Family Life in China

Jutta Hebel

The volume Family Life in China provides a broad historical and ethnographic overview on changes in family life. As such it is a particularly useful introduction for students in sociology, ethnology or sinology and for all those interested in everyday life in China.

The authors distinguish three waves of modernization (May Fourth Movement, 1919; establishment of the People’s Republic of China, 1949 with the promulgation of the first Family Law in 1950, and finally, the Reform Era since 1978) with gradual transformation of the family. Their point of reference for subsequent description is the Han-Chinese Confucian family model (‘enduring ideal’). This ideal type of a unilateral family system emphasizes patrilinearity, virilocality, patriarchy and filial piety. Mate selection is the duty of parents and go-betweens. Women remain in a life-long subordinate position as daughters, daughters-in-law and widows, and they improve their status only vis-à-vis a new daughter-in-law marrying into the family. Consequently, the continuation of the male lineage, the valuation of the ancestral family, the enhancement of the family status, and the preservation of family property are best safeguarded by the creation of multigenerational joint families. Although a remnant of this patrilineal family model may still persist in the older generation fostering their hopes for filial piety and old age support by their sons, in the 21st century the Chinese family is primarily a conjugal unit. Family life has been profoundly changed by various political and economic reforms. It can be assumed that in former times the impoverished rural majority of the Chinese population might never have been able to practice such idealized multigenerational joint families based on property and inheritance. The Confucian family model has been more or less an ideal type forming cultural norms, ritual events and family relations.

The book demonstrates the diversity of family lives, predominantly in contemporary times. The most important dimensions of the picture are perceived in regional specifics (north to south or rural to urban) and the difference between Han-Chinese and ethnic minorities. Ethnic variations in non-Han minority groups (Uyghurs, Tibetans and Mosuo) are described in a separate chapter. Completely opposite views on family structure as well as on behavior and relations between generations and gender roles are displayed. The family structure and familial practices of the Mosuo, an ethnic group in Western China, differ completely from the Han-Chinese family system. Absence of formal marriage, female based households and a matrilineal pattern of inheritance draw a picture in stark contrast to the Han-Chinese family system.

The main focus of the volume covers four topics: ‘courtship and marriage’, ‘affection-based marriage’, ‘parenting philosophy and practice’, ‘parents, adolescents, and emerging adults’ and in a concluding chapter, ‘intergenerational exceptions and uncertainties’. Empirical evidence in the volume is based on cumulative knowledge gained from numerous researchers and the authors’ own field work on the topic in different regions and periods of the Chinese society.

The main chapters present a colorful and detailed description of the transformation in family life through changing cultural practices in courtship and marriage – the shift from an institutional marriage arrangement to individualized dating practices and free mate choice. A new dating culture emerged with romantic relationships that are not always expected to lead to marriage. Various styles of parenting in urban China are depicted with emphasis on divergent manners of interaction. The role of fathers and the meaning of masculinity are fluid. The authors argue that no stringent development from the multigenerational to the nuclear family and from instrumental to emotional family relations can be traced. Rather a backward and forward movement due to general politics becomes apparent. After the foundation of the People’s Republic of China, communist ideas, such as the equality of men and women, enhanced a more liberal family model, and these new family ideas had to be translated into public policy and legislation. In contrast, recent market reform supports the revitalization of bride wealth in marriage arrangements.

Besides the impact of market reform and global influences on the Chinese family, China’s unique birth control policy from 1978 produced unintended consequences. Not only did it decrease general population growth as originally intended, but it also created dramatic demographic imbalances and, in particular, it brought about a generation of singletons without siblings. A disproportion between men and women lifted the status of women. Relations between the old and the young generations are centered on just one child. One fundamental idea in describing present Chinese family life is the rather rapid switch from instrumental to emotionally based relations. The generation of singletons and particularly the birth cohort of millennials met with previously unknown individual independence in work and life opportunities. Relations within the family are rather emotionally founded, mate selection is free and gender roles are redefined. The results of the one-child policy are multifaceted and have an all-encompassing impact not only on the singleton generation but also on the whole family system and the Chinese society in general.

Despite the unquestionable value of the volume, two critical remarks may be added. The presentation of Chinese family life might be slightly biased towards the well-off urban middle class. The authors emphasize emotional relations, individualization and new opportunities for the singleton generation. New ideas are predominately adopted by the young generation with access to the internet and Western styles of consumption and morals. This is unquestionably true, but perhaps only partially. A large part of the urban population is not able to profit from favorable conditions created by the economic reform, nor is this the case for the rural population in the Chinese hinterland. Rural population in the remote areas is struggling to make their everyday living. Almost 250 million rural migrants moved to the cities since the hukou system (China’s household registration system) became less strictly applied. Men and women work in the cities, e.g. in sweatshops, the service sector or in construction work. They are far from being treated as citizens with equal rights. Many of them left their children and/or spouse behind in the rural areas. Millions of children are raised by their grandparents and are rarely in contact with their parents. The rural population in the periphery of the prospering cities suffers from expropriation and the compulsory purchase of their land for purposes of public or private utility. Although mentioned in the text, these important members of the Chinese population receive only scant attention. The dimension of increasing inequality in China and the resulting class structure is not thoroughly addressed.

Students in the field of family research and all those wishing to enlarge their knowledge on the ongoing transformation in China will find abundant references for further studies in the book. Empirical findings and research notes are presented to support the arguments on the character of change. References, citations and unpublished field notes serve predominantly as vivid anecdotic evidence. Empirical research has been carried out in various parts of China, at different periods and with particular samples and methods. The comparability of dissimilar studies is not addressed, let alone the representability of single voices cited from biographical interviews. Some methodological concern would have been desirable taking into consideration the regional, social and ethnic diversity of present day family life in China.