In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Family Relations in Contemporary China

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Different Family Structures
  • Courtship and Marriage
  • Parenting
  • Agnatic and Affinal Relationships
  • Respect and Support for the Elderly
  • Family Life Among China’s Minorities

Chinese Studies Family Relations in Contemporary China
William Jankowiak, Yuezhu Sun
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 May 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0094


Across different time periods and regions the Chinese family displays a variety of forms, functions, and relationship dynamics. The pre-1949-era Chinese family was an economic, political, and jural unit. This type of Chinese family was organized in accordance with patrilocal residence and patrilineal descent and based in patriarchal authority. Elderly males, especially fathers, had authority over the entire family. Socialist policies (1949–19?) that created the hukou system (household registration system) resulted in profound rural-urban differences. Urban areas become the centers of industry, commerce, and political governance, whereas rural areas, which, until the 1980s, made up 80 percent of Chinese society, engaged primarily in agriculture. Given these institutional changes, Chinese families began to diverge along urban-rural lines. The rural Chinese family continued to carry on more or less the patriarchal tradition whereby parents arranged marriages, women were the “inferior” gender, and daily life was largely improvised. In contrast, urban areas were divided into self-contained work units (danwei) that strived to combine residence with employment. In the work unit era (1950s–1990s) the urban family was organized in accordance with neolocal residence rules and the de facto practices of bilateral descent, or equally valuing the husband’s and wife’s families. Moreover, males’ authority, especially fathers’, was eliminated. In post-reform China (1980s–early 21st century), owing in part to China’s modernization policies, such as dismantling of the work unit and institution of the one-child policy, the Chinese family was gradually transformed. Research on the transformation is ongoing and, in the early 21st century, is in its initial stages. So far, no firm consensus has been reached. In China, family increasingly serves as an umbrella term for an array of connective relationships. The Chinese family evolves not only across historical periods; like all families, it also goes through different developmental stages, ranging from courtship, to marriage, to parenting, to eldercare. The sections follow the developmental sequence of the Chinese family, covering the time period from pre-reform to early-21st-century China.

General Overviews

Brandstader and Santos 2009 points out that the conceptualization of the Chinese family has shifted with the vicissitudes of academic theoretical interests. Santos 2006 offers a comprehensive overview of the scholarship on Chinese kinship and family. Chinese anthropologists who were trained in Western universities, such as Fei Xiaotong, conducted some of the earliest ethnographic studies on Chinese village life (Fei 1939). These village studies, together with research done by Western academia (Freedman 1979), were groundbreaking and insightful but did not provide a theoretical, or analytical, overview of Chinese kinship and family life. It was not until the 1970s, when researchers such as Myron Cohen, working first in Taiwan (Cohen 1976) and then in northern China (Cohen 2005), and James L. Watson and Rubie S. Watson, working in Hong Kong (Watson and Watson 2004, cited under Agnatic and Affinal Relationships), provided richer ethnographic data that resulted in more refined analysis. William L. Parish and Martin King Whyte conducted, albeit at an ethnographic distance, the first investigation of mainland rural social life (Parish and Whyte 1978). The second generation of Western-trained Chinese scholars, such as Yan Yunxiang, regards the early analytical model as too restrictive and inadequate in addressing the changes and transformations that have affected the Chinese family since the 1980s economic reforms (Yan 2003). In place of the earlier, social model, there has been renewed interest in exploring the Chinese family as a more private, individualistic, institution. Researchers who have adopted a private-life approach prefer to study the family as a domain rich in emotional bonds, ethical nuances, and competing interests, Oxfeld 2010, a study of a Fujian village, finds that ethical obligations continue to serve as a primary source of identity construction and moral standing. This research gives an important qualification to the northern research, which asserts that individualism, not cultural tradition, is more characteristic of reform-era rural family life. There are fewer studies of the urban family. Davis and Harrell 1993, an analysis of the impact of socialist policy on family form, suggests that contrary to the modernization thesis, specific state policies were primary factors in shaping the urban family form.

  • Brandstader, Susanne, and Gonçalo Duro dos Santos, eds. Chinese Kinship and Relatedness: Some Contemporary Anthropological Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2009.

    An update of earlier research on Chinese kinship, most of it historical, with ethnographic studies that focus on the meanings of relatedness found in rural and urban China. This is the only collection that fails to examine the transformation and continuity found in contemporary Chinese kinship relationships.

  • Cohen, Myron. House United, House Divided: The Chinese Family in Taiwan. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976.

    A foundational book that explores the family as a developmental institution. Cohen discovers that the Chinese family cycles from nuclear family, to joint family (all married brothers living together), to division into smaller, nuclear units.

  • Cohen, Myron. Kinship, Contract, Community and State: Anthropological Perspectives on China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005.

    Presents an overview of changes in family organization, especially within northern lineages, in late Imperial China, with some observations on presence within contemporary rural family life.

  • Davis, Deborah, and Stevan Harrell. “Introduction” The Impact of Post-Mao Reforms on Family Life.” In Chinese Families in the Post Mao Era. Edited by Deborah Davis and Stevan Harrell, 1–24. Berkeley: University California Press, 1993.

    DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520077973.003.0001

    Contains a succinct summation of how socialist policies promoted and undermined family life as a cultural institution. The authors note that state policies created conditions conducive to the formation of larger, multigenerational households that had extensive economic and social ties to kin.

  • Fei, Hsiao-tung (Fei Xiaotong). Peasant Life in China: A Field Study of Country Life in the Yangtze Valley. London: Routledge, 1939.

    A valuable baseline study of 1930s rural village family life. Based on fieldwork conducted in the author’s native village, in Jiangsu province, Fei’s text covers a range of topics but is strongest in documenting family organization and how it adapted to changing economic conditions.

  • Freedman, Maurice. The Study of Chinese Society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1979.

    An outdated foundational study that is cited in the early 21st century to demonstrate how different China was and has become, compared with earlier academic models. Still, has a fine discussion of southern lineage organization.

  • Oxfeld, Ellen. Drink Water, but Remember the Source: Moral Discourse in a Chinese Village. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520260948.001.0001

    A case study that counters the northern data of Yan 2003, which found a strong shift away from intergenerational obligation, toward more of a reliance on self-interest. Solid ethnographic data used to support the claim that in the Fujian area of southern China, intergenerational obligations remain important.

  • Parish, William L., and Martin King Whyte. Village and Family in Contemporary China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

    A bit dated, but still useful for establishing a baseline of family life in rural China prior to the 1980s reform-era policies. Uses ingenious methods in interviewing residents of Hong Kong who had previously lived in the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

  • Santos, Goncalo. “The Anthropology of Chinese Kinship: A Critical Overview.” European Journal of East Asian Studies 5.2 (2006): 275–333.

    DOI: 10.1163/157006106778869298

    A comprehensive overview of the intellectual shifts that have taken place since the 1950s in the study of Chinese kinship and family. An excellent starting point.

  • Yan, Yunxiang. Private Life under Socialism: Love, Intimacy, and Family Change in a Chinese Village. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003.

    Research conducted in a northern village the researcher lived in as a “sent-down” youth. A transformation study that completely reoriented the China field, concentrating less on ethical obligation and more on personal desire and self-interest.

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