Changing Structure of the Chinese Family

Zach Rubin and Friend

Changing Structure of the Chinese Family

by Zach Rubin

Abstract

A group of elderly Chinese people play mahjong next to a lake. Nearby others practice tai chi and square dancing. Some gather to play instruments and sing traditional songs, a few fish, and one man sells his Chinese calligraphy to pedestrians. Together, these people create a community in Jinchun Park (近春园) where they can spend their free time after retirement.

But how does this relate to the question of how the Chinese family structure has changed and is changing? It does so because these people have lived through and experienced the changes and are our most knowledgeable resource on the subject. What they had growing up, or lack thereof, gives important insight into how the country has changed when it is compared to what youth have access to now.

Essay

I'm helping Chinese Tony the Tiger promote literacy. The industrialization and modernization of China has heavily improved education opportunities.

I’m helping Chinese Tony the Tiger promote literacy. The industrialization and modernization of China has heavily improved education opportunities.

A group of elderly Chinese people play mahjong next to a lake. Nearby others practice tai chi and square dancing. Some gather to play instruments and sing traditional songs, a few fish, and one man sells his Chinese calligraphy to pedestrians. Together, these people create a community in Jinchun Park (近春园) where they can spend their free time after retirement.

But how does this relate to the question of how the Chinese family structure has changed and is changing? It does so because these people have lived through and experienced the changes and are our most knowledgeable resource on the subject. What they had growing up, or lack thereof, gives important insight into how the country has changed when it is compared to what youth have access to now.

However, Jinchun Park is not just any park. By being situated at the heart of Tsinghua University, the people who have access to it either worked for the school (before retirement) or have someone in the family who does so. They have directly benefited from the changes in the country (Tsinghua was founded in 1911). The people here have a higher quality of life than their parents did, with their children exceeding theirs.

A photo taken from while I watch couples ballroom dance. By being freed from the responsiblities of running/micromanaging a family the elderly have had time to pursue other activities.

A photo taken from while I watch couples ballroom dance. By being freed from the responsiblities of running/micromanaging a family the elderly have had time to pursue other activities.

Since the fall of the Qing dynasty, the family structure has changed drastically in just over 100 years. While some might argue that family ties are weaker as a result, it seems as if the elderly have adjusted to modernization. My methods were observation as well as one on one interviews over the course of multiple days. My questions generally focused on the differences in family structure (how things were run as compared to now) as well as opportunities and government focus at certain time periods.

Although changes were already taking place prior to the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 (for example, the Opium War and the Boxer Rebellion), the common historical belief is that family life had remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years over the course of multiple dynasties. Extended families generally lived under the same roof or in the same compound and worked together on the family farm or in the family business. Thus, the family was the basic unit of Chinese society and life focused on creating harmony.

The family can be broken down into three types of families: simple, stem, and extended, listed in order of least to most complex. A simple family contains a husband, a wife, and their children (this could also be considered the core of a family). When the children grow up, marry, and have children of their own this creates a stem family; there are now three generations. An extended family is when there are many people and many generations living in one place (note that all of these refer to the people living in one residence, not that these people do or do not exist). In Chinese society, the extended family is ideal, with as many generations and relatives as possible (Baker 2-3).

I speak with local pedestrians about their lives and comparing the past and the present.

I speak with local pedestrians about their lives and comparing the past and the present.

The family structure was hierarchical and extremely defined. Under the system, each family member had an explicit position with rituals, expectations, and responsibilities assigned to that position. According to Yang’s The Chinese Family in the Communist Revolution there was an elaborate system in place to determine how two people in the same family should interact and how much obedience was to be shown. As a whole, the system taught that wisdom was the prerequisite for authority and that wisdom could only be acquired through age or experience. Breaking it down further, there was a generation-age-sex hierarchy in order of priority (Baker 15-16). Thus, if two people came from the same generation (which could be determined using their middle name), they would refer to their ages and genders to determine how to interact with each other.

Filial piety, or the idea that a child should always be faithful to their parents, was used to enforce this idea of a position or ranking (Yang 87-89). Filial piety is difficult to translate into English, but it includes the idea that children have a debt to repay to their parents for raising them as well as having a moral duty to respect and obey their parents. Note that filial piety “was carried in nursery stories, in daily exhortations and reprimands, in tales and novels, in textbooks from the first primer to the most profound philosophical discourse…The requirement of obedience to parents, fully supported by formal law in the Ching dynasty until 1912, is still supported by the informal coercive instrument of clan regulations in the rural communities” (Yang 89). Filial piety was not an idea that only existed in a few places; it influenced the lives of sons and daughters for nearly two thousand years.

In a sense, the family structure depended on the loyalty of the youthful labor to survive. Parents relied on their children to support them in their old age; women especially depended on their offspring, specifically giving birth to a son (Yang 90). Referring to the man of the house, “the point should be made that such a man was important by virtue of his position, and not really in his own right as an individual” (Baker 37). Quoting Yang, “The Importance of age was clearly pointed out by Mencius’ statement: In the Kingdom there are three things that command universal respect. Nobility is one of them; age is one of them; virtue is one of them’” (Yang 86).

The Chinese calligrapher in the park writes my poem! He said he has been practicing calligraphy for over twenty years; what was once a hobby became his job. However, there are many more ways to earn money today than there were twenty years ago.

The Chinese calligrapher in the park writes my poem! He said he has been practicing calligraphy for over twenty years; what was once a hobby became his job. However, there are many more ways to earn money today than there were twenty years ago.

So the elderly have created a system where they can take advantage of the youth; why do the young allow this? Despite common misconceptions, filial piety was a relationship with mutual benefits. When comparing the foci and benefits of filial piety, one should pay attention to the idea that “equally important was the emphasis upon parental affection, parent-children interdependence, the children’s moral obligation to repay parental care and affection by observing filial piety…where the parents belonged to a humble station, they pinned their hopes of social and economic advancement on the future development of their children…consequently, the old family structure and ethics did not permit a son to leave his parents in a humble social position when he himself had gained social and economic advancement” (Yang 90).

So now that the before has been properly established, how does one determine the causes and their effects? The activities at the park are the symptoms of society; people are doing these things because they believe they should and they have the opportunity to. Thus, a researcher can work backwards to find the effects from the symptoms, the causes from the effects, and then reconstruct a timeline to show the order of events.

For most of history the Chinese population has been employed in the agricultural sector. Rob Handfield notes that, “before 1911, China was still characterized as a feudalistic economy run by the Qing authorities. Even by 1949, China was primarily an agricultural economy” (Handfield). Although many people believe that China is now completely dominated by factories and industry, the reality is that seventy to eighty percent of its population is still involved in farming. Prior to the fall of the Qing dynasty, it would be fair to say that ratio was even higher. Although modernization is coming, it is arriving at a surprisingly slow pace.

The drawback with farming when compared to industrial jobs is that it is a much lower wage for the same or more work. Also, it is much more unreliable in the long run; any number of factors can lead to a failed crop. Drought, war, pestilence, natural disaster: any one of them could make all of that labor for naught. Although peasants would prefer more stable jobs, for a long time they had no choice but to till the fields.

When Western companies began to move factories to China following the economic reform (改革开放), the newly created Special Economic Zones attracted the farmers of China to migrate to urban areas. These private companies as well as government run businesses (国有企业) gave many people chances to earn wages that were impossible on a farm. Moreover, the new jobs brought with them opportunities for education and living improvements that had never existed before.

While, according to Western wages and quality of life, the payment that these peasants received for their labor was quite low, for many of them it offered a chance to leave poverty behind. According to PBS.org’s article “Reporter Explains China’s Rapid Industrialization,” these jobs have been great for many of the lower class. Although these factories are long hours (10-12 per day), crowded dorms, and relatively low pay by international standards, after three or four years they (the young women from rural areas who usually worked in the factories studied) have enough money to move home and be financially independent and have a higher quality of life (Reporter). The international community loves to complain about China’s human rights violations while still buying its cheaply made goods; however, “you can argue that that the most effective antipoverty effort of the last half-century has been this factory boom in China, where many, many, many tens of millions of peasants have gotten a sort of leg up through these factory jobs” (Reporter).

One of the people interviewed, Zhang Juping (张菊平) worked in the public sector. Born in 1953, she said she would have pursued further education if it were not for the Cultural Revolution (文化大革命, May 1966 to October 1796). Thus, she felt lucky to have work at all, particularly one where she was earning an “iron rice bowl” (a term used to reference the permanence of government jobs, especially at a time when jobs in the private sector were very unpredictable). At work, she taught herself whatever skills she could, emphasizing a lack of formal higher education or technical training (Zhang).

Another person I interviewed, Liu Zhiqiang (刘志强, born 1942), came from a poor family and had few opportunities for advancement; he decided to join the army. He admits that the reason behind it was not out of patriotism, but because it would help him to get ahead in life. While he served, he learned skills which he turned into a living. However, when asked about what he would do in the same situation if everything was the same except it was set in the present, he was adamant that pursuing higher education could be the only absolute way to improve one’s quality of life (Liu).

The key point is that the industrialization of China has provided many opportunities for its people (education, literacy, hygiene, transportation). By taking advantage of these opportunities Chinese people have had increased income. With more money and for the first time in their lives not worrying about daily survival they begin to seek new independence.

With so many new jobs coming into China, it is important to note who was getting them. The majority of these jobs required physical labor or a skill that could only be obtained through education. Thus, almost all of the new positions went to the youth instead of traditionally going to the elderly (there was a focus on being qualified for a position instead of having earned it through experience). This disrupted the Chinese family structure quite severely. One of the foundations on which filial piety was built was the notion that the elders were the moneymakers in the group and so they had more say in matters. However, now more money than ever before was coming into the household and the elderly were not responsible for it. As they tried to reassert their authority, the young began to realize that they held the power for the first time in their lives.

As it can be seen in the history books, the young took advantage of this opportunity. Although the Qing dynasty was administered according to traditional ideas regarding age and hierarchy, the Republic of China was controlled by generally younger people who were more open to change. A story I heard once: a foreigner was travelling in the rural parts of China. Somehow he came across a farming village where they still tilled the soil very inefficiently. The foreigner showed them a new and more efficient way to do the process (very likely involving modern technology). The young boys who were working the field were delighted; they could see the effectiveness with their own eyes! They promptly started using the new method. However, the foreigner came back a few days later to find them using the old method once again. When he asked why, the young boys simply told him that the village elders said that the new way was wrong and they should continue using the old one; they followed their elder’s decision without question.

This story demonstrates the influence of filial piety. Even when presented with new information or ways of doing things, China has clung to tradition (probably the reason the dynasty system and the elder hierarchy lasted for so long, even though there were always those who resented it). Yet now the people who wanted change had the ability to realize their dreams. By the time the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, the strength of the young (in the political sense) was at an all-time high. Since they (this age group) were the main supporters of the CCP, the new government repaid them with new privileges and rights. As the Communist Party tried to distance the country from traditional values (like banning Confucianism), they promoted the young to key positions.

But why does any of this matter? As the young have become more and more independent, they have moved away from their parents. Of the people I interviewed, they all had multiple children; however, they only lived with one of them while the others lived in other cities or even in other countries (Zhao, Liu, Xie, Zhang, Nice). These now full grown adults have their own choices to make, and they get to make them. Instead of micromanaging their offspring, senior citizens now have the time to devote to other pursuits, like relaxing in the park.

Although it may seem that this is a trivial matter, it hints at a larger issue. The way that China is comfortable working has been broken, and larger changes are likely to come. With no tradition to stop them, the Chinese people will begin to adopt Western ideas more and more. However, it also allows retirees to enjoy the rest of their lives.

Works cited

“Reporter Explains China’s Rapid Industrialization.” PBS NewsHour. PBS.org, 25 Jun. 2007. Web. 2 Jun. 2015. <http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/asia-jan-june07-china_06-25/>

Baker, Hugh D. R.. Chinese Family and Kinship. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979. Print.

Handfield, Rob. “A Brief History of China: Democracy or Communist Bureaucracy?.” The Supply Chain Resource Cooperative. ncsu.edu, 7 Jun. 2008. Web. 3 Jun. 2015. <http://scm.ncsu.edu/scm-articles/article/a-brief-history-of-china-democracy-or-communist-bureaucracy>

Liu, Zhiqiang. Personal interview. 12 July 2015.

Nice. Personal interview. 26 July 2015.

Xie, Xiaozhong. Personal interview. 12 July 2015.

Yang, C. K.. The Chinese Family in the Communist Revolution. Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press, 1959. Print.

Zhang, Juping. Personal interview. 26 July 2015.

Zhao, Qinfu. Personal interview. 12 July 2015.