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Centrality of Family Values in China

Published Jun 8, 2022

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Paul Tembe

In most societies, the family unit is an indispensable building block to shape character and integrity of an individual. A centrality of the family, in most societies still, can even be said to be important in shaping an individual’s destiny. On the other hand, in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), filial piety is valued above all else qualities in society. The more than 400 million PRC households are held together through obligation to familial virtues.

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Why is the family valued so highly in China? What explains the prioritisation of the family unit in organising society and the state? Can we in the Republic of South Africa (RSA), as elsewhere outside the PRC, imbibe lessons from this 5 000-year-old culture and civilisation referred to as the Middle Kingdom (or Zhongguo in Mandarin)?

Obviously, these questions and answers proffered are relevant in RSA as we battle with unacceptably high incidence of anomie, corruption, gender-based violence, and wanton disregard for norms and values to shape and organise our public and private affairs.

Patently, something is broken in RSA when on an annual basis more than 18 000 people are murdered, more than 50 000 incidents of sexual violence are registered, and public officials demonstrate no shame and remorse in abusing public resources as the auditor-general reports every year without fail.

In the PRC family values are prized since, in the words of President Xi Jinping, a “family is the smallest unit of a nation while a nation is thousands of families put together”. In other words, in China there is no separation between the family welfare and state guardianship. The two are mutually reinforcing to an extent where it could be said, emphasis is placed on firming up and supporting the family unit since this translates to strengthening of state goodwill and vice versa.

Of course, this is not to make unfair comparison between the RSA and PRC since these two geographies, cultures and civilisations have different histories and dissimilar present realities.

After all, the systems of colonialism, apartheid and Bantustan did more intergenerational damage, consequential incalculably so, on the black African majority than globalisation for one would inflict after 1994. One prime negative effect of globalisation was to birth and rebirth schizophrenic African identities where a person’s character shifts and changes at home, work, school, church, at leisure activities and in their interactions with technologies.

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In the PRC, the family values and filial unity is not only emphasised as an insurance on life and identity, but as a platform and institution to carry and communicate meaning in life, relation to inherited history, and approach to navigating present realities and future prospects.

There is a reason the sight of Chinese grandparents and grandchildren is so conspicuous, and thus closing the intergeneration gap, in addition to the familial bonds of extended family members staying in one household or keeping close contact to support each other financially and in co-raising children and grandparents.

This is still the case even as China battles with low fertility rates, cohabitation, an ageing population and reluctance of the younger generations to get married owing to changing demographic demands and economic needs.

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These are societal risks that are being faced by the Communist Party of China (CPC), in the post-reform period, in dealing with the emergence of individualism, conspicuous consumerism, and the allure of the market economy.

Fortunately, there is concerted effort by the CPC to highlight, arguably, the cumulative negative effects of unchecked individualism expressed without supportive family-societal obligations. This is said since in China, it is common practice to link a person’s accomplishment (in, eg, education, employment) with family-linked success (in, eg, resourcing the next generation).

Simply stated, an individual’s upward mobility is not sensible if it does not prepare ground for succeeding generations, born and yet-to-be-born. Hence President Xi emphasises the fact that the “family is the basic cell of society and the first school of our life”. Without this understanding and appreciating its significance, the repercussions are dire as we know too well in the RSA. When Chinese speak of their country as a “society of family-state” (or jiaguo) it is to affirm the common sense that when the family unit is broken or fragile, it finds expression in broken or fragile relationships at school, work, and in the state.

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In the notable words of President Xi, a “degraded family value is always an important cause of officials violating discipline and laws”. Thus, as our country rekindles its interest in programmes to promote social cohesion and nation formation, the glue that should be prized above all is to rebuild and re-establish the foundational importance of family bonds since there is a correlation in the two, ie, the family and patriotism.

It is not sensible to focus on projects geared to instil patriotism without primarily beginning with the family, irrespective whether these families have Zulu, Sotho, Venda, Khoisan heritage or their roots are originally from Dutch-Huguenot ancestry.

As we prepare to celebrate Youth Month in South Africa by commemorating the heroes and heroines who made possible political liberation, we do well to remember the Chinese maxim that, “the root of the world is in the state and the root of the state is in the family”.

TEMBE is a Sinologist and founder of SELE Encounters.

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