Discover how traditional Chinese family values (roles of elders, parents, children) interact with modern life in China. Understand Chinese society better.
When you visit a country, among other experiences, getting to know the culture and society of the place can be very enlightening. In China, family is regarded as the most important part of an individual's life. While modern Chinese families have abandoned many old practices, the importance attributed to family remains strong.
The Traditional Chinese Family
China is known for its strong family system. Traditionally, the Chinese family had well-defined roles for different family members.
Respect for Elders
Elders were supposed to be respected and followed unquestioningly.
In Chinese culture elders are viewed as a source of wisdom and spirituality, and they are respected to the extent that questioning their authority is considered offensive.
In traditional Chinese houses altars are made for deceased elders to honor and remember them. Even after departing from the world they are supposed to be the guiding forces in spirit. See more on The Culture of Death in China.
Middle-Generation Parents as Providers
Parents (or working-age adults) too had a very important part to play in the family as providers for all. While the elders were always at the controlling end for reasons of respect, the next generation married and had children as young as possible, and then worked as hard as possible to provide for both their parents and children.
Children as Future Investments
Children had no authority over their own life and decisions were always made for them. Youngsters were always at the receiving end of family decisions. They were rigorously trained and prepared to serve their elders.
Men vs Women: Patriarchal Influence on the Family
In addition to being patriarchal, Chinese society is patrilineal. Therefore, even after marrying into a household, women are seen as the outsiders. In the Chinese family every relation has a different name. The names for family members on the maternal side begin with wai meaning 'outside'.
Emphasizing their external position, women who marry in China don't adopt their husbands' family name and retain their own family name. For example, if Miss Wang marries Mr Li, she becomes Mrs Wang, not Mrs Li.
Women's role in the family was firstly as child bearers, then as home makers and workers, always subservient to the men of the house.
How Changes in China Are Affecting Family Values
Even though times and attitudes are changing, some of the practices are so deep rooted within the culture that it is almost impossible to erase them completely. Where independence is encouraged early on in a child's life in the West, in China interdependence is taught, practiced and encouraged.
Children are not just raised by parents but often two or four grandparents too (usually firstly paternal grandparents). Chinese people often end up making important life decisions just because of the pressure from their elders.
The One-Child Policy
After the implementation of the one-child policy (1979-2015), Chinese society faced some major social imbalances. Since, in China a male child is responsible for the continuation of the family lineage, female infanticide became common. This restriction resulted in too much pressure on a single (male) child which consequently led to what is known as the "Little Emperor Syndrome".
The Little Emperor Syndrome
The extra-focused upbringing of a single child by parents and grandparents lead to a generation of spoiled individuals who would later be regarded as the self-centered, disobedient lot ("the Chinese millennials").
The pressure that the whole generation underwent during its developmental years resulted in a generation of disturbed individuals who lack focus and a sense of responsibility. This generation is also held responsible for the further deterioration of the traditional Chinese family.
Filial Piety and Its Slow Disappearance from China
In present times, the norms of respect for elders are also changing drastically. So much so that elders may now even be facing a complete lack of respect from youngsters as they march towards a more individualistic society.
New Laws Concerning Marriage
In the 1950s new laws were introduced to the social scene in order to reform feudal practices and make more room for individuals and their needs.
Some of these laws included prohibition of live-in relationships, child marriage, and interference with the remarriage of widows. These laws advocated freedom of choosing ones' partners, equal rights for both sexes and respect for the elderly and care for the young.
Even though the laws were made, their implementation was still a major problem (owing to ever-changing national priorities in the early Communist era).
After undergoing the 10-year-long Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Chinese society experienced a decline in its long-held moral values, which resulted in a value vacuum and a reassertion of feudal era practices with greater force.
In 1981 marriage laws were revised again. Women were given more rights and the minimum age for marriage was raised (22 for men, 20 for women). For the sake of population control, late marriage and childbirth was encouraged.
Divorce was made easier to obtain, which meant that unlike in old times, couples would not have to stay in a loveless marriage just for the sake of their parents and children.
For more on how things were, see Ancient Chinese Marriage Customs.
Western Influences (1980s onwards)
With the rapid growth of the Chinese economy came a growth in Western influences. In a world of communication and connectivity the Chinese society adapted to the new ways rather quickly. The modern family became more couple-centric. Unlike their ancestors, the focus of the marriage was shifted from childbearing to the individual needs of the couple.
The Modern Chinese Family
One of the most strikingly beautiful aspects of the Chinese culture is that despite being very strong in its set of beliefs and values, over time it has accepted modern influences and inculcated them into its culture without losing traditions completely.
The traditional roles and ways are still respected and given importance, but the modern family is more open and welcoming towards the needs of the current era.
The Chinese DINK Family (Double Income No Kids)
The modern Chinese family is more diverse in its structure. Couples no longer marry merely for the continuation of their lineage. Love has now became the center of the marriage. Despite reluctant parents, couples can now choose not to have kids and merely focus on their careers and the quality of their life.
While some couples choose not to have (so many) kids in order to avoid the financial burden of raising children, others avoid it to rebel against the traditional ways.
The Invisible Kid
Even though the DINK lifestyle is widely popular some couples eventually give in to their parents' pleas as they are pressurized to provide heirs for the continuation of the family lineage. These reluctant couples, who are psychologically rebelling against the old ways, leave their child(ren) to be raised by the over-loving grandparents.
This not-so-new practice leads to an estrangement of the child from the parents, but is a practical arrangement for poorer families, where income from the middle generation is relied upon to provide for retired parents and dependent children.
The Effects of the Rapid Rise of the Chinese Economy
As old farming ways give way to mechanization and larger farms, and the cost of living rises, more and more rural couples head to the cities as migrant construction/factory workers.
Family values, despite being a social issue, influence several domains because of the importance attributed to them in Chinese culture. Chinese couples are often responsible for providing for extended families, and therefore they are forced to look for better opportunities to earn away from home. For these homesick employees, independent decision-making becomes an issue as well as the pressure to earn more and more for dependent relatives.
Festivals and Holidays
The Chinese culture, despite undergoing several changes, is still rooted in its traditional values. Family and home are still the two most important components of an individual's life. It is a custom for those living away to make long journeys home for Chinese New Year and other traditional Chinese festivals.
Will Chinese Family Values Survive in Future?
Even after a number of significant changes, the basic Chinese family structure and its workings remain the same. While most societies are experiencing a cultural death, the Chinese culture is still very much alive with its strong values and belief system still governing the lives of individuals.
With global individualism and economics now affecting all (though somewhat less in China due to controls on education, the media, etc.), a complete preservation of interdependent extended family culture seems impossible.
The need of the hour is to consider and incorporate individual needs without losing the structural importance of the family.
Visiting a Chinese Family with China Highlights
Several of our tour products give you the opportunity to visit a Chinese family. You can also ask to visit a local family anywhere in China while booking and our travel experts will do their best to tailor it into your tour in a way that suits you.
In Beijing's hutongs you can make dumplings with a local family and learn about life in the traditional housing areas of Beijing. On our Tibet Everest Tour you can visit a Tibetan family living in simple conditions.
Having a family visit is mentioned on our Longji Terraced Fields page, where it is possible to see the way of life of the local minority people through having a meal with them. On our Guilin tours there are several family visit options, not just in Longji. You can also visit your travel advisor's family.