2. The Dynamics of the
Chinese Social System: Network Building without Group Solidarity
During the 1960s, a group
of anthropologists in Taiwan embarked upon the study of the Chinese family
system as a basic unit of Chinese society. After a lapse of more than two
decades, their continuing studies have produced a great many systematic
insights and a distinctive theoretical framework, especially with respect to
types of family organisation and their constituent elements. Their contribution
indeed goes far beyond the concern of Chinese family forms with its
classifications and transformations. Above everything else, they have inspired
a new perspective on the Chinese social system as deriving its vitality from
the heritage of cultural values as well as from the network of personal
relations. This new perspective has received increasingly greater attention,
yielding several fruitful studies.
All these recent studies
of the Chinese social system often allude to Fei
Xiao-Tung's concept of "relative demarcation", a term coined
early in the 1930s. According to this concept, members of a Chinese family
usually extended their personal networks beyond agnatic boundaries in a
centrifugal fashion, circling outwards like the ripples on a pond. The Chinese
family viewed in this sense carries no definite boundary of membership at all.
This also explains why western scholars are always frustrated with the
ambiguity of Chinese social groups, and are unable to formulate theoretical
categories for defining their membership. In fact, Fei introduced his concept of "relative
demarcation" in contrast to the concept of "corporate
demarcation" which characterises the clearly-defined membership of a
social group within western society. To make a sharp contrast, Fei further argued that in a society
with "relative demarcation", ambiguity even remains in the boundary
between private and public relations or between relations of affection and
alienation. An old saying vividly characterises this ambiguity of the social
boundary: "A person's one-hundredth cousin is still his cousin" (I
biao san qian li).
The model of relative
demarcation, as proposed in Fei's Peasant
meant nonetheless for peasant society. It concerns the social relationships as
well as the formation of social groups chiefly among peasants. Nevertheless,
this concept can also be applied and elaborated to cover modern, urbanised
society. Though the dominant subjects are no longer peasants but political
parties or business organisations, they nonetheless perpetuate the traditional
pattern of social interaction. In a word, to characterise the structure of
Chinese society, whether peasant or urban, modern or traditional, one cannot
overlook Fei's concept of
What Fei hinted at is essentially a
perspective on Chinese social system as structurally dynamic. This perspective
becomes more solid, when applied to the study of the family system. As I have
pointed out elsewhere, an opening saying on the occasion of dividing households
particularly attracts our attention: "Is there a tree which, once big,
does not spread its branches?" In other words, the Chinese family system
is essentially based on two mutually contradictory yet complementary
principles. For the sake of reproduction, the family tree tends towards
fission; for strong solidarity, the family tree tends towards fusion. To sum
up, while fission creates household as domestic units, fusion forms the family
as a jia zu (lineage) (Wang, 1985).
anthropologist, Chen Chi-nan, with
his concept of fang (branch) has reached the same conclusion. He observes that
the Chinese family system is essentially based on two mutually contradictory
concepts: the inclusiveness of the family (jia zu) as well as fission based
on the fang. To illustrate this point he suggests that we read Chinese genealogies
both upward and downward. Reading downward, one sees the genealogy as a
composed of independent fang; whereas reading upward, one views it as a unified
family. This discovery indeed corresponds with the saying cited above. "A
big tree spreads its branches; it has always been thus" (Chen, 1985).
This essay will, however,
lay its emphasis on the results of recent studies of the Chinese family system,
such as how it functions as a unified jia zu or how different fang are fused with each
other to form a family. All discussion will be related to the thesis of the
dynamics of the Chinese social system as consisting essentially of network
building without group solidarity. To develop this thesis, I will begin with a
discussion of the family system as a basis of social incorporation.
The family as the foundation of social incorporation
The Chinese family
perpetuates ties of patrilineal descent. Usually a lineage (zong zu) can identify its
membership by demonstrating genealogical links. It stresses, on the one hand,
generation relationships as the warp, and on the other hand branch
relationships as the woof of the fabric making up the family. Nevertheless, no
specific number of generations is required in order to constitute a functional
lineage. In other words, the extent over which a functional lineage organises
its web remains flexible. If a functional lineage comprises only members of
recent generations, it does not conceptually rule out agnatic ties with those
members excluded. In other words, maintaining a patrilineal relationship should
be distinguished from integration using patrilineal ties into a social unit.
The two social realities carry no causal relationship. Based on this
understanding, consequently, Chen
Chi-nan criticised western anthropologists for overlooking the distinction
between the genealogical model and the functional model of the Chinese kinship
system. To elaborate this distinction, Chen
further argued that the lineage based on the functional model is not as common
as the lineage based on the conceptual model, which is firmly fixed in the
minds of members of every Chinese society.
In traditional Chinese
society, the lineage does not become incorporated in isolation. This
incorporation is only provoked by the appearance of some kind of threat or
crisis. Otherwise most common people do not need to organise a functional
lineage. They call to mind, however, the conceptual model of the lineage with
which they maintain agnatic ties. If any event occurs, such as quarrels about
obtaining water or deciding on grave-sites, the people involved will form
factions. The necessity of taking sides pushes them to transform the conceptual
model into a functional lineage. In other words, the functional lineage does
not exist in a concrete form until a particular event occurs. Such cases are
found quite commonly in the schismatic conflicts of traditional Chinese
convenience, the lineage corporation may exclude members with only remote
patrilineal ties. Conceptually, however, whether people are in-group members or
out-group members does not negate the fact that they share the same agnatic
ties. In another situation, these agnatic ties may lead to the formation of a
different functional lineage group. An extreme case is zong qin hui, the clan association,
membership of which imitates the ties of patrilineal descent (see Yoshihara, this volume).
In brief, the formation
process of the Chinese family is from the outset based on the conceptual model
of agnatic ties. This conceptual relationship will, however, result in
different scales of incorporation according to different situations. In other
words, the functional membership of a lineage organisation is not necessarily
identical with the group consisting of all those sharing agnatic ties. Nor will
all members with agnatic ties necessarily be involved in a particular instance
So far we can see a
correspondence between the way in which the Chinese family varies its sizes
according to the requirements of different times and places, and Fei's concept of "relative
demarcation", in which personal networks reach beyond the boundary of
agnatic ties. This correspondence manifests itself once more in the dynamics of
the Chinese social system.
To sum up, the dynamics
of the Chinese social system outlined above can be described as essentially
"network building without group solidarity". The characteristics of
this social system are actually complementary with those of the Chinese
cultural system. Liang Shu-ming in
his The Essentials of Chinese Culture (1963) has demonstrated in detail
the fact that "the Chinese lack durable corporate life," "the
Chinese social network extends out from family relations," and that
"the Chinese organise social groups on behalf of human obligations".
All these statements converge on one reality: the Chinese cultural system as
dominated by Confucianism lays its emphasis on personal relations.
Other popular concepts
about Chinese ethics such as renqing (good-will), ren (benevolence), li (propriety), bao (reciprocity), and shu (forgiveness) indeed
define rights and obligations within personal relationships, rather than
between an individual and his identified social group (King, 1982). In other words, social interaction works on the
principle of transaction between individuals who recognise their mutual
relationship in concrete situations. Accordingly, reciprocity between
individuals forms the basis of the social network. Any corporate behaviour
which stresses intimate concern with institutions, such as loyalty to a
specific figure, or total devotion to the corporation itself, is absent from
the list of Chinese human social obligations.
As discussed above, it is
the ceaseless series of transactions rather than the settled corporate organisations
that build up into networks within Chinese society. While there is a lack of
durable forms of group organisation and corporate life, the social network
gains its interconnections by amply stressing mutual trust and good will in
relations between persons. Thus, Chinese society, characterised by durable
relations and transitory solidarity can thrive with abundant vitality.
Fen-lei as a process of forming social solidarity
The fact that Chinese
society maintains frequent personal networks yet rare group solidarity has,
however, not been discovered here for the first time. Previously, as mentioned
above, Liang and Fei expressed the same viewpoint. While
the former considers Chinese society as functioning on the basis of mutual
obligations between individual people, the latter considers Chinese society as
functioning as an extension of personal networks, which he calls "relative
demarcation." These two expressions actually focus upon the same point,
namely that Chinese society is built upon personal relations rather than group
incorporation. Nevertheless, many questions surrounding the formation of
solidary groups, however rare they are, still remain unanswered. For instance:
What characterises the formation of these groups? How do they come into
existence? To what extent will people identify themselves with the corporate
group? All these issues demand our further attention.
Nakane has proposed that the
formation of corporate solidarity in Chinese society is built upon "the
principle of attributes (lei)" (Nakane,
1982). By this principle, individuals weave networks through the different
attributes they share with others. This viewpoint corresponds in great measure
to our present thesis. Nakane's
reasoning is arrived at, however, through a comparative study of the family
structure in Japan and China. As she points out, the Japanese family system
operates with "the principle of frame or location". This means that
Japanese will identify all their behaviours and value judgments with the
solidary group in which they resolve to be engaged. Thus, individuality ideally
remains almost hidden. In contrast, individuality in Chinese society remains
distinct. Through the principle of attributes, the solidarity of a corporate group
is organised by the networks of individuals who share similar attributes. Using
the terms we mentioned in the previous section, social interaction among the
Japanese is based on "the principle of the corporate," whereas social
interaction among the Chinese is based on "the principle of
transaction". For instance, the Chinese agnatic organisation, as Nakane argued, brings together
individuals who share the same attribute of agnatic relations.
Meanwhile, a group of
native anthropologists studying Chinese society in Taiwan have also called
attention to the concept of attributes in their analysis. Among those scholars,
Chuang Yin-chang and Chen Chi-nan particularly noted the role
of attributes in a bold article entitled "Reviewing the contemporary study
of the Chinese social structure":
mentioned above, the Chinese social system operates not with a fixed structure
but with many possible variations. Any attribute of identity such as dialects,
territorial ties, religious beliefs, different levels of lineage relations or
varieties of theatre-amusements does involve a different social group and
evokes a different consciousness of solidarity for the respective in-group
members. Thus, the native term fen-lei (meaning roughly
"classification") is introduced. Quite definitely, this term can
provide us with a more effective concept for grasping the structure of [the]
Chinese social system (Chuang and Chen 1982).
Fen-lei is said to be found only
in traditional Chinese society. Surprisingly, however, I have also found it
developing in Communist China. Almost simultaneously with these writers, I
remarked in an article that the Communists have taken fen-lei as the necessary means
for endorsing conflicts between classes so as to achieve success in land reform
(Bond and Wang, 1983).
Apart from crisis
periods, life in the traditional Chinese village was usually peaceful. Since
different layers of personal relationship constituted the entire span of social
networks, clear-cut opposition between social groups or classes did not
tangibly exist. Thus, one cannot but wonder how the Communists could have
achieved land reform by evoking class oppositions which had been rarely present
in pre-revolutionary rural China. On this issue, Akiyama provides us with a vivid description in his Experiences
of Land Reform in China (1977). In 1951, he joined a team called "a workshop
traversing southward". The team happened to stay at the Xin-tian-pu
Village, in the Xin-tian neighbourhood of Hui-yang County, Guangdong Province.
In the name of visiting the poor and investigating their difficulties, this
team actually undertook the classification of social groups according to their
shared attributes, so as to provoke the contradictions between them. In
particular, they divided the village people into the following classes: poor
farmers, middle-rich farmers, rich farmers and landlords. The landlords were
thus marked out for public opposition. This led to violent aggression, of the
type that traditional rural society had never previously experienced.
Another case study of
land reform is found in William Hinton's
Fan-shen, published in 1966. It took place in the province of Shangxi during the
civil war between the nationalists and the Communist party. Land reform was
implemented according to fen-lei as in other places. At first, the
Communist officials divided the village people into two opposing categories of
the patriotic and the rebellious. Then, they went on to distinguish the
exploited from the exploiters. However, only after the target figure was
selected through this procedure of fen-lei, would the peasants begin their
cruellest aggression. The assembly for liquidating conflicts had a peasant
asked by Communist officials to be the leading accuser. Past conflicts with the
target figure gave this peasant the legitimacy to initiate accusations and
aggression towards the landlord. The event proceeded as follows. Wang
Ch'ung-lai was an adopted son of the landlord Wang Lai-hsun's mother.
Lai-hsun's mother bought a child wife for Ch'ung-lai. The couple were driven
out by the family and forced into beggary. They had lived in another village
for 20 years. When they heard that the landlords would be brought to account
and debts repaid, they hurried home to the village in 1945 and looked forward
to the day when the struggle against Lai-hsun would come. Lai-hsun was brought
to the tribune.
wife was standing in the front row. She was the first to speak.
was it that you stayed at home while we were driven out?" she asked,
stepping in front of the astounded landlord on her small bound feet.
Ch'ung-lai had a grandfather. He had another place to live," said Lai-hsun
looking at the ground. He did not have the courage to look her in the face.
you too had in-laws. You too had a place to go. Why did you drive us out and
make beggars of us? During the famine year we came to beg from you, our own
brother, but you gave us nothing. You drove us away with a stick and the
children with an iron poker."
remember that day," said Lai-hsun.
shouted Ch'ung-lai's wife, tears rolling down her dirt-stained face.
afraid if you returned you would ask to divide the property with me."
aroused the whole meeting.
him, beat him," shouted the crowd.
wife then took a leather strap from around her wasting body and she and her son
beat Lai-hsun with the strap and with their fists. They beat him for more time
than it takes to eat a meal and as they beat him Ch'ung-lai's wife cried out, "I
beat you in revenge for six years of beatings. In the past you never cared for
us. Your eyes did not know us. Now my eyes do not know you either. Now it is my
cringed before them and whimpered as the blows fell on his back and neck, then
he fainted, fell to the ground, and was carried to his home (Hinton, 1966: 139-40).
Such fen-lei procedures by which
contradictions were evoked between social groups during the 1940s also
reappeared in the Cultural Revolution twenty years later. Violent aggression
dragged on for over ten years, essentially resulting from the process of
evoking opposition by identifying the differences in ideological attributes
between the rebellious group and the ruling class.
Looking at traditional
China, we also find that any two social groups involved in fights usually
initiated a procedure called "drawing the borderline," meaning
drawing distinctions by means of attributes which the two opposing groups
shared. People would identify distinct boundaries by dialect, ancestral
heritage, or surname. In other words, people with different dialects, ancestral
heritages, or surnames generally would not inter-mix. Traditional social
phenomena such as "drawing the borderline," recurred, however, in
Communist China during the Cultural Revolution. Even a married couple would be
set apart from each other by distinct attributes of ideology. These social
phenomena actually correspond to what the traditional Chinese called
"drawing the borderline" between fighting groups. Undoubtedly, during
this turbulent period, social networks failed to involve every layer of
personal relations, and conversely, networks of personal relationships shrank
drastically in size. As an outcome, the whole society was regretfully deprived
of its former vitality.
When the crisis was over,
society was restored to its harmonious yet dynamic former state. At first,
social groups constituted by opposing attributes would gradually conceal their
aims, thus loosening their group solidarity. Furthermore, the attribute which
evoked group solidarity lost its tangible form and was remembered as a mental
construct only. Freed from obligatory membership of the group, people were free
to forge whatever human relations they personally found favourable. Thereupon,
the society could regain its potential vitality.
After the Cultural
Revolution came to an end, Communist China started renovating its economic
policy by partially following the freer capitalist pattern. People were thus
encouraged to extend the fabric of personal relationships, thereby potentially
enhancing social vitality. A current warning arises, however, that guanxi
skills of building networks of relations, have become obstacles to economic
development in China. In fact, such a craze for developing skills in human
relations should not be considered as a completely modern phenomenon. It
actually implies a pattern which was recurrent in traditional Chinese society
as discussed above, namely, network building without group solidarity.
Multiple social identifications
The fact that the Chinese
social system tends to restrain any social group both from durable solidarity
and from long-term committed membership is also manifested in the plural social
identifications of an individual. In the first place, Chinese social networks
are constituted essentially through personal relations based on various sets of
attributes. The Chinese saying which observes the law of nature -
"Everything goes with its own category" - can be as well
applied to a society where people sharing the same attributes tend to form
relations. In this sense, they favour extending relations with those who share
at least one of their own attributes such as agnatic ties, business
connections, former school or office friendships. Initially, people of the same
attributes constitute a network. When the network becomes vigorous enough, a
tangible organisation will naturally come into existence. Besides, the more
attributes people assign to themselves, the wider the social network they will
develop. Quite probably, they will gain the upper hand in social competition,
because figuratively speaking they are provided with more tools, and can
therefore work more efficiently.
Since individuals can
freely identify themselves with different attributes, the Chinese social system
actually embodies multidimensional or plural networks. A society based on
multidimensional networks is indeed quite distinct from a society based on segmentation
where each segment is distinct from each other, yet all together make up the
hierarchy as a wider social group. In other words, a social system based on
segmentation, in contrast to one based on many dimensions, rejects all
attributes which fail to enhance the solidarity of the entire hierarchy itself
or each respective segment within the hierarchy.
In short, the Chinese
social system is based on multiple social identifications rather than
hierarchical segmentation; it centres on the individual rather than the social
group. Usually by relating to the existence of various "attributes,"
the individual comes to develop a system of identifications which goes beyond
objective attributes, and which exists, like the genealogical model mentioned
in an earlier section, only in the mind of each member. Take the Hakka in Hong
Kong for instance. They sometimes adopt the identity of Hakka, referring to the
attribute of their spoken dialect as well as their ancestral land. They
sometimes adopt the identity of members of a certain surname lineage, referring
to the attribute of the ties of agnatic descent.
The residents in New Territory
of Hong Kong, according to their spoken dialects, can be divided into "the
Punti" (i.e. indigenous), "the Hakka," and "the
Hoklao". While the Hoklao remain a minority, constituting only 1.5% of the
entire population, the numbers of the other two dialect groups are virtually
equal. Nevertheless, the composition of "the Punti" underwent great
changes after the Second World War when a large wave of immigrants moved in
from the mainland. The Punti now also encompass the Hakka who have a longer
ancestral heritage in the New Territories. Furthermore, the Hakka in the New
Territories have assimilated Cantonese culture, and speak Cantonese in their
daily lives. Many of the younger generation never use their mother tongue. When
visiting a Hakka village for the first time, one usually engages in a
conversation like this.
Are you a Punti of the New Territories?
You're not Hakka, are you?
These responses about
social identity seem quite contradictory. However, the contradictions can be
explained if we understand that social identification for the Chinese is
essentially multidimensional. The first identification as "the Punti"
means their being natives of the New Territories as distinguished from the recent
immigrants after the war. The second identification as "the Hakka"
refers to belonging to the Hakka dialect group, as distinguished from other
natives of the New Territories who speak Cantonese. (Now they are called people
of Wei-tao.) To be precise, they should be called "the Hakka natives of
the New Territories" (Segawa,
They claim their identity
as Hakka when talking of their cultural heritage. But, the social environment
of the present-day settlement in the New Territories endows them with a new
identity shared with the Cantonese. In other words, from their point of view,
carrying two identities simultaneously is quite sensible, because each
identity, while based on a different attribute, meets the requirements of
separate social networks. Identifying with the Hakka aligns people with the
dispersed group with an ancestral heritage of speaking Hakka, whereas
identifying with the Punti aligns them with the immediate social group in the
New Territories who speak Cantonese.
Another similar case
concerns the ambiguity of social identity that a group of Chinese-Japanese has
confronted. At the end of the Second World War, the Japanese gave up their
colonies and occupied areas in the north-east of China, and abandoned many children
there. The children are usually referred to as "war orphans".
Recently, many of the surviving orphans have resumed their Japanese nationality
and, together with their children, they have emigrated to Japan. The second
generation of these orphans formerly raised in China are of particular interest
to us here. With Japanese nationality, they receive compulsory education.
Meanwhile, they feel a strong identification with the Chinese. In other words,
while they are treated socially as Japanese, they still cling to thought and behavioural
patterns acquired in China. Just as the Hakka in the New Territories of Hong
Kong are ambiguous about their identity, so the second generation of the
Chinese-Japanese orphans carry a double social identity.
One further remark:
plural social identities can be realised only in a society where boundaries
between social groups are blurred. Accordingly charismatic figures draw their
power particularly through deliberately obscuring their identity as
representing one single social group and promoting the advantage of this single
social group alone. This avoidance of fixed identity actually corresponds to an
age-old Chinese saying: "A gentleman is qualified if he can mix with
others without evoking partisan feelings." According to the Chinese view,
drawing clear-cut boundaries between partisans such as occurs in Japanese
politics reflects a simple and naive mind.
The blurred boundary
between social groups as well as the blurred identity of the charismatic figure
even emerges in the political life of a Chinese village in Malaysia:
the characteristic features of big men in village S[,] as usual, a big man does
not work for the advantage of one particular social group. In fact, while
reacting to different situations, he will shift his identity to other social
groups. To a certain degree, a big man remains a counterpart to the head of a
lineage, who fulfils his role by devoting himself entirely to the advantage of
that lineage alone. In contrast, a big man will never stick fast to one social
group, nor will he hold oppositions towards other big men within the village.
For instance, the tension between surname groups Xie and Huang, or the tension
between the circles of fishing business A and fishing business B, will never
drive the entire village people into permanent polarity. The conflicts between
the big men arise only in relation to different situations (on behalf of
different social groups). Accordingly, polar relations within the village
community do not endure for good.
political life of village S as functioning in the dynamics between the big man
and the village people can be compared to the image of amoeba with a nucleus
and its many feet extending in every direction. The village people who carry
relation with the big man play a role similar to that of amoeba's antenna. Just
as amoeba's feet change all the time, so the village people switch their
relations with different big men in reacting to different situations. Even
simultaneously they can act as "feet" for both Big Man A and Big Man B.
On the other hand, Big Man B can sometimes be unified with Big Man A. In fact,
a real amoeba with two unified nuclei does not survive (Kawasaki, 1984).
The above passage
describes the dynamic relation between the political leader and his followers
in a Chinese village. It confirms our argument that the characteristic of
Chinese society lies in durable relations yet transitory solidarity. However,
another phase of social interconnection, e.g., network among people of the same
level such as among the ordinary village people themselves, still awaits our
exploration. The following case from Qin-yong village of Yin County in Zhejiang
Province will shed some light on this aspect.
Ueda Makoto spent only five
days in the village, but managed to investigate many facets of its social life
such as relations of production, family solidarity, territorial ties, and
administrative organisations, etc. The results of his survey made him castigate
the Japanese scholars of Chinese peasant society for maintaining a stereotype
of the Chinese peasant community as a corporate community. He presented a
different picture which indeed echoes my major thesis. The idea of Chinese
peasant society as "network building without group solidarity" is
succinctly expressed in his conclusion.
intellectuals usually lament that the community of a peasant village is just
like a basin of scattered sand. In fact, each individual in the community
functions rather like iron filings rather than mere sand. Figuratively, members
of a lineage or members of a political organisation within the village form the
respective pattern of a circuit. Unless electrified, the circuit will not
function as a magnetic field. Similarly, only on particular occasions will the
village people immediately build up the solidarity of a well-regulated social
group and thus put the underlying network into full action (Ueda, 1986).
The circuit of social
relationship suggested here, quite obviously corresponds to the network of
attributes I have proposed. Indeed, both converge on the same social
phenomenon: just as a circuit when connected to electricity produces a magnetic
field, so the personal network when provoked by certain situations generates
social solidarity. In short, the stereotype of Chinese peasants within the
village as a basin of scattered sand actually fails to grasp the structural
dynamics of Chinese society.
In conclusion, I would
like to draw attention to the fact that it is by no means an accident that
Chinese civilisation has continued until today. Its continuity and vitality
lies in the dynamic of a social system in which people build up networks in
which solidarity remains only transitory. Today the government of China while
aiming at modernisation should never overlook the power of this traditional
social phenomenon. Rather, the modernisation of China, if it is to be fulfilled
in the near future, should depend on developing a delicate balance between the
modernity of government organisations and the continuity of the traditional
social system. The development experience already achieved in Taiwan, Hong
Kong, and among the overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia should serve to
illuminate this new perspective.
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