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CUI YONGDONG: Family rules support national laws

| 2017-08-07
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Family rules denote a set of rules to make family members behave as expected while national laws govern a certain country. The two specify their own different areas and play irreplaceable roles in stabilizing family and national orders.

In ancient Chinese society, family rules stressed the exercise of filial piety and general obedience. According to this view, one should put the family’s interest ahead of one’s own by being good to one’s parents, showing love to children, encouraging warm relationships among siblings and maintaining harmony between spouses.

National laws, similarly, encourage fidelity to one’s country while identifying state interest as the foremost pursuit and emphasizing patriotic loyalty and selfless dedication to the state.
Mutually supportive in function and complementary in content, family rules and national laws are homogenous in the sense that devotion to one’s parents is often associated with one’s devotion to the state. A person who abides by family rules will be more likely to obey national laws.

Cultivating moral character and shaping temperament, filial piety is considered a key virtue in Chinese culture. Family rules can be divided into family prescriptions and prohibitions. The former tells a person what to do while the latter says what they should not. This also illustrates connection between family rules and national laws. In other words, one should engage in good conduct not just toward one’s family but also outside the home.

In a broader sense, family rules do not apply in today’s single-sensed family. In history, they can be explained as clan rules that carry the basic consensus reached among communities. Built upon habitual concepts and norms handed down for generations, such a consensus underpins the way of life for communities.

In ancient China, many sorts of social conflicts and disputes were mediated and resolved through quasi-judicial activities based on clan rules. This led to a unique social phenomenon in ancient Chinese history. Despite the turmoil and unrest that accompanied the transition from regime to regime, the lower classes often remained well ordered. This could be attributed to clan rules that conveyed social judicial power. It indicates that family rules and national laws share similar goals of maintaining social order.

In addition, because both are rooted in Confucian ethics and morals, family rules and national laws crystallize the moral principles and ethical codes into institutional systems. A combination of the soft moral restraints and hard institutional confinement, they regulate people, encouraging them to conform with Confucian ethics to construct refined and righteous social orders.

The intellectual ties between these two systems of rules are enlightening for today’s officials for they reflect the importance of rule of law and rule of virtue at the same time. Today, the application of law and virtue are given equal weight. As a CPC decision passed at the fourth Plenary Session of the 18th Central Committee of CPC states, “State and social governance require that both law and virtue play a role together. We must persist in grasping the rule of law on one hand, and the rule of virtue on the other hand…pay attention to the normative role of law as well as the educational role of virtue.”

If we say that the governing ability of a country relies on the improvement of national laws, then improving social governance depends on the refinement of family rules. It is necessary for new elements exclusive to the contemporary era to be injected into the traditional family rules to adapt them to suit the changing times. Moreover, a merger with current forms of social organization at the community level will reinvigorate conventional family rules and reap renewed vigor out of them, forming the basis for maintaining a basic level of social order.


Cui Yongdong is the Director of the Institute of Judicial Studies at East China University of Political Science and Law.