The Concept of Family in Asia

The Asian family of Monsoon Asia evolved as a result of the high population density of the region and the requirements of survival in an agriculturally-dependent society. The success of high agricultural yields allowed the growth and support of large population centers but required teamwork and cooperation at every level of the hierarchical society where the family functions. Core to this hierarchical structure and the family unit is the belief that the needs of the whole are greater than that of the individual. Hence, Asian society held an “emphasis on group effort and group welfare” and had a “mistrust of individualism” (Murphey, 2009, pg. 5). As a result, the Asian family unit evolved as a tightly-coupled unit managed by a strict hierarchical structure.

As Monsoon Asia developed, the Asian family unit worked together in a team spanning as much as three generations under one roof and governed by the eldest male, with a succession of the other males whose rank is determined by age and education. Parent, grandparents, and children worked together to produce the highest yield of crop on small plots of a village while supporting each other in tough times. “The family provides support and assistance for each individual member; in turn, individual members provide support and assistance for the entire family” (Philips, 1996).

The hierarchy of elder male management of the Asian family is based on the Asian tradition of “respect and deference to one’s elders and to all others of high status” (Murphey, 2009, pg. 5). The male elders manage not so much by direct authority, but by willing consultation of subordinate family members seeking their experience and counsel. Whatever answer is provided becomes the next step and is not challenged. However, the eldest male or “little emperor” must make decisions for the welfare of the family as a whole instead of his own individual needs.

The Asian family structure is supported at a religious level through several belief systems. As a way of life, the Confucian view well supports the structure by demanding the cooperation of the individual in their role of relationships. Each family member must know their status and adopt to it much like father-to-son or ruler-to-subordinate. Equally important is the family welfare and integrity. “The individual is obligated to save face so as to not bring shame onto the family. The incentive, therefore, is to keep problems within the family” (Philips, 1996).

The Confucian family honored the dead and erected shrines to their memory. Eldest sons performed “rituals on the death of his father, through successive generations, keeping the ancestral chain intact and thus ensuring family continuity” (Murphey, 2009, pg. 34). The need of males to manage the family and provide ancestral continuity has resulted in families requiring at least one male offspring. The unfortunate effect of this has been female infanticide in China and India where having male offspring is imperative to their beliefs. China especially engages the practice due to the current one-child policy of their government. Interestingly, in Southeast Asia, daughters are cherished and are “regarded as an economic asset” (Murphey, 2009, pg. 48). The ability to bear children, cultivate crops and provide for their family in other ways than hunting gave esteem to women and they could wield influence in the family structure. Their positive economic impact to the family could not be ignored.

The Taoist belief of “flowing through life like water” permeates in behavior of the Asia family members. Taoist traits are clearly evident within family interaction where “individual family members may seek to avoid conflict and confrontation with others. An individual may appear passive, indifferent, or indecisive. The person may fear that taking the initiative could lead to disagreement or conflict. The individual may be overtly compliant and agreeable when, in fact, he or she disagrees with the other person “(Philips, 1996).

A tightly-couple family unit was necessary to support their elderly in care as institutional care was not available in large societies. This care was provided strictly by the family, so someone could be born, live and die in the same house. The trait of caring for one’s parents is very strong today in the Asia family. Parents will often remain with the family of the eldest son and take precedence in family decisions, much to the dismay of the in-law wife but nonetheless tolerated. Sending the elderly to the nursing home is rare. Annual rituals of burning fake money and providing food to deceased elders at their gravesites remain a strong tradition. In Taiwan, males will travel to family gravesites to clear the brush while wives explode firecrackers to ward-off evil spirits. Afterwards, everyone gathers in the restaurant for a meal to celebrate the life of the elders. More than a few beer Gam Beis (bottoms-up) are drunk by the males to further the celebration.

Since the priority of all members remained with the welfare of the family, the “three-generation” concept of the Asian family structure remained intact. The sage-like wisdom of grandfather or father was ever present, as was the lack of privacy required to expand the family. There wasn’t much room for intimacy and individual expression, and so the Asian family interaction may seem to the outsider today.

Although the Asian family structure may seems onerous in its strict hierarchy, tightly coupled operation, and “collective responsibility “ attitude, it has remained the key basis of Asia society which has endured and grown over thousands of years and “looms as over half the human world” (Murphey 2009, pg. 8). Due to the strong culture of the Asian family unit, their integration into other modern societies have had little effect on the family values set in thousands of years of tradition. My wife’s family remains true to their Chinese heritage as they continue to grow in the United States. Although my wife is the first generation of American-born Chinese in the family, the traditions remain strong with emphasis on honoring the elderly, face for the family, and continuing education steeped in the Confucius tradition.

Thomas D’Innocenzi

Murphey, R. (2009). A History of Asia. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Philips, W. (1996). Culturally Competent Practice, Understanding Asian Family Values. Journal of the National Resource Center for Special Needs Adoption, 10(1). Retrieved October 1, 2009, from