State Is Family: State-Sponsored Filiality and China’s Empire-to-Nation Transformation

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

By Yue Mara Du (yue.du [at]

The relationship between family and state was central to China’s empire-to-nation transformation. My book project, State Is Family, explores this fundamental relationship with a specific focus on the legalized cult of filiality and its modern appropriation.

Drawing on research at multiple national and local archives in China, State Is Family demonstrates that it was the homology between parent-child relations and ruler-subject relations that lay at the core of imperial legitimation and governance. A layered but efficient judicial system reinforced the rule of the Qing empire (1644-1911) by supporting parental dominance and demanding filial obedience in its subjects’ everyday life. When the empire gave way to a developing republic in the early twentieth century, the builders of the new state needed to separate adult citizens from familial authority in order to subjugate them to direct state control. Thus, at the same time as they sought to assert their claim to have inherited China’s cultural heritage, they reformed the law to equalize parent-child relations. This tension resulted in a contradictory image of the Nationalist regime (1928-1949), whose goal of guiding the infant Chinese citizenry to the standard of self-governance in the manner of parental guardianship was ultimately self-defeating.

During Summer 2018, the Silas Palmer Fellowship from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University allowed me to complete my analytical and narrative arc by giving me access to the “afterlife” of this highly politicized Chinese cult of filial piety. The rich materials I found in the “Chinese Cultural Revolution Collection” (1967-1977) and the “Communist Chinese Political Movement Collection” (1928-1980) have enabled me to make visible the total demolition of the parent-child hierarchy that had once been held sacred in China for millennia: Parents (including famous ones such as President Liu Shaoqi and his wife) suffered from state-sponsored attacks perpetrated by their own children; “Filial child” became a negative term used to ridicule political opponents and class enemies; Young people, even young school-age children, were propagated as their parents’ teachers; Chairman Mao was commonly referred to as being much more endearing than one’s own parents (Die qin, niang qin, buru Mao Zhuxi qin). Both Maoist China’s denunciation of filiality and post-Mao China’s revival of it in the context of filial nationalism are going to be discussed in the Conclusion of my forthcoming book.

General Peng Dehuai was condemned as an “exemplary filial son” of exploiting classes. Peng’s financial support of his “doggy grandmother” of the rich peasant class was used as incriminating evidence. (New Remin University, August 1, 1967)“

Condemnation of President Liu Shaoqi’s
A comic in condemnation of President Liu Shaoqi’s “traitorous defense” of the “traitorous” movie, Sorrows of the Forbidden City (Qinggong mishi). (Film Critique, May 11, 1967)

The Chinese Cultural Revolution Collection” has also enabled me to conduct preliminary research on the fifth chapter of my second book project, The Chinese Non-Nation State, Past and Present. This book investigates the plurality of the meaning of guo (nation, state, country, regime), the central concept of political loyalty in imperial China and patriotism in modern China. It examines the political and cultural implications of the multifacetedness of guo in China’s dynastic transitions, diplomatic and legal encounters with the Others, empire-to-nation transformation, Maoist internationalism, and post-Mao nationalism. During my time at Hoover, two dichotomous concepts— “patriotic” (aiguo, literally loving the guo) and traitorous (maiguo, literally selling out the guo)—particularly drew my attention. The debates over whether a person, a class, or a cultural product was “patriotic” or “traitorous” reveal the ways in which the Chinese non-nation state was defined, constructed, and reconstructed, in the name of the nation, during China’s era of high socialism.

The materials I discovered at the Hoover Institution have allowed me to wrap up my first book-length work and provided a good point of departure for my second book project. I am immensely indebted to the knowledgeable staff here who are always ready to help. I look forward to returning to Hoover in the near future to complete my research for The Chinese Non-Nation State.

Yue "Mara" Du, PhD

Assistant Professor of Modern Chinese History, Cornell University

Yue Du earned her PhD in history from New York University in 2017. She taught as a visiting assistant professor at NYU before she joined the faculty of Cornell University in Summer 2018. Law and state-building are two major focuses of her research. She is revising a book manuscript on state-sponsored filiality in China's empire-to-nation transformation. At the same time, she is conducting research for a book-length project on the historical and global origins of the Chinese nation.