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  • A Change in the Family:The Image of the Family in Contemporary Chinese Children's Literature, 1949-1993
  • Jane Parish Yang (bio)

For the past two months, a most unforgettable event has been coursing through my brain. At nights before I sleep or in mornings when I have just awakened, this event clearly unfolds before my eyes like a scroll painting. It seems as if I can still feel the crisp air in my nostrils, so cold and sharp, and the moonlight flooding over my head, still so radiant and luminous. My hand, which Father had grasped tightly, still surges with warmth; my face still benumbed by Mother's icy tears! I have often told them both: "I will never forget that night." Mother then hugs me closely: "My child, I hope you will remember this forever."

And what was it? That night two months ago, on the night of January thirteenth, when Father and Mother took me to Tiananmen Square to mourn our beloved Premier Zhou in front of the Monument to the People's Heroes.

—Bing Xin, "Ji Yijian Zui Nanwang de Shiqing [Recalling a Most Memorable Event]" (1977)

The quotation in the epigraph, from one of China's most famous modern writers, depicts a warm family relationship between parents and child connected to a larger political cause: the then-dangerous expression of support for moderation during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). From the thirteenth century on, how family and state relate to each other had been a central concern of Neo-Confucian philosophical and political teachings. Writings from the time of Confucius and Mencius, The Four Books, were annotated and explicated by the Neo-Confucian Chu Hsi (1130-1200), and were made the state-sanctioned texts for education in all of China. It was not the Neo-Confucians who first spoke of the family-state relationship, however, [End Page 86] as noted historian Donald Munro states: "To consider the government an extension of family relationships was a policy of Chou [1122-256 B.C.] feudalism" (46). Munro asserts that Chu Hsi and the Neo-Confucians merely tried to reconcile the "potential incompatibility between family-centered role fulfillment and duty to the public" (113).1

Proper relations among family members and between the family and the state were a central concern in these ethical teachings of Confucius: an individual was first and foremost a member of a family group, with duties and obligations to that group. Familial roles, especially the duties of the male side-father, elder brother, son—were specifically a part of these teachings. Only after one's duty to the family was fulfilled was one capable of serving the larger entity beyond the family: the state. The two roles were interconnected in NeoConfucian thought, with reciprocal obligations for each, but serving the family was seen as a prerequisite to serving the state. In fact, service to the state could be a means of empowering and enriching a family, and so service to the state often was subverted to the particular interests of the family.

Neo-Confucians taught that one who was filial, that is, who carried out the proper role of a son, would not offend a superior. Likewise, it was thought that one who was fraternal, that is, who carried out the proper role of a brother, would know his correct role in regard to superiors. It was assumed that having learned proper behavior at home, one would know how to relate to superiors and inferiors in the wider realm outside the family. Yet even so, one's primary loyalty and interest lay with the family. The collective good of society was a secondary consideration in this family-centered ethical system.

A change in values came with the advent of communist ideology, which influenced Chinese writings from the first part of the twentieth century. In the communist view, the interests of the individual, as well as of the family unit, were subsumed by the interests of society as a whole. The literary expression of communist ideology, socialist realism, allowed for no negative or vacillating characters in fact or fiction-only positive, exemplary ones, who would carry the Revolution to its inevitable victory. Such a...


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