Extended Structure. During the Tang dynasty (618-907) there was a conspicuous transition from a simple family structure to stem and extended structures. The reasons compelling family members from several generations to live together were primarily economic, political, and social. First, the progress of agrarian development required greater cooperation among a large family unit for it to be able to accumulate sufficient capital and labor to achieve maximum economic benefits. Second, the prevalence of Confucianism, in conjunction with Buddhism, emphasized filial piety, especially by Tang times. For example, co-residing families with members from five generations were applauded in society, whereas a married son, living apart from his parents, was condemned. Families of ten or twenty individuals became a common phenomenon in the Tang dynasty and even more popular in Song times (960— 1279). This trend continued without much change during the Yuan (1279-1368) period, though it was somewhat weakened by Mongol laws that were more flexible, and into the Ming (1368-1644) dynasty. Third, increased state power intervened in the family institution. The Tang and Song imperial governments issued laws to ensure that sons cared for their aged parents, a policy that directly pushed the further development of stem and extended family structures.
Prosperous Family. Stem and extended structures also helped boost the social distinction of a large and prosperous family, especially when kinsmen attained high social prestige that brought the kin-clan enduring honor. Before the Tang period, however, only the noble class had a distinctive family-clan organization, called the Shi, and its lineage, called Zong, bound the whole kinship system through primogeniture. This organization eventually gave way to a new social order in which all the sons received equal inheritance rights. Clan organizations no longer revolved around primogeniture but were established according to social prestige and political power. As a result, several powerful family clans, generally called Wang Zu (eminent family-clan), dominated local regions and enjoyed close association with the imperial courts, which provided them with special privileges in taxation and civil service appointments. Five Wang Zu survived the Han (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) and Sui (589-618) dynasties and became powerful social groups, but the “big five” families drastically declined during the Tang period, when the imperial court abolished many privileges once enjoyed by these clans.
New System. Yet, Tang China was still an aristocratic society. In elite circles, genealogies continued to be much discussed, and eminent forebears were looked upon as a source of pride and admiration; members of the most-prestigious fami-lies still largely married among themselves, giving coherence and visibility to the highest stratum of the elite. Early in the Tang dynasty the emperors tried to undermine the prestige of aristocratic pedigrees and to assert that high office carried more honor than having notable ancestors. In addition, during classical times, ancestral rites were performed only by royal and aristocratic families, but in the Tang dynasty these ceremonies were spread beyond the elite to common families. These changes exerted a tremendous impact on the evolution
of the Chinese family, which in time transformed from a privileged clan united for political interests into an economic and social organization centered on the performance of ancestral rites. This system became widespread in the Song dynasty and was firmly established in the Ming dynasty.
Influential Thinker. Song philosopher and scholar Zhu Xi—who advocated neo-Confucianism—laid the moral as well as structural foundation for the family institution; his influence can still be seen in contemporary Chinese society. He recommended that people consult the Four Books, which embodied the fundamentals of Confucianism. They were Confucius’s Lun Yu (Analects), Zhongyong (Doctrine of the Mean), and Daxue (Great Learning), as well as Mencius’s Book of Confucius Disciple. To maintain family stability, Zhu Xi introduced an institution called Xiangyue (Community Compact), which involved regular assemblies to facilitate communication among local residents. He also advocated a hierarchy of authority; five age grades, with rules for the con-duct of all family members; the celebration of major rituals, with corresponding dress codes; and many other detailed instructions for managing family affairs. Zhu Xi saw these practices as essential to balance the relationship between the state and the family.
Maurice Freeman, ed., Family and Kinship in Chinese Society (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1970).
Ruikai Zhu, Zhongguo Hun Yin Jia Ting Shi, translated as History of the Family and Marriage in China (Shanghai: Xueling Press, 1999).