Lead Article

The Family in China

Today, more than half way through 2008 and close to the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, even the most casual China watcher is challenged by the seismic waves of change taking place. While mentally we still hold onto outdated picture postcards of bicycles, walled cities and blue-suited workers, one can only stare in disbelief at the skyscraper silhouetted Shanghai.

One works to get a mental grip of the staggering implications of thirty million people’s annual rural to urban migration. The past ten years’ movement approximates the entire United States population. How, then, has China sustained eight to ten percent annual economic growth over the past twenty-five years, something never before done in history?

It is no surprise that the family is also changing when it seems that so little else remains the same. Just what are some of the areas in which the family is changing? Why have they occurred? What has been the church’s response to these family changes considered to be so central to China’s past and evolving life story?

All of Life Tells a Story

In its simplest form, a story involves three major subplots or story lines. In the main plot, the characters are often portrayed to be living a wonderfully idyllic life, so wonderful that one wishes it could go on forever. Inevitably, something occurs that disrupts and unsettles the story such that life unlikely will ever again be the same for the main characters. The remaining story revolves around the ongoing struggles to get rid of the dissonance and thereby return life back to its “normally idyllic” setting.

The biblical family’s story begins in Genesis 1-3. God creates man and places us within a family in the Garden of Eden. In doing so, God’s intention is that the family will enjoy life and one another in this perfectly pristine setting. Following the garden story, Eve’s eating the Tree of Life’s forbidden fruit becomes the disruptive event, and Adam and Eve are banished from the garden. For them and all following them, life becomes an ongoing struggle to re-create this Garden of Eden setting in our lives. We want pleasant, conflict free relationships; healthy, emotionally sound children; and stimulating, well compensated vocations. In essence, we want heaven on earth.

The Chinese family story can be told in the context of the biblical family. As with Adam and Eve, the Chinese story has been a struggle to provide for the family as well as to preserve the family’s economic well being. The hope is that the family’s place and relative status in the community will be sustained and even improved for the family generations that follow. For most Chinese, this is seldom easy. Change is always part of the picture.

Changes in China’s Recent Past and the Family

According to Yan Yunciang, studies of the Chinese family have usually taken one of three approaches: the economic, political or cultural family. The economic family looks at the ways in which the family, acting corporately, lives a shared life of budgets, property and combined income. The political family is studied from the dynamic of relational struggles fueled by somewhat traditional inequalities and concomitant power struggles. The cultural family approach entails the study of family behavior as influenced by traditional, primarily Confucian, values.[1] While studies may consider the family from any of these three, all dynamics exist and operate simultaneously. These are corporate approaches which look at the family unit rather than through the individual family member lens.

We seek to see how the corporate family and the individual interact, especially in the past fifty years. China is no longer the “old China”: Changes will often show up in how the family responds to its environment, retaining characteristics of the old while becoming something new.

Family has always been an important part of Chinese history. Traditionally, one’s identity meant little apart from the family. One was not simply a cousin, but “father’s second brother’s first son.” Decisions of all kinds centered on what they might mean for the family, individual desires aside. This began to change in 1949 as the modern Chinese state formed.

Seeking to create a new socialist family, the Chinese Communist Party desired to disrupt family loyalty and redirect individual allegiance to Mao and the state.[2] Prior to this time, loyalty to the family over self-interest was emphasized. Personal sacrifice for the common good and preservation demonstrated the greatest love for one’s family. Western observers often think the Chinese worker’s common practice to live and work for long periods of time apart from the family as unloving and selfish. Conversely, the Chinese see this as necessary and loving sacrifice for the family.

Although not achieving desired outcomes, the new laws did enable individual family members to begin forming different attitudes, only not towards the state but more towards one’s personal interests and a developing private life. Unintended effects were changes in parental power, the status of women within the family and self-interest placed above family interest. With increasing individual versus family centered development, pursuit of romantic love, intimacy and sexual interests, privacy and private space would increase over the coming fifty years.[3] These shifts are huge in tradition-based China.

Prior to 1949, women were viewed by men as personal property with no individual rights. Although not affordable by most men, the Chinese ideal was one man with many wives and many more children.[4] Concubines and prostitution were legal. Men were dominant in society. When women were given equal legal status in 1949, prostitution and maintaining concubines were outlawed. Women began exercising more power within family decision making. They had freedom to pursue their own choice for a spouse and were even encouraged to delay marriage and childbirth.

The concept of traditional family was further broken during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The “touch your soul movement” encouraged young people, even spouses, to inform on family members and challenge authority both in family and work relationships. The individual family members learned that no one can be trusted: not government, not family, no one. One must only trust oneself. Consequently, any trust in family relationships was undermined and even destroyed.[5] This underscored the breakup of the family cohesion and exacerbated self-interest.

Beginning in the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping’s famous “to get rich is glorious” statement signaled the government’s switch to marketplace economics. The state-run enterprises controlled much of the worker’s life, giving them permission to marry and even when to have children. Individually, family members began to exercise some in-dependence in their private lives; however, there remained a dependence upon the state in public life. State-run enterprises began to leave the marketplace, unable to compete favorably in commercial markets. Already under communism, religion was taboo and atheism the official view. Workers were left in a moral vacuum which would be filled by consumerism and materialistic gain values.[6] In the late 1990s reform movements, state-owned enterprises retreated more and more as a presence in the private life, and individual Chinese were left to pursue their own interests, economically as well as in formerly private and seldom discussed areas such romance, intimacy and sex.

China’s economic miracle has resulted in steady growth and undreamed of opportunity for some yet left others with fear and uncertainty. The structural and cultural changes that have been forced upon the Chinese in the past thirty years took over two hundred years to develop in the West. However, business is vital to China’s need for fast development and drive to regain its past prominence. Furthermore, business is viewed as an opportunity for young people to have success early, to live life free from bureaucratic controls and to enjoy the money one earns. In essence, each person is free to establish his own little empire, in the imperial sense.[7] The thread through all of this is increasing self-reliance, economic self-interest, and disregard for parental and family pressure.

China’s rural population, like elsewhere around the world, has flooded the cities seeking its part in the growing economy. It is a difficult life with long hours and substandard living. Still, the migrants can earn more money, and send it home, than is possible by remaining in their home villages. The opportunity is in the city. Some migrants leave their families behind, and others choose to bring them. Unless the family has a legal residence card for the working area, they are denied most or all social benefits, such as access to health care and schools for children.[8] Despite government efforts to relieve the situation, migrant children, if at all, often attend illegal or substandard schools staffed with nonqualified teachers. They develop self esteem problems recognizing that they are different from other kids living in the city.[9]

Birth planning has been part of the governmental programs since the 1950s, but the stricter measures (1-Child Policy) began in the 80s. Enacted by the government as a means of controlling the growth of China’s population, enormous focus and pressures are placed on a family’s one child.[10] Parents and grandparents look to the child to provide for them in old age as they live longer, and the resources of government and companies are increasingly inadequate.

The decline in birth fertility rates combined with decreased mortality rates has reversed the relational structure of the larger family. In the past, one grandparent had scores of grandchildren seeking his or her attention; today, there is one child who is receiving all the attention and being spoiled by parents and two sets of grandparents. No one knows just where this will lead in the next fifty years. China is one of a few countries in which many children will grow up as an only child.[11] The next generation, that will not have aunts and uncles, will experience a different family life as well.[12]

The Chinese Family and the Church

Among Chinese Christians, there can be a dichotomy between the secular and the spiritual with little integration of one’s faith and family relationships. Rather, one observes husbands and wives, single adults, and even the pastor seeking successful involvement outside the home, in church or business, without giving the same attention to the family. Since the house churches are often made up of families, this disconnect between God’s story and our personal story can leave the impression that God matters elsewhere while seemingly not being important to the home and family.[13]

Generally, the response to the changing Chinese family has come from the larger church body and not any one church. Input from key local leaders as well as from my own experience shows that much of the current church emphasis is limited to evangelism and associated pastoral responsibility. There is little energy given to strengthening the family. While changing, the majority of family teaching comes from trained specialists or groups that conduct family seminars and conferences in different churches or communities across China. Especially in urban centers, there is a growing awareness of the need for premarital training, sex education and purity before marriage, marriage strengthening and communication skill building. Many pastors feel inadequate to train in these areas.

Reflecting upon China over the past fifty years, there have been many enormously important yet often seemingly unrelated changes within the country, the economy and the family. How does one make sense of it all? Looking at a tapestry’s back side with a hodge-podge of loosely hanging multicolored strings may offer insight. Reversing the tapestry and seeing the design created by all the threads and colors gives us a hint that God is present in all the chaos, change and uncertainty. He sees the big picture and the way that the Chinese family story is all a part of the biblical family story. This is also part of his grand plan and purpose which has never once changedto bring all things everywhere under his authority and control.


  1. ^ Yunciang Yan, Private Life Under Socialism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), xii.
  2. ^ Ibid, 8.
  3. ^ Ibid, 220.
  4. ^ Francesco Sisci, “The Big China Change,” La Stampa.it, 13 June 2008, accessed 10 July 2008.
  5. ^ Author, private conversation with Chinese associate in Beijing.
  6. ^ Yan, Private Life Under Socialism, 16.
  7. ^ Sisci, “The Big China Change.”
  8. ^ Nancy E. Riley, “China’s Population: New Trends and Challenges,” Population Bulletin, Volume 59, no. 2, June, 2004, accessed 8 July, 2008.
  9. ^ Compassion for Migrant Children website, http://www.cmc-china.org/, accessed 10 July 2008.
  10. ^ Riley, “China’s Population,” 11.
  11. ^ Potter and Potter, China’s Peasants, as cited in Nancy E. Riley, “China’s Population: New Trends and Challenges,” Population Bulletin, volume 59, no. 2, June 2004, 25.
  12. ^ John Bongaaris and Susan Greenhalgh, “An Alternative to the One-Child Policy in China,” Population and Development 11, no.4 (1985): 585-617 as cited by Nancy E. Riley, “China’s Population: New Trends and Challenges,” Population Bulletin, volume 59, no. 2, June 2004.
  13. ^ Author, private conversation with local Chinese pastor.

Image credit: Chinese family by Matt Barber, on Flickr 

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