Family ties take new shapes in a prosperous China
Pang Rongchang was ready to join Mao Zedong's revolutionary army in the late 1940s. But before he left his Hubei town, his father did what generations of men did for their sons: secured a wife for him. There was no discussion. The bride was hand-carried to the groom's doorstep from the next village; the marriage was that day. The two had never met before - then lived 50-plus years together.Skip to next paragraph
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By contrast, Pang's son, Liping, married, divorced, then fell in love with Wang Zhe, who works at a Japanese joint venture. They met at Ditan Park by the gate, set up by three layers of friends. She saw Liping was "a good one." It started raining, they went inside for tea, and it became a second marriage for them both.
The cultural distance traveled in a single generation - from marriage by a father's dictate to a second marriage by choice - points to profound changes in China's family life. The venerable patriarchy, where four generations sit at a dumpling-laden dinner table overseen by the elder male, is disappearing - and along with it, a tradition that has ensured stability for thousands of years.
Now a diverse range of family types is found in urban China, altering the old social order in the world's fastest rising power. To a Western eye, the family types seem common. But they are very new here: single-parent families, double-income families with no kids, "singles" by choice, cohabitating couples, and second marriages. Gays and lesbians are more tolerated, though they are not recognized. The most common emerging type is the "nuclear family," husband, wife, and child living apart from elders.
"The numbers of all types of new families are on the increase," says Shen Chong Lin, a family sociology pioneer in Beijing. "Before we didn't really see them, they weren't noticed. Now they are. Family used to be part of the means of production. Marriage was a social decision. Now it is an individual decision. Family is a hot topic. Every Chinese is an expert on family now."
For centuries one family type existed here: patriarchy. The wife went to live with the husband's family. Family was a male hierarchy, practical, based on need. It offered food, shelter, status, regeneration.
After 1949 the family was turned toward nation-building, and it served the state. But despite dramatic laws making husbands and wives equal in theory, the basic family structure survived. Two things changed that: the "one child policy" and Deng Xiaoping's epic liberalizing in 1979.
From then on everything accelerated, including the state's withdrawal from people's family lives and an end to the patriarchal structure.
"You can barely find a patriarchal family in the city now," says Li Yinhe, a leading family sociologist in China. "Sixty percent of Beijing families are nuclear, run by husband and wife. In Chinese tradition, you need a male heir to carry on the name. You bear children until there is a son; it is extremely important for identity. Yet now 50 percent have no son, and many don't worry about it."
China is now 15 years into an economic "miracle" made possible by the combination of endless cheap labor, a colossus of east coast factories, and by a national capacity for organization and adaptability. The ability to earn enough to buy a car and apartment in the city has created new alternatives and expectations. Many younger Chinese talk about education, travel abroad, fulfillment, and spirituality - as well as work. Families in the city are now accommodating a culture of cellphones, a drying up of the number of aunts and uncles in the family, and acceptance of divorce.