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The Western Family as Fate and Tragedy

Types and qualities of family relationships have long been imposed upon individuals by the respective dominant cultures. The inclination for persons sharing a common terrain of social existence, to be tolerant of each other with respect to the patterns of the private lives they follow, is a modern phenomenon in the West and may be fragile even today. In the past, from Oedipus and Electra via Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet1 and Gretchen in Goethe’s Faust to Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, the Occident produced a chain of accounts of the sometimes brutal force which representatives of the dominant family culture exercised over the “deviant” individual. The rationale behind such suppression has been the expectation that the production of good personalities was required, but was possible only in the context of the particular kinship system that enjoyed public recognition.

In the West the implied conflict caused by the clash between a normative family order and an individual’s wishes, traditionally resulted in tragedy with no happy ending: This applies throughout the centuries to Oedipus, Electra, Romeo, Juliet, to Gretchen in Goethe’s Faust and to Thomas Mann’s Sesame who all end their lives in worlds of despair. Their apparent failure qualifies as tragic because they are not simply guilty, undisciplined or ethically inferior people but rather potential innovators and precursors of an alternative family culture.

Thomas Mann’s (1875–1955) book Buddenbrooks (1901) has the subtitle: The Decline of a Family. The story begins with a German business man and his French wife laying the foundations for a successful merchant clan. But then Thomas Mann depicts the demise of the family, leaving no hope in this world and ending with the desperate woman Sesame rejecting all skepticism about Christian beliefs and insisting she will see the person she misses most, in heaven. This is a marked difference in comparison to the way a masterpiece of Chinese literature ends, as we shall see.

The Dream of Red Mansions originated from the latter half of 18th century China. It is referred to as the pinnacle of the Chinese classical novel. The text is critical of certain aspects of feudal society, perhaps even predicting its end. It was temporarily forbidden by the imperial government under Emperor Qianlong, whom we encountered here before in the context of the Opium Wars.

The novel has two authors, because the initial artist died prior to finishing his masterpiece. It is praised for its language, often poetic, for its sensitivity to emotional subtleties, and it is marveled also for its length: 120 chapters, of which the first author, Cao Xueqin (Tsao Hsueh-chin 1715–1763) wrote the first 80, and Gao E (Kao Hgo 1738–1815) the remaining 40 chapters. There is some discussion on whether or not the second writer fully understood the intentions of the first one, however, the question whether the two parts of the book are fully compatible, does not need to concern us here.

Important for our line of reasoning is the way this story about the declining fortunes of a large cultured family ends: The tragic hero who would have been the coming head of the clan and instead sees it collapse around him during his teenage and young adult years, gets married in spite of all disaster. Then – only after having begotten a son(!) – he becomes a monk and, in order to join a monastery, leaves his family.

However, the novel leads its readers to believe that the monk’s son will grow up to guide his clan upward again to new happiness and success in the future, not in heaven, but in this very world: Chinese clans will go through phases of flourishing and declining, but they will not die! That is the dominant expectation, and that is what distinguishes them from Western clans: The Chinese kinship group, backed up by immortality, wields a level of authority, which – for better or for worse – a Western family will hardly ever attain.

Given the extraordinary popularity of the novel The Dream of Red Mansions and given the fact that since the end of the Mao period Chinese television has seen two versions of it brought into millions of living rooms (the latest version in 2010), the influence and continuing significance of this work of literary art is beyond question. It is filled with normative knowledge, and knowing what happened in the Dream of Red Mansions tells millions of Chinese today, what decisions they ought to make and what they should do or avoid in their daily intimate lives.

Could it be then, that given the cultural conditions of the West at present, where each young couple starts a new family when they get married and where they then may or may not produce a child, the family is as finite as the life of the individual, imbued with the potential of failing, disintegrating and ending in divorce or otherwise, whereas in China the family is immortal, with individual persons serving as agents to carry it through the ages and if need be, to lead it out of tragedy and return it to a splendid come-back?

In the Orient the newlyweds owe it to their parents and their ancestors to pass on life via their children, or by having at least the one child that was permitted in China according to the “one child policy” that lasted from 1980 to 2015. It has since been replaced by a “two children policy.” From this perspective the function of the government and the economy is primarily enabling and supporting kinship, not improving the lives of isolated individuals. It seems therefore that in the Occident individualism leads to various forms of family life, whereas in the Orient society is based on a firm and unified kinship tradition to be served by all individuals, though in various ways.

In a recent book on The Modern Soul of China the psychoanalyst Antje Haag explained how in her opinion “in Chinese thought the rights of the individual have played a secondary role because a type of socialization that lasted for millennia has been focused merely on the well-being of the collective” (Haag 2011, 31). Looking at it this way, what happens to the person is not as important as what happens to the clan. In addition, Haag points to “…the soft Chinese self that was constituted on the basis of the Confucian and the Daoist heritage” (ibid: 39).

The dominant orientation toward the clan plus the “softness” of the self, result in an underdeveloped ability to split the self into two separate sub-selves with the opportunity to enter into an inner dialogue with each other. Thus (and as always, generalizations as the following must come with a caveat), while the Western individual often works hard to avoid strict questioning by the own inner conscience or second self, the unified Chinese self is primarily afraid of outside punishment and of his or her family losing face. These may be very long-term consequences of disparate ethical and religious orientations, which during centuries left their influence on personal development.

If such a difference between China and the West does indeed exist as a general tendency, to which extent can it be attributed to the two cultures finding themselves in different stages of evolution? Or, alternatively, to which extend is that difference due to lasting characteristics that will not go away, but preserve their effect on individual lives throughout the existence of the culture of which they are constitutive components? The answer to these questions will likely have to be in response to both alternatives, since on the one hand the cultures both do indeed change and at the same time they retain their respective identity by not losing certain fundamental characteristics, which at least for the immediate present can be generalized as individualism here, kinship there.

Western sociologists of modernization and of urbanization widely accept the thesis that the degree of maturity of a culture, in terms of having developed as it should by the threshold of the third millennium, can be measured by the degree of differentiation between the public and the private. This idea also presupposes, inspired by Herbert Spencer and his early functionalist evolutionary theory that the segments of Western society we tend to look at as kinship, government, commerce, and religion, become more and more differentiated and as it were become identified by increasingly separate styles and locales of social behavior. But in China there may be a fundamentally different approach toward interpreting the segments of social behavior we just mentioned as kinship, government, commerce, and religion.

Merely attempting to concentrate on fundamentals while ignoring for the time being the obvious fact that Western as well as Chinese society undergo change, we see in the West as goal of education the ability of the person to adjust his or her behavior to the demands of the respective segment in the context of which they want to be able to interact successfully. The Westerners must thus learn to behave in a loving, lawful, businesslike or possibly a pious fashion, depending on where and with whom they are in contact.

The Chinese by contrast may expect to be able to conduct themselves in the segments of government, business, and of course religion in a way that is compatible with and subservient to fulfilling their ritualized family duties. Rather than following the Western way of adjusting the behavior style of the person to the requirements of each segment, in China the requirement of the segment is adjusted to the needs of families (and Westerners tend to see “corruption” in much of this). This means for instance, as will be explained below in a famous Chinese story: If the father steals a sheep, his son will not tell on him.

In China the family is the fate of the individual, in the West more and more often the individual becomes the fate of the family. Where the Chinese person must sacrifice his or her hopes and ambitions for the sake of the clan, tragedy may result in that individual’s life taking a turn to sadness. When in the West a family collapses because one of its members cannot but continue pursuing his or her personal goals, tragedy may be on the side of the relatives left behind.

Evolution of Kinship in the West

In early 1895 Simmel published an article on the evolution of family and kinship in the West. In many highly developed agrarian cultures he identifies a type of kinship organization which he calls patriarchal. (Simmel 1895). He mentions that such a traditional family household “always numbers twenty to thirty people” (Simmel 2009: 75). As a consequence, since modern conditions enforce a reduction of the number of people living together as one family, the result is by necessity that a type of household depending on such a large number of members cannot continue to exist.

However, the individualization of a modern, more differentiated person can happen only in wider company. Wilfried Dreyer (Dreyer 1995: 84) has pointed out how in Simmel’s work participation in culture is central for the development of the individual. Retiring from the public and left to one’s own intellectual resources would render the isolated human an ἴδιoς (idios) in ancient Greek. Thus on the threshold of modernity too, it would be idiotic to fence the person into the patriarchal family household. As an effect the social group of orientation both exploded and imploded at the same time so to speak.

The “wider company” required by modernity for individualization could not be provided in a small rural household; so some of its members started to leave it. This coincided with leaving the countryside and converting the family culture to city life, a process that occurred in Germany on a massive scale at the turn from the 19th to the 20th century. A comparable massive migration occurred in China in recent decades. The Chinese sociologist and anthropologist Guanbao Shen (1949–2016) (Shen 2001) devoted much of his research in recent decades in China to that dramatic process.

Simmel does not have China or any other specific regional culture in mind when he concludes, that in general at the time when individualization gains momentum, the longing for intimacy gradually increases. That new need for very personal closeness, however, requires a small family of below ten members. As the family is torn apart into a wider and a narrower circle, we have seen societies torn apart in the West into a private world and a public world.

A comparative view of China and the West must not only take into consideration the relative importance attributed to kinship on the one hand and to government and the economy on the other, but it behooves us in addition to raise the question: Who are the primary actors involved? As a result of individualization in the West, it is clear and hardly ever even discussed that there individual persons interact, whereas in the Chinese tradition we are dealing more explicitly with primary groups as dynasties, clans, and families as the agents of history.

What this means becomes visible when a young couple falls in love and decides to get married. In the West they plan their future, if possible with the consent and help of their parents. But if the parents do not agree with the choice of a partner, the couple will most likely stay together anyway. In China this is much more difficult. The consent of the two families from which the young lovers originate is almost indispensable. In most cases the newlyweds will live under one roof with the young husband’s parents. It is therefore meaningful also for that reason that there is mutual acceptance prior to the wedding, because the bride and her in-laws need to get along afterwards in day to day interaction.

In the West the young couple and particularly the young wife will be left to their own resources when a baby arrives. This is definitely not so in China. The mother-in-law and possibly the mother of the young woman too, will be available to assist with advice and active intervention, sometimes more than the young couple would like to receive. Pregnancy, childbirth, and care-taking during the first phase in the new infant’s life are an intergenerational project involving grand-parents as additional care-takers.

That has a number of consequences. It reduces the fear of the inexperienced young mother to make mistakes with the new born child. It gives her more opportunity to recover from the stress of giving birth. It gives the mother-in-law a chance to prove herself as an experiences care-take of infants, and it has the potential of bringing the two woman of two different generations and from two different families very close together as a result of their cooperation in early child-care.

This is only one example of service production within the kinship context. The widespread involvement in China of grand-parents in taking care of their own grandchild reduces the need for extra-familial childcare as is provided in Western countries in day-care institutions, nursery schools and similar providers. At the same time, it gives members of the older generation a meaningful task, a fact that most likely has positive psychological effects. In addition, the younger generation of adults is under the frequently very demanding obligation of taking care of their aging parents in the family context. If this were not the case, the problem of providing homes and care for the ailing elderly would be nearly impossible for the government of China to solve.

The family of the past, existing under pre-industrial conditions prior to modernization and individualization, was not yet specialized with regard to types of interaction among its membership: The family was a place where sex, pregnancy, and childbirth occurred, where education with praise and punishment happened, where food and clothing was produced, where business activities were planned and carried out, and where religious rituals where performed. As a consequence, a mix of loving tones and harsh tones, business-like language and caring language, all had its legitimate place inside the traditional family. In the course of modernization, however, gradually responsibilities that used to be placed in the kinship system migrated away from it. Western Family sociology of the fifties called that process loss of functions.

In the Occident, the resulting changes opened up a dramatic combination of chance and risk. The chance was that the interaction inside the family could become gentler, more personal, and more peaceful, because many functions which required harsh decision making were delegated out of the family into the schools, the occupational world and into other areas of public interaction.

The risk that went along with that chance was this: If the persons living together as a family did not love each other – or found to their surprise that they did not love each other anymore – they had nothing else that could help them stay together and work together as in a business. The business-like component had left the family, and what stayed behind was either gentle, tender, loving and erotic, or it was harsh, even violent and terrible or impossible to bear.

This trend is driven by the tendency toward further and further individualization: The modern Western person is increasingly required to develop the potential, which they believe they carry inside themselves, rather than they are to serve and help other people, even their own close relatives. As a consequence, kinship ties no longer function in emergencies and the respective government has to come to the aid of weak or failed individuals who have no relatives to assist them.

This leads to the need for payments from the public sector, which in traditional societies were – and in China today are – not necessary, because the kinship system provides the services in question. As the government tries to replace the large family, it will have to extract the money as taxes and then redistribute the funds as social support, but in that process the emotional involvement is lost and can of course not be replaced by any government program nor by any monetary measure.

Personal emotionally based care by family members cannot be provided on the basis of money paid. This is where the spheres of the economy and the family are irreconcilable. The services to be provided professionally become much more expensive, but even if more money is made available, the quality of care in interaction between individual and minders outside the kinship group will be different in quality. In the family there is the presence of the total person, in a government-sponsored or privately organized scheme, people will be working in their occupational role for a certain number of hours per day and per week, and beyond that they will want to go on vacation, they will prefer not to work during weekends or during important holidays like the lunar New Year in China or Christmas in the West, even though the person who requires care, likely would then need them most.

A small child could spend much time in the gentle sphere, be caressed and hugged and dealt with on a very long term basis, as typically still happens in China.2 But increasingly in the West the child will be in a day-care facility emphasizing of course cleanliness and respectful and peaceful interaction, but causing exposure to a more rational sphere to possibly last for too many hours per day and for too many years out of the child’s life.

The traditional Western families of the past were characterized not only by tenderness as a typical quality of interactions, but rather by the limitless duration of the relationships. They typically could not be dissolved, marriages did not end in divorce, parents could not be abandoned by their children, and children could not be disowned by their parents. The relationships were for life; they were – in fact, if we include the religious dimension – for eternity. Whereas this has changed dramatically in the West, it is still largely true in China, because there, due to the prevalence of ancestor worship, the transgenerational relationships are eternal for religious reasons: It was and is the duty of the descendants to worship deceased family members and burn incense or candles for them as the immortal forebears.

Some of the characteristics of family life can also be found inside other primary groups, like among good friends who met in school or college. They too are expected to stay close to each other during their entire lives. The crucial difference between families and primary groups of friends of the same age is of course, that families consist of at least two generations and have offspring. Primary groups of peers by contrast typically recruit members who belong to the same generation.

But in spite of this significant difference, groups of close friends too expect the relationships to be very long term, usually for life. They expect a high degree of interest in each other’s well-being and of readiness to help each other in an unselfish way. In China this includes borrowing money. Individualization, while it helps the person better to develop his or her unique potential, tends to dissolve families as well as other primary groups, because those are correctly perceived as reducing individual freedom, in part because of their implicit expectation of altruistic behaviour on a long term basis.

Modernization resulted in a significant change of the social structure of society. Processes of decision making were institutionalised under the name of democratisation to replace the responsibility and power of individual leaders. In the West this caused the idea that also the family should be restructured and democratised in order to make it suitable and well-adjusted to modern society. This demand for adaptation of the family can be discussed from a social science perspective as follows:

Either the family is indeed in need of modernization, like the rest of society. Then of course it must adjust to the changes that happen there. Or, and this is the Chinese perspective, the family is the organization of human needs that never change, like having an emotional satisfying and stable sexual relationship, and taking care of an infant. These are very basic human demands on life that do not change and have been much the same today as they were several thousand years ago. Accordingly, looking at it that way, there is no justification for modernizing family life.

If that is so, then one could also argue even in the West that the family ought not to adjust to modern society, but rather try to defend very sensitive areas of emotional needs against the industrial age. The effect on the individual is either, that he or she feels happy only, if family environment and contacts outside the family, in school, university and occupational life, are equally modernized, or, precisely the opposite: a person in our day and age can function best and be happy only, if he or she can be modern at work and archaic at home in his or her private life. According to this reasoning modernization ought to be welcomed in the public sphere, but resisted to a degree in family life.

Among the generation of Westerners, who are young parents now, many tend to look at any kind of ideological approach to family matters with disdain. To more and more young adults in the West, it is up to the individual couple to decide how they want to live their private lives. Politics is reduced to providing money. From the perspective of socialization those conditions entail little or no resources for generating altruism. Many Western young adults do not have anybody to take care of but themselves because their elders are placed in the care of institutionalized retirement housing. Parenting of course, has the potential of changing that by creating new responsibilities for the young adults.

Max Weber as well as other students of Western civilization and its development have emphasized the importance of asceticism as the ability to maintain independent from economic conditions. The contrasting emphasis on consumption, frequently conspicuous, is driven by economic interests. Combining such deliberations with the life cycle, in the West the necessity to make sacrifices is pushed further and further toward younger and younger people, and is now even pushed all the way to the infant, who already as a baby must sacrifice the joys of being in the presence of his or her own mother, because she must go out to work.

One remarkable effect of freeing the adult woman from the restraints of managing a home is the gradual dismantling of motherhood as an institution. In Germany in 2016 young mothers have made public statements in the media declaring their regret of having produced a child because it limits their abilities to advance in their occupation. There are differences among Western countries, but apart from certain time lags that cause changes to happen at different times in different regions, the general trend is uniform.

The trend can be linked to the developments in America, where the generation of us-citizens born in the fifties as the so-called “boomer babies” (Cherlin 2010: 6) refused to follow the pattern of private life their parents had observed in the 1970s: “Sex, living together, and marriage, which had been a package deal in the 1950s, were no longer linked. Young adults no longer needed to get married in order to live together with a sexual partner” (ibid.). That is decidedly different in China today.

In Western countries with high levels of development like those in Central Europe and America, the increasing life expectancy due in part to advancements in medicine has had a number of other remarkable consequences. One of them is related to the contradictory observation that on the one hand people become older than their forebears, but on the other hand the time horizon in which they find their orientation for hoping and planning gets shorter and shorter. I could follow this trend in my consulting activities with my own German students (Helle 2010).

At the beginning of my teaching career I asked students what they wanted to have achieved in ten or twenty years, and once they told me, I would then try to advise them on how they might arrive at their goals. Over the years, I had to reduce the time span further and further, and by the turn of the millennium, if I asked for two or three years, I would likely get the answer: Teacher, I would be happy if I had an idea what will have happened by the end of this semester. – As early as the eighties empirical research with German youth produced the results that with about one third of them the plans and expectations of the average young person did not exceed even one year (Jugendwerk der Deutschen Shell 1981, vol. i: 677f.). It appears to be an intrinsic quality of the contemporary Zeitgeist in the West to promote the trend toward individualization by reducing the notion of being responsible for, or in control of, a middle term, let alone a long term future.

Two types of processes seem to energize this tendency: One is the inclination of young adults to move out of firm and lasting relationships, because those are increasingly experienced as confining; the second is the frequent dissolution of the kinship context due to divorce and desertion. The latter development has the effect that the family is frequently falling apart before the young person can fully develop inside that intimate social environment. The biblical story of the Lost Son (Bible, Luke 15, 11–32) who after years of aberrations regretfully returns to the father-house, is thus losing its plausibility in the West, because for many young adults there is no longer a paternal home to which they could possible return.

The difference between Occident and Orient on these issues is very great: On a Chinese college campus there are no married undergraduates and certainly not unmarried mothers or fathers. That members of the young generation get married before they have a child is the overwhelming expectation, which is widely observed in China in general. In addition, it is the rule, supported by close-knit groups of girls as well as by future grooms, that – at least the woman – has not had another partner prior to the one who becomes her husband. The implied restrictions of course limit the opportunities for the young generation to follow personal spontaneity and to develop special traits of the individual. It is hardly possible in these pages to weigh advantages and disadvantages against each other.

Yet it seems safe to state, that individualization can be carried further only, and a sound and stable family structure can be successful only, provided it enables individuals to become bearers of the identifying core of their traditional culture on the basis of which they will then master modern challenges. Individualization against and without that foundation has the potential of producing problematic persons if traditional culture and modern challenges are played against each other for ideological reasons. This, at least in part, explains the rapidly expanding market for psychotherapeutic services in many Western countries.

The continued encouragement of further individualization, prevalent in the West can only be continued in tandem with rising divorce rates and low birth rates. It appears therefore that individualization has reached a critical limit there. In China, however, individualization appears to have much unused potential, based also on very intense child care in the pre-school phase and on the resulting psychological soundness3 of young individuals.

Shakespeare actually describes two clans fighting at the expense of two individuals.

Oskar Weggel reported that about three fourth of all children in China did not have access to day-care or kindergarten (Weggel 1994: 213).

The widespread damage done to Chinese persons psychologically during the Cultural Revolution is discussed in detail in the study by Antje Haag (Haag 2011).

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China: Promise or Threat?

A Comparison of Cultures

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