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Traditional Chinese Society
Chinese society can only be understood in light of the geographical and demographic forces that have acted upon it. The physical environment has been both a blessing and a curse. It has provided diverse natural resources sufficient to sustain some of the first flowerings of human civilization and an ever-growing population. Yet the vast national territory, the third largest on earth, contains relatively little arable land. Approximately 250 million acres (100 million hectares) now support a population of over 1.3 billion. In the United States, by comparison, 400 million farm acres (160 million ha) are available to sustain just over 300 million people. China's climate, moreover, is treacherously irregular. Precipitation varies as much as 30% from year to year, periodically leading to flood or drought. Survival and ruin have never been far apart.
Economic geography and population pressure help account for the traditionally dominant role of the state in China. Both in the north, a wheat-growing region where flood prevention is necessary, and in the south, a rice-producing area requiring regulated irrigation, careful water management has always been essential. Water control has depended on centralized allocation of massive labor resources for work on dikes, canals, and irrigation systems. Also, the population consistently has been greater than that of any other nation. China had more people in the 16th century, for example, than the United States has today. The constant necessity for state intervention, whether for great public-works programs or simply to keep such a large society together, fostered an authoritarian political system.
The philosophical principles that shaped Chinese social relations for more than 2,000 years originated with Confucius (551–479 B.C.), who emphasized harmony, right conduct, and moral perfection. Personal relations such as kinship, landlord-tenant, teacher-student, and patron-client played a major role in social life. Confucian scholars referred to three great personal bonds: of subject to ruler, of son to father, and of wife to husband. These formed the basis of an elaborate and rigorous hierarchy of status ranging from the emperor to the lowliest peasant. Within the family, for example, the father functioned as a supreme autocrat constrained only by custom and the dictates of moral behavior in his treatment of those beneath him. Other family members owed him obedience, loyalty, and respect.
The family prevailed as the fundamental social, economic, and religious unit. An extended family or clan generally shared the same village. Contrary to popular Western conceptions, individual households did not tend to be large but were usually composed of five or six family members. Although the ideal was for as many as five generations to live together under one roof, that was the exception rather than the rule.
According to Confucian teachings, relations within the family were strictly governed by generation, age, sex, and proximity of kinship. Sixteen different Chinese terms delineate status within the family. Interdependence and respect were mixed with fear, subservience, and exploitation. Males dominated females; the older generation, the younger. Filial piety was considered a primary virtue. Family rather than nation usually generated the greatest loyalties, with the result that nationalism as understood in the West came late to the Chinese.
Two groups made up the elite in the authoritarian political system that characterized traditional China: the scholar-officials, who staffed the imperial government, and the gentry, composed of wealthy landowners. The scholar-officials owed their positions to rigorous training in the Confucian classics and success in a nationwide examination system. In principle (though not always in practice) they achieved their positions through merit rather than birth or wealth. In a situation of rigid divisions in status between the elite and the masses, the examination system provided a vehicle for recruiting talented citizens to serve the emperor. This was a valuable and unusual institution in a society strongly characterized by personal connections. At the local level the gentry functioned as the leaders of society -administering public works, maintaining law and order, and supporting Confucian institutions and morality by operating schools, shrines, and temples and writing local histories.
Democracy, private property, and individualism were carefully kept in check. Emperors jealously protected their monopoly of power, prohibiting mass political participation at both the national and local levels, and controlling closely the growth of potentially independent groups such as merchants and traders.
Rarely, however, did central state authority penetrate to the local level. The average peasant enjoyed the good fortune of having little contact with the formal political system. Chinese leaders invented bureaucracy to keep the country unified and mastered the art of keeping government small. They did not attempt to extend the state's authority directly to the masses; the gentry class provided the link between the government and the village. In fact, the territorial administrative structure of successive dynasties remained static for almost 1,800 years, although the population increased sixfold. By the mid-19th century a single magistrate presided over an average of 300,000 people. The remoteness of government minimized direct official interference in local life except in the collection of taxes, suppression of insurrections, and occasional arbitration of disputes. In turn, it reinforced the decentralized and self-sufficient nature of local institutions and mitigated the repressive quality of state dominance.