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The Decay of the Chinese Family

Modern Chinese families are playing out the scenes of a tragedy as seen in two recent news articles. The first one told of a rural family where a thirteen-year-old boy was left to care for his two younger sisters while the parents went to work in the city leaving them alone. One day, when the three were out of school, overcome with the exhausting care, the brother gave his sisters pesticide and then committed suicide by drinking it as well. The second article told of a city family in which an older woman lived apart from her husband for over six years as she alternated between caring for the grandchildren of her two sons. When her third grandchild was born to her daughter, she was shocked to learn that her husband had been unfaithful. The older man shamelessly blamed her lengthy separation from him for the affair and asked for a divorce. Under the stress of the marital crisis and physical exhaustion of caring for a newborn, the old woman, holding the baby, jumped to their deaths after her daughter scolded her over a minor matter.

Whether in the city or in the countryside, families are experiencing crumbling relationships, feelings, morals, and values. However, the family should be a place of strong relationships, a harbor of love and a place to nurture and nourish life. Nevertheless, we have witnessed numerous deaths—not only the tragic death of life, but even more the death of relationships. Family life has become a dead, dried-up well and a grave for love in a marriage.

Rural laborers flock to the cities for employment, but the cities do not accept the responsibility of schooling for their children. This has led to lengthy separations in many families as children receive their schooling in their parents’ rural villages. Spouses living apart from each other and grandparents taking care of grandchildren have become very common phenomena. Relationships within rural clans are broken up resulting in relaxed ethical and moral constraints. In recent years, there have been frequent news reports of older men sexually abusing young girls who belong to the “left-behind children” living in rural homes. In addition, those working in the cities sometimes return home with higher standards of living. This exacerbates the shift to materialistic values among rural families. In many cases, land division and implementation of this shift add to the conflicts in family relationships.

Herman Bavinck, a Dutch Reformed theologian, once said that the city is the family’s enemy.[1] The work pace in an urban society, the high living expenses and a host of leisure choices all add to the crisis in family life and relationships. China is now tasting the bitterness of her much-too-fast urbanization. Following are some of the common cruxes.

  1. Marriage is considered a temporary contract. An unmarried status and cohabitation are becoming increasingly common. Even among married couples, very few consider being monogamous for life. Divorce and extramarital affairs have become common occurrences.
  2. Parents ditch the responsibility of rearing their children. Young parents doing business in cities often send their new-born babies off to their parents to raise them. Upon reaching kindergarten age, they are then handed over to the schools. These parents rarely invest any time in the upbringing of their young children in their earlier years. The parent-child relationship will then, of course, have many problems.
  3. Education becomes highly utilitarian. Since most young parents are themselves products of a utilitarian education, they are industry oriented. This same mindset is then passed on to the next generation. Familiar with the competitive environment of the city, it is difficult for them not to compare the various educational options for their children from an investment standpoint. They spend money on their children beginning at a young age to ensure they are not behind others materialistically. Expensive, early educational centers in large cities are a growing industry. It is a manifestation of the problem.
  4. Commercialization of family relations. The traditional Chinese family functioned as a means for passing on values and sharing feelings. However, increasingly the interactions among modern, urban family members lack a connection in spirit and in mind. Rather, their interactions are filled with commercialism and other materialistic symbols. Examples can be seen in the conversations around the family dinner table at traditional festivals. Relatives and families talk about their wages and other materialistic topics; their conversation is less about deeper, relational issues.

Christians in mainland China who are becoming young parents find themselves swimming against all these tides. Many are affected by these social norms and live in the tension of raising families biblically in this environment. Basic understandings of how a Christian family and family education should be structured are much needed for this first generation of believers.

The family is the natural place where the physical and spiritual growth of children takes place and where their spiritual, life journey begins. Because of the closeness among blood kin, spiritual shepherding within the family is irreplaceable. The blueprint for Christian faith is that family is one of the most intimate communities in life and in spiritual fellowship. Such fellowship can teach children to examine their inner self and open their hearts to both God and others. Children can also gain a deeper understanding of their parents’ spiritual journey. With this as a basis, parents can talk freely about anything with their children and become their mentors and friends.

Every house needs a good foundation; every human life and family does too. The following principles arise for building a good family foundation:

  1. Marital relationships that are in line with the Bible are the cornerstones of family life. To a very great extent, the parents’ marriage serves as a pattern for their children’s marriages.
  2. Parents should bear the primary responsibility for teaching their own children. The Bible clearly states that God entrusted children to their parents for them to “produce godly seeds.” That is the goal of education. Only parents can assume the role of engineering their children’s souls because God commissioned them to do so.
  3. Rearing children needs to be according to God’s law. One aspect of teaching one’s children is to help them understand humanity and know that God’s law has been inscribed on the human heart. Children need to understand that mankind has strayed from God’s law; however, the Holy Spirit works to revive mankind. Their teaching should also include a holistic understanding of Christian ethics and worldview.
  4. Quality family life and leisure time as well as everyday conversation between parents and children are very important. Parents’ hobbies and conversations about their interests will contribute to the family lifestyle and atmosphere.

Let us return to the cases cited at the beginning of this article. If parents would comply with the law of God, and especially if rural parents would assume the responsibility for rearing their children until they are grown, then they would not burden a 13-year-old child with caring for his younger siblings—which led to the tragic outcome reported by the media. If the couple in the city had abided by God’s law and cared for their elderly parent, they would not have depended on her to toil and care for her young grandchildren for years. If they had followed God’s law, their parents would not have been living apart, the older woman would not have let her husband fall into temptation that resulted in an affair after their long marriage.

According to the Bible, the first human family was established by God. God did not leave this first family without his guidance. Rather, he enacted the law for family which is God’s precepts and the gospel that gives true life to man. Christ fulfills God’s law by his sacrificial love for the church, revealing the greatest mystery of human marriage—the union of Christ and the church. The purpose of this law-gospel is to give life to mankind, not just so that people will live, reproduce and multiply, but more importantly, that their family ties will be living, healthy relationships that glorify God.

Translated by Ping Ng.


  1. ^ Bavinck, Herman, The Christian Family, ed. Stephen John Grabill (Christian’s Library Press, 2012).
Image credit: 25677-RODSC_0181-DCF by neville mars via Flickr
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Mary Li Ma

Mary Li Ma

Mary Li Ma (MA Li) holds a PhD in sociology from Cornell University. Currently a research fellow at the Henry Institute of Christianity and Public Life at Calvin University, Dr. Ma and her husband LI Jin have coauthored articles, book chapters, and are the authors of Surviving the State, Remaking the Church: …View Full Bio