Home > Chinese culture > Confucianism – and its view of the family

Confucianism – and its view of the family

A recent table on the OMF Facebook page has stirred up a lot of interest – I’ve seen it reposted in multiple places (original post here). It compares the Western and Eastern worldview in a whole series of areas, and shows how both must ultimately be transformed by the gospel. Here it is:

OMF culture diagram - western eastern biblical

In this post my focus is just on the blue and pink column (and not the green column). And I think that the table does a pretty good job – although I don’t entirely agree with some of the elements in the pink column. In particular, I think it doesn’t quite get it right when it talks about ‘community’.

It is true that Confucius himself was much more civic-minded in his teaching than the Confucianism that we see lived out today – “Within the four seas, all men are brothers.” And so much of his teaching was actually designed to ultimately influence the state as a whole.

However his focus on the virtue of filial piety had the unintended consequence of shrinking the circle of concern from the entire state, down to one’s own family/clan/village.

And so I’d suggest that the following modifications to the pink column might better represent the Eastern worldview:

OMF culture diagram - modified

To a Westerner, the Eastern perspective may seem highly community-focussed, in comparison to the individualistic West. And so it may look ‘communitarian’ – however by and large it is more correct to think of the family as being a person’s circle of concern. The Easterner is ultimately concerned about fitting in well into their family – rather than the fortunes of people who live down the road of their village (‘community’).

In addition, ‘family’ is thought of in quite a different way from how a Westerner would view family. Because we are not talking about the nuclear family unit of father-mother-children. We are talking about the extended family of aunties and uncles and grandparents. But more than that when the Easterner thinks about ‘family’ they are also talking about ancestors (in the past) as well as future descendants (who are yet to be born).

Family - Western and Eastern view

In the diagram above notice firstly what is included in the conception of ‘family’ in both East and West. On the left the focus is on father-mother-children (and grandparents, aunties etc. will still play a significant role) – but on the right, much more is included in the circle. And it even includes deceased ancestors and future unborn descendants.

Note also that what has primacy in both diagrams. On the left is the father-mother-children of one particular family unit (in bold) – but on the right, what is emphasised is the whole line of ancestors – of which I am just a small part. It is the family, considered as a long unbroken line, that has primacy.

It is because of this focus on the ‘family’ (rather than ‘community’) that family members may be very generous to others in the same family – yet distance themselves from the poor in their own village. It’s because of this that corruption sometimes takes the form of an government official only employing people from their own village, and passing over better qualified candidates from other places. And it’s because of this much larger conception of ‘family’ that a Chinese person might not make a fool of himself in public. Because it is one thing to face the disapproval of one’s spouse – but it’s another thing altogether to bring shame on both your ancestors, and succeeding generations of family members.

This orientation towards ‘family’ is massively significant in the Eastern worldview, and you can see that it actually touches many of the elements of the modified table. It influences one’s identity, how one behaves in society, what gives someone satisfaction – and even how one judges what is true!

However OMF’s table is very right to draw our attention to the green column. In the end it’s not a matter of Western or Eastern – but of transforming every corner of our lives and thinking and values in light of the word of God!

Categories: Chinese culture
  1. 14 March 2013 at 10:35 am

    Hi Andrew, thanks again for your insightful and incisive observations. Just a quick question: what do you mean by ‘exemplifying role’?

    • 14 March 2013 at 11:16 am

      Yeah I didn’t explain that. But the idea here is that an individual’s personhood and desires are not as important as the role/persona that they have.

      A role/persona might be ‘father’ or ‘leader’ or ‘pastor’s wife’ – and an Eastern individual generally aims at living out that role to perfection (‘exemplifying’). The focus isn’t really on their own self and their own desires (by comparison to the West this is not such a prominent concept) – but more the persona/role they inhabit.

      And from this comes things like the rectification of names, the tendency toward dutiful obedience. And it also sets the stage for Watchman Nee’s denial of the carnal self…

  2. adrian wong
    14 March 2013 at 10:38 am

    you can actually see the outworking of this in china. my wife is about to go to china for a while with my 20 month old daughter, and laments the lack of community play groups. There is no sense of community in china (especially nowadays, where materialism rather than communism rules. in the past (60s and 70s) communes can be enforced and somehow a unit of people is forced together, but at the end, it’s the family that is the central unit. this lack of community (with family as the main basis exascerbates the problem of the one child policy.

  3. Philip Nicholson
    14 March 2013 at 12:07 pm

    Hi Andrew,
    I think your suggestions make sense for a traditional Chinese context. However, I want to gently defend the original. (BTW, this is the first I have seen it, so I am not sure of who put it together or how definitive it is meant to be.)

    1. Not all East Asia is Confucian influenced which is the basis of your suggestions. These countries are also community focused but in different ways. So for example, I am not sure that your modifications would reflect the situation in Filipino or Indo-Malay societies (fore example)

    2. You are looking at a “high Confucian” worldview. But on the ground Confucianism varies greatly in its impact on people’ lives and values which are a mix of many different sources. So I think it is necessary to see how Confucian thinking is modified or even overturned by other worldview influences. Here in Taiwan I would be hesitant to call people Confucianists as it is too simplistic a description of everything that goes into their worldview and values.

    3. In many cases I think community is a better word than family as these values do often extend well beyond the biological family. It is easy for other people to become honorary family members and for other groups to be become substitute families. e.g. churches, student groups, clubs, etc. When I was doing student ministry. most students lived out of home and the student fellowship played all these roles in the table if giving identity, purpose, etc, etc. Our current church is made up mostly of broken families, so for these people the church is their “family” in a very real way.

    So while family is often the core group, especially when intact. In many cases I think it is more helpful to use the broader term “community” as other groups act as proxy families in many situations.


  4. Philip Nicholson
    14 March 2013 at 3:08 pm

    BTW, I am a member of OMF, but didn’t have anything to do with the table under discussion.

  5. 17 October 2013 at 1:11 pm

    Found a good quote, thought I’d share it:

    In traditional Chinese culture, ‘family’ was not a term that referred just to the household, but a broad concept that included not only living family members (husband and wife, parents and children and so on), but also deceased former generations, such as distant ancestors and even the originator of the clan; not only dead ancestors – the passing part of a family chain – but also unborn children: the continuation of the family line.
    – Yanxia Zhao, Father and Son in Confucianism and Christianity, 17.

  1. 31 May 2013 at 8:01 am
  2. 10 November 2014 at 3:31 pm

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