Starting with a brief analysis of the biological, sociological, and axiological senses of the term “family,” this article points out that the purpose of a sociological family is to provide ideal conditions for human survival (which is primarily biological) and flourishing (which is axiological).
Although the sociological family structure significantly affects both the way of life and the quality of life, any sociological family can become a fetter instead of a home if family relations are not properly regulated. Regulating the family is both a basic principle for human survival and a challenging art, which is best understood through gongfu [aka. kung fu], a term that Song-Ming Confucians used frequently to describe the purpose of Confucian learning.
While authority and rules of conduct are necessary for regulating the family, effective authority must rely on virtue for its transformative effect, and rules of conduct must be accompanied by the use of discretion, an art that cannot be formalized. Both the exercising of authority and the application of rules are means rather than ends. Their proper use depends on whether they are conducive to the growth, transformation, and enablement of the relevant members. Rigid adherence to authority and rules can be potentially counter-constructive, as illustrated by cases of medical ethics in which adherence to patients’ rights to be kept informed and to give consent may prove to be inhumane to the patient, and yet adherence to the family’s right to make decisions for patients may also lead to problems. The matter has to be determined not merely on the basis of respecting cultural traditions, but ultimately on the well-being of the people involved.
The theory of regulating the family not only accommodates the need for family in various stages and conditions of human life in which a person is vulnerable – which is difficult to perceive in the West as the predominant conception of the “person” is modeled after a male, adult, autonomous rational being – it also provides a path for “reaching to the highest and brightest limits.” It is in the human relations starting from the family that a person’s life can go beyond the individual self and obtain sacredness within the secular life and thus become immortal.
The Chinese culture informed by the Confucian teaching of “rectification of names” has a rich variety of “names” to specify human relations, and hence is able to instill the sense of role-specific responsibilities. Yet the Confucian spirit of “all within the four seas are brothers” stretches family relations beyond the biological, and thereby allows Confucianism to embrace non-traditional types of family, such as adoptive families, cohabitation, same-sex marriage, and other modern institutions of living together such as kindergartens and nursing homes. It offers valuable instructions for obtaining the gongfu of leading a life as good as the structure of the family allows.
The far-reaching significance of “regulating the family” is evident in the Confucian idea that “when the family is regulated, the state will be in order; and when the state is in order, there will be peace throughout the world.” The idea has resonances in the contemporary “family therapy” of Virginia Satir, the humanism of early Karl Marx, and Riane Eisler’s idea of reviving the “partnership” relation of the pre-historical era: humans must eliminate the alienation of allowing material production and economics to dominate the creation of human life; we must reform our society according to the axiological concept of the family so that the world can become our shared home.