China Table of Contents

The leaders who directed the efforts to change Chinese society after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 were raised in the old society and had been marked with its values. Although they were conscious revolutionaries, they could not wholly escape the culture into which they had been born. Nationalists as well as revolutionaries, they had no intention of transforming China into a replica of any foreign country. They had an ambivalent attitude toward their country's past and its traditional society, condemning some aspects and praising others. Furthermore, as practical administrators, China's post-1949 leaders devoted energy and attention to changing some aspects of traditional society, such as rural land tenure and the content of education, while leaving other aspects, such as family structure, largely untouched. Change in Chinese society, therefore, has been less than total and less consistent than has often been claimed by official spokesmen. To understand contemporary society, it is necessary to be familiar with past legacies, particularly in the realm of values and in areas of social life, such as family organization, where transformation has not been a high-priority political goal.

China's traditional values were contained in the orthodox version of Confucianism, which was taught in the academies and tested in the imperial civil service examinations. These values are distinctive for their this-worldly emphasis on society and public administration and for their wide diffusion throughout Chinese society. Confucianism, never a religion in any accepted sense, is primarily concerned with social order. Social harmony is to be achieved within the state, whose administrators consciously select the proper policies and act to educate both the rulers and the subject masses. Confucianism originated and developed as the ideology of professional administrators and continued to bear the impress of its origins.

Imperial-era Confucianists concentrated on this world and had an agnostic attitude toward the supernatural. They approved of ritual and ceremony, but primarily for their supposed educational and psychological effects on those participating. Confucianists tended to regard religious specialists (who historically were often rivals for authority or imperial favor) as either misguided or intent on squeezing money from the credulous masses. The major metaphysical element in Confucian thought was the belief in an impersonal ultimate natural order that included the social order. Confucianists asserted that they understood the inherent pattern for social and political organization and therefore had the authority to run society and the state.

The Confucianists claimed authority based on their knowledge, which came from direct mastery of a set of books. These books, the Confucian Classics, were thought to contain the distilled wisdom of the past and to apply to all human beings everywhere at all times. The mastery of the Classics was the highest form of education and the best possible qualification for holding public office. The way to achieve the ideal society was to teach the entire people as much of the content of the Classics as possible. It was assumed that everyone was educable and that everyone needed educating. The social order may have been natural, but it was not assumed to be instinctive. Confucianism put great stress on learning, study, and all aspects of socialization. Confucianists preferred internalized moral guidance to the external force of law, which they regarded as a punitive force applied to those unable to learn morality. Confucianists saw the ideal society as a hierarchy, in which everyone knew his or her proper place and duties. The existence of a ruler and of a state were taken for granted, but Confucianists held that rulers had to demonstrate their fitness to rule by their "merit." The essential point was that heredity was an insufficient qualification for legitimate authority. As practical administrators, Confucianists came to terms with hereditary kings and emperors but insisted on their right to educate rulers in the principles of Confucian thought. Traditional Chinese thought thus combined an ideally rigid and hierarchical social order with an appreciation for education, individual achievement, and mobility within the rigid structure.

Diffusion of Values

While ideally everyone would benefit from direct study of the Classics, this was not a realistic goal in a society composed largely of illiterate peasants. But Confucianists had a keen appreciation for the influence of social models and for the socializing and teaching functions of public rituals and ceremonies. The common people were thought to be influenced by the examples of their rulers and officials, as well as by public events. Vehicles of cultural transmission, such as folk songs, popular drama, and literature and the arts, were the objects of government and scholarly attention. Many scholars, even if they did not hold public office, put a great deal of effort into popularizing Confucian values by lecturing on morality, publicly praising local examples of proper conduct, and "reforming" local customs, such as bawdy harvest festivals. In this manner, over hundreds of years, the values of Confucianism were diffused across China and into scattered peasant villages and rural culture.

The Confucian Legacy

Traditional values have clearly shaped much of contemporary Chinese life. The belief in rule by an educated and functionally unspecialized elite, the value placed on learning and propagating an orthodox ideology that focuses on society and government, and the stress on hierarchy and the preeminent role of the state were all carried over from traditional society. Some of the more radical and extreme policies of the 1950s and 1960s, such as attacks on intellectuals and compulsory manual labor for bureaucrats, can only be understood as responses to deep-rooted traditional attitudes. The role of model workers and soldiers, as well as official concern for the content and form of popular literature and the arts, also reflects characteristically Chinese themes. In the mid-1980s a number of Chinese writers and political leaders identified the lingering hold of "feudal" attitudes, even within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), as a major obstacle to modernization. They identified such phenomena as authoritarianism, unthinking obedience to leaders, deprecation of expert knowledge, lack of appreciation for law, and the failure to apply laws to leaders as "feudal" legacies that were not addressed in the early years of China's revolution.

Traditional Social Structure

Throughout the centuries some 80 to 90 percent of the Chinese population have been farmers. The farmers supported a small number of specialized craftsmen and traders and also an even smaller number of land- and office-holding elite families who ran the society. Although the peasant farmers and their families resembled counterparts in other societies, the traditional Chinese elite, often referred to in English as the gentry, had no peers in other societies. The national elite, who comprised perhaps 1 percent of China's population, had a number of distinctive features. They were dispersed across the country and often lived in rural areas, where they were the dominant figures on the local scene. Although they held land, which they rented to tenant farmers, they neither possessed large estates like European nobles nor held hereditary titles. They achieved their highest and most prestigious titles by their performance on the central government's triennial civil service examinations. These titles had to be earned by each generation, and since the examinations had strict numerical quotas, competition was fierce. Government officials were selected from those who passed the examinations, which tested for mastery of the Confucian Classics. Elite families, like everyone else in China, practiced partible inheritance, dividing the estate equally among all sons. The combination of partible inheritance and the competition for success in the examinations meant that rates of mobility into and out of the elite were relatively high for a traditional agrarian society.

The imperial state was staffed by a small civil bureaucracy. Civil officials were directly appointed and paid by the emperor and had to have passed the civil service examinations. Officials, who were supposed to owe their primary loyalty to the emperor, did not serve in their home provinces and were generally assigned to different places for each tour of duty. Although the salary of central officials was low, the positions offered great opportunities for personal enrichment, which was one reason that families competed so fiercely to pass the examinations and then obtain an appointment. For most officials, officeholding was not a lifetime career. They served one or a few tours and then returned to their home districts and families, where their wealth, prestige, and network of official contacts made them dominant figures on the local scene.

The Examination System

In late imperial China the status of local-level elites was ratified by contact with the central government, which maintained a monopoly on society's most prestigious titles. The examination system and associated methods of recruitment to the central bureaucracy were major mechanisms by which the central government captured and held the loyalty of local-level elites. Their loyalty, in turn, ensured the integration of the Chinese state and countered tendencies toward regional autonomy and the breakup of the centralized system. The examination system distributed its prizes according to provincial and prefectural quotas, which meant that imperial officials were recruited from the whole country, in numbers roughly proportional to a province's population. Elites all over China, even in the disadvantaged peripheral regions, had a chance at succeeding in the examinations and achieving the rewards of officeholding.

The examination system also served to maintain cultural unity and consensus on basic values. The uniformity of the content of the examinations meant that the local elite and ambitious would-be elite all across China were being indoctrinated with the same values. Even though only a small fraction (about 5 percent) of those who attempted the examinations passed them and received titles, the study, self-indoctrination, and hope of eventual success on a subsequent examination served to sustain the interest of those who took them. Those who failed to pass (most of the candidates at any single examination) did not lose wealth or local social standing; as dedicated believers in Confucian orthodoxy, they served, without the benefit of state appointments, as teachers, patrons of the arts, and managers of local projects, such as irrigation works, schools, or charitable foundations.

In late traditional China, then, education was valued in part because of its possible payoff in the examination system. The overall result of the examination system and its associated study was cultural uniformity--identification of the educated with national rather than regional goals and values. This self-conscious national identity underlies the nationalism so important in China's politics in the twentieth century.

Social Stratification

Traditional thought accepted social stratification as natural and considered most social groups to be organized on hierarchical principles. In the ideal Confucian scheme of social stratification, scholars were at the highest level of society, followed by farmers, then by artisans, with merchants and soldiers in last place.

In society at large, the highest and most prestigious positions were those of political generalists, such as members of the emperor's council or provincial governors. Experts, such as tax specialists or physicians, ranked below the ruling political generalists. Although commerce has been a major element of Chinese life since the early imperial period, and wealthy merchants have been major figures in Chinese cities, Confucianists disparaged merchants. Commercial success never won respect, and wealth based on commerce was subject to official taxes, fees, and even confiscation. Upward mobility by merchants was achieved by cultivating good relations with powerful officials and educating their sons in the hope they might become officials. Although dynasties were founded by military conquest, Confucian ideology derogated military skill. Common soldiers occupied a low position in society and were recruited from its lowest ranks. Chinese civilization, however, includes a significant military tradition, and generals and strategists usually were held in high esteem.

Most of China's population was composed of peasant farmers, whose basic role in supporting the rulers and the rest of society was recognized as a positive one in Confucian ideology. In practical terms, farming was considered a hard and insecure life and one that was best left if an opportunity was available.

In Chinese communities the factors generating prestige were education, abstention from manual labor, wealth expended on the arts and education, a large family with many sons, and community service and acts of charity. Another asset was an extensive personal network that permitted one to grant favors and make introductions and recommendations. There was no sharp line dividing the elite from the masses, and social mobility was possible and common.

Stratification and Families

Before 1950 the basic units of social stratification and social mobility were families. Although wealthy families were often quite large, with as many as thirty people in three or four generations living together on a common budget, most families contained five or six people. In socioeconomic terms, late traditional China was composed of a large number of small enterprises, perhaps as many as 100 million farms and small businesses. Each was operated by a family, which acted not only as a household but also as a commercial enterprise. The family head also was the trustee of the estate and manager of the family business. Families could own property, such as land or shops, and pass it on to the next generation.

About 80 percent of the population were peasant farmers, and land was the fundamental form of property. Although many peasant families owned no land, large estates were rare by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Peasant families might own all of the land they worked, or own some and rent some from a landowner, or rent all their land. Regardless of the form of tenure, the farm was managed as a unit, and the head of household was free to decide what to plant and how to use the labor of family members. Land could be bought and sold in small parcels, as well as mortgaged and rented in various forms of short-term and long-term contracts. The consequence was that in most villages peasant families occupied different steps on the ladder of stratification; they did not form a uniformly impoverished mass. At any time, peasant families were distinguished by the amount of land that they owned and worked compared with the percentage of their income they paid in rent. Over time, peasant families rose or fell in small steps as they bought land or were forced to sell it.

Most non-farm enterprises, commercial or craft, were similarly small businesses run by families. The basic units were owned by families, which took a long-term view of their prospects and attempted to shift resources and family personnel from occupation to occupation to adapt to economic circumstances. In all cases, the long-term goal of the head of the family was to ensure the survival and prosperity of the family and to pass the estate along to the next generation. The most common family strategy was to diversify the family's economic activities. Such strategies lay behind the large number of small-scale enterprises that characterized Chinese society before 1950. Farming and landowning were secure but not very profitable. Commerce and money-lending brought in greater returns but also carried greater risks. A successful farm family might invest in a shop or a food-processing business, while a successful restaurant owner might buy farmland, worked by a sharecropping peasant family, as a secure investment. All well-to- do families invested in the education of sons, with the hope of getting at least one son into a government job. The consequence was that it was difficult to draw a class line dividing landlords, merchants, and government workers or officials.

Social Mobility

Formal education provided the best and most respected avenue of upward mobility, and by the nineteenth century literacy rates in China were high for a traditional peasant society. Chances of receiving a good education were highest for the upper classes in and around coastal cities and lowest for the farmers of the interior. If schooling was not available, there were other avenues of mobility. Rural people could move to cities to seek their fortunes (and in some cases the cities were in Southeast Asia or the Americas). People could go into business, gamble on the market for perishable cash crops, try money-lending on a small scale or, as a long shot, join the army or a bandit group. Late traditional society offered alternate routes to worldly success and a number of ways to change one's position in society; but in all routes except education the chances of failure outweighed those of success.

In many cases, whether in business or banditry, success or failure depended to a great degree on luck. The combination of population pressure, the low rate of economic growth, natural disasters, and endemic war that afflicted the Chinese population in the first half of the twentieth century meant that many families lost their property, some starved, and almost all faced the probability of misfortune. From the perspective of individuals and individual families, it is likely that from 1850 to 1950 the chances of downward mobility increased and the ability to plan ahead with confidence decreased.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress