Gary G. Hamilton
Abstract: This article elaborates on Fei’s contrast between Chinese and Western societies that lies at the core of his book, Xiangtu Zhongguo (《乡土中国》). I further develop this contrast to show its relevance to sociological theories of Western and Chinese societies. This task is important not only for Western scholars, who can learn from Fei’s analysis, but also for Chinese scholars, who misinterpret Fei’s analysis of Chinese society because they concentrate only on the Chinese half of Fei’s comparison between Chinese and Western societies and thus fail to understand the theoretical depth of his work. This article conceptualizes Fei’s contrasts in order to correct Weber’s flawed analysis of Chinese society.
Keywords: Fei Xiaotong, Max Weber, domination, legitimacy, xiao (孝), chaxugeju (差序格局), tuantigeju (团体格局)
Fei Xiaotong (or Fei Hsiao-Tung 1910–2005) was China’s foremost social scientist in the 20th century. Scholars working on Chinese societies regard Fei’s work as being one of the most important contributions toward building a Sinocentric, grounded sociology of Chinese society. As we celebrate the centennial anniversary of his birth, one of the questions I think we should ask is why his writings are not better known in the United States and Europe. Perhaps the answer is obvious. Because Fei’s work is mostly written in Chinese and is largely about Chinese society, his ideas have not travelled well. Certainly this is part of the answer, but writing in a foreign language about a foreign place has not stopped Foucault or Habermas or Bourdieu from developing wide readerships in the U.S. I think the answer is more complex than this, and, as I will explain, I think it has to do with the style and content of Fei’s work, both of which mask the groundbreaking aspects of his theoretical writings. Without a doubt, Fei’s work deserves to be better known by Western readers, not only because of Fei’s deep insights into the nature of Chinese society, but also because his ideal–typical contrast between Chinese and Western societies points the way to a new understanding of Western society.
In this paper, I want to elaborate on Fei’s comparison between Chinese and Western societies that lies at the core of his book, Xiangtu Zhongguo (《乡土中国》). In Wang Zheng and my English translation of this book, published under the title From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society (1992), I have called this comparison a contrast between an ‘organizational mode of association (tuantigeju团体格局)’ and a ‘differential mode of association (chaxugeju差序格局).’ My presentation will further develop this distinction and show its relevance to sociological theories of Western and Chinese society. This task is important not only for Western scholars, who can learn from Fei’s analysis, but also for Chinese scholars, who misinterpret Fei’s analysis of Chinese society because they concentrate only on the Chinese half of Fei’s comparison between Chinese and Western societies and thus fail to understand the theoretical depth of his work.
Before I start this discussion, let me very briefly provide the context that moved Fei to write Xiangtu Zhongguo in the first place. Fei wrote this book in the years immediately after World War II and published it, chapter by chapter, in Shiji pinglun (《世纪评论》), a journal widely read by intellectuals, in the years leading up to the Chinese revolution in 1949. Fei’s purpose in writing this book, and also its companion volume, Xiangtu chongjian (Reconstructing Rural China《乡土重建》), was to inform his Chinese readers that Chinese society rested on very different institutional foundations from those of Western societies and that those who wanted to reform China needed to recognize these differences and build on them.
Xiangtu Zhongguo is disarming. It is short and with few scholarly pretensions. The themes are simply, if elegantly, presented. Without knowing a lot about the themes of the book, there is no way that readers could recognize the depth of Fei’s understanding of either Chinese or Western society. Most of the famous European social scientists who develop wide readerships in the U.S. announce their profundity, and through passages of difficult prose they force their readers to figure them out. But Fei hides his wisdom, remains modest in his ambitions, and gently persuades his readers to follow him on what seems like an anecdotal journey through Chinese society. The Chinese readers are left with the impression that there is no real theory here, just a series of telling observations about the way rural China works, or is it the way traditional Chinese society works, or is it the way China at the time of Fei’s writing works? The reader is never actually clear what China Fei is writing about, and this ambiguity is, I believe, a part of Fei’s design. He is trying to get his well-educated and somewhat aloof urban Chinese readers to recognize that they, too, think and act like Chinese everywhere. They, too, come ‘from the soil.’
Fei’s use of two simple analogies
Xiangtu Zhongguo is Fei’s most theoretical work, and yet the theory in this book remains so hidden from most readers that they do not recognize the significance of Fei’s attempt to develop a sociology of Chinese society. The core contrast on which the book is based is not even introduced until the fourth chapter, but then in every subsequent chapter, Fei goes from one institutional sphere to another to deepen this contrast. In short, pithy chapters, he covers interpersonal relations, kinship, gender relations, legitimate domination, structures of authority, social and geographical mobility, and finally what we might call a phenomenology of everyday life. But Fei’s analysis is so brief and without the traditional signposts of scholarship that it is difficult to follow the theoretical progression of his ideas. As a consequence, the chapters seem more disjointed than they actually are, which is probably a consequence of its serial publication.
What most readers come away with are the two analogies, the rock-in-the-pond and the haystack analogies, that represent, respectively, Chinese and Western society. This contrast between Chinese and Western societies, which lies at the heart of the book, is carried by these two analogies. It all seems so simple, and even insignificant. However, when I first read Xiangtu Zhongguo in 1984, I happened to be working on a very similar problem. I was trying to understand and describe the differences between xiao and patria potestas, which is a comparison that a number of Western writers used to show the similarity between traditional Chinese and Roman societies. The most notable person to use this comparison was Max Weber, the famous German social scientist who is often regarded as one of the three founders of the discipline of sociology. As I will explain in detail below, Weber linked xiao, usually translated as filial piety, with patria potestas, which in Roman law defines the patriarch’s power within his household. I had already understood that Weber had made a serious typological error when he equated the two (Hamilton, 1985), but as I read Xiangtu Zhongguo, I immediately recognized that here was a new way, an insider Chinese way, to articulate the differences. I also knew then that, because no one else had translated the book, I needed to do it myself. I needed to do it because I intuitively understood the theoretical problem that Fei was trying to work on, and I recognized the importance of his contribution.
The sociological significance of Fei’s two analogies
In Xiangtu Zhongguo, Fei is trying to tell his Chinese readers in 1947 that their society is quite different from Western societies and that these differences are not superficial, but rather are profound and go to the core meaning patterns of the two societies, to what German sociologists call Weltanschauungen, or what we call in English ‘a world view.’ Fei coins a term in Chinese to describe the Chinese world view, which is an ideal–typical depiction of the organizational framework of Chinese society: chaxugeju. I translated this term as ‘the differential mode of association,’ meaning that, in normative terms, Chinese view their society as being patterned through nonequivalent, ranked categories of dyadic social relationships. To illustrate this term, Fei used an analogy of ripples radiating out from where a rock landed in a pond of water. Close to the center the ripples are larger than they are further and further from the point of impact.
The ripples signify social relationships, and everyone is at the center of his or her own specific network of social relationships. The relationships closest to you are those within the family: father, mother, brothers, and sisters. Depending on your own role, you have an obligation to obey those superior to you according to their role. Each dyadic role relationship is different and suggests differences in the actions that signify one’s obedience. As you move further from the core family relationships – to neighbors, classmates, fellow regionals, colleagues at work – you have yet different sets of obligations for each of those roles. For subordinates, obedience for the close relationships is normative and hence, in principle, obligatory, but for relationships further away, one, in theory, has a choice whether to comply or not. The result is an ego-centered network of social relationships of family and friends that connects everyone in a web of mutual obligations. This, Fei says, is the social world that the Chinese see and through which they have to navigate the course of their lives.
Fei sets chaxugeju, the differential mode of association, in opposition to a Western world view, which he called tuantigeju, which I translated as the ‘organizational mode of association.’ For this Western mode of association, he says that Western societies are like straws being collected to form a haystack. Each straw is distinct but equivalent. These straws are gathered together to form bundles, these bundles form larger bundles, and all the bundles are put together to make a haystack. With this analogy, Fei is trying to show that in the West all individuals are distinct and formally equal; they belong to organizations that have clearly defined boundaries and from which individuals obtain a sense of themselves in respect of their rights and duties. Organizations, such as a club or an office, fit into larger organizations, such as a city or a corporation, which in turn fit into larger units, such as a state or province, and so on and so forth all the way up to the all-encompassing unit, which Fei identifies as the nation state. At each level of organization, individuals are constrained to act in a certain way, with rights and duties that are fitting for that level, but otherwise they remain free to do what they wish as long as they are not infringing other people’s rights and duties.
Although he might have used different analogies, Fei’s selection of these motifs was not an accident. The images portrayed by these analogies are, in fact, commonly and repeatedly used within the respective societies. I am not going to catalog their occurrence, but will just indicate that the images mean something in these societies, and that Fei is trying to get at these meanings.
The circle within a circle within a circle is a recurring motif in Chinese society. Take for example the carved ivory ball within a ball within a ball. This type of carving has a philosophical meaning; it depicts the Chinese world order, the innermost sphere is the family and the outermost is tianxia (天下), all under heaven. This meaning is yet clearer in early Chinese maps. Figure 1 shows a Chinese map from the 15th century, Zhongguo (中国) is depicted at the center and other countries surround it, some closer and some further away. This is map of the known world from the Chinese point of view and it shows what we now call ‘China’s tributary system,’ a circle within a circle within a circle. There is no way that you could use this map as a guide to navigate from one country to another, but you can use this map to see relationships between countries. Some countries, like Korea, are close, while others are much further away.
Figure 1: Fifteenth-century Chinese Map showing China’s Tributary Relationships
Examples are also found in everyday life. A colleague and I recently published a paper (Hamilton & Kao, 2009), entitled ‘The Round Table,’ in which we argued that Taiwanese business people literally and figuratively use the idea of the round table to organize their business dealings. Most Taiwanese firms are family-owned. The owner, the laoban (老板), and his wife, the laobanniang (老板娘), form the inner core; the next group is the firm’s inner circle, the bandi
(班底), composed of a small group of employees personally loyal to the laoban. The bandi may or may not include the owner’s sons. Then comes the wider group of employees who work for the firm and are treated like members of the larger family. And in the outer circles are all the other firms with whom they work in satellite assembly systems, or weixing gongchang (卫星工厂). Throughout the year, sitting at a round table, the laoban and the laobanniang eat lunch, almost on a daily basis, with their close employees. Sometimes for special occasions, they will host all the employees who work for them. Then at the year end, when firms host the annual Weiya banquet (尾牙宴), the structure of the circle, within a circle, within a circle is physically recreated with the arrangement of the round tables for the banquet. The Weiya banquet includes not only the bandi and the employees, but also the subcontractors and their employees. Everyone is placed in reference to a subtle combination of hierarchy and horizontal distance, as Yan Yunxiang (forthcoming) notes in this volume, and as I will discuss below.
Figure 2: Raphael’s Disputation over the Sacrament
Now let’s look at the Western image that Fei used, the straw that fits into a bundle that fits into a bale that forms a haystack. This image in Western society is ubiquitous. It is easily recognized as a simple line-and-block chart that is used to depict the authority structure of all kinds of modern organization. But even earlier, before modern organizations of this kind were common, the same organizational imagery was commonplace. Figure 2 shows the implicit meaning behind this imagery. This is a fresco painted by Raphael, called in short form the ‘Disputa,’ which can be found in the Pope’s private study in the Vatican. It was painted at the same time that Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, in 1509. Here we see a portrait of the hierarchy of Christendom in the early 16th century. Here is God at the top holding the round earth in one hand, surrounded by the heavenly host. God looks out at us, commanding the world. Jesus is centered at the second level, flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist and joined by the prophets and the disciplines. On the ground floor are the popes, kings, cardinals, bishops, and other earthly authorities. The object of their disputation is the meaning of the sacrament.
In this fresco, just as in an ordinary line-and-block chart, everyone in the organization is subject to the authority of the person (or God) who has the uppermost position and whose power transcends the organization itself. The authority of the person (or deity) in the chart not only radiates outwards but more importantly is channeled into an explicit structure so that subordinates are delegated authority over some aspect of the overall organization, and each descending unit has specific rights and responsibilities relative to the overall organization. These lines of authority identify the persons having legitimate authority (i.e., the right) to command other people within that unit (or block) to fulfill the responsibilities of that unit.
Reconceptualizing Fei’s two analogies
Let’s now reconceptualize these images in a more sociological fashion. For both the Chinese and the Western sets of images, we should recognize that Fei is trying to depict a world view, but as Yan points out (Yan, forthcoming), many of Fei’s critics seem to misunderstand the breadth and depth of Fei’s work and to view the main concept, chaxugeju, as merely depicting horizontal networks of social relationships. As Fei makes very clear from chapter four on in Xiangtu Zhongguo, chaxugeju and tuantigeju refer to a fundamental ordering of, respectively, Chinese and Western society.
The first point to make about Fei’s contrast is that these are ideal types. In the introduction to our translation of Xiangtu Zhonggu (Hamilton & Wang, 1992), I discuss the logic of Fei’s methodology and how closely it follows the logic of ideal types first developed by Max Weber. Fei says the following in the foreword to the 1986 (pp. ii–iii) reissue of Xiangtu Zhongguo:
My attempt to abstract concepts from concrete phenomena in order to understand the phenomena better is similar to the use of what are called ideal types in English. Ideals types belong to the realm of reason. They are neither fictitious nor ideal; rather, they are concepts formed as part of a cognitive process and are used to synthesize something that is general, so that it can be applied to concrete situations. Since a concept is formed through abstracting from concrete situations, it has to be continuously tested in concrete situations in order to reduce error.
It is clear, therefore, that chaxugeju and tuantigeju are not polar opposites. In fact, they are completely unrelated; each is drawn from an analysis of the respective society; each is an attempt logically to synthesize a general aspect of that society in order, then, to analyze it in more concrete terms. These concepts are the beginning and not the final product of analysis, and the test of an ideal type is whether or not it is useful for that concrete analysis.
The second point to make is that both ideal types are constructed from the same point of view; each ideal type presents a normative view that locates the self in society. I want to emphasize ‘normative.’ From the point of view of the self in society, in both Chinese and Western societies, the individual person looks out on an organizational landscape that is simply taken for granted, and like fish in water, the person knows of no existence other than its watery world. This landscape is normative in the sense that this is the organizational framework of life as it ought to be lived and shows to individuals how they ought to feel, whether or not they actually live or feel this way at any particular moment.
This normative framework is a sociological landscape in four major ways. First, as children grow up in their society, they are continually socialized to recognize both the authenticity and legitimacy of this organizational framework, and to learn how to navigate their social world. Second, throughout their lives, each person must continually decide how to maneuver through their social landscape in order to take advantage of opportunities. The organizational landscape is filled with ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ so that a person can mentally map out how they might proceed through their world to achieve their goals. Third, this organizational landscape is consensual, is known to everyone else in society, and is constantly used as a framework to interpret the actions of others (as well as oneself). We constantly judge others by how well their other people’s actions match the normative framework within which they live. Fourth, and most important, no one ever lives up to the normative ideals of their society. In fact, social rules constantly conflict with other social rules. Family and work rules often contradict, and even within families, obedience to one role may contradict obedience to another. The normative social landscape is filled with overlaps and contradictions, so that everyone violates the social rules of their society in one form or another a great deal of the time. Moreover, everyone knows that is it impossible to follow all the social rules all the time, and as a consequence there is a social vocabulary of excuses that develops in each society to account for the reasons that a person is unable to fulfill his or her obligations that arise from their position in a social landscape.
What is so insightful about Fei’s ideal types is that they show, at a normative level, how differently the self is located in Chinese and Western societies. Both chaxugeju and tuantigeju contain hierarchical and horizontal components, but the contrast between the two implies a very distinct social order in each society, an order that is radically different in the two societies. That is what Fei was trying to get at. Chinese and Western societies are in the end so different because the organizational frameworks within which people create their sociological existence are configured in a very different ways.
Xiangtu Zhongguo is Fei’s chief theoretical statement, and this work contains the great insight into the distinctive nature of each society and how they differ from each other. For many reasons, Fei was unable to develop this contrast in later work. But that does not mean that we, as sociologists writing over 60 years after Fei wrote this book, should not extend the exciting theoretical work that Fei began. I believe one of the best ways to extend Fei’s work, as well as to make it better known in the West, is to use Fei’s ideal types to correct Max Weber’s misinterpretation of China.
Using Fei’s theory to correct Weber’s analysis of China
Writing in the first two decades of the 20th century, Max Weber’s great project that went through all of his writings was to scientifically explain the reasons that Western societies developed so dramatically in the 19th and early 20th centuries, while the rest of the world languished in traditional ways of life. The main, but by no means the only, mode of development was profit-oriented capitalism. To solve this historical problem, Weber developed an ideal–typical approach that centered on ideal types created from Western historical experience. As I have argued elsewhere (Hamilton, 1984, 1989), this approach led Weber to develop Eurocentric concepts. The clearest example of Weber’s Eurocentric approach is found in his analysis of China. In the early version of Economy and Society, as well as in his first foray into comparative civilization in his analysis of China, Weber argued that patriarchalism in China was same phenomenon, typologically, as patriarchalism in the Mediterranean basin during Antiquity. In addition, Weber believed that, empirically, Chinese patriarchalism represented an even more extreme version than that which was encountered in the Western Antiquity (1951: 243). He further argued that, unlike in the West, where Christianity, especially after the Protestant Reformation, was a transformative force, religions in China were unable to break ‘the fetters of the sib’ (1951: 237). Confucianism and Taoism allowed for no release from patriarchy and no transformative path into rationalism and capitalism.
The core of Weber’s argument equating patriarchy in Mediterranean societies with patriarchy in China centers on Weber’s comparison of patria potestas and xiao. As demonstrated by his dissertation on Roman law and his later book, The Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilization (1976), Weber was a specialist on Roman law in particular and on Mediterranean cultures in Antiquity more generally. He had thought deeply about the patterns of authority throughout the Mediterranean basin and recognized that various combinations of patriarchalism and patrimonialism (i.e., the extension of the logic of patriarchalism beyond the household into the political and economic spheres) were the prevailing forms of authority throughout the region. In Roman society, however, Weber (1976: 274–292) thought patriarchalism reached its highest expression, where it was codified most thoroughly in law through the doctrine of patria potestas. Roman law recognized three aspects of patriarchal authority: potestas, the power of the head of household over his successors (i.e., his children and his children’s children); manus, the power of the head of household over his wives and his children’s wives; and dominium, the power of the head of household over the household’s property, including slaves. In Roman law, the doctrine of patria potestas made the household a defined jurisdiction separate from the state, and made the head of household, the paterfamilias, the only person within that jurisdiction who could legitimately exercise his will.
In the last decade of his life, Weber adds a comparative dimension to his analysis of the West in order to isolate the unique civilizational features that allowed the West to develop as it did. The first comparative case Weber takes on is China, a civilization far removed from Weber’s European expertise. Immersing himself in the secondary literature on China that was available to him at the time, Weber reaches the conclusion that xiao, which is commonly translated as filial piety, is the Chinese equivalent of patria potestas.
The patria potestas, which the head of a Roman Family retained until the end of his life, had economic and social as well as political and religious roots (the preservation of a patrician household, military affiliation according to kinship and, probably house, and the father’s position as house priest). The patria potestas persisted during the most diverse economic stages before it was finally attenuated under the Empire, even toward the children. In China, the same situation was perpetuated by the principle of filial piety, which was carried to an extreme by the code of duties and furthered by the state and the bureaucratic status ethic of Confucianism, in part for reasons of political domestication (Weber, 1978: 377, my emphasis).
Weber discusses the two concepts in a number of locations in his work, and each time concludes not only that xiao is equivalent to patria potestas as a legitimating principle, but also that Chinese patriarchy is equivalent to Western patriarchy in Antiquity as an empirical configuration. The problem with this characterization is that it is inaccurate. With the help of Fei’s two ideal types, we can reveal the logical structure of patria potestas and xiao and show that they are not equivalent concepts, either in typological terms or in empirical configurations to which the two relate historically.
On the one hand, patria potestas is emblematic of a legitimating principle that empowers people to act within the bounds of their own jurisdiction. This principle is the same as Fei conceptualized in tuantigeju. On the other hand, xiao identifies a doctrine that obliges people to submit to the duties of their own roles. This principle is the same as Fei conceptualized in chaxugeju. The former stresses the power and the latter the obedience of person in a position. At first glance, the two concepts look like two sides of the same coin; the power of one suggests the duty of another. This, of course, was Weber’s conclusion. But, with Fei’s help, we can show that they each identify quite different phenomena.
Toward a theory of Chinese and Western systems of domination
as legitimate jurisdictions
In theoretical terms, the two concepts differ in the characterization of both the person and the position. As a legitimating principle, patria potestas defines a jurisdiction and identifies the agent in that jurisdiction as the one who has the right to exercise personal power. The paterfamilias, the head of the household, has the right to exercise his will relative to others in the household. The recurring imagery in this characterization of authority sanctifies the personal power of the person in charge. In religious terms, as Weber and others noted, a person obtains the right to personal power through his singular ability to reach out to touch a higher level of truth, a transcendental level. In Antiquity, the patriarch served as the family priest and the patrimonial ruler as a deity himself (variations that Weber called hierocracy, theocracy, and Caesaropapism) among other deities aiding the empire, all various forms of divine right (Weber, 1978: 1159). This imagery is conveyed clearly in Raphael’s painting, shown in Figure 2.
Initially embedded in patriarchal legitimacy, this imagery careens through Western history and has continued potency even today. In a particularly insightful essay, Robert Bellah (1970) compares the father-and-son relationships in Christian and Confucian cultures. He (1970: 82) shows that in Christianity the images of the father–son relationship ‘emerge in the first instance from the Christian notion of God, around which the whole symbolic structure hangs.’ In this imagery, authority is viewed as originating with God, who is the ‘unmoved mover,’ the ultimate cause of which everything else is an effect. Biology is detached from this imagery. ‘The Christian attitude toward political and familial authority’, Bellah (1970: 92) writes, is ‘based on the premise of the derivative nature of such authority,’ and it is on this basis, and not biology, that ‘parents and rulers should be reverenced.’
With this imagery, power is portrayed as a positive force, a force that emanates from the will of a superior person, whose right to exercise his or her will is derived from and justified by a higher source of authority, be that God or natural law or the will of the people. ‘In the West,’ says Bellah (1970: 92), ‘from the time of Mosaic revelation, every particular pattern of social relations was in principle derived of ultimacy… In the West it was God alone who in the last analysis exercised power.’ Touched by the ultimate, people, and not positions or roles, served as the focus of Western imagery. Salvation, freedom, reason, contract are all ideas involving people exercising their will, and, like straws in a haystack, each person in the same organizational unit can use the same vocabulary of rights and duties to justify their actions.
Cast as the willed acts of the empowered, domination then logically requires jurisdictions within which one’s personal power is deemed legitimate, and outside of which it is deemed illegitimate because such power would conflict with the prerogatives of others. In the West, most conflicts over whose authority should prevail are, in fact, jurisdictional conflicts. For example, patriarchalism declined in the West not because the heads of household lost their authority absolutely, but rather because their jurisdictions shrank, and their rights within those jurisdictions reduced, relative to those of other legitimate holders of power. Outside the household, Western rulers claimed jurisdiction over all subjects in the realm, including those within patriarchal households. Within the household, Protestantism allowed children and wives to claim their own right to disobey their earthly patriarch in favor of a father of a higher order. ‘Our Father who art in Heaven’ gave people access to a stand of principled disobedience, a stand that continually upholds the jurisdictional premises of Western power, even as it challenges the exact boundaries of jurisdictions themselves.
Chinese authority as legitimate roles
In the very same way a line-and-block chart delineates a structure of authority, patria potestas signifies the power of persons in positions. By contrast, xiao signifies the obedience of persons to the duties embedded in the subordinate roles they occupy. Like the waves (lun伦) coming out from the core, xiao is a doctrine that defines a series of dyadic relationships and identifies the obligations to fulfill the role of the subordinate in those relationships. The son has the obligation to act as a son in relation to his parents, regardless of his will or of his situation in life or even of whether his parents are alive or not. The obligation to submit to roles continues regardless of circumstances, and no person is exempt from the necessity to fulfill the obligations of their roles, even the Chinese emperor, who is the Son of Heaven and who is, in principle, obligated to fill that role, as well as to be a son to his parents.
The Xiaojing (《孝经》), The Book of Filial Piety, is the classic text on the meaning of xiao. Most likely written in the earliest years of the Han dynasty (200 BC–220AD), the Xiaojing is a short book of aphorisms, 18 chapters in all, about two thousand characters in length. The character for xiao signifies serving one’s parents, but in the Xiaojing this concept is elevated to mean obedience to roles in general. Everything and everyone, without exception, has a role to fulfill; otherwise things fall apart. The first chapter states the overarching premise: ‘Xiao is the foundation of virtue and the root of civilization.’ Although ‘xiao begins in the service of parents,’ it extends out to encompass everyone. The ruler, the Son of Heaven, has his xiao (chapter two), the nobility has its xiao (chapter three), the administrators have their xiao (chapter four), all the way down to the common people, who have their xiao as well (chapter six).
The imagery is unequivocal. All humans have their roles to fulfill, but so does everything else too. The heaven and the earth have respective roles to which they must adhere, and so, too, does mankind (chapter seven). Submission to roles is the order of things, and it is through submission to one’s own roles that the world avoids calamities (chapter eleven). Roles are dyadic in nature, and each dyad finds its expression in the duties of the subordinate to the superior. The superior in a dyad governs the subordinate by him- or herself setting an example of being dutiful to his own roles requiring submission. A father owes xiao to his own father. The emperor rules the empire through exemplary behavior, being filial to his own parents and being dutiful as the Son of Heaven. Roles are an inherent part of the order of things, in the human, as well as in the non-human world. Embedded in roles are both the normative principles and the prescriptive duties that the subordinate should feel and do. These principles and duties exist regardless of who occupies the role of the superior or what that person does.
The key point here is that xiao means obedience to the subordinate’s role and not obedience to the superior’s commands. The Xiaojing makes this point clear in chapter 15:
The Master’s disciple inquires, ‘Dare I ask if a son, by obeying all of this father’s command, can be called xiao.’ The Master answered: ‘How can you say that? … In the case of contemplated moral wrong, a son must never fail to warn his father against it; nor must a minister fail to perform a like service for his prince. In short, when there is a question of moral wrong, there should be correction. How can you say that xiao consists in simply obeying a father?’
Nowhere in the discussion of xiao, either in the Xiaojing or in any other canonical texts of Chinese civilization, is there a place for the legitimate exercise of personal power. In fact, quite the opposite theme prevails. Humanness is found only in the careful cultivation of roles and of finding the personhood in the roles themselves. This theme is the essence of Confucianism. With patria potestas it is the person and not the role that is valorized; with xiao it is the person in the role that is praised. With xiao, humanness requires the denial of strictly individual desires and unique selves, and, more importantly, xiao requires the studied negation of personal magic, the negation of charisma, the very spirit that the West tried to corral through creating jurisdictions.
The core and enduring difference between xiao and patria potestas is addressed in Bellah’s comparison. Although patriarchy and patrilineality look similar in both China and the West until the modern era, Bellah finds the Chinese image of the father–son relationship ‘differs radically from that image in Judaism and Christianity.’ ‘When we look at the Confucian attitude toward political and familial authority, there is no point of leverage in the Confucian symbol system from which disobedience to parents could be justified.’ (1970: 84). The Chinese had no ‘God the Father, who art in Heaven,’ no transcendental level where a greater reality could be found and where earthly power could be justified. Instead, domination was legitimated through an immanent justification.
The Chinese cosmos portrayed the immanent nature of all things. Heaven, earth, and man are distinct parts of the whole, and each has its own nature and its own roles in maintaining the stability of the whole from time immemorial. Joseph Needham (1956: 287) described the Chinese cosmos as a ‘an ordered harmony of wills without an ordainer; it was like the spontaneous yet ordered… movement of dancers… none of whom are bound by law to do what they do, nor yet pushed by others coming behind, but cooperate in a voluntary harmony of wills.’ Needham (1956: 287) contrasted the Chinese harmony of wills with a depiction of the West as the clashing of wills, like ‘the physical clash of innumerable billiard balls in which the motion of the one was the physical cause of the impulsion of the other’ with God being the Unmoved Mover.
In the Chinese cosmos, in principle, there are no commands, just obedience. An ancient commentary on the I Ching notes: ‘We do not see Heaven command the four seasons, and yet they never swerve from their course. So also we do not see the sage ordering the people about, and yet they obey and spontaneously serve him’ (Needham 1956: 561–562). By making the performance of duties necessary to the proper functioning of the whole, the powerful grounded their own prerogatives in the duties of their own roles, which allowed them to hold subordinates to the duties of their respective roles. As Bellah concludes, in Confucian imagery ‘submission [was] not in the last analysis to a person but to a pattern of personal relationships that is held to have ultimate validity’ (1970: 84).
Some empirical evidence supporting the theory
In suggesting that patria potestas and xiao represent very different principles of legitimate domination, I am making the same point that Fei makes: These are not merely theoretical differences, but also empirical differences. In other words, if the theory is correct and the analogies are useful, then there should be empirical evidence that substantiates the differences. To demonstrate the plausibility of his theory, from chapter five on in Xiangtu Zhongguo, Fei showed empirically how the analogies apply to real life. Similarly, in previous writing, I made three sets of empirical comparisons between China and the West (1980, 1990). In each of the tests, I selected an institutionalized sphere of activity associated with Western patriarchalism and patrimonialism and showed that the comparable sphere of activity in China differed from that in the West. Moreover, the Chinese equivalent could be better explained by the relational premises associated with xiao. The first test employs the temporal dimension associated with patria potestas. According to Weber, and also to others, patriarchalism as a legitimate principle of domination prevailed throughout the Mediterranean basin during Antiquity, but gradually lessened as time passed (1990: 85–88). The empirical point of interest is the right of a patriarch to punish his wife or children, even to death, for cause, a legal principle called ius vitae necisque. Even though it is debatable how much this right was actually used, it is clear that ius vitae necisque was recognized, in principle, as a legitimate act throughout the Mediterranean region well into the Roman era, when the right was revoked and when the Roman rulers claimed those powers for themselves and denied the right to all others (Thompson 2006). If we use ius vitae necisque as a measure of patriarchal power, then we can argue that patriarchy was stronger in ancient times than it was in later periods. Moreover, we can explain the termination of ius vitae necisque as the outcome of a jurisdictional conflict with regard to who had authority over the life and death of people within the household. By the late fourth century AD, Roman emperors claimed for themselves the right of life and death over all subjects. After that time, the powers of heads of household became increasingly circumscribed relative to patrimonial powers of rulers and the feudal aristocracy. Once we reach the early modern era, Western patriarchalism has so reduced its jurisdictional sway that it is associated only with the legally specified powers of fathers over wives and children in nuclear families.
In China, fathers also had the right to punish their children to death, but the timeline is reversed. From the earliest times through the Tang (618–906 AD) and Song (960–1279) dynasties, killing one’s children or wives, for whatever reason, was strictly forbidden (Qu 1961: 19). But in China’s last two dynasties, during the Ming (1368–1644) and the Qing (1644–1911) periods, parents would go unpunished if they killed their son for being unfilial. During these last dynasties, the legal codes increasingly specified the behavior that was unfilial and greatly strengthened the father’s authority over his sons and his wives with regard to unfiliality. By Ming times, the increasingly harsh reading of Chinese legal codes, which had been carried forward from the Tang dynasty, allowed parents to prosecute their children in the magistrate’s court and even to ask for the child’s death. Qu notes that ‘the government merely acted as agent, framed the regulations and saw to it that they were carried out’ (1961: 27).
What explains this increasing ability of fathers and husbands to punish their wives and children for lacking xiao? There is no evidence that the rulers during the Ming and Qing periods were weak. Quite the contrary is true (e.g., Spence 1975). But there is every reason to think that, as xiao became rationalized during the course of China’s long history, the essential roles (the three bonds, sangang (三纲), and the five relationships wulun (五伦): father/son, husband/wife, ruler/official, older brother/younger brother, and friends) became increasingly typified and more rigorously enforced in the last two dynasties. This rationalization occurred in conjunction with the reinterpretation and reinforcement of Confucianism as the official doctrine legitimating the Chinese imperial rule. This movement, known as Neo-Confucianism, started in the Song Dynasty, with variations continuing to the end of the Qing period. With Neo-Confucianism came a new emphasis on the sangang and wulun, and a new sense of xiao as a virtue that stabilized the empire. This explanation gains substance with the next two sets of comparisons.
The second test looks at the configuration of the household (1990: 88–92). Patria potestas refers to the authority of the head of household over all aspects of the household, including slaves. Owning slaves, and counting them as property of the household, was commonplace throughout the Mediterranean region. As Weber noted, the household in Antiquity was the oikos, an extended patrilineal territory that was at once the basic economic and political unit of the region. As described by Aristotle in Politics, and as Weber (1976) carefully compared throughout the Mediterranean, the oikos was a ‘strongly tradition-bound structure of domination… the manor (seigneurie), joining lord and manorial dependent with ties that cannot be dissolved unilaterally’ (Weber 1978: 1012). The oikos estates centered on the power of the head of household to control both his property and his dependants. In Roman law, the essence of patria potestas was the paterfamilias’ ability to control and to perpetuate this extended household. Despite some attenuation, this power continued in the West through the early modern period, ending only with the development of capitalism in modern times.
In China, however, oikos-like estates, including slavery and peasants bound to the soil, occurred in the earlier dynasties, but were not widely present in the Ming or Qing periods. Even though the authority of the father relative to his wives and children increased in late imperial China, that authority did not extend beyond close family members. Slavery was widespread in China from ancient times to the Tang dynasty; large manors, with peasants bound to the soil were commonplace in the Song period; but in the Ming dynasty, as the parent/child relationship became more rigidly defined, heads of household lost the ability to extend that power beyond the immediate kinship group. Moreover, peasants increasingly became free peasants who paid rent, who claimed the rights to the topsoil, and who engaged in market transactions independent of their landlords (Rowe 1985; Eastman 1988).
Clearly, the oikos configuration in China does not line up with the father’s ability to punish his children, as it does in the West. Predictions based on the developmental trends occurring in Western Europe simply do not hold up for China. This misalignment suggests that the nature of domination in China became increasingly less personal, less arbitrary, and more fixed on rationalizing behavior in roles.
The third test is perhaps the most decisive (1989). If the legitimating principle of domination in China is not based on the ability to exercise personal power within a jurisdiction, then the organization of patrimonial rule in the West and China should differ. Patrimonial rule in China should rest on the principle of xiao, on obedience to roles. To simplify matters greatly, we can characterize the organization of Western states, including patrimonial states, as consisting of three features: first, a centrist conception of legitimate power, which is focused on the person who has the right to issue commands; second, a ‘top–down’ administrative organization, consisting of a chain of command through which a staff carries out the lawful commands of the power holder; and, third, a legitimate jurisdiction within which the leader’s commands are valid and outside of which they are invalid. This characterization is very much in line with Weber’s conception of an organized system of domination, as he stated explicitly in his essay ‘Politics as a Vocation’ (1946), and as he developed extensively through his writings. Moreover, this is tuantigeju, writ large, applied to China.
I have argued that the organization of the Chinese state during the late imperial period differs substantially from these three features of Western states (1989, 1990). First, political organization in China was not organized as an administrative structure. Instead, the Chinese state is organized as a status hierarchy. By status hierarchy, I mean an organization consisting of hierarchically arranged sets of roles that are largely self-contained and which are not linked by an explicit command structure. We can think of this organization as being symbolized by the intricately carved set of Chinese ivory balls, which has one free-floating ball inside another inside another, or the Chinese nesting boxes, which are a box within a box within a box, as a circle within a circle within a circle. The Chinese status order consists of a core status group, surrounded by another status group, surrounded by yet another group. The commoners form the symbolic center, the officials and other administrators are in the middle, and the emperor and the imperial household, the outermost status group, surround China. As a familiar Chinese saying notes (‘Heaven is high and the emperor is far away’), the imperial realm is conceptualized as being far removed from the commoners and located next to heaven, which is a fitting location for the Son of Heaven, who has the ‘mandate of heaven.’
Each status group consisted of people who had roles requiring obligation: commoners needed to serve their parents, officials needed to serve the emperor and his household, and the emperor and his household needed to serve heaven. Each status group maintained a substantial gap separating members of the superior group from members of the subordinate groups, so much so that, as time went on, there was very little formal contact between groups. Most contacts between groups were handled by intermediaries classified as outsiders (wairen 外人), mean people (jianmin 贱民) who did not fit within the status system: eunuchs, yamen runners, bondservants, household slaves (Hamilton 1989).
In Western political organization, individuals in positions of power have the right, even the obligation, to transmit their will to others within their jurisdiction. Leaders have to lead. But in Chinese political organization, the primary mode of maintaining hierarchy is not through command, but through self-cultivation (being aware of appropriate behavior for yourself) and correction (holding others to their correct roles). This idea is conveyed in the very word for government itself, a combination of two characters, zhengzhi (政治). Zheng (政) consists of two parts: the root component means correct or appropriate behavior, to be true to form; and the second component of the character means to follow. Zhi (治), the second character in the combination, means to heal or to cure. Zhengzhi provides the image of domination in China: The powers that be are to follow correct behavior themselves and to set right that which is incorrect among subordinates.
This image of correct rule permeated the daily practices of China’s imperial rulers. For instance, Chinese emperors did not issue commands as such, but rather imperial edicts. In classifying these edicts, Leon Vandermeersch noted that, in China, these categories of sovereign decisions ‘in no way denote[s] positive laws; [they] refer to the fundamental laws of nature insofar as these are models for the right conduct of government’ (1985: 13). He contrasts the Western notion of law with the Chinese notion of ritual order:
The principle of ritual order is… modeled upon forms – rites – which are the reasons (li 理, principles) of things. Only in conformity with those reasons can the world function harmoniously. Once the rites have been respected, and harmony has thereby been introduced into society, each individual spontaneously behaves as is most fitting for all and for himself…. People are persuaded to subject themselves to the rites by the prestige and the imposing forms of the greatest ceremonies, and by the ascendancy, and the example, of the highest personages of the social hierarchy. This is why the most important edicts are those which concern great liturgical celebrations and those which involve great dignitaries…. The Chinese, after all, have always upheld as their model the administrator who never intervenes in the affairs of those whom he administers, the latter acting under the influence of his virtue, in spontaneous conformity with the norms of the social order.
These three ‘tests’ of the difference between the premises of legitimacy in the West and China are merely suggestive. Fei’s empirical comparisons between Western and Chinese societies are also suggestive. However, what both sets of comparisons suggest is that, despite difficulties in making cross-civilizational comparisons, there are genuine differences in the principles of legitimate domination between China and the West. Moreover, these differences point to the fact the distinctive legitimate principle of domination in each society directly shapes how institutionalized spheres of activity came to be organized.
Although greatly abbreviated here, the empirical evidence suggests that Western and Chinese principles of legitimate domination are different and embody different empirical configurations. To the extent that this paper is correct and that these differences can be empirically substantiated, then we should not equate Chinese and Western political and social institutions, as social scientists often do. We should recognize the brilliance of Fei’s initial insights and see them as civilizational images of legitimate authority, images that have had direct and persistent effects on how social activity has been routinely organized. Fei’s insights need to be refined and tested far beyond what analysts have done to date. Only then can we ask the question that needs to be answered: To what extent has chaxugeju persisted today after the great changes that China has gone through in the most recent century? Equally we can ask the same question of the West. Have the images embedded in the Western patriarchalism of old survived the transformative changes the West has gone through, and, if so, in what form? Is it a reasonable hypothesis to suggest that Weber’s analysis of the West and Fei’s analysis of Chinese society are both persistent forms of social organization and continue on into our own time? Can we hypothesize that legal rational domination, as described by Weber, represents a radical transformation of Western patriarchy, a transformation that has allowed all people equal access to law and to God? Can we not also hypothesize that xiao, likewise, has modern manifestations that have survived the onslaught of modernization? These are important questions to study because the answers show the way to a deeper understanding of our times.
Fei’s analysis also suggests that social scientists around the world blithely use an array of concepts that have civilizational meanings without the least awareness that these concepts contain, typically, a Eurocentric bias. Unlike in mathematics, parsimony in social science leads to mistakes. All similarly located institutions may not be equivalent, even within the same civilizational areas. To use concepts carelessly is to distort the subject matter of the very world of activity that we want to study. To further obscure these concepts in the pseudo-scientific whirl of methodological exactitude is to lead social scientists away from a rigorous understanding of their own society. In Xiangtu Zhongguo, Fei is calling for concepts that are methodologically adequate for the study of China, and warns in Xiangtu Chongjian that the use of Western concepts to analyze Chinese society may have pernicious results. This is a warning that we still need to hear and to heed.
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— 1992. From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society. Translation of Fei Xiaotong’s Xiangtu Zhongguo with an introduction and epilogue by Gary Hamilton and Wang Zheng, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Hamilton, Gary. 1984. ‘Patriarchalism in Imperial China and Western Europe: A Revision of Weber’s Sociology of Domination’, Theory and Society 13 (May): 393-426.
— 1989. ‘Heaven is High and the Emperor is Far Away’, Revue europeenne des sciences sociales 27: 141-167.
— 1990. ‘Patriarchy, Patrimonialism and Filial Piety: A Comparison of China and Western Europe’, British Journal of Sociology 41 (March): 77-104.
— 2006. Commerce and Capitalism in Chinese Societies. London: Routledge.
Hamilton, Gary and Kao Cheng-shu. 2009. ‘The Round Table: A Reconsideration of Chinese Business Networks.’ In E. Sinn, Wong Siu-lun, Chan Wing-hoi. Eds. Rethinking Hong Kong; New Paradigms, New Perspectives. Hong Kong: Centre of Asian Studies, The University of Hong Kong.
Holzman, Donald. 1998. ‘The Place of Filial Piety in Ancient China’, Journal of the American Oriental Society 118, 2 (April-June): 185-199.
Ikels, Charlotte. Ed. 2004. Filial Piety: Practice and Discourse in Contemporary East Asia. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
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Rowe, William T. 1985. ‘Approaches to Modern Chinese Social History’, in Olivier Zunz. Ed. Reliving the Past: The Worlds of Social History, pp. 236-296. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Schluchter, Wolfgang. 1989. Rationalism, Religion and Domination. A Weberian Perspective. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Spence, Jonathan D. 1975. Emperor of China: Self Portrait of K’ang-Hsi. New York: Vintage Books.
Swidler, Ann. 1986. ‘Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies’, American Sociological Review 51 (April):273-286.
Thompson, Steven. 2006. ‘Was Ancient Rome a Dead Wives Society? What Did the Roman Paterfamilias Get Away With?’ Journal of Family History 31, 3 (January):3-27.
Turner, Karen. 1993. ‘War, Punishment, and the Law of Nature in Early Chinese Concepts of the State’. Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 53, 2 (December), 284-324.
Turner, Karen, Feinerman, James V., Guy, R. Kent. 2000. The Limits of the Rule of Law in China. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Vandermeersch, Léon. 1985. ‘An Enquiry into the Chinese Conception of the Law’, in Stuart R. Schram. Ed. The Scope of State Power in China. Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press.
Weber, Max. 1976. The Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilizations. Trans. R.I. Frank. London: Verso.
— 1951. The Religion of China. Trans. and ed. H. Gerth. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.
— 1978[1921-22]. Economy and Society. Trans. and ed. G. Roth and C. Wittich. 3 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press.
— 1946. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Trans, ed., and with an introduction by H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press.
— 1958[1904-5]. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Trans. T. Parsons. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Yan, Yunxiang. ‘Moral Hierarchy and Social Egoism in a Networked Society: The Chaxugeju Thesis Revisited’, in Feuchtwang, S; Chang, X. and Zhou, D. Eds. Globalization of Chinese Social Science – Commemorate the 100th Anniversary of Professor Fei Xiaotong’s Birth, published jointly published by Global China Press and New World Press, 2015.
Gary G. Hamilton (韩格理) is Henry M. Jackson Professor, Department of Sociology and The Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington (Seattle), formerly Associate Director of the School. He is the author of Emergent Economies, Divergent Paths, Economic Organization and International Trade in South Korea and Taiwan (2006), Commerce and Capitalism in Chinese Societies (2006), and The Market Makers: How Retailers Are Changing the Global Economy (2011). He is also well known in China for introducing Fei Xiaotong’s book From the Soil – The Foundations of Chinese Society (1994) to the English-speaking world.
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