Government and society in China were grounded in the Confucian philosophy,
which held that there was a basic order in the universe and a natural
harmony linking man, nature, and the cosmos (heaven); it also held that
man was by nature a social being, and that the natural order of the universe
should be reflected in human relations. The family unit was seen as the
primary social unit; relationships within the family were fundamental
to all others and comprised three of the "five relationships" that
were the models for all others: sovereign-subject; husband-wife; parent-child;
elder brother-younger brother; friend-friend. In this hierarchy of social
relations, each role had clearly defined duties; reciprocity or mutual
responsibility between subordinate and superior was fundamental to the
Confucian concept of human relations. The virtue of filial piety, or
devotion of the child to his parents, was the foundation for all others.
When extended to all human beings, it nurtured the highest virtue, humaneness
("ren" or "jen"), or the sense of relatedness to
In traditional China it was assumed by adherents of all schools of thought
that government would be monarchical and that the state had
its model in the family. The ruler was understood to be at once the
Son of Heaven, and the father of the people, ruling under the Mandate
of Heaven. Traditional thinkers, reflecting on the problem of government,
were concerned primarily not with changing institutions and laws but
with ensuring the moral uprightness of the ruler and encouraging his
appropriate conduct as a father-figure. The magistrate, the chief official
of the lowest level of government and the official closest to the people,
was known as the "father-mother" official.
Even today, under a radically different form of government, the Chinese
term for state is "guo-jia" or "nation-family",
suggesting the survival of the idea of this paternal and consensual relationship.
The first and third of the "five relationships" — i.e.,
emperor and minister, father and son — indicate the parallels between
family and state.
The notion of the role of the state as guarantor of the people's welfare
developed very early, along with the monarchy and the bureaucratic state.
It was also assumed that good government could bring about order, peace,
and the good society. Tests of the good ruler were social stability,
population growth (a reflection of ancient statecraft where the good
ruler was one who could attract people from other states), and ability
to create conditions that fostered the people's welfare. The Mandate
of Heaven was understood as justifying the right to rule, with the corollary
right to rebel against a ruler who did not fulfill his duties to the
people. The state played a major role in determining water rights, famine
control and relief, and insuring social stability. The state encouraged
people to grow rice and other grains rather than commercial crops in
order to insure and adequate food supply; it held reserves in state granaries,
in part to lessen the effects of drought and floods, particularly common
in northern China. For fear of losing the Mandate of Heaven governments
levied very low taxes which often meant that the government could not
provide all the services expected of it, and that officials ended up
extorting money from the people.