rightThe family is arguably the most important social institution in China and blood ties have traditionally been the cornerstone of society. In accordance with Confucian customs many families keep careful genealogical records on bloodlines, achievements, even graveyards.

Traditionally, sons and their wives lived with the son’s parents until the parents died at which time the sons divided the household and property. In some cases the older son inherited a larger share than the others and often got the house. Married daughters were usually left out of the equation (they were taken care of by their husband and his family) unless they were unmarried or the family had no sons.

Parents have traditionally ruled with absolute authority. The idea that children are independent entities worthy of respect in. their own right is a relatively new concept in China. One child families have given children more power.

Whereas once several generations shared the same dwelling, more than half of all Chinese over the age of 60 now live separately from their adult children, according to a November 2010 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]

Traditionally, fathers ruled the roost and sons resented their father because of the their absolute authority but were bound to follow their fathers' authority due to Confucian filial obligations. By the same token sons and mothers were often very close, with mothers often competing with wives for the love of the son-husband. The relationship between mothers and daughter-in-laws has traditionally been very stormy, especially when they lived in the same household.

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 slight breakdown of the extended family structure and replaced it with a more Western-style nuclear family.

Inheritance is usually passed on from father to son.

Good Websites and Sources: Chinese Family Basics mandarintools.com ; Family Titles kwanfamily.info ; Family and Lineage weber.ucsd.edu ; Family Issues asianinfo.org ; strong> Links in this Website: WOMEN IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHILDREN AND YOUTH IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China

Chinese Families

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.

Traditional Gender Roles in China

According to the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: “In its earliest history, China was a matriarchal society, until Confucius and Mencius defined the superior-inferior relationship between men and women as heaven-ordained more than two thousand years ago. In traditional Chinese society, women should observe the Three Obediences and the Four Virtues. Women were to be obedient to the father and elder brothers when young, to the husband when married, and to the sons when widowed. Thus the Chinese women were controlled and dominated by men from cradle to grave. [This may not apply to the lower class and marginal people. (Lau)] [Source: Zhonghua Renmin Gonghe Guo, Fang-fu Ruan, M.D., Ph.D., and M.P. Lau, M.D.Encyclopedia of Sexuality hu-berlin.de/sexology =]

China was, and in many ways still is, a Confucianist country. Confucianism said that: “There are three things which are unfilial, and to have no posterity is the greatest of them.” In Chinese society “having posterity” means “having a male child.” Therefore, having no boy is regarded as the worst possible problem a family can have, psychologically, economically, and sociologically. =

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]

“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.

Traditional Stratification and Families in China

Before 1950 the basic units of social stratification and social mobility were families. Although wealthy families were often quite large, with as many as thirty people in three or four generations living together on a common budget, most families contained five or six people. In socioeconomic terms, late traditional China was composed of a large number of small enterprises, perhaps as many as 100 million farms and small businesses. Each was operated by a family, which acted not only as a household but also as a commercial enterprise. The family head also was the trustee of the estate and manager of the family business. Families could own property, such as land or shops, and pass it on to the next generation. [Source: Library of Congress]

“About 80 percent of the population were peasant farmers, and land was the fundamental form of property. Although many peasant families owned no land, large estates were rare by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Peasant families might own all of the land they worked, or own some and rent some from a landowner, or rent all their land. Regardless of the form of tenure, the farm was managed as a unit, and the head of household was free to decide what to plant and how to use the labor of family members. Land could be bought and sold in small parcels, as well as mortgaged and rented in various forms of short-term and long-term contracts. The consequence was that in most villages peasant families occupied different steps on the ladder of stratification; they did not form a uniformly impoverished mass. At any time, peasant families were distinguished by the amount of land that they owned and worked compared with the percentage of their income they paid in rent. Over time, peasant families rose or fell in small steps as they bought land or were forced to sell it. [Source: Library of Congress]

“Most non-farm enterprises, commercial or craft, were similarly small businesses run by families. The basic units were owned by families, which took a long-term view of their prospects and attempted to shift resources and family personnel from occupation to occupation to adapt to economic circumstances. In all cases, the long-term goal of the head of the family was to ensure the survival and prosperity of the family and to pass the estate along to the next generation. The most common family strategy was to diversify the family's economic activities. Such strategies lay behind the large number of small-scale enterprises that characterized Chinese society before 1950. Farming and landowning were secure but not very profitable. Commerce and money-lending brought in greater returns but also carried greater risks. A successful farm family might invest in a shop or a food-processing business, while a successful restaurant owner might buy farmland, worked by a sharecropping peasant family, as a secure investment. All well-to- do families invested in the education of sons, with the hope of getting at least one son into a government job. The consequence was that it was difficult to draw a class line dividing landlords, merchants, and government workers or officials.

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.

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.”

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.

Married Life, Parents and Family in China

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.

Confucianism and Families

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.”

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]

New Family Structures in China

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.

Family Revolution in China

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]

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 Family Customs

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 mother-in-laws, and 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 lead 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.

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).

Genealogies in China

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.

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 June 2015

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