May 22, 2020
A society’s values are reflected in its proverbs. Each civilization encodes its collective wisdom and prejudices into figures of speech, stories and easily remembered phrases.
Proverbs touch on everything from health and hygiene (“An apple a day keeps the doctor away”) to psychology (“Great minds think alike”) and morality (“Turn the other cheek”).
China’s millenia-old civilization has produced a wealth of these sayings. In this article, we will first explore Chinese attitudes towards the family and then examine 12 related Chinese proverbs to consider how these sayings reflect traditional cultural attitudes.
Traditional Conceptions of the Chinese Family
In trying to understand the ongoing importance of the family in Chinese society, one is bound to be confronted again and again by the same figure: Confucius (孔子 kǒng zǐ). Indeed, Confucian principles governing how each person is bound by obligations to others are at the heart of the Chinese worldview.
The central obligation is filial piety (孝顺 xiào shùn). Perhaps more accurately translated as “filial subordination,” it hinges on the virtue of obeying one’s parents and elders in the family. The parent-child relationship was the core from which the Chinese principle human relationships (father-son, husband-wife, ruler-subject) stemmed.
The Confucian hierarchy of a family harmoniously ruled by a benevolent elder patriarch traditionally served as the basis for every other social and political relationship. Every aspect of the world, or 天下 (tiān xià), could be judged based on whether it conformed to or violated these familial principles. Confucian principles could also be used to decide what was right or wrong, virtuous or immoral, just or unjust, beautiful or ugly, and brave or cowardly.
For thousands of years, two key factors fostered extremely close family bonds: the Chinese collective household system (whereby different married couples were integrated into the same family) and multiple generations living under the same roof. Cousins grew up together as siblings and were considered primarily as members of the same age-group or generation rather than as sons or daughters of particular parents.
The children of these households learned to navigate and explore the world under the watchful eye of many older family members. The heavy demands of rural economic life, particularly that of rural agriculture, further pressed these extended families into tight cooperative units.
Lineages, Descent Lines and Clans
Chinese culture’s emphasis on the family and on reverence for ancestors is demonstrated by the diversity of ways in which one can express one’s relationship with one’s relatives, both living and dead.
A lineage is a group of descendents who have collectively organized for the purposes of recording their genealogy and ritually worshipping or commemorating their ancestors. The size and scope of a lineage organization varies enormously and often depends on the wealth and prestige of the individuals who compose the group.
Wealthy lineages sometimes collectively own an ancestral hall, or shrine, where one can come to worship ancestors and consult spirit tablets. Some well-endowed lineage organizations will even reward scholarships, engage in charitable work and act as an emergency bank of sorts where members can gain access to loans during times of financial instability.
Poorer lineage organizations will simply have a place, sometimes in a designated room of an ancestral home, to honor the ancestors on important holidays (such as Tomb-Sweeping Day or Ghost Festival) by bringing symbolic food offerings, burning joss paper and lighting fragrant incense.
A descent line consists of all of the fathers and sons in one’s family tree. It goes back to the beginning of time, starting with the first father who founded the line and, as long as one continues to produce male heirs, the descent line will continue indefinitely.
If one does not have a son, it is possible for a line to die out. Not bearing an heir was—and in some quarters still is—considered one of the worst things imaginable because it also meant, in Chinese tradition, that no could make sacrifices to ancestors or maintain the ancestral hall.
Clans or Same-surname Associations
Clan and same-surname associations either in China or overseas are broader and looser coalitions of individuals who share an ancestor but for whom the specifics of descent are not clearly understood or recorded. Sharing the same last name is an important part of these groups.
These “same-surname associations” (同姓会 tóng xìng huì) often served—and continue to serve—as sources of mutual-aid and mutual protection. Worship of the collective ancestor still occurs but the absence of reliable records, such as spirit tablets or other genealogies, hinders the practice of many traditional rituals.
The importance of the family can also be detected simply by considering the existence of many family-related Chinese words that contain the character 家 (jiā). For example:
大家 (dà jiā, literally “big family”)——Everybody
国家 (guó jiā, literally “national family)——Country
家具 (jiā jù, literally “family tool”)——Furniture
In contrast to the Western notion of the nuclear family (one father and one mother raising their children) stands the traditional Chinese extended family (grandparents, unmarried aunts, uncles, married sons, grandchildren and great-grandchildren). This way of life produced an astoundingly rich vocabulary to define, differentiate and describe relations between family members.
The oldest known dictionary of the Chinese language, the Erh-ya (尔雅 Ěr yǎ), contains a mind-boggling 2,000 terms for family relations. Due to the rapid contraction of the family as a consequence of the so-called one-child policy (1979-2015), many of these words have fallen into disuse. However, contemporary Chinese does still employ dozens of unique relationship words, many of which don’t exist in Western languages. For example:
表哥 (biǎo gē)——Older male cousin
妗子(jìn zi)——Mother’s brother’s wife
姨父 (yí fu)——Mother’s sister’s husband
Men and Women
The traditional role of men in the family was that of provider, maintainer and protector. Historically, Confucian and Daoist customs, patriarchal cultural beliefs and the exclusion of women from economic and educational spheres all combined to elevate the importance of men and minimize the importance of women (重男轻女 zhòng nán qīng nǚ).
Women were primarily seen in light of their ability to produce male heirs who would maintain the descent line, thereby pleasing the ancestors. In fact, the term for “good” in Chinese is 好 (hǎo), which is the character for female (女 nǚ) set alongside the character for a male child (子 zi).
This belief in women’s inferiority compared to men is the source of several sayings still in use today, such as 男尊女卑 (nán zūn nǚ bēi) which translates literally as “men are high, women low” and means “women are inferior to men.”
When not pregnant or giving birth, the expectation was that women were to focus their energies on homelife and childrearing. The Confucian doctrine of the Three Obediences and Four Virtues (三从四德 sān cóng sì dé) laid out strict rules for women. It was expected that while at home, a woman should follow her father. Upon marriage, she was expected to follow her husband, and after marriage, she was expected to follow her son.
This rule can be stated in Chinese as: 在家从父, 出家从夫, 婚后从子 zài jiā cóng fù, chū jià cóng fū, hūn hòu cóng zǐ).
In all arenas and at all stages of life, women were required to allow their male counterparts—fathers, husbands and sons—to take on responsibility for most aspects of their lives. Despite these strict Confucian norms, in practice many women did in fact take up positions of power, and one, Wu Zetian, even assumed the most powerful position in the land, becoming empress in her own right.
China’s rollercoaster of a 20th century shattered many of these historical patterns and radically reshaped many others. While there are enormous differences between conditions in urban and rural areas, since 1949 Chinese women as a whole have become much more educated, independent and integrated into the workforce (although they are still substantially underrepresented when it comes to business and political leadership positions).
Chinese society in the 21st century continues to change and transform. China’s megacities are fast producing their own updated expectations for men and women, while the influx of tens of millions of migrant workers from rural areas often reinforces older relationship models.
As is the case with all nations, but perhaps more so in China due to the length and continuity of its history, modernity and tradition have yet to achieve a stable balance—it remains a give and takes between past and present. Women continue to assume unprecedented positions of power and at the same time, traditional beliefs continue to influence which options and opportunities are—and are not—available.
Proverbs About Family
The proverbs below reflect the historical centrality of the family to Chinese cultural life, and they also indicate just how multidimensional this notion is.
Some sayings, particularly those expressing intimacy and support of family relationships, will find a place in the hearts of modern readers. Other proverbs, particularly those relating to the plight of women and the conditions of marriage, will perhaps make the modern reader uncomfortable.
History is sometimes wonderful, sometimes terrible and always complicated, and Chinese history is no different. China’s evolving attitudes towards the family are recorded in these proverbs.
国无二君，家无二主 (guó wú èr jūn, jiā wú èr zhǔ)
A state cannot have two monarchs or a family two heads.
出门看天色，进门看脸色 (chū mén kàn tiān sè, jìn mén kàn liǎn sè)
When you go out, observe the color of the sky, when you come in, observe the facial expressions (of your family members).
Note: This was proverbial advice given to newly married women.
前人栽树，后人乘凉 (qián rén zāi shù, hòu rén chéng liáng)
The predecessors plant the tree, the descendents cool off in the shade.
树高千丈，落叶归根 (shù gāo qiān zhàng, luò yè guī gēn)
A tree can grow 10 thousand feet tall but its leaves will always fall back to the roots.
Note: This proverb was often used in situations where someone had been exiled or engaged in long years of travel. It was used to mean that even though a person might live for many years away from home, he or she would eventually return to his or her native soil.
儿多母苦，盐多菜苦 (er duō mǔ kǔ, yán duō cài kǔ)
Just as too much salt makes food taste bad, too many children make a mother’s life hard.
虎父虎子 (hǔ fù hǔ zǐ)
If the father is a tiger, then the son will also be a tiger.
Note: This is a Chinese proverb that is equivalent to Western sayings such as “like father like son” or “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
姥姥家的狗，吃完了就走 (lǎo lao jiā de gǒu chī wán le jiù zǒu)
Grandma’s dog leaves as soon as it’s finished eating.
Note: This proverb is usually used by grandparents when playfully talking about their grandkid’s visits.
家有敝帚，享之千金 (jiā yǒu bì zhǒu, xiǎnɡ zhī qiān jīn)
Be thankful for a bad broom as if it were a thousand ounces of gold.
Note: This proverb suggests that even if something is of little value, if it is your property you should cherish it.
家家有本难念的经 (jiā jiā yǒu běn nán niàn de jīnɡ)
There is a skeleton in every house.
当麻烦来临，家人会给予你支持 (dàng má fan lái lín , jiā rén huì gěi yú nǐ zhī chí)
During difficult times, it’s your family that supports you.
嫁鸡随鸡，嫁狗随狗 (jià jī suí jī, jià gŏu suí gŏu)
Marry a chicken, follow a chicken; marry a dog, follow a dog.
Note: This proverb, and the one that follows, demonstrate the playful and strategic approach that many Chinese women took to navigating their relative powerlessness when it came to marriage.
家寒嫁汉，穿衣吃饭 (Jiā hán jià hàn, chuān yī chī fàn)
If the house is cold then marry a man, you’ll have clothes to wear and rice to eat.
Want to learn even more about Chinese proverbs and the Chinese language? Find out how CLI’s program options can greatly enhance your understanding of Chinese language and culture, and check out this article on the Anatomy of Chinese Characters! We look forward to welcoming you to Guilin.
Chinese Vocabulary, Idioms and Proverbs About Family
|孝顺||xiào shùn||fillial piety|
|天下||tiān xià||land under heaven; the world or China|
|同姓会||tóng xìng huì||same-surname association|
|国家||guó jiā||country; nation|
|表哥||biǎo gē||older male cousin; older male cousin on the female side|
|妗子||jìn zi||mother's brother's wife|
|姨父||yí fu||mother's sister's husband|
|男尊女卑||nán zūn, nǚ bēi||women are inferior to men|
|三从四德||sān cóng sì dé||three obediences and four virtues (Confucian code of ethics for women)|
|国无二君，家无二主||guó wú èr jūn, jiā wú èr zhǔ||A state cannot have two monarchs or a family two heads.|
|出门看天色，进门看脸色||chū mén kàn tiān sè, jìn mén kàn liǎn sè||When you go out, observe the color of the sky, when you come in, observe the facial expressions (of your family members).|
|前人栽树，后人乘凉||qián rén zāi shù，hòu rén chéng liáng||The predecessors plant the tree, the descendents cool off in the shade.|
|树高千丈，落叶归根||shù gāo qiān zhàng, luò yè guī gēn||A tree can grow 10 thousand feet tall but its leaves will always fall back to the roots.|
|儿多母苦，盐多菜苦||er duō mǔ kǔ, yán duō cài kǔ||Just as too much salt makes food taste bad, too many children make a mother’s life hard.|
|虎父虎子||hǔ fù hǔ zǐ||If the father is a tiger, then the son will also be a tiger.|
|姥姥家的狗，吃完了就走||lǎo lao jiā de gǒu chī wán le jiù zǒu||Grandma’s dog leaves as soon as it’s finished eating.|
|家有敝帚，享之千金||jiā yǒu bì zhǒu, xiǎnɡ zhī qiān jīn||Be thankful for a bad broom as if it were a thousand ounces of gold.|
|家家有本难念的经||jiā jiā yǒu běn nán niàn de jīnɡ||There is a skeleton in every house.|
|当麻烦来临，家人会给予你支持||dàng má fan lái lín , jiā rén huì gěi yú nǐ zhī chí||During difficult times, it's your family that supports you.|
|嫁鸡随鸡，嫁狗随狗||jià jī suí jī, jià gŏu suí gŏu||Marry a chicken, follow a chicken; marry a dog, follow a dog.|
|家寒嫁汉，穿衣吃饭||jiā hán jià hàn, chuān yī chī fàn||If the house is cold then marry a man, you'll have clothes to wear and rice to eat.|