Explanations from Local Sociologists

Fei Xiaotong explained, in his book From the Soil: the Foundations of Chinese Society, the tradition of the rule of rituals in China using the following story:

A senile father smoked opium, to which his eldest son, let's say, Tom, objected. Nonetheless, his second eldest son, let's say, Jack, who was an idle man, also smoked opium and encouraged his father to do so in order to gain a share. Since he was not allowed to criticize his father, Tom beat Jack very severely. Jack passed the buck to father, so an enraged Tom even cursed the latter. This dispute was later on submitted to the village council for mediation by the squire. Since mediation had nothing to do, in this context, with settlement in the legal sense, Jack was not demanding compensation for being beaten, and Tom also was not asking for living separately from his father and Jack because of financial burden. Instead, they submitted the dispute only to see who was right and who was wrong. It turned out that the squire said, as usual, that this was a scandal for the whole village, before preaching interpersonal ethics. At last, he decided that Jack was the black sheep of the family and should be expelled from the village; Tom failed to observe filial piety and should be punished by inviting the other villagers to dinner as a gesture of apology for his fault. And their father was criticized once again for having failed to properly educate his sons and for smoking opium. The father and sons thus accepted the penalties and returned home. Since he was a scholar, Fei Xiaotong was believed to be learned and reasonable and therefore was also invited to help determine who was right or wrong, despite that he was an outsider who had come to the village for research. After the end of the mediation, the squire complained to Fei, saying that ―People are morally deteriorating day by day and are no longer what they used to be.‖

The rule of law stresses that ―man governs the country by law‖, where law is developed from constitution. In other words, interactions between human beings are regulated by legal provisions. Given the tradition of staying away from lawsuits, however, Chinese people seldom wanted to file lawsuits with the local county governors and, instead, would ask the local patriarchs, or persons known for wisdom and virtues, for deciding who was right or wrong. Laws stress rights protection, but the above-mentioned story was neither about Tom demanding property damages because he had spent much money nor about the father claiming compensation for a damaged reputation. In contrast, the squire emphasized, when judging who was right or wrong, that the local morals were deteriorating. That was why he began mediation by preaching ethics and ended it by ―punishing‖ the senile father through verbal education to reform him and by ―punishing‖ Tom by having him acknowledge his fault and apologize for it.

The rule of rituals is therefore about regulating interpersonal relationships and interactions through ethics and customs. Fei Xiaotong thought that the concept of ―rule of human leader‖ was dubious because it sounded like interpersonal relationships and interactions could simply be regulated by an order said by the leader. In reality, there were few Chinese leaders who were able to govern the whole country simply through their charisma; most of them were also not tyrants who governed the country with dictatorial power, but instead were more often patriarchs who emphasized educational power. In a society under the rule of rituals, the legitimacy of a regime comes more often from educational power than from dictatorial or consensual power. This is because rituals as informal, unwritten rules rely more heavily on human beings' self-consciousness and self-discipline so as to maintain order. Impart these norms to them then becomes the top priority. The greatest significance of patriarchism lies in education – a set of norms are imparted into human beings to create a good public-opinion environment.

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