2. The Dynamics of the Chinese Social System: Network Building without Group Solidarity

Wang Sung-hsing


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 China is 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 "relative demarcation".
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).
Recently, another 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 society.
For practical 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 of incorporation.
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":

As 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.

Ch'ung-lai's wife was standing in the front row. She was the first to speak.
"How 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.
"Because 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.
"But 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."
"I remember that day," said Lai-hsun.
"Why?" shouted Ch'ung-lai's wife, tears rolling down her dirt-stained face. "Why?"
"I was afraid if you returned you would ask to divide the property with me."
This answer aroused the whole meeting.
"Beat him, beat him," shouted the crowd.
Ch'ung-lai's 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 turn."
Lai-hsun 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 xue i.e. 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.

Visitor: Are you a Punti of the New Territories?
Hakka: Yes
Visitor: You're not Hakka, are you?
Hakka: Yes, we are.

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, 1986).
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:

[Concerning] 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.
The 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.

Chinese 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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Updated 4 June 2020