The Significance of the Family in East Asian Thought
The family is considered to be the foundation of every society. It is therefore important to examine the significance of the family in East Asian thought. This paper therefore discusses the significance of the family in Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism in East Asia. It further explores the role the family played in the rise and fall of dynasties in ancient China.
The Confucian thought has extensively discussed the significance of the family, especially family relationships, to its members, the society, and even the state. Confucianism stresses that the family is the foundation of order and peace in the world. Due to its status as the basic unit of the society, the Confucian thought insists that harmonious family relationships are essential in ensuring the existence of a harmonious society and peaceful nation or state (Yao, 2000, p. 181). The classical Confucian thought categorized family relationships into three groups, namely, between parents and children, between a husband and his wife, and finally, between an elder and younger brothers.
According to the Confucian thought, the world could experience great peace if everyone could love his/her parents, and treat his/her elders with respect. The family has also played an important role in virtue politics, especially when it comes to balancing one’s interests and those of others. For individuals in the ruling class, such as top government officials, their virtues in family matters or issues are of greater significance, as most people believe that when such top state officials develop deep affection for their parents, the ruled class will naturally be compassionate or humane. It is for these reasons that Confucianism considered family harmony to supreme to all other considerations, and further placed family responsibilities above all known social duties.
Yao (2000) states that: In some extreme cases, Confucius was even prepared to consolidate family relations at the price of family regulations, because in his view social justice was nothing other than an extension of family affection and could not be realized unless affectionate family relationships were sustained. (p. 181).
That is why the Confucian thought highlighted the significance of family harmony in ensuring achievement of stability across the entire society, and further made the use of family virtues an important framework for correcting disorder at the individual and societal levels.
The Confucian thought viewed the family as critical in establishing proper order to an individual, the society, and the state or government. What is referred as proper order here can take various dimensions. Firstly, proper order can be viewed as being human and humane. The word “human” emphasizes the primacy of human interests, such as material and moral interests, while “humane” emphasizes respect for persons, for instance, expressing human feelings. Secondly, proper order refers to virtuous leadership, which involves balancing the interests of the self and others, and both in the short-term and long-term. Thirdly, a beneficent hierarchy, in which all involved benefit, has to exist. Fourthly, there has to be cosmic resonance, a situation in which institutions are aligned with the logic of nature to minimize conflict or adverse outcomes. Finally, proper order must result in positive outcomes, such as flourishing or prosperity, for example, material gain and moral development.
In Confucian thought, proper order was fragile because of the inevitability of fate, conflict, and corruption. However, the concern was more about the inevitability of corruption, as it could affect political, economic, and cultural spheres of life, for instance, buying power, abusing wealth, and even betrayal. Since the family is the foundation of a society, the virtue (value) familial responsibility was considered as the best means of restoring the proper order in individuals, the society, and the government/state. Restoring proper order at the individual level would require the family to provide a supportive environment, such as ensure its members acquire education and develop in a humanized way. Secondly, the ecological family can also support self-cultivation, in which individuals strengthen their moral standings. Apart from the individual, the family was also viewed to play a critical role in the society’s stability. For example, it was emphasized that the family should come first when it comes to addressing societal issues. The ability of each family to manage its affairs properly was considered essential in providing individuals the necessary skills that they require to govern a society through holding a leadership position. This implies that persons that had not exhibited competencies in managing their families, for instance, broken marriages/families, were not likely to be considered for political positions as the functioning of the society is similar to that of the family. It is evident that Confucians view politics as being an extension of family and personal politics; hence, political conflicts have to be addressed in accordance to the principles employed in a familial context. In relation to economics, the family is the foundation of the economy. Production and consumption of food and other goods and services is mainly undertaken at the family level. Production of adequate food by families has always been considered critical to ensuring food security at the household and social levels respectively. Surplus production of has always been known to encourage economic growth through trade. It is from such trade that the state obtains its taxes that it uses to run its operations and provide services to the people. States that lack food security are not as stable as those with adequate food security. These connections therefore evidently show that virtue familial responsibility is critical to the sustenance of proper order at all levels of the society.
Taoism can be viewed as the consolidation of several concepts and practices (rituals) that in totality make up the “Path” or “Way” in living. In fact, the term Tao means “Path” or “Way” (How Stuff Works, n.d, “Taoist Philosophy”). Some Taoist practices are clearly philosophical in nature, while others are evidently religious. The central belief in Taoism is that there exists a natural order or way of heaven that individuals can only discover if they live in harmony with nature. Therefore, a person can only gain eternal life if he/she comes to understand natural laws. The emphasis of natural laws in Taoism is an indication that views the formalized family arrangements from a quite different perspective. Taoists are not opposed to formalized family institution, but emphasize that such formalized family arrangements could only make sense to an extent that they reflect the natural unfolding of Way (Tao), and do not become obstacles to individuals finding themselves in Way. To Taoists, any names, rules, or rituals that are imposed on people externally can only work to interfere with their natural actions. For example, regarding the family, Taoists believe that the best families are those established out of the involved parties’ free will, rather than due to external pressures because of its institutionalization. They emphasize that reality is continuous, and thus, people should continuously align themselves with the reality (How Stuff Works, n.d, “Taoist Philosophy”). They also stress that people are often out of the Way, and can only get back in step through practicing mystical cultivation and inner transformation. To Taoists, it is through such self-cultivation and inner transformations that a family is capable of developing its own rituals that would sustain its existence in tandem with nature. Taoists viewed laws, rules, and regulations imposed on the family as the main cause of moral decay in the society. They supported self-cultivation and inner transformation as the best approaches for addressing family problems. Taoists also viewed the society as a family at a larger scale, and were against the rules and regulations imposed by the state on individuals. Instead, they supported internal efforts by the society in formulating ways that would govern their activities and direct them towards their destiny.
Since Buddhism focuses less on conventional continuities, some social aspects such as reproduction, maintaining the family line, promoting the local culture, economic production, or ritual are not at the core of the religion. This implies that the significance of the family is much less in Buddhism. It is for these reasons that Buddhism evidently lacks doctrinal standards or any form of institutionalized framework or models of the family. For instance, the virtue of renunciation, detachment from family, and the personal pursuit of enlightenment are actually viewed as having negative impacts on the family. Buddhists consider the inherent nature of families and familial arrangements or relationships as producing attachments that are in reality obstacles to realizing detachment from worldly desires and affairs, which can hamper the achievement of enlightenment. Furthermore, the Buddhists practices for pursuing enlightenment are mainly suited for adults, and require a lot of time and efforts in solitary study and meditation (Schobert Jr. and Taylor, n.d, “Buddhism and Family”). All these factors clearly indicate Buddhism places less significance on the family life.
The significance of the family in East Asian thought was also reflected in the society’s perception of the dynasty’s (ruling family) legitimacy. For centuries, China was ruled by dynasties (ruling families), which were said to have a mandate from heaven to rule the people and ensure their well being. The dynastic power was often transmitted through the family from the father to the son, although at times a brother, nephew, or other male relative would inherit the throne. It is important to note that in East Asian societies a family is usually larger than a nuclear family that is comprised of a husband, his wife, and their child or children. In East Asia, the term family can refer to an extended family that may be comprised of members of even up to three generations that are living in the same household. The East Asian society believed that a ruling family was in command of the society because it had a mandate from heaven to rule the people. They therefore believed that the ruling family/dynasty could continue ruling the people as long as it had the mandate from heaven, which was evident through favorable conditions such as regular rains, good crops, good government services, all of which made the people satisfied. Natural disasters, such as famine, floods, earthquakes, pandemics and drought were considered as a withdrawal of the mandate by the heavens, and often marked the end of the dynasty (Alpha History, n.d, “The Mandate of Heaven”). To the ancient Chinese people, a good ruling family/dynasty came to power because of they had the ability bring peace and prosperity. However, the eventual over-expansion and corruption resulted in an increasingly costly government, bankruptcy, social decay, and rebellions. These disorders also encouraged the overthrow of the dynasty, and establishment of a new one that was more promising. In this case, it is evident that the ruling family’s virtues determined how long they could stay in power, and the levels of social and economic development in the society. Those that failed to sustain high standards of morality, and social and economic development were themselves viewed as lacking good values that would facilitate such accomplishments, hence were displaced from power. The family has been of great significance in the East Asian thought.
Alpha History. (n.d). The mandate of heaven and confucianism. Retrieved from: http://alphahistory.com/chineserevolution/mandate-of-heaven-confucianism/
How Stuff Works. (n.d). Taoist philosophy.” Retrieved from: http://people.howstuffworks.com/taoist-philosophy.htm
Schobert Jr. F. M, & Taylor, S. W. (n.d). Buddhism and family. Jrank. Retrieved from: http://family.jrank.org/pages/183/Buddhism-Buddhism-Family.html
Yao, X. (2000). An introduction to confucianism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.