Question about family and society in the Chinese philosophical tradition

Here are three different ideas:

  1. Having the right attitudes in my family relationships tends to give me the right attitudes in my political relationships.
  2. Where right family attitudes prevail in society, the right political attitudes tend also to prevail.
  3. Differences in family culture from region to region, or from time to time, tend to be accompanied by analogous differences in political culture.

Idea #2 is very abstract, and can be understood simply in terms of order versus disorder, or natural respect versus the lack of it.  Idea #3 contemplates a variety of kinds of stable order, and perhaps a variety of forms of government.

Where might idea #3 appear in the Chinese tradition?

2 replies on “Question about family and society in the Chinese philosophical tradition”

  1. It is present, for instance, in the Mohist account of different socio-economic conditions. When population grows, resources become scarce and there ensues a war of all against all. It implies changing relations in the family and in the tribe (conditioned economically).
    Or for instance the Analects 13.18 Confucius denounces the Legalist social order in She. Although the causation is not clear, whether it is the type of family relations in She that have determined the political order, or, more plausibly, is it the political order that has made sons to denounce fathers.
    Also Zhuangzi, as part of his perspectivism, presents different social customs, like tattooing, hat-wearing etc between the Chinese and the barbarians as equally justified (and one might perhaps extend it to their form of government).
    I think that the continuity presented in the Great Learning between personal, family, state and cosmic order, is a persisting weakness in the Chinese thought that has not permitted a proper development of social philosophy. There is something wrong in the society? Don’t start a social reform, rebellion, union, but go home and perfect yourself. At maximum, write a petition to the ruler. At minimum, retire.

  2. Thank you, Margus! These are interesting cases. And – good point about mere correlation.

    My underlying thought was that mainly in classical Confucianism we seem sometimes to see (a) the idea that right family attitudes tend to generate right political attitudes, and (b) the idea that the operative mechanism involves a similarity between the right family attitudes and the right political attitudes: the right family attitudes tend to generate similar political attitudes. Suppose these ideas were both taken very seriously in the Ru tradition, for more than a few years. One might expect it would lead eventually to someone’s proposing a sociological idea like the following: that greater or lesser degrees of authoritarianism in a society’s predominant family culture tend to generate greater or lesser degrees of authoritarianism in its political culture.

    This kind of idea need not involve any value relativism at all; it need only involve the idea that two somewhat different kinds of family culture are each capable of predominating in a society for a while. For example, one might argue against an egalitarian family culture on the grounds that (after a while) it tends to make political culture too egalitarian to be stable.

    (And conversely, now you mention it, early Confucianism also involves the idea that the people tend to emulate the character of the rulers, and one might well imagine this idea leading eventually to the proposal that a society’s political culture tends to generate an analogous family culture.)

    The Chinese tradition is long and vast, and I know only a very few early bits. I would love to hear what people eventually came up with, even if it was just last year.

    What you describe in the Mozi sounds to me like it might be a sort of trivial version of #2. But I don’t know where to look for it in the text.

    I’m looking for signs of the idea of a correlation (or causal principle), not just signs of a single instance that could fit such a correlation—a single society whose political culture resembles its predominant family culture. I’m not sure 13.18 displays even a single instance—for two reasons. First, Zhigong’s attitude toward his father looks like the opposite of his attitude toward the political authorities. Second, I don’t see a suggestion there that Zhigong’s family attitudes were the usual family attitudes in She.

    You may be right about the Great Learning and its impact. But I don’t see offhand that it is a cultural weakness (or a peculiarity of China) to hold the view that family attitudes tend to generate analogous political attitudes. Despite some people’s reading of 2.21, I don’t think that view implies the advice

    “There is something wrong with the political culture? Go home and change your family attitudes.”

    I think it suggests instead these two pieces of advice:

    “There is something wrong with your political attitudes? Go home and change your family attitudes.”
    “There is something wrong with the political culture? Go out and work toward change in the society’s family culture.”

    On its face the latter advice seems to suggest going into government to make policy changes (which I would distinguish from changes in political culture). An adviser might counsel a bossy king to make the divorce laws gender-blind.

    [In the half-hour after posting this comment I have edited it for clarity.]

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