East Asia. According to Max Weber, Confucianism was a key obstacle to the development of a free-market economy and society in China, while in the 1980s it was hailed as the reason behind the robust economic success of the Asian Tigers3. According to this philosophy, social organisation involved a set of hierarchical relationships between distinct categories of people, who were expected to follow

The south-east Asian nations, coupled with South Korea, Japan and, to some extent, China.

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their sense of duty and behave towards one another in ways appropriate to their relationship. In Norman Stockmans opinion, this meant that if every single individual adhered to the expectations associated with their status, social stability and harmony would be maintained, and the order of the cosmos would prevail. The central social relationships were defined by the doctrine of wu lun (five cardinal principles) as laid out by Mencius: those between father and son, ruler and subject, husband and wife, older and younger brother, and between friends4. He goes on to say, Each of these relationships was associated with a specific quality or character, respectively love (or affection), righteousness (or duty), distinction, precedence, and sincerity (or trust). Most of these relationships were familial ones, based on the hierarchies of generation, age and gender. The relationship between the ruler and the ruled was also conceived on the model of the father and son, while womens social roles were seen as predominantly internal to the domestic sphere. Thus, in a nutshell, Stockman has explained the basic foundations that underlined the imperial Chinese society. A very important Confucian concept is li which has been translated differently as ritual, propriety or etiquette. It is related to the performance of correct behaviour within a social relationship, including appropriate demeanour, the bearing of the body and facial expressions. The correct observance of li was deemed necessary for the preservation of social order and an expression of human distinctiveness. The Book of Rites, an ancient classic attributed to Confucius, provides for rules of conduct within the household and outside among the various categories of people divided on the lines of age, gender and various degrees of closeness. This notion was contrasted with that of fa, which means law. In the Confucian tradition, law involved the enforcement of correct behaviour by the threat of harsh punishment. It was only meant for mean people who did not have a sense of honour and duty and could not be relied upon to act according to li. Moreover, Confucius laid stress upon the most intrinsic virtue of humanity, called ren, which a person could cultivate by learning how to relate to other human beings. It involves consideration for others by refraining from doing anything to them what one would not do to oneself. A few other virtues mentioned by Confucius are good faith, loyalty, sincerity, a sense of duty, and filial piety. Lastly, he emphasised upon the principle of reciprocity, called bao. It means that an act of kindness should be repaid by another. Liang Shuming, a Confucian social reformer of the 1920s and 1930s, stated that the Chinese society is neither individual-based nor society-based but rather relationship-based5. He
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Stockman, Norman (2000), Understanding Chinese Society, Great Britain: Polity Press, p.71 Ibid., p.72

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claimed that China not only had a weakly developed concept of the individual self, but also that of the group, the organisation and the society as a whole. The centrality of the society rested upon the quality of human relationships. Another scholar, Fei Xiatong, distinguished Chinese social structure from western forms by calling the latter organisational mode of association. He emphasised upon the universalistic morality of organisational life where an individuals obligation to others were regulated by norms and equally applicable to all members of a category of persons. Whereas, he described the Chinese society as constructed according to a differential mode of association, by which he meant that there were no fixed groups with fixed memberships but a myriad of overlapping networks of relationships. Each such network depended upon the person who was its focus i.e. everyone stood at the centre of the circles produced by ones own social influence. Such relationships were particularistic in nature. Fei referred to the Confucian term lun (i.e. order based on differential classifications) in this respect. There can be no doubt that Confucianism had an overriding influence over the Chinese psyche. But other currents of social and philosophical thought like Daoism and Buddhism were also important and influenced Confucian thinkers in various ways. Daoism is characterized by a positive, active attitude toward the occult and the metaphysical whereas the agnostic, pragmatic Confucian tradition considers these issues of only marginal importance, although the reality of such issues is, by most Confucians, not denied. Max Weber described Daoism as the mystical pursuit of sainthood through withdrawal from the world of affairs into a world of contemplation. It was a view of life that disdained the ritual and ceremony of social relationships in favour of simplicity and inactivity. But Buddhism talks about the impermanence and the transitory nature of life and the non-existence of the individual ego which run diametrically opposite to the Daoist principles. In terms of overt individual and collective practices, however, competition between these two religions for influence among the people resulted in mutual borrowings, numerous superficial similarities, and essentially Chinese developments inside Buddhism, such as the Ch'an (Japanese Zen) sect. The most interesting thing was that in this competition Confucianism had no need to participate because it had state patronage. But both of the latter philosophies provided an alternative model of society to a large section of the people, which took the form of secret societies that existed in the interstices of the state and often formed the basis for widespread peasant rebellions, seen in the closing years of the Qing dynasty in China. According to Feiling Davis, the importance of the secret societies lay in their destructive potentialities with
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regard to the Confucian society, and in their revolutionary affirmation of the development of the voluntary opposition to the ascriptive association of birth6. The Confucian social theory, as seen above, placed special emphasis on family relationships as the core of a stable and harmonious society. The Chinese family life was structured traditionally as a series of hierarchical and reciprocal relationships, with respect to gender, age and generation. Stockman says that the Confucian social doctrine placed great emphasis on the cultural ideal of a large, extended family household, with several generations residing under a single roof. The man in the oldest generation was the head of the family household and wielded maximum authority over all the decision-making processes within the household. The younger generations were taught to respect and obey the elders. The hierarchy of age defined the relationships between the men of the same generation. Moreover, there existed the hierarchy of sex where women were made theoretically, as well as practically, subordinate to men in all family relationships. Such a hierarchy was explained through the doctrine of three obediences which stated that as a daughter a woman should obey her father, as a wife she should obey her husband, as a widow she should obey her son who succeeded his father as the head of the family. An outward manifestation of this outlook was the practice of foot-binding, which crippled women and restricted their mobility; but it was supposedly meant to make them attractive and marriageable into higher status families. The primary source of identity in the family was the surname, which designated descent in the male line. The households maintained ancestral tablets representing the genealogy of the head of the family. Such tablets also became the focus of ancestor-worship. Therefore, the primary purpose of marriage was to continue the family patriline. Marriage was a more of a family affair than an individual one, and the most important factor was the injunction of exogamy. Such a pattern is termed as patrilocal or virilocal marriage. Stockman says that patrilineal descent also involved patrilineal inheritance, whereby the whole property, mainly land in a predominantly agrarian society, was roughly equally distributed among the sons upon the death of the father. This also involved the division of the household, which happened practically after the death of the older generation. Daughters were denied the rights of inheritance. But they were given some form of premortem inheritance in their dowries at the time of their marriage. The principles of patrilineal descent also made it likely that the households sharing the same surname and living in the same area would be aware of the kinship relationships amongst themselves. This notion contributed to the institutionalisation

Ibid., p.76

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of lineages, which, according to Stockman, would have a form of government made up of elders led by the head of the lineage, and who would govern it according to written rules laid down at some time in the past. The possession of material wealth could also define the extent of a particular lineages status within the society. Even in families having no sons, instances of the sons-in-law taking over the wifes family surname to continue with its lineage were not uncommon. Such marriages were called uxorilocal, and happened most likely in cases where the groom was either disabled or too poor to have concluded a patrilocal marriage. In short, the formation of lineages could be the result of deliberate strategies among the upper classes of late imperial Chinese society to extend their power and influence7. But Patricia Ebrey contests the enduring nature of the patrilineal, patriarchal and patrilocal Chinese society in the late imperial period. She says that though it has been assumed generally by scholars that a sort of continuity exists between the traditional families of the past and the present, the extent of this continuity is not well demonstrated. By drawing inferences from studies done on the Western family history, she argues that customs, practices, ideas, and sentiments related to family do change8. She further says that the close connection of the family life to religious beliefs, to primary economic activities of production and consumption, and to social organisation at the local level means that changes or variations of any of these might as well show up in transmuted form as variations in family life and customs. Ebrey emphasises upon the use of historical sources and demographic study to examine past families. She mentions two major studies of family demography by Arthur Wolf and Chieh-shan Huang (1980) and Burton Pasternak (1983)9, which made use of the meticulous household registers kept by the Japanese administrators in Taiwan from 1895 to 1945. After analysing 1500 families in a North Taiwan community, Wolf and Huang record the relatively low level of adherence to the orthodox patrilocal marriage and show significant shifts in both marriage and adoption practices over the course of a few decades. To explain this, they analyse the psychological, demographic, and economic factors that would have led parents in one generation to take decisions not made by the succeeding generation. Similarly, Pasternak provides comparisons on most of these points to a community in South Taiwan. Ebrey writes, to her dismay, that such detailed registers of the Taiwanese kind have not been
Ibid., p.99 Ebrey, Patricia, Introduction: Family Life in Late Traditional China, Modern China, Vol.10, No.4, 1984, p.380 9 Wolf, A.P. and Chieh-shan Huang (1980), Marriage and Adoption in China, 1845-1945, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, and Pasternak, Burton (1983), Guests in the Dragon: Social Demography of a Chinese District, 1895-1946, New York: Columbia University Press
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found yet for other periods or regions of China. Although thousands of genealogies survive, they do not shed light on who lived with whom, the incidence of mortality as well as fertility. She calls for the study of alternative sources like epitaphs, brief biographies of distinguished intellectuals, fictional stories and books of advice, in order to fill the above lacuna. According to her, a family system exists because people have certain ways of categorising their relatives, of interpreting the choices open to them, even of conceiving of what concepts like family, descent, marriage etc. are all about. She mentions Johanna Meskills A Chinese Pioneer Family (1979), which is primarily based upon oral accounts provided by the descendants, as the only detailed historical portrait of a family line published till 1980s. Therefore, the Chinese social structure is well-defined by its uniqueness, which is, firstly, deeply embedded in into a class-based, rather than either clan or caste-based, and, secondly, seen in the importance attached to it for the states survival. This aspect has been well surmised by Franz Schurmann and Orville Schell by pointing out that the Chinese knew that man was both a political and a social animal and needed a system of authority as well as a community. This uniqueness provided the endurance to the social structure of surviving dynastic changes, including non-Chinese, in China over the past two millennia. As discussed above, there was an immense stress on family as the basic social unit, which was used to support the concept of loyalty to the emperor. John K. Fairbank divided the traditional Chinese society into two main parts: the scholar-gentry official structure, which lived in the towns with big families, and the mass of peasants, which stayed in the villages with smaller families. But the lacuna of this approach is the clubbing together of merchants, craftsmen etc. with the peasants. A more relevant classification of this class-based society is the traditional four-fold division: Shi (lesser nobility), Nong (peasants), Gong (craftsmen), and Shang (merchants). The imperial family, though not included here, remained at the top of the hierarchy. Other classes included the artists and the soldiers. The reason behind according a higher status to the peasants than the merchants was due to the Confucian thinking of the former being the growers of food through sheer hard work, while the latter earned money through exploitation and without putting in labour. The Shi were different from the European gentry in the sense that while the former were scholar-gentry, the latter were landed-gentry. They consisted of people who cleared the first two levels--- district and provincial--- of the civil service examinations, and essentially became private tutors an helped in the management of rural affairs. The overwhelming presence of this class (2,50,000) in comparison to the bureaucracy (20,000) and the nature of
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its scholarly background helped them to serve as a link between the state and the society, which again reflects the overwhelming influence of the Confucian philosophy on the Chinese society. Due to their possession of both land and knowledge, a number of them, after 1840 and by the turn of the 20th century, either became private entrepreneurs or part of the new intelligentsia. The Nong as a class was poorer than the craftsmen and the artisans. Being the tillers of the soil and the providers of food, they enjoyed immense respect within the Chinese society. As such they were also politically active whenever their lives became difficult and state support was lacking. Although a number of wealthy farming families emerged in places like the provinces of the lower and middle Yangtze, Shandong, Fengtien, Guangdong and Sichuan, it seemed to have been a result of commercial development and mobility of land ownership in late Qing period. The growth of a wide network of markets, opines Marrianne Bastid-Bruguire10, stimulated the growth of specialised commercial agriculture in order to satisfy the growing needs of urban populations. But she cautions that such cases were not uniform throughout China, and, often, greater returns had been the results of more efficient management and also due to the introduction of more profitable crops like opium. The regions like Anhui or Hunan, were not the recipients of such benefits and peasant unrest gave succour to upheavals like the Taiping Rebellion and others. Later on, from 1930s onwards, such peasant discontent played a critical role in the success of the Communist movement. Jacques Gernet, a scholar, asserted that the Chinese civilisation was a product of farmers and craftsmen. Joseph Needham, another eminent Sinologist, said, ... the world owes far more to the relatively silent craftsmen of ancient and medieval China than to the Alexandrian mechanics, articulate theoreticians though they were. Basically, they have extolled the scientific temperament of the Gong or craftsmen class of the traditional Chinese society. But, unfortunately, their contributions were never patronised by the state and the intellectuals. Marrianne Bastid-Bruguire feels that the above factors coupled with internal strife led to the impoverishment of this traditionally family-oriented mode of production, which again generated poverty and fuelled apathy towards imperial rule. The Shang, or the merchant class, though at the bottom of the traditional social structure, was well-off and assumed an influential role in the polity and society especially after the Chinese defeat in the Opium War of 1840 and subsequent advent of semi-colonialism, which were attributed to the rigidity and inward-looking outlook of the Confucian philosophy that guided the Chinese psyche. The merchants formed associations, such as the Ningbo and Canton guilds, and ventured into the

Bastid-Bruguire, Marrianne, Currents of Social Change, Cambridge History of China, Vol.11, Part.2, p.577

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banking and industrial sectors. Other classes outside this four-fold social structure included musicians, dancers, soldiers etc. While the artists were accorded a better social standing, the soldiers were looked down upon. When once asked by his disciple Tsu-Kung which among the three elements of good government11 was he ready to renounce, Confucius replied that he would renounce the soldiers. What he might have meant was that food was necessary for sustenance, in an agrarian state, and the element of trust should have a solid foundation among the rulers and the ruled, and also among the people themselves. It would lead to social harmony and end conflicts. Therefore, the role of the soldiers was unnecessary in such a scenario. But over the centuries this might have been misconstrued as the Confucian tradition looking down upon the soldiers. From the beginning of the 20th century, the soldiers began to play an increasingly important role in the political and social structure of China. With the advent of Western modes of learning, propagated especially by the Christian missionaries in the fields of literature, science and medicine, a host of new classes emerged, such as the the new intellectual class (valuing Western notions of liberalism and democracy), the student community, the scientific community, and the party cadre (with the emergence of the Communist Party of China in 1921). But the best feature was that there existed upward social mobility within the society and rigidity of professions related to birth did not exist. Imperial China was a developed civilisation with a complex institutional structure integrated by the state cult of Confucius, its local religious and educational manifestations, and by the complex patterns of regional and inter-regional trade12. But Norman Stockman says that this type of institutional structure did not result in relatively autonomous and bounded realms of social life such as are helped to characterise western modernity. He lays out certain features of differentiation within the society in imperial China. Firstly, since the emperor at the apex of the social hierarchy, a strong differentiation between the sacred and the secular realms did not become established, since he united both these elements within himself. He held his position as divine right given by the Mandate of Heaven. Secondly, the state itself was not itself a highly differentiated set of institutions. Only a small number of ministries existed and the concept of the separation of powers (political, legislative, judicial) did not exist. Law was deemed to be man-made, not divine, and could be changed by the emperor at will. Thirdly, there was little institutional differentiation of the economy as a bounded sphere of social life, in spite of the high degree of commercialisation and monetisation of the economy. Unlike
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Enough food, trust of the people and enough soldiers. Stockman, Norman (2000), Understanding Chinese Society, Great Britain: Polity Press, p.205

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their Western counterparts, the vast majority of enterprises in the Chinese urban economy took the form of family businesses, with no clear difference between the household and the enterprise accounts, location and personnel. Private business had very little autonomy or protected status legally. Property rights were not guaranteed and the state could intervene in any economic activity if the officials deemed it appropriate. Fourthly, cultural activities too had little institutionalised autonomy from the state. Intellectuals, scholars and artists, in spite of enjoying imperial patronage and social status, could exercise their independent judgement only, what Stockman calls, within a strictly defined perimeter of values shared with the emperor. Moreover, some scholars argue that an incipient civil society began to emerge in Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) China and, certainly by the early twentieth century, came to reshape the urban landscape as merchants, city residents, professionals, and intellectuals. They organised institutions, institutions within the public sphere, including voluntary associations, newspapers, and periodicals, which played a mediating role between the state and society. But critics, like Jurgen Habermas, warned against universalizing the concepts of civil society and public sphere, which are basically European concepts13. They said that the Chinese society needs to be studied in its own light without appropriating foreign ideas. In conclusion, it can be said that the social structure of China, even in the late Qing period, had an overwhelming influence of Confucianism in every aspect of its life. Though changes had begun to emerge after China started opening up to the foreigners in the post-1840 period, and new social classes emerged due to the proliferation of western ideas and learning, the basic ideals of the society, deeply rooted to the Confucian tradition, remained intact and could be considerably altered only after the establishment of the Peoples Republic of China in 1949; although due credence should also be given to the Republican period (roughly 19111949) for instituting social reforms like the abolition of foot-binding etc. But the primary purpose of this term paper has been to analyse the theoretical foundations of the Chinese society in the late imperial period, and therefore, factual details have been broadly ignored.


Zuoyue Wang, Saving China through Science: The Science Society of China, Scientific Nationalism, and Civil Society in Republican China, Osiris, 2nd Series, Vol. 17, Science and Civil Society (2002, The University of Chicago Press on behalf of The History of Science Society.

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1) Books:
Tan Chung (1978), China And The Brave New World: A Study Of The Origins Of The Opium War (1840-42), Allied Publishers Private Limited. Stockman, Norman (2000), Understanding Chinese Society, Great Britain: Polity Press.

2) Articles:
Ebrey, Patricia, Introduction: Family Life in Late Traditional China, Modern China, Vol.10, No.4, 1984. Bastid-Bruguire, Marrianne, Currents of Social Change, Cambridge History of China, Vol.11, Part.2. Zuoyue Wang, Saving China through Science: The Science Society of China, Scientific Nationalism, and Civil Society in Republican China, Osiris, 2nd Series, Vol. 17, Science and Civil Society (2002, The University of Chicago Press on behalf of The History of Science Society.

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