View from the Wall

China's Modern Family Problems


Right now in China there are over one billion people that make up the country's numerous family units. Family is the primary building block for social structures and for human interaction. To a certain degree, a person's quality of life and life expectancy are determined by the condition of his or her family. The collective quality of the families reflects the state of a nation and its people. The Chinese people traditionally have held family in high regard. A family is where an individual's life begins and ends as well as where an individual takes shelter and receives nurturing. Throughout China's history, spanning several thousand years, the Chinese have firmly believed in "building a family and achieving a career" as one's goal in life and as a measure of success. China is probably the most family-oriented country in the world. "Country," in Chinese, is guo-jia, which is not a cold and harsh political term but literally means the "collection of family units." The key concept is that regardless of the size of the country, family units are its basic building block.

However, this social building block is in serious crisis amid the unprecedented economic growth and dramatic social change that China has experienced in recent decades. The time-honored model of three generations living under one roof has been radically impacted. It was common and natural, particularly in the countryside, to see three or even four generations sharing a house together, providing care and security for the elderly and built-in childcare for working young parents all at once. This reciprocal arrangement works well for serving the needs of an agricultural society in which each family toils for its own survival. A larger family and a bigger labor force to work the land translate into more wealth for the whole clan. With the eldest person as the "family head," this long-established Chinese family structure epitomizes order, authority and harmony.

As China enters the twenty-first century and the Information Age, this traditional family structure is very much at odds with a globalized and modernized culture. One essential requirement for rapid economic growth is the free flow of cheap labor. Agricultural reform relieved farmers from farm labor and supplied an abundant, cheap labor force for China's economic expansion. Millions of farmers left their land and villages and flowed into cities, setting up homes wherever jobs led them. This transient lifestyle can only sustain a compact family, excluding the less mobile elderly. As countless young farmers leave their parents and their parents' farms and bring only their children to towns and cities, China's age-old family makeup quickly disintegrates.

There are also a large number of farm families where women and children continue to live on the farm and only the men go into the cities. It is common to find an entire village with only women, children and the elderly. Family stability is further threatened when men fail to return and women and children must go out to work, often leaving grandparents at home enduring loneliness and illnesses. This, perhaps, is one of the heavy prices of urbanization.

At the same time, more complex challenges await families in the cities. Educating children of migrant workers has immediately become a huge national issue. The Chinese government has long considered education to be a for-profit business. The reason is because Chinese families place so much value on education that they are willing to pour all possible resources into meeting the high cost of tuition. In addition, competing for placement in elite schools begins even before kindergarten. To keep their children competitive, parents force arts, music, sports and foreign languages into their curriculum. Parents who do not enroll their children in weekend study sessions are considered irresponsible; playtime or free time is a foreign concept to city children. Sadly, for many children home or family is just another dreadful battlefield outside of school.

As a result, the moment they pass their college entrance exam, students are quick to exercise freedom from their parents' control. For students, maintaining independence after attaining their degree is of highest importance. Hence, the traditional big family is even more difficult to maintain since no one wants to live with their parents. Today, one may still see a few young adults returning to live in their parents' homes; however, the action is not motivated by preservation of tradition but purely by the desire to ease their own financial burden.

Another major factor that has impacted China's family structure is China's family planning policy which restricts the number of children in each family to one. Forty years after the policy's implementation, China's urban family structure has been drastically altered; hence, the so-called "4-2-1" phenomenon. This phenomenon describes the situation where an only child marries another only child and they themselves have one child only. This child then becomes the sole object of attention for his parents and two sets of grandparents, as well as the only hope for their future. Growing up in these overprotected and overindulged homes, these children tend to have no manners and have difficulty getting along with others. Although they are not lacking in love and attention, they tend to be selfish, stubborn and isolated from the outside world.

Birth control policies are man's attempt to interfere with the natural propagation of families. Such policies do slow population growth, but societies pay a heavy price down the road. How will these spoiled "little emperors" face life's challenges? With ever-rising social security and health insurance costs, even more daunting will be the load these children must carry in caring for their parents and grandparents while starting their own families. According to a 2006 statistic, eleven and a half percent of the Chinese population is over 60. It is projected that by the year 2030 China will face a grave aging crisis with a small minority of young adults tending to the needs of a large majority of elderly and children. It will not be possible for individual nuclear families to provide security for the old, and that ball will inevitably drop in the lap of the government. China's economic advancement very likely will stall as a result. The Chinese government now sees the long-term ramifications of its policy, but it is probably already too late to prevent its consequences. In 20 years the entire county will feel the weight its urban families are feeling today.

Related to these family concerns, other issues such as marriage and sexual relationships are evolving as well. Cohabitation, singleness, infidelity, extra-marital affairs and single-parent households have become more and more common. In 2005 alone, 1.78 million marriages filed for divorce. People's lives are deeply impacted by their chaotic sexual relationships and instability in their marriages and families. With the degradation of the traditional family structures and functions, the values they represented have also decayed. There are many victims in this course of social evolution with the vulnerable elderly and the self-sacrificing women paying the highest price.

As grave as this crisis that Chinese families are facing is, what is even more mortifying is the fact that most Chinese are still blinded by the glitter of economic gain, oblivious to the impending disaster. This is the reason why resources and education on marriage and family are vitally needed in China today.

Image credit: lao jia by sarahhsia, on Flickr

Huo Shui

Huo Shui (pseudonym) is a former government political analyst who writes from outside China. View Full Bio