State patriarchy and the Ancient City

647-501 BCE. The period leading up to historical times saw the rise of patrilineal descent groups across Eurasia. Different civilizations found different ways of accommodating these groups. In China, patrilineal clans go as far back as we have any historical records, back to the Shang dynasty. Confucius (551-479 BCE) in some ways represented a break with this past. He thought a wise prince should select ministers based on their ability rather than their lineage. But China could never be governed by bureaucrats alone, and Chinese states found themselves depending on extended families and clans to help rule the country. The Confucian state exalted filial piety, obedience to one’s elders, and ancestor worship along with obedience to the Emperor. When an official told Confucius “In my country there is an upright man named Kung. When his father stole a sheep, Kung bore witness against him,” Confucius replied, “The upright men in my community are different from this. The father conceals the misconduct of the son. The son conceals the misconduct of the father. Uprightness is to be found in this.” The resulting social compact – Arthur Wolf, an anthropologist of China calls it “state patriarchy” – was extraordinarily resilient. In days to come we will see how it kept bouncing back from one disruption after another, like one of those heavy-bottomed dolls you just can’t keep knocked over.

By contrast, the classical city-states of Greece and Rome went through a series of social revolutions early in their history where both kings and patrilineages lost their exalted position. This argument was developed back in the nineteenth century by the French historian Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges. In his book The Ancient City, Fustel showed how ancestor worship and clan loyalty gave way to civic institutions. For example in Athens the democratic reformer Cleisthenes (570-508) replaced old-style subdivisions of the populace based on descent with new subdivisions based on residence. For a time, the classical city-state commanded intense loyalty from its citizens, and displayed an exceptionally high level of military effectiveness.

China’s revolution against the old order of elders, extended family, and clan waited until the twentieth century, and took a horrific toll on the population. Even today some of the old ways persist. The putative patrilineal descendants of Confucius, more than two million strong, have recently been updating their genealogies.

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5 thoughts on “State patriarchy and the Ancient City

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