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Family life in modern China

The ancient Chinese sage Confucius once described the harmony between husband and wife and children as "the music of lutes and harps". The influence of Confucius on Chinese family life - particularly his teachings on filial piety and on the relationship between stable family life and a stable state - is still felt today.

Since the days of Confucius, however, a great deal has changed, especially so following since the creation of the People's Republic.

In 1950, the new communist rulers introduced a new marriage law; it was the first law enacted in communist China, even before the constitution. By outlawing age-old practices like concubinage, bigamy, the bartering of brides and dowry, the new rulers signalled a break with the feudal marital system and redefined the relation between family and state.

Family life in China has undergone equally radical changes in the post-Maoist era. The first single parent's club in China was recently set up in Beijing, reproductive services have been made legal for single women, telephone advice lines for gays have been set up in Shanghai, and the Divorce Club of Shanghai was launched on Valentine's Day this year.

With the introduction of market reforms, increased urbanization, a rising level of prosperity and education, and growing private responsibility, Chinese family life is increasingly reflecting trends in the West.
One-child policy
However, a unique aspect of family life in China is the country's one-child policy, which has been enforced by the authorities since about 1978 and which restricts families in the cities to one child only. In the countryside, couples may try for a son if the first-born is a daughter, and exceptions are made for certain regions and minorities.

Nevertheless, the one-child policy has had a profound effect on the relationship between parents and children, the status of women, marital prospects, education, urban planning and even the design of cars. The first generation of children of the one-child policy have now reached adulthood and are developing their own unique new view of family life.
The one-child policy has succeeded in bringing down the birth rate from 26 percent to 8 percent a year. However, the traditional importance of male lineage and of the son as a support to the whole family, especially in rural areas, in combination with reproductive technology and the one-child policy, has resulted in a serious sex-ratio imbalance in China today.

"Lonely hearts club"
The gender imbalance has now reached 120 boys for every 100 girls born. It is believed that 40 million men will not find wives in the next ten years, some of them are already living in "bachelor ghettos", and China has been described as "the world's biggest lonely hearts club". Cases have been reported of women being abducted, and because of the importance of carrying on the male lineage, some men resort to sharing or borrowing a wife, who is then free to go after she has produced a son. The authorities have tried to deal with the sex-ratio imbalance by, for example, forbidding prenatal sex screening.
The problem is compounded by the migration of a huge "floating population" of productive rural adults to the factories and cities where their labour is fuelling China's economic boom. There are villages where children and the elderly are left behind to care for each other. Few migrant rural women are willing to return to the countryside. They hope to find urban husbands in order to obtain urban registration, so they can qualify for better housing, pensions, jobs and health care schemes.

While families are spreading out to wherever work can be found, marital infidelity and especially cohabitation have become so predominant that the new marriage law of 2001 explicitly condemns bigamy and polygamy.

"My personal experience is that it is unspoken, people gossip and everyone knows in the village, but it is not openly articulated, as long as it doesn't break the unity or economic cohesion of the family," says Melody Chia-wen Lu, an affiliated fellow with the International Institute for Asian Studies at the University of Leiden, specialised in gender issues and migration.
In contrast to the rural population, young educated urban professionals are facing very different problems when it comes to marriage and family life. With the increased privatisation of education, health care and care for the elderly, they are under enormous pressure to get excellent grades, to get into university and compete for good jobs. That means postponing marriage until they can afford to buy an apartment and provide well for a child. The average marrying age is now 28 for men, 27 for women.

Chinese citizens are required by law to care for their elderly parents, and being an only child adds to the pressure. At the same time, surveys show that 40 percent of men and 47 percent of women disagree with the idea of raising a child for one's own security. Melody Lu believes the emotional aspect of parenthood is gaining ground over considerations of economic security.

Nuclear norm
The nuclear family is quickly becoming the norm, especially in the cities, where 60 percent of families consist only of parents and children. Extended families, including all one's cousins and grandparents and aunts and uncles, get together to renew their bonds at least once a year, especially during the Chinese Spring Festival. The first generation of offspring born under the one-child policy still have aunts and uncles and cousins, but many of their children will not.
As in the West, some young urban professionals, including women, are opting to remain single, while some couples settle on being "dinkies" (double-income-no-kids), and there is more divorce, particularly in the cities. The 2001 revision of the family law reformed the legal position of divorce, simplifying the procedure. Melody Lu says marriage is no longer a life-long thing but a contract between two individuals. "It's easier for urban people to treat marriage as a contract, but in the rural area there is still the cultural stigmatisation", Lu points out, "You have more trouble finding a new partner. In fact a lot of divorced women have to migrate to find another husband, because it is very difficult to remarry in the same locality."

Furthermore, because of the continuing importance of the father-son axis, an only son is likely to be placed under the custody of his father, not his mother.
Change, not decline
All in all, family life in China is changing but is not by any means in decline. There is more emphasis on personal choice and freedom, more equality of the sexes, and there is an even stronger bond between parents and children than under the collective security of the Maoist era. Parents are prepared to make huge sacrifices for their children, partly because "always in the back of their mind is old age security", says Melody Lu.

The fact that it is the daughter-in-law that is usually the primary provider of care for the elderly has also changed the status and value of women within the family. And even though the trend is towards a smaller family unit, the proverbial Chinese family business is one institution that continues to thrive. Chinese family businesses account for one-third of the names on the Fortune-500 list of the world's biggest companies.

See also

Nostalgia for Cultural Revolution
IMF forecasts continuing world economic growth
On the decline in the Global Economy
Chinese firms pull back from US confrontation
Chinese plans in space
More sex please