Understanding The Teochew Family

The nuclear family – consisting a father, a mother, and their children, is considered the building block in most modern societies. For the Teochew people however the basic family unit is the one headed by the grandfather, and not the father. Accordingly first cousins are counted as siblings and they address one another as brothers and sisters. Underpinning this social structure is the belief that every person shoulders three core responsibilities in life: to honour the ancestors; to practice filial piety by caring for the parents; and to raise and nurture the next generation.

As the result of great turbulence in China in the previous century, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Teochews were scattered to Southeast Asia and elsewhere in the world. But no matter where they went, they left the same impression of being extremely clannish, to the point of acting irrationally. They kept their business dealings within closed circles of kin and kith, even if this meant making less profit, and always obliged the requests for help or favour from kindred without expectation of repayment. The key reason for this is the view of the Teochew people of the extended family as a solid unit, rather than a loose network. And in this set-up, every individual occupies a position defined by his seniority (according to generation and age) and gender (men held higher in status than women), and no two persons, not even a pair of twins, hold equal authority. (The Gaginang website has an excellent chart showing “How to Address People in Teochew” according to kinship status, complete with audio sounds.) While the tenets of this hierarchical ordering are derived from the strict teachings of Confucius, the Teochew people fortunately do not revere the ancient sage as much as the northern Chinese do, and more often than not family decisions are made with the consultation of the collective and due consideration of welfare and wishes of junior members.

The Teochew family is both patriarchal – prime authority is vested in the senior-most male, and patrilineal – meaning descent is passed down through the paternal line. In addition, there is clear separation of duties between male and female members, with the men being responsible for all external engagements and the women given complete charge over domestic affairs. This division was particularly pronounced in the past when only men were allowed to travel and seek work outside their villages, while the wives were left behind to take care of the young and old. This is at odds with the prevalent idea of gender equality, and a common view that women hold extremely low status in the traditional Teochew society is further reinforced by a custom that women, once married, are excluded from their own household and have no claim to their parents’ estates. Indeed due to this, girls are referred as tsau-kia 走仔 - the “go-away child”, and some elders go as far as omit them when counting their children or grandchildren. However this discriminatory practice can be said to be a necessarily evil in the old agriculture society to prevent farmlands from being divided too small between the large number of children in each family, and its impact was mitigated to some extent by the absolution of married daughters from obligation to care for their parents. Moreover there is no expectation for Teochew women to be stay home housewives, or stigma attached to those who run their own businesses or work outside to supplement the household income. Instead they who excel are widely admired. Most importantly, there are none treated with as much respect in a typical Teochew household as the grandmother and mother, for they are the ones who directly take care of the daily needs of every other member.  

In China, recent rapid economic and social changes have placed the family institution under severe threat, with crude divorce rate (the number of divorces per 1,000 population) soaring three times from 0.90% in 2002 to 2.7% in 2014 (source). All three prefectural-level cities forming the Teochew region today have however bucked the trend, registering in 2014 crude divorce rates of just between 0.52% and 0.67% (source). This is not to say that Teochews are immune to the same pressures faced by other married couples. The difference is that recognising a stable family unit as essential to ensure the physical, social and emotional well-being of all its members through their life cycle, is by tradition central to the Teochew culture. As these family values were passed on through instructions and living examples from our grandparents, to our parents and ourselves, we need to keep the torch burning for our children and theirs.

 "Like" our Facebook page to stay updated with The Teochew Store.

Leave a comment