Ancestors and Parents: The Ancient Chinese family
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Ancient Chinese family

chinese painting: a woman and a girl watch as two boys play a game
Boys play with bats (Su Hanchen, ca. 1200 AD)

May 2016 - Most people in ancient and medieval China thought families were very important. Kids often lived not just with their parents, but also with their grandparents, their aunts and uncles, and their cousins. Richer people also lived with slaves or servants.

People took good care of their children. They carried babies and toddlers all the time, and gave them good pieces of food. Rich people had wet nurses and nannies for their kids. But if your family wasn't rich, all the strong adults and teenagers in the family had to go out to work in the fields or silk factories during the day, and then the children had to stay with their grandparents or an old aunt, or with their older sisters or brothers.

Boys in China often kept on living with their families even after they grew up, spending their whole lives living in the same house. But girls, when they grew up, got married and went to live in their husband's house. The girls had to do whatever their mothers-in-law told them to do.

Most people thought that it was very important to respect old people. The oldest people in the house continued to be in charge until they died. Even after the old people died, people believed that their grandparents and their parents continued to exist as invisible spirits or ghosts watching over the family, and they made altars so they could sacrifice to the spirits of their ancestors. Everyone's house had these altars, and everyone sacrificed to their ancestors. Otherwise the whole family would have bad luck.

Learn by doing: Chinese kite-making
More about Chinese women's lives

Bibliography and further reading about Chinese families:

Eyewitness: Ancient China, by Arthur Cotterell, Alan Hills, and Geoff Brightling (2000). , with lots of excellent pictures.

China (History of Nations), by Greenhaven Press (2002). For teens. The negative review on Amazon is actually for a different book - don't be alarmed!

Daily Life in China, on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250-1276, by Jacques Gernet (1962).

The Inner Quarters: Marriage and the Lives of Chinese Women in the Sung Period, by Patricia Buckley Ebrey (1993).

Women of the Tang Dynasty, by May Holdsworth (1999). A short introduction, with many pictures of T'ang period figurines.


More about Chinese people
Women in ancient China
Schools in ancient China
Ancient China


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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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