rightThe family is arguably the most important social institution in China and blood ties have traditionally been the cornerstone of society. The roles of men, women and children in China are defined in part by tradition but are not necessarily clearly prescribed and vary a great deal from region to region. In the past arranged marriages were the norm but these days men and women often marry the partners of their own choice with parental approval being an important prerequisite. Although marriages are mostly stable, the incidence of divorce has been on the rise. An average Han family in urban areas consists of a man, his wife, and their only child. In rural areas, three or more generations living together under the same roof is not uncommon. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009]

Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner wrote in “CultureShock! China”: Most Chinese parents and children grow up as a matter of course eating almost all meals together, sharing free time together, supporting each other at times of stress, and sharing resources remarkably freely from a Western perspective. However much Westerners admire the upside of Chinese family closeness, the downsides of it can cause friction and misunderstandings. Even in adulthood, Chinese family members tend to involve themselves in each other’s lives (from choices of clothes and appliances to choices of a spouse and job) to a degree most Americans would find uncomfortable. An American friend of ours living with a Chinese man was amazed when the Chinese man wanted to turn over much of their joint savings to a needy cousin starting a business. The Chinese man, in turn, was amazed that his Western partner could possibly hesitate to share savings with family.” [Source: “CultureShock! China: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette” by Angie Eagan and Rebecca Weiner, Marshall Cavendish 2011]

In the old days Chinese wanted a large family at least in part to help work in the fields. These days Chinese villagers often want one child to go away to work and earn money while another stays put and maintains the family home in the village. Although the One-Child Policy — which restricted Chinese families to one child for 34 years — ended in 2016, many Chinese are reluctant to have additional children because it is too expensive and troublesome. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, June 15, 2012]

In the Mao era, families were sometimes broken apart and genealogical records, which were looked on as feudal, were destroyed. Family life was put under stress in the Cultural Revolution when children were encouraged to snitch on their parents or even disown them, especially if they came from the landlord classes and had “bad roots,” and parents and children were separated and sent to the countryside. Modernization has resulted in a breakdown of the extended family structure and replaced it with a more Western-style nuclear family.

Chinese Families and Tradition

In a traditional family, the father is dominant, the mother is home-centered and devoted to raising her children, and grandparents, aunts and uncles play an important role in a youngster's life. A husband's first duty has traditionally been to his parents and a wife's duty has been to her parents-in-law. The wife has traditionally been regarded as the master of the house and overseers of the family finances. Men traditionally were supposed to turnover whatever they made to their wives who made decisions about how the money was spent.

The oldest son has traditionally been responsible for taking care of his parents in their old age, overseeing all family matters, providing a gathering place for family get-togethers, making funeral arrangements when a parent dies, and tending the parent's tombs. He also has traditionally had the responsibilities of carrying on the family name and receiving the bulk of his parents property and inherited wealth. These customs are largely shared throughout Asia, which is one of the main reasons there is a preference for boys.

Young wives get the rawest deal in China and other Asian cultures. They are ordered around by their father- and particularly mother-in-laws, and often the majority of family disputes involve arguments between wives and mothers-in-law. The relationship between daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law is so important that Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping once gave a major policy speech on the issue. There is hierarchy of families and clans and children as reflected in titles such as No.1, and No. 2 sons and daughters. In the old days society was held together by a patriarchal system in which the leadership of the family was passed down to the legal wife's oldest son. Chinese sometimes think generations in the future.

A number of traditional attitudes toward the family have survived in China without being questioned. It is taken for granted that everyone should marry, and marriage remains part of the definition of normal adult status. Marriage is expected to be permanent. That marriage requires a woman to move into her husband's family and to become a daughter-in-law as well as a wife is still largely accepted. The norm of patrilineal descent and the assumption that it is sons who bear the primary responsibility for their aged parents remain. The party and government have devoted great effort to controlling the number of births and have attempted to limit the number of children per couple. But the authorities have not attempted to control population growth by suggesting that some people should not marry at all. In the Mao era the state, acting through work units, provided support and benefits only when families could not. [Source: Library of Congress]

In past Chinese society, the family provided every individual's support, livelihood, and long-term security. Today the state guarantees such security to those with no families to provide for them, and families and work units share long-term responsibility for the individual. The role of families has changed, but they remain important, especially in the countryside. Family members are bound, in law and custom, to support their aged or disabled members. Households routinely pool income, and any individual's standard of living depends on the number of household wage earners and the number of dependents. In both cities and villages, the highest incomes usually are earned by households with several wage earners, such as unmarried adult sons or daughters.

In late traditional society, family size and structural complexity varied directly with class. Rural landlords and government officials had the largest families, poor peasants the smallest. The poorest segment of the population, landless laborers, could not afford to marry and start families. The need to provide for old age and the general association between the numbers of sons surviving to adulthood and long-term family success motivated individuals to create various nonstandard family forms. Couples who produced no sons, or no children at all, adopted or purchased infants outright. Families with daughters but no sons tried to find men willing to marry their daughters and move into their families, abandoning their original families and sometimes even their original surnames. Families with daughters but no property to attract a son-in-law were sometimes forced to sell their daughters as concubines or prostitutes. The variation in family size and complexity was the result of variation in class position and of the dual role of the household as both family and economic enterprise.

There is a long tradition of the men going to the city to work, sending money back home, while their families remain behind in their hometowns. Many men are fine with the prospect of moving somewhere to earn more money and seeing their family once or twice a year. Increasingly mothers are also living this lifestyle and children are raised by grandparents (See Migrant Workers).

Confucianism and the History of the Chinese Family

Hsiang-ming kung wrote in the “International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family”: High respect for family is a special feature of Chinese civilization. The family is deemed the basic unit of Chinese society. An individual's actions are mostly geared towards the requirements of the family. This fundamental system has remained for about three thousand years without major change (approximately since the Zhou dynasty, 1027-256 B.C. to the early twentieth century). Although it has been considered relatively stable, the Chinese family system is not resistant to change. The end of the imperial era in 1911 and the following industrialization and modernization brought about an extensive and dramatic change to this enduring system. Even when, in 1949, civil war separated the Chinese regime into two independent governments (the People's Republic of China under the Chinese Communist Party and the Republic of China, Taiwan, under the nationalist Kuomintang), the changes in Chinese family continued to take place. Nevertheless, there is a striking continuity over time. Much of the tradition is still apparent in contemporary Chinese society, and especially so in Chinese communities outside the People's Republic of China (PRC). [Source: Hsiang-ming kung, “International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family”, Gale Group Inc., 2003]

Confucianism is the dominant philosophy and doctrine of proper ethics and conduct of the Chinese people. It is nearly synonymous with traditional Chinese civilization. Over the centuries, Confucians have developed an ideology and social system designed to realize their conception of the good society, a harmonious and hierarchical social order in which everyone knows and adheres to their proper stations (Stacey 1983). According to Confucianism, the family must first be put in order, and only then can the state be ruled. A well-ordered family is thus the microcosm and the basic unit of sociopolitical order. With the great importance of the family order emphasized by Confucius and his disciples, the relationships among family members are regulated by the pecking order that results from generation, age, and gender.

Under Confucianism, the oldest male and the father are regarded as the unchallengeable authorities. They set rules, and the "duty and virtue" of everyone else is to follow them. The oldest male and father, in turn, are supposed to reciprocate this reverence by supporting and looking out for the best interest of the people subordinate to them. Love and respect are principals that are practiced in the context of the family. Confucians do not ascribe to the idea of loving all people equally.

Confucius promoted the concept that it was important to worship one's parents while they are still living and old people should be venerated because even though they are weak physically they at the peak of their knowledge and wisdom. This sentiment is best expressed during the "elders first" rite, the central ritual of the Chinese New Year, in which family members kneel and bow on the ground to everyone older than them: first grandparents, then parents, siblings and relatives, even elderly neighbors. In the old days a son was expected to honor his deceased father by occupying a hut by his grave and abstaining from meat, wine and sex for 25 months.

Filial piety is regarded as the most important Confucian duty. Confucian filial piety encourages the younger generation to follow the teachings of elders and for elders to teach the young their duties and manners. Both children and adults are taught to honor their parents no matter what age they are and obey their commands and not do anything that would bring suffering or pain to them. Some young Chinese today scoff at the tradition. A man forced by his mother to follow his father and six generations of ancestors to be a Peking Opera actor against his will told the Los Angeles Times, “A young man should be able to follow his heart, instead of being burdened by Chinese perceptions and family loyalty.”

Sons have traditionally been taught to give whatever money they make to their parents. To do otherwise would incur a loss of face. This unquestioning acquiescence was expected to be maintained regardless of how their parents responded. "In early times," one Chinese man told National Geographic, "even if your parents were not nice to you, you were still responsible to them in their old age." Sometimes family comes before conventional morality. In “The Analects”, after being told about a man who bore witness against his father for stealing sheep, Confucius said: “The honest men of my country are different from this. The father covers up for his son, the son covers up for his father...and there is honesty in that too.” One Chinese woman who worked in marketing told The New Yorker, “In both the U.S. and China, people say that the family is the No. 1 priority. But in the U.S. they really mean it. In China, everything is about career and getting ahead.”

Domestic Units and Households in China

It is common for several generations to live together under one roof. But in urban areas a husband, wife and child, sometimes with a grandparent, are the norm. After marriage, a woman traditionally has left her parents' home to become part of her husband's family. The husband's mother traditionally ran the household and sometimes treated a new daughter-in-law harshly. Although practical reasons today compel most children to leave the parents' home, ideally the oldest son remains and returns to take care for his aging parents. One of the main reasons that young adults continue to live with their parents even after marriage is because housing is often very expensive. [Source: Eleanor Stanford, “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

Once several generations sharing the same dwelling was the norm. By the the late 2000s, more than half of all Chinese over the age of 60 were living separately from their adult children, according to a November 2010 report by China’s National Committee on Aging, an advisory group to the State Council. That percentage shoots up to 70 percent in some major cities, the report said. At the same time, “younger generations are moving away from their parents and quickly developing different values,” Ninie Wang, international director of the Gerontological Society of China, a Beijing-based nonprofit research group, told the New York Times, “Filial piety is a myth.” [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, January 29, 2011]

According to China’s 2020 census and the National Bureau of Statistics of China: There were 494.16 million family households with 1,292.81 million persons and 28.53 million collective households with 118.97 million persons. The average size of a family household was 2.62 persons, or 0.48 person less than the 3.10 persons in 2010. The family households continued to downsize because of increasing population mobility and the fact that young people after marriage lived separately from parents with improved housing conditions. [Source: National Bureau of Statistics of China, May 11, 2021]

Chinese Sayings and Proverbs About Family

1) “Fallen leaves return to their roots” — There’s no place like home; 2) “A poor man treasures his shack more than gold and silver mansions” — East or west, home is best; 3) “Family’s shames can’t be taken outside/be visible” — similar to don’t wash your dirty linen in public. 4) “If the family lives in harmony, all affairs will prosper.” 5) “When children go far — a thousand li (roughly 500 kilometers) — mothers worry.” [Sources: Candice Song, China Highlights, September 15, 2021; Veronika Gomez Skopalova, fluentin3months.com, wow4you.com]

6) “Every family has its own issues” — roughly the same as everyone has a skeleton in their closet; 7) “Where there is a father, there is a son — Like father, like son; 8) “Children and grandchildren will have their own children and grandchildren” — Younger generations will do alright on their own.”

9) “Govern a family as you would cook a small fish — very gently; 10) “Honest-official difficult judge household affairs” — Even an honest official has a hard time settling a family quarrel. 11) “If you don’t manage a household, you wouldn’t know how expensive it is.” 11) “Cherish a broom as if it was gold” — You should appreciate what you have — even if it has little value — because it’s your own; 12) “Not manage household, not know firewood rice precious” — He who heads a family knows responsibility and value.

Chinese Kin Groups

Hsiang-ming kung wrote in the “International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family”: “Kinship (qing-qi-guan-xi). Kinship is one of the most important principles of social organization in Chinese society. Almost all interactions among individuals are based on their relationships in the social network built by kinship. The term "kin" (qing-qi) in Chinese is defined as those relatives for whom one wears mourning. Kin are divided into three groups: paternal relatives, maternal relatives, and the relatives of one's wife. The length of mourning depends on the closeness of relationship and varies from three years for one's father or mother to three months for distant cousins (Lang 1968). Because an orderly relationship of the individual and his kin is of great importance, the Chinese have a very elaborate kinship terminology system to properly address the person with whom they interact. All relatives have their specific titles: father's elder brother (bo-fu), second maternal aunt (er-yi), third younger paternal uncle's wife (sanshen), and so on.

“Extensions of the conception of family include the lineage (zong-zu) and clan (shih-zu). In Chinese society, a family (jia) can be vast yet ambiguous, even extended beyond the scope of the lineage and the clan. Because the family has been proven effective as an organizational force, the adoption of its values and institutions has become attractive in non-kinship situations. "My own people" (zi-jia-ren) is thus used to include anyone whom you want to drag into your own circle, and it is used to indicate intimacy with that person. The scope of zi-jia-ren can be expanded or contracted according to the specific time and place. Compared with the outsider, zi-jia-ren always enjoys favoritism (Fei 1992). This explains why Chinese seek connections in higher places and do things for the sake of relationships. However, responsibility and obligations are also expected according to closeness.

Stevan Harrell wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Han people have had patrilineal kin groups since the period of the earliest written history, and a hierarchical arrangement of clans was the basis of stratification in the feudal order of the Shang and Zhou periods. Nothing is known about the kin group organization of the nonruling classes before the Song period. In the Song period, the Chinese patrilineage as we now know it began to appear. The core of this type of lineage includes all male descendants of a founding ancestor; women tend to become more attached as they grow older to their husbands' and son's lineages and to relinquish their minor roles as sisters and daughters of their natal lineages. [Source: Stevan Harrell, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia — Eurasia / China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994 |~|]

“Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology reflects the patrilineal bias of kinship relations. Agnatic cousins are partially equated with siblings and distinguished from both cross cousins and matrilateral parallel cousins, who are ordinarily not distinguished from each other. Some Chinese kin terminology systems display Omaha features, such as the equation of mother's brother with wife's brother with son's wife's brother. The most important distinction is between elder and younger relatives; elder relatives are always addressed with a kin term, whereas younger relatives are addressed by name. Rural people in some areas use kin terms to address people of a senior generation who are not relatives.

Chinese Lineages

In the past, kinship principles were extended beyond the domestic group and were used to form large-scale groups, such as lineages. Lineages were quite distinct from families; they were essentially corporate economic-political groups. They controlled land and, in some areas of China, dominated whole villages and sets of villages and held title to most of the farmland. Like most other late traditional associations, lineages were dominated by wealthy and educated elites. Ordinary peasants paid as much of their crop to their lineage group as they might have to a landlord. The Communists denounced these organizations as feudal systems by means of which landlords exploited others. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Hsiang-ming kung wrote in the “International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family”: Same surname, common origins, shared ancestors, and worship of a founding ancestor all are common conditions for the foundation of lineages and clans (Wu 1985). Law and customs insist on mutual help among members of the lineage and the clan. Moreover, the Chinese make a great deal of social organization along the surname line. Surnames, considered very important in the family domain, are always put before personal names. [Source: Hsiang-ming kung, “International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family”, Gale Group Inc., 2003]

Stevan Harrell wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Han lineages, until very recent times, have been rigorously exogamous (even a common surname was enough to prohibit marriage in the late imperial period), and with patrilocal marital residence this resulted in lineage villages or even lineage districts populated almost entirely by members of a single lineage. Particularly in the core areas of southern and eastern China, where agriculture and commerce were most developed, lineages often held large amounts of land collectively, using the income from tenant rents to fund ritual, educational, and sometimes even military activities. Such wealthy lineages often contained corporate, property-holding, sublineages within them, and a large lineage of 10,000 or more members might have ten or more genealogical levels of property-holding segments. Such lineages were highly stratified internally, often containing both scholar officials and ordinary peasants. [Source: Stevan Harrell, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia — Eurasia / China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994 |~|]

“The importance of lineages varied greatly by region and locally, however, and probably only a minority of Han people in the late imperial period were members of a large, powerful lineage; indeed, many were not members of any lineage at all. In the overall social structure, lineages were one important kind of corporation, but they might be locally eclipsed by local, occupational, ethnic, or sectarian organizations. |~|

The lineages were suppressed in the early 1950s and their land confiscated and redistributed in the land reform. Communal worship of distant lineage ancestors lost much of its justification with the dissolution of the lineage estate and was easily suppressed over the next several years. Domestic ancestor worship, in which members of a single family worshiped and memorialized their immediate ancestors, continued at least until 1966 and 1967, in the early stages of the Cultural Revolution, when Red Guards destroyed altars and ancestral tablets. In 1987 the party was still condemning ancestor worship as superstitious but had made little effort to end it. The Communists effectively destroyed the power bases of lineages when they confiscated all lineage-held land in the Land Reform and replaced lineage-based local governments with structures responsible to the party. But lineages remained localized during the collectivist period, and, since the 1979 Reforms, lineages have returned in some areas to the local scene in limited ways, sponsoring ritual and other activities and becoming the focus of local loyalties. |~| *

Hukou and Chinese Genealogies

Hukou is a family registry system in China similar to the Japanese koseki, hoju in Korea and the Vietnamese so ho khau. The hukou officially records an individual as being a member of a family and is a very important document in China. You need it to go to school and obtain government services.

Extended family and family ancestors are very important in China. Wealthy and well educated Chinese often hire genealogists to research their family trees. Even distant relatives from some far off place are valued above outsiders. The passing on of the family name is of great importance. That is one reason why it so vital for a family to have a son. If the oldest son in a family has no son of his own, he has traditionally been expected to adopt the son of his next youngest brother. If no sons are born in the clan, a sister's son may be adopted to carry on the name. [Source: Eleanor Stanford, “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

In accordance with Confucian customs many families keep careful genealogical records on bloodlines, achievements, even graveyards. Almost every family in China, from the richest rich to the poorest poor, used to possess genealogy records. After taking over China, the Communists destroyed many of these records because of their purported links to backward feudal society. In recent years many Chinese have been attempting to rediscover their past by seeking out their genealogy history. Chinese genealogy records are clan biographies. They contain information on the origins of names, times of births, location of burial grounds, marriage records, claims to fame, and migration patterns. The oldest genealogy records were carved in turtle shells, animal bones and bronze. More recent versions were written on paper made from grass or bamboo. In the past they were locked away and accessible only to clan elders.

Inheritance in China

In regards to inheritance, the estate has traditionally been passed to the oldest son. In ancient times wealthy and powerful men often had their most valued personal possessions buried with them. The remaining property went to the oldest son. Since the communists came to power in 1949, women have been able to inherit property. [Source: Eleanor Stanford, “Countries and Their Cultures”, Gale Group Inc., 2001]

According to the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “ In traditional Chinese law, inheritance was equal and patrilineal. Daughters received dowry upon marriage, but at most periods this did not include land or other real property. In some areas, the eldest son received a slightly larger share than his brothers; in others, the eldest son's eldest son received a small share. In the absence of a son, a daughter inherited rather than a distant male agnate; such an heiress often married uxorilocally. Daughters in Taiwan under the Republic now have an equal share in inheritance by law, but they usually waive this right formally when they marry. Daughters also have such a right in the People's Republic, but until very recently there has been no significant property to inherit, and little documentation is available on current practices there. [Source: Stevan Harrell, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 6: Russia — Eurasia / China” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond, 1994 |~|]

In the past families often divided up property before the father died and wives secretly kept property that they didn't tell their husbands about. In 1899, Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Village Life in China”: “Should the property be held in common according to Chinese traditions, it is a physical, a psychological, and a moral impossibility that there should not be ceaseless friction among so many claimants for what is often at best a most inadequate support. The Chinese ideal is to hold the family property in common indefinitely. But the Chinese themselves are conscious that theirs is not an ideal world, so that division of the land cannot always be postponed. It not infrequently happens that one of the sons becomes discontented, and commissions one of the neighbours to tell the father that it is time to effect a division. [Source: “Village Life in China” by Arthur Henderson Smith, Fleming H. Revell Company, 1899, The Project Gutenberg]

“Despite their disadvantages wives may contrive to conceal from their husbands the fact that they have a little property in the hands of some member of the wife’s family. The writer is acquainted with a Chinese almost sixty years of age, who has a flock of grandchildren, but who will have nothing to do with his wife nor she with him. During all their married life, between thirty and forty years, he has cherished the suspicion that she has somewhere at interest a considerable sum of money which she will not share with him. It is certainly not true that all Chinese deceive one another, but it is surely true that there is always danger of it, which everywhere begets unrest and suspicion. It is also an allied phenomenon that the principals in a matter may be totally unable to ascertain the real facts with which every one else is perfectly acquainted, but which no one will tell.

Family Relationships in China

Hsiang-ming kung wrote in the “International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family”: “Generation, age, and gender (beifen-nianlingxingbie) hierarchy. Confucianism provides a protocol for proper family life. Therefore, the hierarchy of generation-age-gender defines an individual's status, role, privileges, duties, and liabilities within the family order accordingly. Family members know precisely where they stand in the family by referring to this order: to whom each owes respect and obedience. Position in the family is more important than personal idiosyncrasies: people of the elder generation are superior to those of the younger; within each generation, the elder are normally superior to the younger; men are absolutely superior to women (Baker 1979). Everyone in the family owes obedience to the eldest male because he is superior in generation, age, and gender. [Source: Hsiang-ming kung, “International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family”, Gale Group Inc., 2003]

“For Chinese, increasing age is accompanied by higher status. Even when it is impossible to increase the material comforts of the aged, there is no denying the respect and deference shown to them. Neither the wealthy nor the poor would abandon the elderly, nor does the thought arise. “In traditional Chinese culture, the world is created by the interaction of yin, meaning tender, passive, inferior, and referring to female, and yang, meaning tough, active, superior, and referring to male. Therefore, women were appointed to a dependent status; they were secondary to men (Lang 1968). Surnames, being considered highly important, were passed on through the male lines. Only male children were counted as descent group members and had rights to the family's property. Females were not eligible to inherit the family estate, even their husbands', nor did they have primary position in any single crucial ceremonial role.

“Female children were considered a bad economic and emotional investment, particularly in poor families. Their names were seldom proclaimed, for once they were married and became members of the husband's family, they were known by their husbands' surnames or their own surnames prefixed by their husbands'. Throughout their whole lives, Chinese women were expected to conform to Three Obediences (san-tsong): obedience to their fathers before marriage, to their husbands after marriage, and to their sons after their husbands die.

“Although generation is definitely superior to age in hierarchy, it is not always the case that age is superior to gender. The heavy emphasis on male superiority in Chinese society may sometimes override the age consideration. For instance, a younger brother can easily see that he owes obedience to his older brother, yet, he may feel that he is superior to his older sister-in-law because of his gender. As generation-age-gender works to coordinate individuals' rights and obligations in the family, the essence of the order in family is expressed through filial piety that is considered the foundation of all kinds of virtue.

Rural Families in China

In contemporary society, rural families no longer own land or pass it down to the next generation. They may, however, own and transmit houses. Rural families pay medical expenses and school fees for their children. Under the people's commune system in force from 1958 to 1982, the income of a peasant family depended directly on the number of laborers it contributed to the collective fields. This, combined with concern over the level of support for the aged or disabled provided by the collective unit, encouraged peasants to have many sons. Under the agricultural reforms that began in the late 1970s, households took on an increased and more responsible economic role. The labor of family members is still the primary determinant of income. But rural economic growth and commercialization increasingly have rewarded managerial and technical skills and have made unskilled farm labor less desirable. As long as this economic trend continues in the countryside in the late 1980s, peasant families are likely to opt for fewer but better educated children. [Source: Library of Congress]

The consequence of the general changes in China's economy and the greater separation of families and economic enterprises has been a greater standardization of family forms since 1950. In 1987 most families approximated the middle peasant (a peasant owning some land) norm of the past. Such a family consisted of five or six people and was based on marriage between an adult son and an adult woman who moved into her husband's family. The variant family forms — either the very large and complex or those based on minor, nonstandard forms of marriage — were much less common. The state had outlawed concubinage, child betrothal, and the sale of infants or females, all of which were formerly practiced, though not common. Increased life expectancy meant that a greater proportion of infants survived to adulthood and that more adults lived into their sixties or seventies. More rural families were able to achieve the traditional goal of a three-generation family in the 1980s. There were fewer orphans and young or middle-aged widows or widowers. Far fewer men were forced to retain lifelong single status. Divorce, although possible, was rare, and families were stable, on-going units.

Urban Families in China

Urban families differ from their rural counterparts primarily in being composed largely of wage earners who look to their work units for the housing, old-age security, and opportunities for a better life that in the countryside are still the responsibility of the family. With the exception of those employed in the recently revived urban service sector (restaurants, tailoring, or repair shops) who sometimes operate family businesses, urban families do not combine family and enterprise in the manner of peasant families. Urban families usually have multiple wage earners, but children do not bring in extra income or wages as readily as in the countryside. Urban families are generally smaller than their rural counterparts, and, in a reversal of traditional patterns, it is the highest level managers and cadres who have the smallest families. Late marriages and one or two children are characteristic of urban managerial and professional groups. As in the past, elite family forms are being promoted as the model for everyone. [Source: Library of Congress]

“Three-generation families are not uncommon in cities, and a healthy grandparent is probably the ideal solution to the childcare and housework problems of most families. About as many young children are cared for by a grandparent as are enrolled in a workunit nursery or kindergarten, institutions that are far from universal. Decisions on where a newly married couple is to live often depend on the availability of housing. Couples most often establish their own household, frequently move in with the husband's parents, or, much less often, may move in with the wife's parents. Both the state and the society expect children to look after their aged parents. In addition, a retired worker from a state enterprise will have a pension and often a relatively desirable apartment as well. Under these circumstances elderly people are assets to a family. Those urban families employing unregistered maids from the countryside are most likely those without healthy grandparents.

Helen Gao wrote in the New York Times:“Decisions about having children can serve as leverage for women in domestic bargaining. Sometimes women resort to extraordinary measures to share in homeownership. Two years ago, the elderly couple who lived next door with their son and daughter-in-law unexpectedly traded their spacious apartment for two humbler dwellings. I later learned that the young woman had been refusing to conceive until her husband’s parents gave her a home of her own. [Source: Helen Gao, New York Times, October 13, 2016]

Married Life in China

left In a survey by Pew Research Center in the late 2000s, 67 percent of those asked said they were satisfied with their family life. A 1997 survey by the Leo Burnett ad agency found that 36 percent of Chinese agreed that a loving relationship was important (compared to 69 percent of Americans).

During the Cultural Revolution many people married for political reasons. Intellectuals were forced to marry peasants. Many married people from safe political classes for political self-protection or married peers at their posts in the countryside or married city dwellers so could leave the countryside. "During the Cultural Revolution," a Beijing reporter married in 1975 told the Washington Post, "marriage wasn't like it is today. It wasn't about feelings. It was about loneliness and survival."

As part of the effort to reduce China’s population the government has been encouraging couples to marry later and have fewer children. University students are required to wait until they graduate to get married. In the cities, couples that get married when they are in their early twenties are sometimes denied housing and jobs.

In a popular 1940s book “The Fortress Besieged”, Qian Zhongshu wrote, "Marriage is a fortress besieged. Outsiders want to get in. Insiders want to escape." On married life one elderly Chinese man told the New York Times, “Try to be nice to each other is easy before marriage. It is difficult after marriage and all life. In China, we say that a couple must respect to each other like noble guests.” Chinese women would often use the “primal scene” argument to resist the sexual demands of their husbands (Jankowiak, 1989:).

An old man from Shanghai, who had a more positive view about his marriage told Theroux, "About a year after I was born my parents decided I was to marry a certain girl from the village. When I was twenty-three I finally married her. She was the most wonderful wife a man could have — the best cook. She made noodles. She made fishballs. She made the best dumplings. I can still taste those delicious dumplings." The man’s wife had died and he remembered her by carrying his only photograph of her — resting in a satin coffin.

Living conditions after marriage often depend on income levels and availability of housing. Many couples move in with one of their parents because housing is in short supply. In rural China, newlywed couples traditionally moved into the husband's parents house, which was often already filled with relatives, and stayed there for some time. Changes in the marriage laws made by the Communist Party after it took power gave newlywed couple more freedom from their parents by allowing them to set up their own households and not be required to move in with the groom's parents. One young newlywed woman who recently moved out of her husband's parents house told Newsweek, "I like living in my own place, alone with my husband. No one can order me to do this or that or tell me when to clean or not to clean. We can have our own rules." Many urban people getting married come from single-child families. Many have a single child themselves and let their grandparents raise it so they can enjoy nights out at bars and restaurants with being burdened by responsibilities.

Extended Families and Smaller Families in China


A traditional family was headed by an elderly patriarch with children continuing to live with their parents after they were married. It was not unusual for three generations to live under the same roof and for all the generations to act as a single unit with grandparents, uncles, aunts, other children and cousins often being involved in child rearing as much as the parents.

Extended families still live together in rural areas. A typical family of nine in rural southern China is made up of two aging parents in their fifties, their two sons and their two son's families (two wives and three children). The adults in the family work an average of 30 hours a week in the family fish breeding business.

Sometimes five generations live in a single houses and a whole village belongs to the same family. One Shanghai family with 115 members applied for inclusion to the Guinness Book of Records.

These days most urban households contain parents, usually one child, and sometimes a grandparent. Large families are relatively uncommon because of the one-child laws and lack of space. The housing shortage is so severe in Shanghai couples postpone their marriages because they can't afford a place of their own and girls dump boyfriends if they don't have access to an apartment.

The one-child policy has created what some people call 4-2-1 families — or families with one child doted on by two parents and four grandparents. Liam Casey, the boss of PCH China Solutions, a contract-manufacturer in southern China, told The Economist he once noticed in a shopping mall that there were typically groups of seven people or groups of three. The groups of seven consisted of two sets of grandparents, parents and a boy. Those of three comprised parents and a daughter. He says he realised then that girls were valued less by society and that if he hired them and showed them loyalty, they would be more loyal in return. [Source: The Economist , August 18, 2007]

In urban areas, many dual-income couples who are financially stable are opting to have no children. The word "dingke," the phonetic equivalent of DINKS (double income, no kids), has taken root in Chinese society. "We have doubts about China's education system, which attaches more importance to test scores than intellectual development, so we've decided not to have any kids," said a 33-year-old company owner in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, who has been married for nine years to her 40-year-old husband, a company employee. "We won't have any unless we emigrate." [Source: Kenichi Yoshida and Takahiro Suzuki, Yomiuri Shimbun, December 31, 2013]

Changes in Chinese Families and New Family Structures

As state control of private life in China has loosened since 1980, citizens have experienced an unprecedented family revolution-an overhaul of family structure, marital practices, and gender relationships. While the nuclear family has become a privileged realm of romance and individualism symbolizing the post-revolutionary “freedoms” of economic and affective autonomy, women’s roles in particular have been transformed, with the ideal “iron girl” of socialism replaced by the feminine, family-oriented “good wife and wise mother.”Problems and contradictions in this new domestic culture have been exposed by China’s soaring divorce rate. Reading popular “divorce narratives” in fiction, film, and TV drama, Hui Faye Xiao shows that the representation of marital discord has become a cultural battleground for competing ideologies within post-revolutionary China. While these narratives present women’s cultivation of wifely and maternal qualities as the cure for family disintegration and social unrest, Xiao shows that they in fact reflect a problematic resurgence of traditional gender roles and a powerful mode of control over supposedly autonomous private life. [Source: Hui Faye Xiao, East Asian Languages and Cultures University of Kansas, December 2014]

Nicholas Eberstad wrote in Far Eastern Economic Review, “The most far-reaching implications of the many demographic changes inadvertently promoted by the One Child Policy, however, may not concern those who cannot find a spouse. Instead, they may entail a revolution in family structure for those who do manage to marry and have children. With the advent of steep sub-replacement fertility rates, single-child families are increasingly common, a trend which may portend the demise of the extended family network and the rise of a peculiar new pattern: only children begotten by only children. In such families, children will have no siblings, uncles, aunts or cousins. Their only blood relatives will be ancestors and descendants.” [Source: Nicholas Eberstad, Far Eastern Economic Review, December 2009]

Research by Professor Guo Zhigang of Peking University and his colleagues suggests how far China has already moved toward this new family type. By their estimates, as of the year 2011, nearly a quarter of China's urban adults between the ages of 25 and 49 will be only children. By 2020, this figure would rise to 42 percent, and by 2030, they would constitute the clear majority at 58 percent.

The emergence of what we might term the “kin-less family” is expected to pose extraordinary challenges. After all, Chinese culture is predicated on the existence of robust and extensive family bonds. Yet the inherent problems in this impending revolution are not solely metaphysical; the atrophy of the traditional Chinese family structure will also complicate the Chinese way of doing business.

In the past, China was what Professor Francis Fukuyama of Johns Hopkins-SAIS has termed a “low-trust” society. It remains one today. To overcome this lack of confidence in laws and official institutions, Chinese entrepreneurs and economic agents have relied upon informal relationships (guanxi) to get things done. These informal networks have served to lower both risk and transaction costs for the parties associated with them. They have, in fact, been an integral and often unacknowledged ingredient in China's economic success over the past three decades. Yet with the advent of the “kin-less family,” many rising, young economic and political actors will no longer be able to count on blood ties in their quest to conduct secure transactions.

Book: "Family Revolution: Marital Strife in Contemporary Chinese Literature and Visual Culture", University of Washington Press, 2014. Contents: Introduction: Family Revolution, Divorce Representations Chapter 1) "Divorcing the Rural: Miss Science and Marital Crisis in the Reform Era" ; Chapter 2) Midlife Crisis and Misogynist Rhetoric: Male Intellectuals’ Divorce Narratives; Chapter 3) Utopia or Dystopia?: The Sisterhood of Divorced Women; Chapter 4) What Quality Do Chinese Wives Lack?: Performing Middle-Classness in Chinese-Style Divorce; Chapter 5) Seeking Second Chances in a Risk Society: The Cinema of Divorce in the New Millennium; Chapter 6) A New Divorce Culture: Rupture and Reconstruction Appendix 1: Television Dramas about Divorce, 1990–2010 Appendix 2: Feature Films about Divorce, 2000–2010

Chinese Parents Online Game

Yin Yijun wrote in Sixth Tone in 2018: “Hoping to raise smart, happy, successful kids someday? A little online tiger mom training couldn’t hurt. Since its release just before October’s Golden Week holiday in 2018, “Chinese Parents” peaked at No. 2 on gaming platform Steam’s bestselling title list, temporarily outperforming big-budget competitors like “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds.” Developed by Beijing-based studio Moyuwan, the game gives players the chance to have virtual baby boys, raise them to adulthood, and see that they find good careers and partners. (The option to have girls is still being developed.) [Source: Yin Yijun, Sixth Tone, October 16, 2018]

“Even online, raising a child in today’s ultra-competitive society is no mean feat — and that’s perhaps what makes the game so entertaining, if not addicting. Steam users have awarded “Chinese Parents” an impressive average score of 9 out of 10. “Much of the game’s plot centers around education, one of the chief preoccupations of real-life Chinese parents. To achieve the best possible outcome, gamers have to spur their e-kids on to stellar performances on standardized tests like the gaokao — China’s grueling college entrance exam — in order to gain admission to a top-tier university. Apart from worrying about school, players must also try to maximize their e-kids’ attributes, such as intelligence, athletic ability, imagination, and charisma.

“To answer perhaps the most common question posed by new game initiates: Yes, romantic relationships are possible in this virtual world, but only if players are willing to invest an enormous amount of time and energy in them. Instead, the game finds its charm in nuance and detail. Players must balance study with leisure. Force your e-kid to spend too many hours with his nose in a book, and he might crack under the pressure and run away from home. If your e-kid does well in school, you can take a page from your own parents’ playbook and brag about his achievements to your friends, accruing “face” — the personal sense of social prestige that many people in China go to great lengths to preserve. The e-kids, too, are competitive with their peers, vying for leadership roles in their school’s student government.

“Unlike in real life, however, having a kid in “Chinese Parents” is much less of a commitment: They mature into adults after around three hours of playtime. When this happens, they’re able to have one e-kid of their own, passing on their acquired traits — and then the gamer takes on the role of parent to the younger generation. According to the official description, the game is an intentional critique of the lack of social mobility in modern-day China: A player might have to raise several generations of e-kids from humble beginnings before they finally achieve success in the world.

“The all-too-familiar authenticity of “Chinese Parents” is what many devotees love most about the game. Li Jiaqing, a 25-year-old graphic designer, played almost nonstop for a full day to raise five generations of e-kids. To her, the game is quintessentially Chinese and a nostalgic throwback to her own childhood.

““Being a parent isn’t easy,” Li told Sixth Tone. “I’ve been carefully controlling my kids’ stress levels to prevent meltdowns.” In the game, Li’s character is a domineering tiger mom who rules the household with an iron fist. But she doesn’t think this parenting style is necessarily for everyone, and would like to see more diverse storylines introduced. “Why isn’t there an option for a son who realizes he might be gay?” she suggested.

Image Sources: 1) Posters,Landsberger Posters http://www.iisg.nl/~landsberger/ ; 2) Family photos, Beifan.com 3) 19th century men, Universty of Washington; Wiki Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2021

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