Warp, Weft, and Way

Chinese and Comparative Philosophy 中國哲學與比較哲學

Confucianism and Household Servants?


This post expands a question I asked once in the old Discussions section.

It is sometimes said that the (or a) Ruist picture of moral psychology stresses family because Ruists stress the development of moral sensibilities starting with people’s earliest relationships, which are their childhood relationships at home.  So … what about household servants?

Understanding what (if anything) Confucians have had to say about children’s relations with household servants may be important toward understanding their views in general, and even toward understanding whether it is really true that this or that thinker or category of thinkers cared about children’s relationships at home.

I imagine household servants may not have been uncommon in the households of little boys who were potential leaders or Ru.  But I have no idea what might be known about that.

If early Confucians stressed family because our childhood home relations are our earliest relations, then they must have thought seriously about servants in this connection—unless for some reasons social conditions made that issue moot?

There are so many questions to ask about social conditions, and of course the answers may be different for different periods, regions, and social strata. One wants to know: what kinds of household servant were common?  What kinds of relationships would a young boy have had with them?  Were there nannies?  Other kinds of supervisor?  How early might there have been teachers, and what would have been the scope of their interaction with the boys?  What kinds of limits might have been customary, or innovated, on interactions between children and all manner of household servants?  One imagines there might have been typical genders of different kinds of servant.  And in my ignorance I know of no strong reason to think that household servants were not typically all of one gender (or the other).  Or perhaps the category of household servant and female family member were more or less elided, so that there were not typically servants other than family members?

(I know nothing about the Chinese institution of concubinage – how early, how widespread, etc. – but concubines might have seemed to straddle the distinction between family and servant.)

Would the term jia 家, in some usages, have included non-kin servants, as did the Greek oikos and the Latin familia and similar terms in other Western languages?

Do we have any evidence about any of this for pre-Qin times?  Han?

When did Ru or Ruists first discuss children’s relations with household servants?  (Aside from Mencius’ comment on non-kin teachers, which for a couple of reasons may be a bit off-topic here.)

In designing norms for home life, one might take various approaches to the fact of servants.

On the one hand, one might think a boy should relate to servants with love and respect, because just like family (and sometimes more so?) they are main features of the child’s early and formative social milieu.  Indifference or contempt here would become indifference or contempt on a wider scale later.  Insofar as servants are deferential to the family’s children, the children may be handicapped toward developing elder-respect.

On the other hand, one might think that if a boy is to develop family feeling (I mean family feeling, not xiao 孝) – if a boy is to develop family feeling as distinct from simply good relations with this and that particular person, he must have a sense of family as a group, a sense of the importance of membership, i.e. of the distinction between being and not being a member.  So to develop family feeling through home or early interactions, one must early on have a sharply different way of relating to servants (and other non-kin), however unnatural that would be at first.  Perhaps “you’ve got to be carefully taught.”

Or maybe there weren’t so many servants (other than family females – about whom similar questions could be raised), or maybe none had much to do with the children.  Maybe no thought was given to the matter.  Maybe childhood psychology in general wasn’t much of a concern.

Can anyone shed any light on any of this?  On ancient social conditions or old philosophical discussions?  Or on the abstract menu of philosophical possibilities?

The closest thing I happen to know to a discussion of these matters is not especially historical.  It’s an exchange between Daniel A. Bell and Sin yee Chan in Dissent in Winter 2008, in which Chan makes some very good points: https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/sin-yee-chan-responds-to-daniel-a-bell


  1. I have no answers, but surely be asking these specific questions of my students in China I next Fall—thank you!

  2. One place to look might be the Household chapter in Lewis, Mark Edward. The Construction of Space in Early China. Albany, N.Y.: State U of New York, 2006. SUNY

    He talks a bit about the legal status of servants as family members in the Han, along with a lot of related stuff.

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Switch to desktop version