For the Chinese, Obedience Goes Back Thousands of Years

Updated on December 18, 2019
JC Scull profile image

JC Scull lived in China for four years and taught International Business Relations and Strategies at a Chinese University.


This article takes a look at obedience from the perspective of the people of China. It attempts to give one possible explanation as to why Chinese people have lived under tyranny for centuries. However, those in the West find this phenomenon difficult to understand.

Undoubtedly, the people in this great nation are doing much better today than ever before as hundreds of millions have been lifted from poverty. They are now able to save money, travel, get a good education and own property. However, fundamental human rights are lacking. Freedoms of speech, assembly, religion, association, press, and to petition the government are regularly abrogated.

China's leaders continue to view governance as a way of demanding obedience. Will there ever be a time when the people of China defy the government?

China's party plenum does not solve the country's problem. Its sole purpose is to follow the lead of Xi Jinping.
China's party plenum does not solve the country's problem. Its sole purpose is to follow the lead of Xi Jinping. | Source

China Today

Paramount leader Xi Jinping and his much-hyped Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation is being challenged by some 7.5 million Hong Kong residents. His Belt and Road Initiative is facing pushback from Europe and other Asian countries. Xinjiang and the oppression of the Uyghur people are being condemned worldwide by democratic governments.

Internet sensors are working day and night to squelch any dissent or talk that could arouse political activism and put at risk the social harmony Communist leaders work so hard to maintain. However, the Chinese government seems to be winning the propaganda war domestically, as many mainland Chinese do not approve of the Hong Kong rebellion; they feel Taiwan is a renegade province and see the Uyghurs as anti-China and even terrorists.

Not surprisingly, when interviewed, a large number of mainlanders are of the opinion that there is freedom of speech in China. This, in spite of the well known and documented internet, news and speech censorship the government imposes on its people. They also feel the country is going through a peaceful era due to its strong economy and rising position in the global stage. Ultimately, they seem to be happy with the status quo and do not object to single-party rule.

In fact, it seems that most mainland Chinese know little about the protest in Hong Kong and the internment of the Uyghur people in Xinjiang. They also know little or lack understanding on why the people of Taiwan appreciate their freedom and are willing to fight for it.

There is certainly a polychotomy unfolding in front of the world’s eyes. On the one hand, the people of Hong Kong who lived under British rule for 156 years and enjoyed many Western freedoms, are obviously anxious not to lose what they’ve had; the people of Taiwan whose government’s nascent democracy has been transitioning since 1996 and want to keep their independence from China; the Muslim people of Xinjiang who are being incarcerated in concentration camps and are screaming out for justice; and on the other hand the rest of the people in China who have lived under a hierarchical and oppressive system that goes back thousands of years and do not feel the need for change.

With all of this in mind, the questions that most people ask are: Will Chinese mainlanders ever attempt to make changes in their government? Will they ever revolt? Will there ever be changes? Do they remember Tiananmen Square?

No one can really know the answer to these questions. We can only guess. However, understanding Chinese culture and its history might give us a little insight as to what it will take for changes to happen.

 “举案齐眉 (Holding the tray up to the eyebrows)” A sign of obedience to husband or master.
“举案齐眉 (Holding the tray up to the eyebrows)” A sign of obedience to husband or master. | Source

Understanding China and Its Culture: A Possible Explanation

To many in the West, Chinese culture seems to have remained constant and unchanged for the last 5000 years. Of course, this is not so, since all cultures change over time. However, although China has had its share of internal wars and foreign invaders, compared to other countries it has shown amazing historical continuity.

How China has been able to remain as such a monolithic culture can only be attributed to its largely homogeneous population, long periods of isolation from the rest of the world, and the ability of those in power to impose a hierarchical system that has demanded obedience from those in lower stations of society.

The notion of obedience can be viewed from the perspective of the contrast between individualism and collectivism. Where in individualistic societies the idea of obedience conjures mixed feelings at best, collectivist societies cannot survive without people’s obedience to the strict social norms, and governmental mandates placed on them. In fact, the Chinese word gexing, meaning “individuality,” is relatively new. Its first usage dates to the time of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

In traditional Chinese society, which was based on Confucian values, the notion of individuality was either inconceivable or did not exist. In a Confucian family, which included three or four generations, the authority was given to the oldest male.

Filial piety, which meant complete obedience to one’s parents, represented an unbreakable rule. Chinese people have always placed greater importance on the family and on society than on individual needs, desires or rights.

Sir Francis Galton, a well-known British explorer and intellectual who lived during the Victorian age, and a first cousin to Charles Darwin, considered the Chinese to be “prone to obedience”. Certainly looking back in Chinese history, we do not see one instance where those living in the Middle Kingdom ever enjoyed self-rule.

In facts, in Imperial China, the ruler considered the son of Heaven, served as a sort of father to his people. Being the head of the ruling hierarchy, he held all the legislative, executive and judicial authority. The bureaucrats within his realm acted only on his behalf and behest.

It would seem to follow that without a culture of obedience to those in authority, centuries of subservience to kings, emperors, and khans would have never been possible. Certainly, Chinese society is best described as socially stratified and hierarchical. China’s top-down approach touches all aspects of society from government to familial relations to corporations and schools.

Ban Zhao (41 - c. 115 CE) one of the most famous female writers, wrote in “Instructions for Women” about the four virtues: speech, virtue, behavior, and work
Ban Zhao (41 - c. 115 CE) one of the most famous female writers, wrote in “Instructions for Women” about the four virtues: speech, virtue, behavior, and work | Source

Book of Etiquette and Ceremonial: Three Obediences, Four Virtues

This is perhaps China’s most profound cultural expression. From a historical perspective this approach can be traced back to the writing of Confucius, in which he maintained that a society organized under a benevolent moral code would be prosperous and politically stable.

However, in his view, one of the aspects that allows this benevolent moral code to function is what he defined as the five cardinal relationships. Ruler and ruled. Husband and wife. Parents and children. Older and younger brothers. Friend and friend.

Except for friendships, all relationships were to be strictly hierarchical. Rulers were to have power over their subjects, wives to be ruled by their husbands, parents over their children, older brother over younger siblings.

Confucius counseled that obedience and loyalty were to be traded for benevolence from those in higher positions. In his opinion, rigorous adherence to the importance of this hierarchical system would yield social harmony which he considered the antidote to violence and civil war.

In the Chinese classic text Book of Etiquette and Ceremonial written during the Zhou dynasty covering social behavior and ceremonial rituals as guided by Confucian principles, we read about the Three Obediences and Four Virtues.

The three obediences for a woman were to obey: Her father as a daughter, her husband as a wife and her sons in widowhood. The four feminine virtues were: Wifely virtue, wifely speech, wifely manner and appearance, and wifely work.

Ban Zhao (45–116 CE), perhaps the most famous educated woman in Chinese history, wrote the book Lessons for Women in which she describes that on the third day after the birth of a baby girl, the Chinese custom was to place the infant under the bed, give her a piece of broken cauldron to play with, and reporting her birth to ancestors by giving them offerings. Ban Zhao explains that placing the child under the bed represents her inferiority and weakness.

The child is to understand that from this moment forward she is to be humble and modest. The piece of broken cauldron represents the hard work that is expected of her throughout her life. Her birth being reported to the ancestors is intended to remind her of her obligation to serve the family ancestors.

She comments further that a woman must serve her husband, obey parents, and refrain from confrontations with his family. Further, she is expected to go to sleep late at night and rise early in the morning. It is obvious by these and other such writings that women held the lowest position in Chinese society.

It is no wonder that Xi Jinping’s power grab a couple of years ago has been met by what in the West we would consider collective apathy coupled with barely a whimper of disapproval that has only come out of a very small group of intellectuals and activists.

Cao E, committed suicide by jumping into a river after her father drowned there. Considered as a good examples of filial daughters. Han Dynasty
Cao E, committed suicide by jumping into a river after her father drowned there. Considered as a good examples of filial daughters. Han Dynasty | Source

China Since Deng Xiaoping

Chinese sensors have largely been successful in squelching any online criticism and so far, there are no signs of any broad discontent coming out of the Chinese population at large. The vast majority of Chinese citizens don’t seem to perceive many of the freedoms we see in the West as absolute inalienable rights in the same fashion.

The original constitutional mandate limiting Chinese presidents to two five-year terms, was put in place by Deng Xiaoping who rose to power as paramount leader shortly after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976. As the architect of the model which he called “socialism with Chinese characteristics” that combined socialist ideology with pragmatic market-based economy, Deng attempted to create a government that did not rely on a one-man rule. Hence, two five-year term limits where written into the constitution.

His efforts, far reaching foresight as well as his vision of collective leadership are responsible for China’s economic reforms and opening to the global economy. It is no overstatement to assert that China has experienced unprecedented economic success by lifting hundreds of millions of its citizens from poverty into the middle class in addition to greatly enlarging the ranks of the rich as well as their wealth. Had it not been for a visionary such as Deng, China would still be mired in economic despair.

Fast forward to 2012, and fourth generation leader Hu Jingtao gets replaced by the new fifth generation vanguard Xi Jinping. While Mao Zedong with his god-like image wielded near omnipotent power, after his death collective leadership began to slowly take hold. Little did most Chinese or the rest of the world for that matter think that Xi Jinping would be the harbinger of a new stricter authoritarian regime, while fostering ambitions and plans to become a for-life supreme leader of China.

How, considering the strides China has taken in the last three decades not just economically but also in technology, urbanization and even arguably to some small degree in personal freedoms, could this gargantuan step backwards go totally unchallenged?

Could the explanation be as simplistic as what Sir Francis Galton’s opinion was that Chinese are prone to obedience? Or are Chinese citizens looking at their particular circumstances from a larger perspective? Certainly, considering the government’s performance of the last couple of decades it can be said that it has earned a great deal of legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry.

The notion of performance-based legitimacy could be a good explanation as to why the vast majority of Chinese citizens do not feel an urgent need to pay attention to the power machinations of a select few within the higher echelons of government.

Perhaps as long as the economy continues to grow, air quality continues to improve, and there are no travel restrictions placed upon them we can expect mainland Chinese to continue to be obedient.

Questions & Answers


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      • JC Scull profile imageAUTHOR

        JC Scull 

        4 weeks ago from Gainesville, Florida

        Thank you for your comments MG. China is a very complicated country. Not an easy place to comprehend. I lived there for four years and I still don't understand all the intricacies.

      • emge profile image

        MG Singh 

        4 weeks ago from Singapore

        A very scholarly article covering many points. It was fascinating reading the article and understand the Chinese mind. I have been to China and from my perspective China will have a internal implosion. Maybe it's a few decades away. Stalin and Lenin tried it in Russia and failed

        I don't see how Xi and men who follow him can succeed. The clue is the economy which is bound to tank at some stage. That will lead to the upheaval.

      • JC Scull profile imageAUTHOR

        JC Scull 

        4 weeks ago from Gainesville, Florida

        Thanks Ken. My next article is about the new credit system in China.

      • Ken Burgess profile image

        Ken Burgess 

        4 weeks ago from Florida

        An excellent article, I thoroughly enjoyed the read, the ongoings of China and the China-America relations has been of interest to me for many years now (I have written more than one article in this regards).

        I would add a couple major factors as to why Xi Jinping has been able to successfully transition to dictator for life.

        Those is a position to challenge him within the hierarchy died from one cause or another, or were arrested, or disappeared.

        Also, technology is far more integrated into their society than our own, the Chinese cannot exist without their phones and Aps, they do not traffic in money or contracts the way we do in America... and they have a Social Credit System where their opinions, comments, activities are monitored, tracked, and judged.

        Anyone who acts in a way that is considered a threat to the Communist Party gets a low Credit Score which blocks them from jobs, travel, access to benefits, etc. and if they are activists against the Party they are arrested and removed from the populace all together.


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