Family as a Medium of Social Control
Family as a Medium of Social Control
Moral Principle. Imperial Chinese rules of family/kinship varied from one community to another, but they shared some characteristics: they all placed an emphasis on moral principles or Confucian concepts, translating them into the norms of personal conduct in daily life. Violations of these norms were usually met with group disapproval, ranging from gossip and ridicule to punishment and exclusion. However, the rule of family/kinship gave priority to moral persuasion rather than to physical punishment, unless the latter penalty became absolutely necessary. Moral persuasion started when a person was young and continued through lifelong socialization.
Six Elements. With an emphasis placed on the hierarchy of generations and ages, moral persuasion comprised six elements: showing filial piety to one’s parents; respecting one’s elders; staying in agreement with the common interests of the community; taking responsibility for teaching and disciplining one’s children and grandchildren; attending properly to one’s vocation; and committing no conduct forbidden by law. It is worth noting that these basic principles were largely in agreement with those upheld by state laws. For example, the offense of filial impiety was generally punishable without immunity, and the offender was flogged forty times. During the Song dynasty moral instructions were fully integrated into the rules of the family, which established a common practice of virtue for all kinsmen. By this standard it was a father’s duty to discipline his sons; an elder brother’s duty to offer good advice to his younger brothers and to take care of their widows and orphans; a kinsman’s duty to give relief to fellow members in distress; and all kinsmen’s duty to help settle disputes in order to reach harmony. In doing so, it was believed, Heaven, or the Way of the Nature, could reach its balance and in turn be a blessing for both individuals and families.
Punitive Power. While having a strong moral character—stressing many ethical values of personal integrity— family/kinship rules traditionally contained enormous punitive power to control the deviant behavior of clan members. Yet, with increased centralized state power as of the third century B.C.E., this power was largely limited by the legal system. Nevertheless, the state still recognized that the kinship group had a certain degree of autonomous authority to handle minor cases among its members, because it was believed that punitive power was a logical extension of the family’s moral disciplinary functions. There was a clear line of demarcation, however, in terms of judiciary power between the government and kinship clan. Cases involving the violation of ethical values—such as a family feud, children’s harmful acts toward parents, and adultery—were generally handled by the family/kinship clan, and the offenders were judged and punished (usually by flogging) at the ancestral hall. Cases involving serious offenses such as murder, treason, and intergroup brutality fell under government jurisdiction, and the offenders were turned over to the courts for trial and punishment.
Punishment. Each kin-clan maintained a record of family instructions that spelled out the dos and don’ts of carrying out punishments. The judiciary power of the government was weak below the county level, and some kin-ship clans avoided turning serious cases over to the government for trials; instead, they imposed the death penalty on “guilty” members who they considered had brought shame upon the ancestors. Such decisions were made by the head of the clan, but the opinions of elder members carried much weight. It is interesting to note that punishment was not always confined to an individual offender but was often extended to one’s family, which was held responsible for the misbehavior of the offender. For example, a father who overlooked his son’s crime or a husband who allowed his wife to commit misconduct would also be punished, though not at the same level as the offender. In some cases a son was even liable for the misconduct of his wid-owed mother. Punishment in the family/kinship rules varied in terms of degree, ranging from an oral reprimand or monetary fine to corporal punishment, including expulsion and even death (often in the form of forced suicide). Expulsion from the family/kinship was considered to be the most severe penalty, which also meant that the offender would be excluded from the genealogy of the kin-clan and all privileges associated with such status. This punishment was the most humiliating experience for any group member in a close-knit community, for one’s name would not be carved on a posthumous tablet placed in the ancestral shrine and his descendants would not be allowed to enter the ancestral hall.
Werner Eichhorn, Kulturgeschichte Chinas, translated as Chinese Civilization: An Introduction, by Janet Seligman (New York: Praeger, 1969).
James T. C. Liu and Wei-Ming Tu, eds., Traditional China (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970).
Michael Loewe, Imperial China: The Historical Background to the Modern Age (New York: Praeger, 1966).