The importance of relationships in Chinese society

Relationships are arguably the most important aspect of Chinese society Photo: AP

WASHINGTON, May 21, 2013 — Relationships are arguably the most important aspect of Chinese society that remains unfamiliar to the west. It governs the daily lives of every Chinese. It could be with gods, ancestors, rulers, employers, family members, friends, and teachers.

Relationships are factors for consideration not only between people, but also among businesses and even nations.

In terms of relationship, the country, the society and the clan always come before the self. This is the reason that a person’s family name is placed before the given name. A Chinese will provide different answers to the question, “Where are you from?”

To a Westerner, he will cite his place of birth or his residence. To a fellow Chinese, the reply will list the origin of the speaker’s ancestry. For example, I was born in Taipei, Taiwan and I grew up in New York City. My Chinese response to the foregoing question will be “Fujian Province, Fuchou city.” It delineates my ancestry from that region of China.

An individual’s given name will often reveal his or her generational rank within a clan. In this way, members of a distant but related family can identify a person’s social standing within the clan by his or her name, so as to address that person with the appropriate title of cousin, uncle, nephew, etc.

Within communities, neighborhoods are formed into block security systems to help and protect each other. The block leader is usually responsible for its peace and security. In ancient times, a person had to report an illegal activity of his neighbor(s) to authorities. One person’s crime could result in punishment for the entire block. Refusal to report a crime constituted aiding and abetting, so good harmonious relationships between neighbors were of utmost importance.

The relationship between a superior and a subordinate are at times rigid and unforgiving. In ancient times, an emperor’s command for an official to commit suicide would be obeyed by the recipient without question. In 210 BC, upon receipt of an imperial order to take his own life, the eldest son and Crown Prince of the First Emperor committed suicide. The order was forged, but the Crown Prince obediently slit his own throat.

A master could punish a servant, including with physical strikes. Conversely, a lowly servant would be promoted in rank through loyalty and competence. Admiral Zheng He, the commander of seven grand fleets that sailed to Southeast Asia and Africa in early fifteenth century started his career as a eunuch/slave.

A father is responsible for the care of his children. He owns his children’s lives and can give them away to repay a debt or even order their death.

A son or daughter is obligated to obey the parent. The exception to the rule applies when a daughter gets married, then she belongs to the husband’s family. It is not unusual for a person to serve three years of bereavement period to honor his parents’ passing. A son is always expected to repay his belated father’s debts, be it monetary or metaphysical.

A teacher or mentor can hold very significant influence over the life of a student or subordinate. Their relationships often extends beyond the school and work environment. A letter of recommendation or sponsorship from a senior can jump start a person onto a path of success. Of course, that kindness and generosity is expected to be repaid when the situation arises.

Colleagues look after the welfare and career of each other’s scions. However, sponsorships are not lightly given, because should the recipient of the largesse commit an error or misdeed, the sponsor of the miscreant can be held responsible and at times punished for the misjudgment in character.

Under past imperial eras, punishments for certain crimes were levied against an entire family or clan and their social relations. Parents and teachers of “social outcasts” were often ostracized and despised. During the Song Dynasty, which was from 960 to 1279 AD, many people changed their family name from “Qin” to another name because Qin Guei was the corrupt official that had been responsible for the murder of the national hero Yueh Fei.

Relationships between friends are multi-tiered, depending on the type and level of the established friendship. Once a bond is established, the friendship can transcend family ties. Chinese history is replete with tales where a man sacrificed his all, to include his own child, to protect the last surviving heir of a friend.

The most well cited relationship of lore was the brotherly love and loyalty between Liu Bei, Guang Gong and Zhang Fei. They were the heroes of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Guang Gong refused riches and honor and risked death to remain loyal to his sworn brother Liu Bei. For his unswerving loyalty and his military prowess, Chinese revered Guang Gong as the War God of the land.

To this day, every major Chinese city houses temples honoring Guang Gong. His icons or statues decorate many households, and most Chinese shops keep a small shrine with candles and incense to honor Guang Gong. He is usually depicted as the tall red faced warrior, with a long flowing black beard and an eight feet long knife that was named after him–Guang Dao.

Admittedly, these are extreme circumstances, but they are the ideals that Chinese admire and respect. They were also examples cited to educate and instill moral values into the minds of the young.

Chinese relationships in the past were not limited to that of the living. A person who had accomplished exceptional deeds of valor or greatness could be elevated to deity status, with people offering sacrifices and held the person in reverence long beyond his or her death. This explained the profusion of temples and pagodas honoring thousands of local deities that dotted the Chinese landscape. Such were the cases with Confucius and Guang Gong, the War God. Confucius was revered for his literary and philosophical contributions to the people. Guang Gong was deified for his extreme loyalty to his brother, the king.

On the opposite extreme, vengeance and retribution also reached into the beyond. In 506 BC, Wu Tze She, a refugee from political persecution, accompanied Sun Tze in defeating the Chu kingdom. Wu Tze She’s father and brother had been murdered by King Ping of the Chu kingdom, so after Wu Tze She captured the Chu Capital of Ying, he dug up King Ping’s grave and flailed the corpse then burned it into ashes before scattering them into a lake. To die with a dismembered body and without a proper funeral was an ultimate insult.

Annually, Chinese offer sacrifices to their ancestors on their memorial days. This is the main reason Chinese wanted sons, so that there would be offerings to the dead in the afterlife. The Qing Ming Festival, celebrated on the fifth day of the third Lunar month, was a major Chinese holiday that had been celebrated for over two thousand years. Known to the Westerners as the Grave Sweeping Day, people would visit ancestral tombs to clean and repair them then offer food, wine, and burn incenses and paper money for the dead. It was also the time to report on family affairs, seek guidance and assistance from the ancestors.

In view of the high regard for family relationship, a Chinese would never address a friend as a “bastard,” even in jest. It was a term reserved for the detested enemies.

Relationships also extend into politics. Chinese communities abroad maintain benevolent associations for mutual protection and assistance, some of which degenerated into the infamous triads. Chinese governments, both Taiwan and China, maintained strong ties with Chinese communities abroad through Overseas Chinese Affairs bureaus or agencies. They devote a large amount of manpower and resources toward winning Overseas Chinese economic and political support for the respective governments.

Until the advent of WWII, Chinese families abroad used to send their children back to their home village in China for arranged marriages. Women would remain in China with their new families, while the men would bring their new brides to the New World. When a person died, they wanted to have their bodies or ashes sent home to be buried with their ancestors.

Politically, Chinese considered itself as a nation of Honor and Justice. The government treated other countries like neighbors in a world community and traditional ties were factors for consideration. This would explain the unwavering Chinese supportive position on North Korea. Their relationship was a 2000 year old friendship, and one does not handily abandon old relationships.

By the same token, Chinese people hold a generally favorable view of the U.S. This is due to several reasons. First, after the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901 AD), the U.S. used a part of the indemnity paid by China to set up the Boxer Rebellion Indemnity Scholarship to train Chinese scholars in the U.S. Second, United States’ role in saving China from Japan in WWII. Chinese do not forget acts of kindness proffered. Conversely, Japanese have been raiding Chinese coasts and attacking China since the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 BC). Chinese enmity towards Japan will take a while to dissipate.

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Tang Long

William Tang is a research analyst. Born in Taiwan, he is fluent in three dialects of Chinese and Spanish, plus survival level German and Japanese. He is a graduate of the Officers Advance Course at the General Political Warfare College, Taipei, Taiwan.

He lectures on Chinese history and culture and has two books in publication: “Tales of the Dragon – The Book of Lore,” an anthology of Chinese legends, fables, and historical anecdotes; and “Pets Only,” which recounts a pets operated eating establishment in northern Virginia. He lives with Shadow (Lab), Taz (Boxer) and Foxy Lady (Japanese Shiba Inu) in Fredericksburg, VA. He writes under the penname of TANG Long.

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