How families are changing

For the last several thousand years, “The family [has been]… the most important social institution in China and blood ties have traditionally been the cornerstone of society…” 

But all that has started to change.  As an article last month in Foreign Affairs entitled China’s Shrinking Families explained, “the impending implosion of the extended family… is essentially certain.” The full implications for Chinese society are just beginning to be understood. 

Traditional family norms are being shattered as China adapts to modernization. 

The impact of these changes is greater on women than on men.  According to the Confucian tradition, “women should observe the Three Obediences… to be obedient to the father and elder brothers when young, to the husband when married, and to the sons when widowed.”

That doesn’t leave women a lot of time for education, careers or self-actualization.  Not to mention yoga.

A traditional Chinese extended family.

Women’s reproductive rights have been trampled in the transition to a modern society.  From about 1980 to 2015, China enforced a “one child policy” which included significant fines for any couple that had two children.  One result is that “By 2050, two-fifths of Chinese under 50 will be only children… Many… will traverse life from school through work and on into retirement with little or no firsthand experience of the traditional extended family so integral to Chinese culture. Theirs will be the generation that in effect finds 2,500 years of Confucian tradition coming to an end.”

Of course, it also produced the population drop the government was aiming for, but that too had some unfortunate effects. “As countries become more developed, birth rates tend to fall due to education or other priorities such as careers… But with the biggest population in the world and an economy that [China is] trying to make more reliant on domestic consumption, this is a particularly salient issue.”

On an individual level, when two only children marry, the results are “4-2-1 families” which place enormous financial and emotional burdens on the two parents who must care for one child and four grandparents.  (On the plus side, these families have six adults available to help raise each child.) The government changed the policy in 2016, and there is now a two-child limit per family. 

This head snapping reversal in policy has reinforced the pressure on women to marry young.  “Women are vigorously discouraged to delay marriage for career, with the derisive label sheng nu, or ‘leftover women,’ given to unmarried women over 27…[The government] encourages Chinese citizens to see unmarried women as unhappy and unfulfilled.”

A 2019 documentary entitled “Leftover Women” illustrates this stigma by following three women to illustrate the pressures they face, including an unmarried female lawyer named Qiu Hua Mei.  In one scene “At a ‘marriage market’ in Beijing, where parents solicit dates for their children, one mother shies away from Qiu after learning that she’s a lawyer, claiming Qiu might sue a potential husband’s family. When you have a degree, Qiu said, people think, ‘This woman must be very tough, not obedient. Maybe very bossy. Maybe she wouldn’t follow the orders of a husband.’”

In contrast, for men “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.” 

You can tell Confucius was a guy.  Under his system, the most powerful people were old men since he also promoted the concept of filial piety “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 are at the peak of their knowledge and wisdom.” 

This didn’t make a lot of sense to me in my teens or twenties.  But now that I am 73, I can see the profound wisdom of this approach.  In China, the veneration of parents went further than just following their rules.  “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.”

To sum it up: “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…” 

But this 2,500-year-old family structure is now giving way.  One expert quoted in a New York Times article went so far as to say that these days “Filial piety is a myth.”

In fact, it’s gotten so bad that “In a country famous for its Confucian traditions of filial obedience, tens of millions of elderly Chinese are being left behind… suffering poverty, illness and depression. It has become such a serious problem that the Chinese government put into effect a law [in 2012] allowing parents to sue their children if they failed to visit and support them.”

Other traditional attitudes are changing more slowly.  For example, “It is [still] taken for granted that everyone should marry, and marriage remains part of the definition of normal adult status. Marriage is expected to be permanent.”

But here too, change is underway. “Urban couples, particularly those born after 1990, tend to value their independence and careers more than raising a family despite parental pressure to have children.”  One result is that “The divorce rate in China has soared from around 0.96 divorces per 1,000 people in 2000 to 3.36 divorces in 2019.”  (China’s divorce rate is now higher than the US rate of 2.7 per 1000.) And when the results of China’s 2020 census were announced two weeks ago, the average size of a family household had significantly shrunk (from 3.10 people per household in 2010 to 2.62 in 2020). 

This is a massive social change when multiplied by China’s total population of 1.4 billion.  It can be explained largely by “increasing population mobility and the fact that young people after marriage [now] live… with improved housing conditions… separately from parents.”

The implications of these huge demographic shifts will be rippling through Chinese society for decades, sometimes with surprising consequences.  To cite just one example, China has traditionally been classified as a “low-trust” society.  A lack of confidence in both laws and the government has led to the system of guanxi in which people rely on social networks of trusted family and friends.  According to the article China’s shrinking family “From China’s earliest recorded history, guanxi networks of informal social relations (mainly but not exclusively through family ties) have helped get business done for the modest and the mighty alike by reducing uncertainty and facilitating economic transactions. These sorts of networks remain essential today and supply the necessary trust that helps business get done. The coming decades’ implosion of China’s extended family networks portends a national decline in this kind of trust and social capital.”

The same article goes on to argue that “the changing structure of the Chinese family poses a threat to the country’s great-power ambitions in the decades to come… to a degree that China’s leaders may not yet anticipate.”

The greatest implication of all these changes is that “a diminishing pool of working adults [which] will also test China’s ability to pay and care for an aging nation.”  But that’s another story. I will discuss it in my next post.