Ancient History & Civilisation


The high place of morals in Chinese society—The family—Children—Chastity—Prostitution—Premarital relations—Marriage and love—Monogamy and poly gamy—Concubinage—Divorce—A Chinese empress—The patriarchal male—The subjection of woman—The Chinese character

Confucianism and ancestor worship survived so many rivals and so many attacks, during twenty centuries, because they were felt to be indispensable to that intense and exalted moral tradition upon which China had founded its life. As these were the religious sanctions, so the family was the great vehicle, of this ethical heritage. From parents to children the moral code was handed down across the generations, and became the invisible government of Chinese society; a code so stable and strong that that society maintained its order and discipline through nearly all the vicissitudes of the unsteady state. “What the Chinese,” said Voltaire, “best know, cultivate the most, and have brought to the greatest perfection, is morality.”92 “By building the house on a sound foundation,” Confucius had said, “the world is made secure.”93

The Chinese proceeded on the assumption that the purpose of a moral code was to transform the chaos of sexual relations into an orderly institution for the rearing of children. The family’s reason for being lay in the child. There could not, from the viewpoint of China, be too many children: a nation was always subject to attack, and needed defenders; the soil was rich, and could support many millions; even if there should be a bitter struggle for existence in large families and crowded communities, the weakest would be eliminated, and the ablest would survive and multiply to be a support and an honor to their aging parents, and to tend the ancestral graves religiously. Ancestor worship forged an endless chain of reproduction, and gave it a double strength; the husband must beget sons not only to sacrifice to him after his death, but to continue the sacrifices to his ancestors. “There are three things which are unfilial,” said Mencius; “and the greatest of them is to have no posterity.”94

Sons were prayed for, and mothers were shamed forever if they had none; for sons could work better than girls in the fields, and could fight better in war; and a regulation not unconscious of this had long since decreed that only sons should be permitted to offer the ancestral sacrifice. Girls were a burden, for one had to rear them patiently only to see them go off, at maturity, to their husbands’ homes, to labor there, and beget laborers, for another family. If too many daughters came, and times were very hard, the infant girl might without sin be left exposed in the furrows, to be killed by the night’s frost or eaten by prowling swine.95 Such progeny as survived the hazards and ailments of childhood were brought up with the tenderest affection; example took the place of blows in their education; and occasionally they were exchanged for a while for the children of kindred families, so that they might not be spoiled by an indulgent love.96 The children were kept in the women’s division of the home, and seldom mingled with the adult males until the age of seven. Then the boys, if the family could afford it, were sent to school, and were severely separated from the girls; from the age of ten they would be limited in their choice of associates to men and courtesans; and the frequency of homosexuality and male prostitution sometimes made this choice unreal.97

Chastity was exalted and rigidly enforced in daughters, and was inculcated with such success that Chinese girls have been known to kill them selves because they believed that they had been dishonored by the accidental touch of a man.98 But no effort was made to maintain chastity in the unmarried man; on the contrary, it was considered normal and legitimate that he should visit brothels; sex (in the male) was an appetite like hunger, and might be indulged in without any other disgrace than that which would in any case attach to immoderation.99* The supply of women to meet these demands had long since been an established institution in China; the famous premier of T’si, Kuan Chung, had provided a lupanar where traders from other states might leave their gains before departing for their homes.101 Marco Polo described the courtesans of Kublai Khan’s capital as incredibly numerous and ravishingly beautiful. They were licensed, regulated and segregated; and the most beautiful of them were supplied without charge to the members of foreign embassies.102 In later times a special variety of charmers was developed, known as “sing-song girls,” who, if that were preferred, would provide educated conversation for young men or for respectable husbands entertaining guests. Such girls were often versed in literature and philosophy, as well as skilled in music and the dance.103

Premarital relations were so free for men, and premarital association with men was so restricted for respectable women, that small opportunity was given for the growth of romantic love. A literature of such tender affection appeared under the T’angs, and some indication of the sentiment may be found as far back as the sixth century before Christ in the legend of Wei Sheng, who, having promised to meet a girl under a bridge, waited vainly for her there, though the water rose above his head and drowned him.104Doubtless Wei Sheng knew better than this, but it is significant that the poets thought that he might not. In general, however, love as a tender solicitude and attachment was more frequent between men than between the sexes; in this matter the Chinese agreed with the Greeks.105

Marriage had little to do with love; since its purpose was to bring healthy mates together for the rearing of abundant families, it could not, the Chinese thought, be left to the arbitrament of passion. Hence the sexes were kept apart while the parents sought eligible mates for their children. It was considered immoral for a man not to marry; celibacy was a crime against one’s ancestors, the state and the race, and was never quite condoned even in the case of the clergy. In the ancient days a special official was appointed to see to it that every man was married by the age of thirty, and every woman by twenty.106 With or without the help of professional intermediaries (mei-ren, “go-betweens”), parents arranged the betrothal of their children soon after puberty, sometimes before puberty, sometimes before birth.107 Certain endogamic and exogamic limits were placed on the choice: the mate had to be of a family long known to the match-seeking parents, and yet sufficiently distant in relationship to be outside the clan. The father of the boy usually sent a substantial present to the father of the girl, but the girl in her turn was expected to bring a considerable dowry, chiefly in the form of goods, to her husband; and gifts of some value were ordinarily exchanged between the families at the marriage. The girl was kept in strict seclusion until the wedding. Her future mate could not see her except by stratagem—though that was often managed; in many cases he saw her for the first time when he removed her veil in the wedding cermony. This was a complex and symbolic ritual, in which the essential matter was that the bridegroom should be sufficiently wined to guard against the chance of a criminal bashfulness on his part;108 as for the girl, she had been trained to be at once shy and obedient. After the marriage the bride lived with her husband in or near the house of his father; there she labored in servitude to her mate and his mother, until such time as the normal course of life and death liberated her from this slavery and left her ready to impose it upon the wives of her sons.

The poor were monogamous; but so eager was China for vigorous children that such men as could afford it were permitted by custom to take concubines, or “secondary wives.” Polygamy was looked upon as eugenic, on the ground that those who could bear its expense would on the average be the abler men in their communities. If the first wife remained childless she would in most cases urge her husband to take an additional mate, and would often adopt as her own the child of the concubine. There were many instances in which wives, anxious to keep their husbands home, suggested that they should marry the courtesans to whom they were giving their attention and their substance, and should bring them home as secondary wives.109 The wife of the Emperor Chuang-tchu was much praised in Chinese tradition because she was reported to have said: “I have never ceased to send people to all the neighboring towns to look for beautiful women in order that I might represent them as concubines to my lord.”110 Families rivaled one another in seeking the honor of providing a daughter for the royal harem. To guard the harem, and to attend to other duties at his court, the emperor was entitled to three thousand eunuchs. Most of these had been mutilated by their parents before the age of eight, in order to ensure their livelihood.111

In this paradise of the male the secondary wives were practically slaves, and the chief wife was merely the head of a reproductive establishment. Her prestige depended almost entirely on the number and sex of her children. Educated to accept her husband as a lord, she might win some modest happiness by falling quietly into the routine expected of her; and so adaptive is the human soul that the wife and husband, in these prearranged unions, seem to have lived in a peace no more violent than that which follows the happy endings of Western romantic love. The woman could be divorced for almost any cause, from barrenness to loquacity;112 she herself could never divorce her husband, but she might leave him and return to her parents—though this was a matter of rare resort. Divorce in any case was infrequent; partly because the lot of the divorced woman was too unpleasant to be thought of, partly because the Chinese were natural philosophers, and took suffering as the order of the day.

Very probably, in pre-Confucian times, the family had centered around the mother as the source of its existence and its authority. In the earliest period, as we have seen, the people “knew their mothers but not their fathers”; and the character for a man’s family name is still formed from the radical for “woman.”113 The word for “wife” meant “equal”; and the wife preserved her own name after marriage. As late as the third century of our era women held high administrative and executive positions in China, even to ruling the state;114 the “Dowager Empress” merely followed in the steps of that Empress Lu who ruled China so severely from 195 to 180 B.C. Lu, “hard and inflexible,” killed and poisoned her rivals and enemies with all the gusto of a Medicean; she chose and deposed kings, and had her husband’s favorite concubine shorn of ears and eyes and thrown into a latrine.115 Though hardly one in ten thousand Chinese were literate under the Manchus,116 education was customary among the women of the upper classes in ancient days; many of them wrote poetry; and Pan Chao, the gifted sister of the historian P’an Ku (ca. 100 A.D.), completed his history after his death, and won high recognition from the emperor.117

Probably the establishment of the feudal system in China reduced the political and economic status of woman, and brought with it an especially rigorous form of the patriarchal family. Usually all the male descendants, and their wives and children, lived with the oldest male; and though the family owned its land in common, it acknowledged the complete authority of the patriarch over both the family and its property. By the time of Confucius the power of the father was almost absolute: he could sell his wife or his children into servitude, though he did so only under great need; and if he wished he could put his children to death with no other restraint than public opinion.118 He ate his meals alone, not inviting either his wife or his children to table with him except on rare occasions. When he died his widow was expected to avoid remarriage; formerly she had been required to commit suttee in his honor, and cases of this occurred in China to the end of the nineteenth century.119 He was courteous to his wife, as to everybody, but he maintained a severe distance, almost a separation of caste, between himself and his wife and children. The women lived in distinct quarters of the home, and seldom mingled with the men; social life was exclusively male, except for promiscuous women. The man thought of his wife as the mother of his children; he honored her not for her beauty or her culture, but for her fertility, her industry and her obedience. In a celebrated treatise the Lady Pan Ho-pan, from the same elevation of aristocracy, wrote with edifying humility of the proper condition of women:

We occupy the last place in the human species, we are the weaker part of humanity; the basest functions are, and should be, our portion. . . . Rightly and justly does the Book of the Laws of the Sexes make use of these words: “If a woman has a husband after her own heart, it is for her whole life; if a woman has a husband against her heart, it is also for life.”120

And Fu Hsüan sang:

How sad it is to be a woman!

Nothing on earth is held so cheap.

Boys stand leaning at the door

Like gods fallen out of heaven.

Their hearts brave the Four Oceans,

The wind and dust of a thousand miles.

No one is glad when a girl is born:

By her the family sets no store.

When she grows up she hides in her room,

Afraid to look a man in the face.

No one cries when she leaves her home-

Sudden as clouds when the rain stops.

She bows her head and composes her face,

Her teeth are pressed on her red lips:

She bows and kneels countless times.121

Perhaps such quotations do injustice to the Chinese home. There was rank subjection in it, and quarrels were frequent between man and woman, and among the children; but there were also much kindness and affection, much mutual helpfulness, and constant cooperation in the busy functioning of a natural home. Though economically subordinate the woman enjoyed the franchise of the tongue, and might scold her man into fright or flight in the best Occidental style. The patriarchal family could not be democratic, much less egalitarian, because the state left to the family the task of maintaining social order; the home was at once a nursery, a school, a workshop and a government. The relaxation of family discipline in America has been made possible only by the economic unimportance of the urban home, and the appropriation of family functions by the school, the factory and the state.

The type of character produced by these domestic institutions has won the highest praise of many travelers. Allowing for the many exceptions that weaken every social generalization, the average Chinese was a model of filial obedience and devotion, of wholesome respect and willing care for the old.* He accepted patiently the character-forming precepts of the Li-chi or Book of Ceremonies, carried easily its heavy burden of etiquette, regulated every phase of his life with its rules of passionless courtesy, and acquired under it an ease and excellence of manners, a poise and dignity of bearing, unknown to his compeers of the West—so that a coolie carrying dung through the streets might show better breeding, and more self-respect, than the alien merchant who sold him opium. The Chinese learned the art of compromise, and graciously “saved the face” of his worsted enemy. He was occasionally violent in speech and always loquacious, often unclean and not invariably sober, given to gambling and gluttony,* to petty peculation and courteous mendacity;124 he worshiped the God of Wealth with too frank an idolatry,125 and was as hungry for gold as a caricatured American; he was capable occasionally of cruelty and brutality, and accumulating injustices sometimes provoked him to mass outbreaks of pillage and slaughter. But in nearly all cases he was peaceable and kindly, ready to help his neighbors, disdainful of criminals and warriors, thrifty and industrious, leisurely but steady at his work, simple and unassuming in his mode of life, and comparatively honest in commerce and finance. He was silent and patient under the whip of adversity, and took good and evil fortune alike with a wise humility; he bore bereavement and agony with fatalistic self-control, and showed little sympathy for those who suffered them audibly; he mourned long and loyally for his departed relatives, and (when all his compromises had failed to elude it) faced his own death with philosophic calm. He was as sensitive to beauty as he was insensitive to pain; he brightened his cities with colorful decoration, and adorned his life with the maturest art.

If we wish to understand this civilization we must forget for a moment the bitter chaos and helplessness into which it has been thrown by its own internal weakness and by contact with the superior guns and machines of the West; we must see it at any of its many apogees—under the Chou princes, or Ming Huang, or Hui Tsung, or K’ang-hsi. For in those quiet and beauty-loving days the Chinese represented without doubt the highest civilization and the ripest culture that Asia, or perhaps any continent, had yet achieved.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!