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.

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."

A break with the past

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.

After a 'jump into the sea'

Wang Zhe's story (Liping's second wife) is characteristic of so many young Chinese over the past 20 years: She married a boy from her state-run factory. He was the charmer in her work unit, and she fell hard. They exchanged glances for months. Finally he took her to "get registered." Then, like many Chinese in the late 1980s, he decided to "jump into the sea" - he quit the security of his job and went into business. His noodle shop was a big success, and two more followed. But the boy never had money before, and it got to him. He started partying and drinking. He lost his money - then the restaurants. Wang found him with another women, divorced him, and went back to the factory in what was a period of personal desolation.

Wang's family mobilized on behalf of the daughter. They put out the word that she was jilted, and her need for a good husband. She also rallied and started learning English. She met and married Pang. He is a stage designer and camera buff, and the couple travel abroad, like many Chinese today, on photo vacations. The shelves in their carpeted, comfortable townhouse are packed with exotic souvenirs of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia.

Speaking of her own voyage from factory hand to bilingual white-collar worker, Wang Zhe says with a quiet smile, "My mind has been opened."

Family size in the world's most populous nation has shrunk steadily for 50 years. In 1980, the figure was 4.2, today it is below 3.4. More than half of all Chinese families are now three persons. Men and women in the city are marrying later. Men often wait until 30. Women wait until their mid-20s. Couples tying the knot in their early or mid-20s get odd stares by peers.

"You don't know what kind of person is suitable for you until later," says Sabrina, as she calls herself. She met her husband two years ago when they were both forced to live inside the same building during the SARS outbreak. "You don't understand love when you are young. The questions I have are not the questions our parents had. It is hard to find the right one."

Sabrina and her husband may not have children at all, she says. Both work, she for a university, he for China Telcom. They laugh about being a double-income no kids couple, since they didn't plan it that way. "We aren't going to have a child because everyone else does. We need to be ready," she says.

'Complicated' family demands

In 21st century urban China, having even one child is expensive and takes time. Many parents plan for college and good jobs even for small tykes. Parents rich and poor spend, and overspend, on extra classes and weekend classes for kids. Math, English, dance, music, science - are all subjects for Saturday and Sunday. Every parent wants, as the saying goes, a son who is a "dragon" or a daughter who is a "phoenix" - that is, a dominant character who is a success. The energy spent is significant for both parents and kids; some Chinese couples say they don't want to get into what, in American terms, would be a "rat race" for their kids, since many feel their own jobs and lives are tough enough.

In China today, more and more children of the wealthy or near wealthy live in boarding schools. Parents with less income often leave kids with grandparents. Lui Pei and Xing Liyu, for example, are treating their 10-year-old son Yi to ice cream at the shopping center. They just picked Yi up from his Saturday math class, but confide that during the week he lives with grandparents. During the week, they say, their own lives are already too full, and the family elders love having the child. "In our neighborhood grandparents are fully employed," Li says.

In dozens of interviews, the main response heard about marriage and family from urban Chinese is how "complicated" it is. Some resentment exists, for examples, about dual-income couples with no kids. Yin, who works in a bank, says that many couples who grew up with a hard life, now just want a comfortable life. "I think it is very selfish not to have a child. You are just enjoying the new riches, and giving nothing back. You need to have a child for China." However, a mother of a 5-year-old boy, she adds that, "Even if I could, I would not have more than one.... It is hard caring even for one."

Woman with children between age 30 and 45 feel the least secure about their marriages because they spend most of their time focused on the child, not on their husbands, according to a study by the Social Survey Institute this fall. It's a concern heard in developed nations too, as is the difficulty meeting prospective mates.

The complexities of finding the "right" husband contributes to the increase of singles in the city. Some popular Internet sites take up topics like "why not to get married." One reason cited is the pain associated with a trend toward big, public wedding ceremonies. "Big costs, balloons, embarrassment by friends," are some of the reasons. Many women, having found a new joy in careers, are not necessarily ready to share that with a man who is not educated, polite, or trustworthy.

Single-parent families, as well, are far more numerous. Kun Tian, who grew up in Beijing, went to the States, and now works for the China Daily newspaper, says that in her daughter's elementary school class in downtown Beijing, a third of the children are from single-parent homes.

Women of course often bear the greatest responsibility in such cases. Xin's story is not uncommon: She works in a clinic, has a child, and has been married twice. She slept with her first husband while dating him. He asked her to marry him. She had reservations but felt that since she lost her virginity it might be more difficult to find another man. So she agreed, and it lasted three years. He had an affair, abandoned her, and she moved back with parents. Her second husband was a friend of a friend. They got along well, he advanced to senior management, and they had a child. Xin says the problems started when the company issued him a car and driver, a recent trend in China. Her husband was suddenly never around. The driver finally told Xin he was driving her husband and his secretary all over the city. He admitted the affair. She thought their daughter would keep them together; she was wrong. He left. Her husband's colleagues told her to complain to his boss. She did, asking for help in getting child support. The husband got mad, and disappeared. She's still at the low-paying clinic job - and single.

Rising tolerance

Most Chinese interviewed are quite familiar with such stories. They are daily fare in urban China. There is a sense here too that a greater tolerance for diverse new families is part of the common awareness of the struggles to make a life in the city.

Gays are more accommodated in cities, and have begun a thriving subculture. Cohabitation, for example, once considered risqué and taboo, is now viewed with virtual nonchalance. In fact, not only younger couples, but now many older, retired couples, opt for shared living. The elderly are joining together to counter loneliness and absent offspring. Many don't opt for marriage because it has created serious friction over inheritance.

The Pang Family from Hubei came to Beijing in the years after Mao's Army won the field in 1949. In those days, the Party kept strict rules about what was appropriate. Pang Liping, the stage designer, remembers marrying his first wife after they started seeing each other in his work unit. To "see" a young lady in those days meant you were expected to get married. So they did. But when the two later contemplated divorce, Pang's father didn't interfere or say no. However, Pang's father later confided to him that he had once wanted to remarry. But Pang's grandfather, who had arranged the marriage, along with several Party members, forbade it.

The changing form of the Chinese family


This continues to fall. In 1949, the average Chinese family had 5.3 people. In 2000, it had 3.4.


Marriage rates in China remain stable. In 2003, some 8.1 million individuals registered to marry. Divorce rates, however, have tripled in the past two decades. Nearly 155,000 more divorces took place in 2003 than in 2002. The highest rates are in cities. In Shanghai, 27.7 percent of marriages failed in 2001, with extramarital relations cited as a major cause. Some 70 percent of divorces in the city are initiated by women. About half of married persons express confidence their marriage will survive.


The famed 1977 policy has altered China's centuries-old "patrilineal" society of male inheritance. Since that date, some 80 million only children have been born. Aunts and uncles are disappearing. In the city of Guanzhou, about 95 percent of elementary school children, and about 80 percent of junior and senior high schoolers, are from one-child families.


In 2001, some 7 percent of Chinese were over 65. Projections show that figure rising to 24 percent by mid-century, meaning that 400 million people would be over 65. By 2020, 34.5 percent of Shanghai, or 5 million, will be elderly. Still, life expectancy is rising. With the majority of Chinese urban couples choosing not to live at home, more older people in the city are living alone. In Beijing, 38 percent of elderly couples live alone. In Shanghai, the figure is close to 40 percent.


In a 2000 population survey, 60 percent of urban Chinese families had only two generations living together. Some 30 percent of urban families are "stem" families, with at least three generations present. Before 1949, nearly all Chinese families were "stem."


There are today more than 8 million single-parent families. Some 10 percent of students in urban China are living in single-parent homes.


About 505,000 marriages in 1985 were second ones, usually due to spousal death. In 1998, some 977,000 couples were in second marriages, most a result of divorce.


In 1990, an estimated 100,000 persons between 30 and 50 lived in Beijing as singles. By 2002, that figure was more than 500,000. More than 60 percent of singles are female.


China is estimated to have 40 million homosexuals, about 3 percent of the population.


This setup is popular in urban areas among the salaried class. It is estimated there are roughly 600,000 such families in China. In Shanghai, 12.4 percent of families have two wage earners and no children.

COMPILED FROM: Civil Affairs Ministry; China Academy of Social Science surveys; Social Survey Institute of China; All-China Women's Federation; Horizon & Horizonkey Research of Beijing; interviews.

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