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Maybe It Doesn’t Take a Village

Globalization's Challenge to the Traditional Chinese Family

Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in China knows what it is like to take a train trip and see what was once hours of rice patties turn into a commute through sprawling suburbs. Just a few years ago, traveling a few miles past the Hong Kong border felt like being deposited right in the heart of the Middle Kingdom. The villages, the rice patties, the water buffalo and the muddy rivers conjured up a picture of China as it had looked for centuries.

Yet, today, the same journey on a high speed train yields very few traditional Chinese images. Instead, billboards advertising cell phones compete for space with condominiums, foreign-owned factories and brand new cars. As the rice patties get replaced by housing developments, the traditional Chinese landscape is changing both literally and figuratively. China’s shift from socialism to capitalism, from rural to urban, and from inward-looking to globally-engaged is challenging many of the linchpins that held Chinese society together for thousands of years. Of all the changes occurring in China, globalization’s effect on the traditional Chinese family may be the most significant and alarming.

The Rise of Individualism in China

For most of human history, the submission of individualism in favor of being part of a clan or tribe was a matter of survival. To quote the English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, life for most people was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Tribal warfare, raiding marauders, harsh weather, famine and many other challenges forced people to live very communal lives. In China’s case, because of its sheer size, lack of arable land and large population, Chinese civilization was built around the role of families. These families and extended families produced children, who then became workers, who then produced food. Even the emperor and the state were part of each Chinese person’s extended family. These family ties were crucial and remained untouched for thousands of years. Today, however, globalization and the resulting economic boom in China are atomizing society. The clearly established set of Confucian social obligations toward relatives and the community at large are giving way to a Western-style sense of individualism led by China’s increasingly wealthy and small dis-connected nuclear families. The changes that occurred gradually in the West as agrarian-based societies gave way to industrial and manufacturing-based societies are occurring in China within one generation. The Chinese family, as it has existed for thousands of years, is breaking up as quickly as the rice fields are being paved.

Perhaps nothing is challenging the Chinese family more than the evolving role of women. Traditionally, Chinese families have been very distinct from Western families. In the large families of agrarian China, the men were viewed as indisputably more valuable than women and sexuality was connected to childbirth for women. Women were not expected to stray far from the house, and daughters were far less valued than men. Quite often women were not even given proper names. The Communists’ affirmation of women was a highly significant moment. Chairman Mao famously said that “women hold up half the sky.” It was a significant breakthrough for women, but it was only the beginning. China’s current era of hyper-capitalism and connectivity with the rest of the world is a game-changer for women. Mao would be stunned at how emancipated women in China feel today. Increasingly, women want to do more than hold up half the skythey want to own it, create an IPO out of it and make it a global franchise.

Today, women play a greater part in the role of the family. Both men and women want to have a regular income. Women, in general, have high expectations for their lives compared to the past, and their plans may or may not include a husband and childsomething inconceivable 20 years ago. Women of all ages in China are inspired by figures such as Cheung Yan, who in 2006 was listed as China’s wealthiest person having amassed a $3.4 billion fortune as the chairwoman of Nine Dragons Paper. Females in China no longer see their fortunes tied to men (or the approval of their notoriously finicky in-laws). There is a power shift toward the nuclear family and the individual. The world is theirs for the taking, and the images beamed around China of new wealth and freedoms for men and women alike promote the idea that in today’s globalizing China “anything is possible.” For the Confucian order which was borne out of a time of Hobessian limitations, this newfound optimism and liberty is revolutionary in its magnitude.

The Middle Class Family Emerges

The newfound freedoms and possibilities that globalization brings has created a middle-class of 300 million and made many Chinese families upwardly mobile, but it comes at a steep price. Throughout the country, radio talk shows are being flooded with women wanting to hear about how to improve their sex lives and complaining about husbands who do not make enough money. Divorce and extramarital affairs are exceedingly common now, and urban life creates the kind of anonymity that makes this possible. For the younger generation of Chinese youth, the pursuit of money takes precedence over marriage and children. The family no longer marks one’s place in society; individual financial success is the measure of a man (or woman).

The increasing lack of interest in marriage by young Chinese women is not good news for a country that already suffers from an extremely imbalanced ratio of men to women. These “bare branches” as the men are called, are the result of China’s one-child policy. With 119 men for every 100 women, there is a shortage of brides in China, and this has increased prostitution and abductions and led to the widespread expansion of sexual slavery throughout the country. This also leads to an increase in AIDS as well as a burgeoning gay scene in a country where it was once the man’s indisputable duty to marry and produce sons. Addiction to internet pornography further fuels the Chinese sexual revolution and breaks taboos at the speed of light.

Globalization and the computer go hand in hand, and this greater connectivity with the world is leading to more disconnection within the family as people find that their time is spent alone in isolation on their cell phones or laptops. Obesity, eating disorders and video game addiction have deeply affected the latest generation growing up under the one-child policy. Known as the “little emperors,” there is a generation of young boys growing up in middle-class China who increasingly have no sense of China’s painful history of poverty and suffering and live self-absorbed lives with the blessing of their parents.

A positive effect of the one-child policy is that female children are now more valued by the urban middle class. Many modern-day Chinese parents place the kind of expectations on their daughters that were once reserved for sons. In one generation, many families have broken the cycle of poverty and already have hopes that their daughter will be admitted to the best university and become the next Bill Gates. However, as with the “little emperors,” the most immediate result on the family is that the entire household is completely orientated around the perceived academic needs of the child. Family life is no longer about the village, or community, or traditions, but rather about academic excellence and material gain. This will no doubt create a generation of highly motivated and intelligent Chinese people (if they have the opportunity to attend decent schools), but it also means a shocking role reversal: the children will know much more than the parents and most likely at an early age. For a civilization that has always emphatically placed the father above the son and daughter, it is disconcerting for daddy to have to ask the eight-year-old daughter how to build a My-Space page. Call it the Cultural Revolution 2.0.

Chinese families are not alone in feeling as though everything is upheavalglobalization upends everything it touches. The same kinds of scenes are currently being played out from India to South Africa. What to make of a 29-year-old Bengali from a low caste that drives a BMW and works for Infosys? As Homer Simpson might say, “D’oh!” For better and for worse, even the act of watching television educates and inspires. Global interconnectivity constantly challenges the assumptions of traditional societies and creates new realities unimaginable before the connection occurred. And once the genie is out of the bottle, it is hard to put back in.

Some might argue that China has seen previous eras of openness before she built her great walls to shut the world out again. This is certainly true, and periods of hype-globalization often end up forming counteractions and periods of withdrawal and conflict. But ultimately, the structure is changed forever. Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” may have been a giant leap back into the Stone Age, and the Cultural Revolution may have created a hermit kingdom, but platforms were built in twentieth century China that ultimately continued the journey into modernity such as the emancipation of women which set the platform for the Chinese female factory worker turned Global CEO.

We should expect that the atomization of a more prosperous Chinese society will continue to lead to a spiritual quest for meaning and community. As China abandons its rural heritage and turns into an urban manufacturing, services, tech-oriented society, the distance from its past will ultimately lead toward a desire to connect with it. China’s rulers are re-emphasizing the importance of Confucianism and becoming increasingly open in their acceptance that religion, including Christianity, is important to establishing a healthy, civil society. China is currently under the spell of a radical individualism that will eventually be viewed as irresponsible and shallow. The family may no longer be connected to a village, but it will seek to connect to communities that promote civil society and tradition. Both nationalism and religious fundamentalism may also rear their ugly heads, but China knows well the cost of chaos and anarchy and after the tumultuous twentieth century, they suffer from revolution fatigue.

In the transitional period when farming life gives way to industry and the villages lose their people to cities, the large family becomes an economic burden instead of a benefit. However, in time, it should not surprise us if the Chinese family makes a comeback. All families may be headaches at times, but five thousand years of sitting around arguing at family dinners may be too much for the Chinese to give up in the long run.

Image credit: ···OH!··· by Caro, on Flickr

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Patrick Nachtigall

Patrick Nachtigall is the author of Passport of Faith: A Christian's Encounter with World Religions and Faith in the Future: Christianity's Interface with Globalization. He received an M.A. from Yale University and lives in Berlin. View Full Bio