To most of the western world, China has always been a mystery, a teeming mass of people in crowded cities, threatening to expand over its borders impelled by its own growth. In fact, while the Han Chinese are the majority of the population, there are over fifty officially recognized ethnic groups establishing a vibrant minority since ancient times. The combination of cultures and traditions evolved over the centuries, with each ethnicity developing their own practices, including the means by which their children were raised and schooled. Chinese Muslim traditions expanded in some regions, Buddhist in others, and Christian communities were established along the Russian borders after contact with the Eastern Orthodox Church.
In ancient China the overwhelming majority of people were peasant farmers, living in small communities and working family farms. Life was necessarily harsh, and for children, education was limited. Only the sons of wealthy families, living primarily in cities, were formally schooled. The father was the master of the house in Chinese families, and the children were taught from an early age that respect for their elders, particularly elder relatives, was paramount. It was common for three generations of a family to live together in the same dwelling, sometimes more. The eldest male was dominant; women were considered subservient to men, and daughters were considered less valuable to the family than sons.
Here are some examples of the harshness of daily life when growing up in ancient China and among its many diverse peoples and dynasties.
1. The teachings of Confucius dominated Chinese society
The Chinese philosopher Confucius established teachings which were the basis of society in China, including the structure of the family and the role within of each of its members. Confucius, who lived five centuries before the Common Era, placed an emphasis on the morality of individuals and authorities, which began as children, who were instilled with the requirement to submit to their parents, and in particular to their father. The concept of filial piety was directed to the eldest male in a household, who was the highest authority, and bowing to his will was the basis of Chinese society. If the father was absent, the eldest son played the leading role.
This by nature made the role of women subservient, mothers were required to obey the whims of their sons, should the eldest male support them, and daughters were little more than chattel. A father frustrated by his wife’s inability to produce male children was allowed under Chinese society to abandon the family if he so chose and remarry in an attempt to acquire male heirs. The abuse of children did not mitigate their societal obligation to return respect and obedience to their father, or to the eldest brother if the father was absent. The role of the male to command extended upwards throughout Chinese society to the head of the ruling dynasty, and respect to the male authority was the cornerstone upon which Chinese law and customs were built.