Chinese Kinship Systems Essay, Research Paper
It would be impossible to disagree with the statement that Chinese kinship is based on male predominance . In fact this statement may even be under-emphasizing the control and absolute power that males wield across all levels of Chinese society. Of course, where their power initially comes from though, is through the family or termed differently the jia . It is this extended or ideal family that cultivates the consistent patrilineal form of control/descent and dictates that residence in said jia is primarily patrilocal. That being said, what I hope to be able to create over the following pages is a clearer understanding of the ideal (Chinese) system of control. This ideal system,based on the ideal of male predominance, is outlined impeccably in the writings of Baker, Watson and Xiaotong. There are also excellent examples of an ideal jia and its power structure in Wolf s ethnography, The House of Lim . But Wolf s ethnography also outlines examples whereby the ideal system of dominance is not always put into practice or is just not as smooth running as the writings of the 3 former anthropologists would have you believe. It is my aim then, to include examples of a patriarchal system encountering problems and realities that are difficult to explain in an ideal sense.There is little doubt, according to Baker, that the first and foremost aspect to understanding Chinese families and society at large is the importance placed on male relationships and descent that is traced through a male line. In contrast, women in Chinese society were given little thought and even less power. They were to be used as reproducers of the male line and to aid in home/farm labour, apart from this; women had only small amounts of power and responsibility. In fact, the patriarchal system demanded that a wife s only connection with her husband s family be through the husband himself. Her future then, was caught up with his and her sons only, and she is expected to see her husband s interests as paramount in importance (Baker, 1979).Yet, women and childbirth, were essential to the continuation of the patrilineal system, which started with the birth of a son or sons to any kinship system be they peasant or gentry class. It was considered vitally important in Chinese society, that a wife bare a son as soon as possible not only for the continuity of descent (Baker, 1979), but also for her own well being and position in her own family. I will return to this point later, but before going anywhere further it is best to ask why a son was so important in the first place? There is, of course, a myriad of strong reasons, one reason being that surnames were passed down through the male line. This process meant that a male child was needed to take the surname of their father not their mother. Meaning that surname in China was integral to creating a kinship system, which placed heavy emphasis on male superiority. It was through this handed-down surname, that the massive kinship systems such as a lineage or a clan could be generated and held together over generations and generations. Hereditary surnames were also the primary form of hierarchical family organization, and were inherently needed to practice ancestor worship. This type of worship, through a patrilineal method, was exercised even after kinship members had long since been deceased. The handing of the surname to a father s son (s), then meant that he now existed to continue not only his present family but the extended family that came before him, and the jia that would surface in the future. Baker s use of a rope metaphor works well here, depicting a rope (standing for male heirs and descendents) which stretches back into the past and forward into the future. The rope at any one time may be thicker or thinner according to the number of strands (jia) or fibers (male individuals) which exist, but so long as one fiber remains the rope is there .That is the individual alive is the personification of all his forebears and all of his descendents yet unborn (Baker, 1979). Surname, then, depicted who you were, who you had control over and who you needed to respect and worship.Another major reason why a male child was so important in the Chinese kinship system, was the fact that inheritance followed the male line of descent. While it is interesting that Chinese kinship rules dictated that homogeniture be practiced, it was not as interesting that they followed the rule of inheritance through the male line of descent (I should clarify myself when I say not interesting, I mean it only in the sense of comparing China to other parts of the world where patrilineal inheritance was exceedingly common, yet the same places usually followed the rules of primogeniture not homogeniture). Inheritance usually involved the equal division of the family estate among brothers, which ideally occurred at the death of the household head or at a time agreed upon by all the senior kinship members. In contrast, while sons inherited equal amounts of the estate, daughters usually inherited no farmland, property or any tangible/collateral goods at all. This was the case even though during childhood both sons and daughters were looked after by their parents, and both adopt the father s surname (at least for their childhood, and possibly for young adolescence as well) (Xiaotong, 1983).Yet, by the time they reach adulthood and marriage is upon them, the son will continue to reside in the father s home, while the daughter will be shipped out of her own jia and into the home of her arranged husband. This process of shipping out daughters is highly beneficial to the Chinese patriarchal system, in so much as the daughters must willingly take her new husband s surname as her own. Thereby becoming a part of his family and losing all ties to her own. Once this surname change has been completed, the daughters had no legal right to receive an inheritance that equaled or even resembled their brothers and as already mentioned above, were not recognized shareholders in the family property (Watson, 1991). Ideally then, property is inherited by the son (s) whose obligation it is to support the parents when they reach old age. And by the third generation only the children of the son (s) carry on a continuous line of affiliation. The children of the daughter(s) in contrast, assume their own father s surname and in turn become but distant relatives (Baker, 1979). In essence, this form of male dominance or patrilineal descent was utilized to the near exclusion of other ties, and as Watson puts it, this had of course a profound consequence not only on women s property rights but also on their ability to perform as the social equal of their brothers and husbands (Watson, 1991).It should be clear (or at least clearer) by now, that what is essential for the smooth running of a Chinese family is the existence of males, and more importantly the birth of males to a specific family. This in turn means that a union between a husband and wife must be formulated. It has been said earlier that most of these marriages were pre-arranged, usually before the son or daughter reached their teenage years. One important aspect of these unions is the fact that most newly wed couples continue to reside patrilocally. The newly inherited daughter-in-law comes to reside permanently with her husband s family, which is usually headed by a senior agnate or more specifically her husband s father (Baker, 1979). Sadly the majority of Chinese brides enter their husband s families and communities as hardly anything more than strangers. Which means that they have no social ties, nor economic ones to the new household they are forced to join. Due to patrilocal tradition, the newly created daughter-in-law must fend for herself and must establish herself in circumstances that may be far from welcoming (Watson, 1991). And because of the patriarchal systems that are in place in Chinese society, parents then before an arranged marriage can take place, already know that they can only rely on their sons for support, never their daughters. They know this will happen from day one of their daughters birth, no matter what happens she will leave the natal family and belong at some point to a separate non-natal family. It can therefore be possible to see just how important sons really are for the natal parents continued survival.For brides in China then, marriage means a change of address. In contrast though, most grooms continue to reside in the same communities that they were born into. This male-dominated system, as outlined by Watson, continues to create an environment in which there is a significant advantage for sons over and above daughters. Parents, Watson continues, realize that the skills of local daughters will be lost to the environment when daughters marry. In sum, patrilocal residence means that women do not experience the emotional, economic or status continuity that is enjoyed by their brothers and husbands (Watson, 1991).Interestingly, or perhaps ironically, is the fact that for women to improve their patrilocal position in their family, they must give birth to a male child as soon as possible. Before the birth of a male child, in an ideal Chinese family, husband and wife would not sit close to each other and would seldom be overheard talking to one another. Social stigmatization was apparent and readily enforced due to the supposed barrenness of the chosen wife s womb. With the birth of a son, a wife s position in the family was definitely strengthened. It is strange though by western traditions, to look at the absolute power such a young male child can have over an adult woman. For instance, the curtain of silence can now be raised and the child can signal the bonafide admittance of this woman into the family (Baker, 1979). The reasons, according to Xiaotong, that it is so important for the wife to have a male child is two-fold: 1) It ensures, in the first place, the continuity of the line of descent; and 2) it is a concrete expression of filial piety by the future father towards his ancestors.
Everything prior to this has been based on the ideal or traditional system of kinship regulations. By no means is it an exhaustive look at the ideal rules outlining patrilineal dominance or patrilocal residence. What it instead creates is an image that Chinese society means to mimic. Of course there are times in reality where it is next to impossible to completely mimic or mirror the ways of an ideal society. What in turn is created, in society, can be termed a patrilineal modification . Some examples of this type of modification can be found in The House of Lim , which I will turn to shortly. But first I would like to include a patrilineal anomaly that occurs outside of traditional society. This anomaly deals with the possibility of a family conceiving no sons and instead conceiving only daughters. When this happens (though rare) a modification to the existing system must transpire. What happens is that said family, brings in an adopted son-in-law from outside of the integral kinship group. Once an agreement has been struck between the affinal and non-affinal parties, then the adopted husband will come and live in his wife s house with his wife s parents. Any children that are born into this union will assume the daughter s parents surname, not his own (Xiaotong, 1983). This example is raised, because in and of itself, it contradicts what has been outlined before as a strict and claustrophobic patrilineal system. What this and examples from The House of Lim will show is the flexibility and variability that is also inherent to any kinship system.The Lim family in many respects in Taiwanese society, is both typical and at times atypical of the normal kinship forms found in the majority of Taiwanese homes (Wolf, 1968). Much of the atypical reasons, center around the size and inherent complexity of the Lim s abode. Margery Wolf is quick to point out that the Lim s household is comprised of fourteen permanent members and still manages to be the only family retaining the eminence of being, united under one roof . Ironically this situation is actually the ideal situation sought after throughout Taiwan and China. It is the aspiration of most families, to one day be able to house separate male dominated descent lines under one roof and under one headsman. What is common in reality though, is the occurrence of friction between brothers, especially married brothers living together in close quarters. No matter how strong the ancestral father or mother, the normal course of action is for the brothers to begin to squabble over power and domination of the family. And even though in a strictly traditional sense, the younger brother(s) should give in without a fight, this rarely happens in reality. The younger brother is meant to stay submissive, says Baker, and as long as the father is alive and the younger brother stays single, it is possible. Yet in most families, once the younger brother gets married the struggle for dominance escalates, with the only resolution the division of the family home and wealth (Baker, 1979). Wolf mentions this in her ethnography and goes on to say, occasionally a large family for a time escapes this fate. The Lim family was such a one. The potential new families were not realized. Lim Chieng-cua together with his wife and children remained along with his older brother s widow and descendents in an undivided family . This situation is what makes the Lim s so unique. Their household becomes the ideal, or if you will, the prototypical stereotype of a perfect patrilineal family, where power and control is channeled through a single male head (Lim Chieng-cua).
How was it possible then, that such an ideal structure was created in the Lim family, while other families succumbed to the usual separation? Many reasons are subtlety outlined in Wolf s ethnography, but two unique ones stand out above the rest. The first stems directly from Lim Han-ci s strong character and personality. He was a true patriarchal head, a father who was exceedingly active in training and controlling his family (Wolf, 1968). Lim Han-ci generated for his family a reputation and a name, which survived his ultimate death. Though at times brutal, Lim Han-ci became a symbol to the Lim family, outlining what the family needed to strive for in succeeding generations. In fact, all fourteen members of the family protected the honor that Lim Han-ci created, as if he was still present and walking among them. It is through this type of patrilineal respect that Lim Chieng-cua was able to maintain such a high degree of control (Wolf, 1968). This of course, was not the only reason that power became vested in the hands of Lim Chieng-cua. Another focal point that transferred power to the third eldest was the death of Lim Hue-lieng.
Without the events surrounding Lim Hue-lieng, it seems less likely that the Lim family would have maintained such close ties. His death strengthened Lim Chieng-cua s position immensely, because as mentioned above, there was now only one brother. And one brother meant that there should be no squabble over inheritance and more importantly no division of kinship power. Yet, if Lim Hue-lieng had still been living with the Lim family when he became terminally ill, his effect on the power situation might have been altered. What I am referring to, is Lim Hue-lieng s past ventures into Taiwanese society, which caused a gap in the family, whereby patrilineal power shifted to the 3rd eldest son. Patrilineally speaking, Lim Hue-lieng should have inherited control over the family, or at least commandeered more power for his wife and sons. But this did not materialize due to his revolt at nineteen, against his family and more directly against his father (Wolf, 1968). His decision to join the lo mua was an act of extreme moral violence (Wolf, 1968). Such an act was reprehensible in such a patriarchal society, because a son s first duty was to obey, respect and support his father without question. In response to this action, a proud man like Lim Han-ci had no choice but to rethink the normal kinship structure. If his family was to survive, he had to ensure that a strong family head could be found. With his remaining time, a modification to the patrilineal system occurred in that all power and knowledge should now flow to Lim Chieng-cua.It is just this type of flexibility, on a situation to situation basis that caused the Lim family to remain united under one roof for so long. Sadly though, they could not maintain their unification indefinitely. Why not? It seems according to Baker and Xiaotong, that patrilineal power should have kept Lim Chieng-cua in charge until his death, but it did not. The patrilineal modification may then, have only delayed the inevitable. The inevitable being that Lim Hue-lieng s first family (residing in the Lim household) eventually decided that Lim Chieng-cua was treating them with undue negativity and disrespect. The main culprit of the division, Lim A-pou, to her credit did not start to voice her displeasure with the situation until after her foster father s death and the death of her husband. She believed (and probably rightly so) that because of her marriage to the eldest son, she would have some control over her own future particularly as the elder generations began to turn over their priority (Wolf, 1968). This position though, was compromised by the death of Lim Hue-lieng, and while Lim A-pou was still being consulted by the head of the family at this point. She was probably not given the amount of respect warranted to her position. From that moment forward, jealousy probably played an integral part in her quiet campaign for division (Wolf, 1968). And as arguments between Lim Chieng-cua became more frequent, she began to urge Lim A-bok _her eldest son) to also be less compliant in his dealings with his uncle (Wolf 1968). Ideally this should not have been allowed, but according to Wolf,Lim Chieng-cua was not the father. He was only the eldest male of the family and was a second son at that. The widow of the eldest son (Lim A-pou)- the son who under ordinary circumstances would be in Chieng-cua s position is still alive and now has a son (Lim A-bok) who is contributing a full share to the family budget. Undoubtedly this ambiguity in structure of the family influences the attitudes of Lim A-pou and her son .This ambiguity was the eventual death of the united Lim family. Walls were mounted, positions dissolved and property/wealth were divided up as equally as possible. It was not though, the death of the patrilineal system. Patrilocal residence would continue for all of the Lim (future) families, ancestral worship would also continue and male dominance and gender inequality would still reign supreme. In fact very little underneath the surface or socially would change at all, the family would remain a residential and economic unit composed primarily of males. And in order to reproduce itself it would still be forced to import women as brides, and dispose of females born into it by marrying them off to other families. Finally, it would continue to lay heavy stress on relationships through males, and tended to play down those through females, while there was an accompanying stress on the importance of men as opposed to women (Baker, 1979).