Confucius lived during China’s Spring-Autumn Period from 551-479 BCE. This was a chaotic period in China’s history, during which many small kingdoms and duchies fought with each other while the imperial court was essentially irrelevant. Confucius was a teacher and philosopher, who hoped to restore order to society by resurrecting the formal rituals of the early Zhou Dynasty. He believed that there was power in the rituals, many of which had to do with social relationships, and Confucius thought the restoration of these proper rituals would protect social harmony and eventually bring peace to the realm. (Herbert Fingarette wrote a classic work on the Confucian notions of power in ritual.)
The target of Confucius’ teaching was the ru class. These men were minor officials, perhaps the ritual shaman class from earlier eras. Confucius believed that if all the officials from the minor ones to the kings were ethical in everything, by upholding the rituals and responsibilities prescribed for each human relationship, then they would be able to influence the general populace, and society would be brought back into harmony. He saw these men as teachers both by word and by example.
Confucius advocated that men of his era be well-educated in the “six arts.” These arts included: rituals, music, archery, horsemanship, literary arts, and computation. He himself was an accomplished archer. In the 2010 movie Confucius, he is portrayed as a man who is wen wu shuang quan (文武雙全) or perfect in all things literary and martial, which is the highest standard of masculinity throughout Chinese history. (See the movie trailer http://youtu.be/NIdsD7nOoSg.)
Confucius taught thousands of students, many of whom became advisors to the various kings and dukes of the era, and his students expanded and developed Confucius’ ideas about ideal humanity, which of course, referred to men. The few references to women in Confucius’ Analects are all quite negative. Confucius was a man writing for men about men, but his principles were expanded over the centuries to also include women.
According to Confucian and Neo-Confucian writings, men were supposed to be moral agents, whose supreme duty was filial piety. Filial piety was the principal ethical underpinning of society and was even seen as the force keeping Nature in balance. Filial men were to financially support elderly parents, bring glory to their families with their career achievements, and properly perform all the rituals and sacrifices to their dead ancestors. As a corollary, they were to faithfully serve their emperor and other social superiors. One of their main duties to their parents and families lay in producing sons to carry on the family name and to ensure that the ancestors in their patriline would receive the required ritual sacrifices.
Confucius’ teachings were primarily for government officials. Later, they were expanded to the entire society. Archaeologists have determined that in the earliest days of Chinese society, sacrifices were only made to the imperial ancestors. Over the centuries, wealthy people emulated the imperial family and began worshipping their ancestors, as well, and eventually the practice trickled down to all levels of society. When the worship only involved the imperial family, the ancestors of both the emperor and the empress were worshipped. As the rituals became more widespread, only ancestors on the father’s side were worshipped, and the society became fully patriarchal. (See David N. Keightley.)
Throughout most of China’s long imperial era, norms of masculinity were not just for imperial officials. Confucianism was seen to apply to all householders. The head of each household was supreme ruler of the women and lesser males in his domain. He was responsible for supporting them and supplying their every need. He owed loyalty to his friends, integrity to his business associates, and obedience to the emperor and his officials. If his elderly mother was alive, he owed her filial piety, which was often interpreted as complete obedience and doing his utmost to satisfy her every whim. In practice, being a good Confucian male meant that a man’s responsibilities weighed on him much more heavily than could be alleviated by his pleasures in the exercise of so much power. This is probably why self-control has been touted as the ultimate male virtue since early in Chinese history.
The head of household/provider model of masculinity still resonates deeply among Chinese today. Parents want to be well-provided for in their old age, and they heap admonitions and stress upon their sons. I met a young man on the plane flying back to the US from Shanghai last summer (2011). He was the only son of middle-class parents. His parents had worked very hard to build a successful business, scraping and scrimping, so that they could send their son abroad to study. The young man was returning to Texas where he was getting a bachelor’s degree in business. He told me how worried he is that he will fail his parents because all their hopes are pinned on him. He seemed to be a young man who shouldered the responsibility well and who was determined to make something of himself. He and his friends had already started a software development company, and over summer break they had been inventing apps and trying to earn money.
Not every man can take the pressure of such responsibility, and the most famous work in Chinese literature is the story of a great house brought low by the decadence of its men, especially because the heir-apparent to all the power and fortune wants only to stay with his female cousins and grandmother painting and writing poetry instead of learning self-control and discipline so that he can pass the civil service exam to get a job as a high-ranking official. His father, the current head of household, is busy and harassed. His uncles and cousins squander the family’s fortune and engage in all kinds of debauchery. If you have never read The Story of the Stone by Cao Xueqin (translated in five volumes by David Hawkes), I highly recommend it. It is one of the top classics of Chinese literature. It is also called Dream of the Red Chamber or Hong lou meng 紅樓夢, and the translation by Hawkes is one of the best renderings.
So where does the Liu family fall into all of this? I would say that Pa is a pretty good Confucian head of household. He is the youngest in his generation, so he did not grow up with the pressure of needing to lead the entire clan. As the youngest, he struck out on his own and learned a trade. As such, he is despot only among his wife and children, but he is a benevolent despot who does his best to help everyone and who allows his children much freedom. His elderly mother chose to live with him, outside the family farm compound, until the end of her life. Pa was always good to his elders when they were alive. He did his best to care for Grandma Chu; if she was ever sick and wanted to see Ma, Pa would drop everything to take Ma to spend time with her mother. Pa supported his eldest brother and older cousins in matters affecting the entire clan. Because he is an eager helper and because he built up a reasonable business, he eventually gained the respect of his older cousins (not an easy thing for the youngest in a generation). Pa is a person who values good relationships over money and rules, and I think those characteristics saw him through a lot of difficulties. Ma does not agree with that philosophy. She hated feeling poor when Pa took business gambles, and she will bring up those problems whenever she feels that Pa or her sons are about to do anything that will jeopardize the family finances. Pa says that Grandpa Liu chose this particular wife for him for this express purpose: because he is a dreamer, and she is more pragmatic. And so perhaps, in a more Taoist fashion, he allows his wife to balance him, although I have heard that allowing Ma to balance him is a more recent development in Pa’s life, something he did not learn until middle age. (Later posts will cover Taoist and Buddhist views of masculinity.)