The Changing Chinese Family

The last three decades have seen an irreversible transformation in the size and shape of one of the world’s longest surviving institutions, the traditional Chinese family.

For millennia, large families in China’s predominantly agrarian society ensured that there would be enough hands to manage the family farm or, in the case of families in the villages and towns, the family business. Sons were generally preferred, for, unlike daughters, they would remain within the family and carry on the family line. The extended family network provided the means by which members navigated the maze of an otherwise indifferent and often hostile society, whether this involved finding a mate, getting a job, gaining entrance into the right school or making a significant purchase.

Large families also ensured that the social structure would remain pyramid-shaped, with a larger proportion of young, able-bodied members at the bottom in comparison to the shrinking older population at the top. Thus the family was the social safety net for those who, having passed working age, could count on the support of multiple offspring in their later years.

China’s one-child policy has turned the traditional family on its head. Instead of multiple offspring caring for a proportionally smaller set of older relatives, young families comprised of only children are faced with having to support multiple sets of parents and grandparents. By the year 2020 it is estimated that 30 percent of Chinese women aged 60 and above will have no born sons and, hence, no traditional means of support.

Children of the “one and only’s” will grow up with no cousins, meaning the end of the extended family network as it has traditionally been known. Meanwhile the traditional propensity for male children has resulted in a gross imbalance in the ratio of male to female childrencurrently averaging 119 to 100 for the whole population, but reaching 130 to 100 or higher in some provinces.

The demise of much of the family’s traditional economic functions, along with mass migration to the cities and rapidly changing social mores, has resulted in a radically different outlook on family life. Young people are waiting longer to marry, yet may have had several partners by the time they do. Divorces are commonplace. The spread of HIV/AIDS, a “disease of broken relationships,” is hastened by increasingly permissive attitudes toward extramarital affairs, a growing sex industry that preys on China’s migrant population and a general lack of awareness.

Any one of the anomalies resulting from the one-child policy or the effects of rapid social change upon families is pregnant with opportunity for significant Christian involvement. Together they constitute a major challenge to a church and to outside entities that have been largely fixated on ministering to individualswhether college students or church leaders in need of training and resources. Those seeking a meaningful role in today’s China must grasp the realities of today’s families, for, although the family has seen much change, relationships are still paramount in China. If God’s grace can be seen working in and through families, the effect upon society at large will be profound.

Image Credit: Journal Entry (Joel Montes de Oca) by Chris Lott, on Flickr

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Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio