Father. Xiao (Filial Piety) and Li (Rites) were two pillars of patriarchy in ancient China. Li stipulated that the highest rank and respect be awarded to the Jia Zhang (family head, or father); Xiao was the beginning of Li and was used to ensure the proper ordering of the family. With few exceptions, laws in the Tang (618-907), Song (960-1279), and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties pro-claimed that all family property belonged to the father. The concept of Jia Zhang was deeply ingrained in traditional Chinese familial culture. As the family head the father had the highest authority, which required total obedience from other family members because he was seen as their superior. In a similar vein, broadly defined, the head of the clan was also authorized to play the role of Jia Zhang in relation to his kinsmen in the larger community.
Power. The Jia Zhang could use any means (even death) to penalize a disobedient child or family member without fear of being held accountable by state laws. After the Tang dynasty almost all imperial family laws favored patriarchy, particularly those regulations made during the Song and Ming times. During the Song dynasty the theoretical patriarchal system was laid out by Zhu Xi in the Zhu Zi Jia Li (Book of Family Rites). He proposed that “everyone in the family owes complete obedience to Jia Zhang (the family head).” The effort of the state to popularize ancestral halls and rites reinforced familial stratification. The rapid growth of the Zu (kin-clan) in Song times put various communities under the total control of the Jia Zhang. In a kin-clan, power was concentrated in a few male elders, called Zu Zhang, who presided over community affairs. For kinsmen the ancestral temple in the village was their court, and clan regulations were laws by which they complied.
Customary Laws. The rise of kin-clan power occurred when Chinese customary law—an informal legal system in which most communities were given a high degree of autonomy in exercising control over local affairs—came into being. As long as these rules did not conflict with the interests of the state, the local clans, villages, and guilds were allowed to settle minor legal disputes among their members. Customary law was most evident in the realms of the family and marriage. Clan elders and parents were entrusted to decide matters of marriage, divorce, and succession on behalf of their juniors. They also had the final say in settling disputes; informal hearings were usually set up in the family compound or at the ancestral temple, and disciplinary actions were carried out according to customary rules. Similarly, customary law was applied to the informal settlement of disputes in the guilds or other businesses. The heads of guilds were entrusted with the responsibility of exercising discretionary power to redress damages, grievances, and abuses among their members. State courts handled only those complicated and serious cases that the family and guild heads found impossible to resolve.
The State. The authority of the Jia Zhang and that of the Guo Jia (the state, as viewed as a family head) were closely associated. If a father was regarded as the Jia Zhang of the house, so too was the state seen in relation
to broader society and the emperor in relation to all his subjects. During the Tang and Song dynasties, laws imposed the responsibility of the family head on family affairs and compelled his loyalty to the state and to the emperor. Both dynasties demanded that family heads assist the government in house registration, taxation, and the draft of soldiers; state laws also outlined the punishments for those who failed to do so.
Maurice Freedman, Chinese Lineage and Society: Fukien and Kwangtung (London: Athlone Press, 1966; New York: Humanities Press, 1966).
H. P. Wilkinson, The Family in Classical China (Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh, 1926).