In traditional Chinese society, the family plays a different role than it does in America. In American society, the individual can be seen as the basic constituent of society, and the role of the family is to support the individual and to allow him or her to develop. But the family is the nucleus of Chinese society, and the purpose of the individual’s existence is to hold the family together and ensure its continuation.
Following changes in the economy and society, the Chinese family is transforming violently. Expanding modernization, including reductions in marriages and births and an increase in divorces, is continuously changing the face of the family. A new book titled “Understanding Chinese Families” by Taiwanese scholars C. Y. Cyrus Chu and Ruoh-Rong Yu (Oxford University Press 2010) offers insight into the condition of the Chinese family.
This book discusses the shape of the Chinese family from many different angles, including family size, marriage, reproduction, the division of household duties between couples, investment in childhood education and living arrangements and financial management from generation to generation. Through their research, they discovered that the decrease in births has caused a reduction in the size of the family but that interactions between older and younger generations are still frequent and intimate.
The surveys show that in Zhejiang, Fujian, Shanghai and other coastal provinces and municipalities in the Southeast, as many as 32 percent of married couples live with the husband’s parents, while 6 percent live with the wife’s parents. In terms of the provision of daily needs, among couples living with parents, 24 percent take care of expenses separately from the older generation, while 23 percent of the couples provide living expenses to the parents with whom they are residing. Conversely, it is not rare for the older generation to provide living expenses to the younger couple, as is the case in about 10 percent of these households. The data also indicates that assistance goes both ways, and if the older couple helps care for the grandchildren or provides financial assistance, the younger couple is more likely to provide favors in return. It is evident from these findings that although Chinese society is being infiltrated by Western culture, older and younger generations in China are still co-dependent to quite a high degree. In their living arrangements and material provisions, older and younger generations of Chinese families have constructed an invisible safety net.
The results obtained above contrast sharply with American society. In 1981, Gary Becker, winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize for economics, published a monumental essay titled “Treatise on the Family” (Harvard University Press) analyzing the family from an economist’s perspective. According to a more recent thesis titled “The American Family and Family Economics” by Shelly Lundberg and Robert Pollak that was published in the “Journal of Economic Perspectives” in 2007, the American family has changed drastically in the brief 20-year period since “Treatise on the Family” was penned.
Increased incidences of cohabitation, divorce and birth out of wedlock have caused the shape of the American family to expand in multiple directions. Among the various family types, there is an increasing number of households comprised of unmarried heterosexual or homosexual partners, as well as a fairly high number of single-parent households or households comprised of re-married partners and their respective children. The traditional family is in decline, and the market and the government are gradually replacing the role of the family. For example, rather than depending on their children for care, the elderly are turning to retirement homes or government measures for care. Young children are being cared for by kindergartens, nannies or government-provided social welfare programs. Unemployment checks and welfare packages have replaced the safety net that was once maintained by family members.
Faced with the watering-down of the family’s role as people turn to the market and the government, Shelly Lundberg and Robert Pollak believe that the give-and-take among the family, the market and the government is self-perpetuating. On one hand, the decline of the family has forced the market and the government to step in and replace it. On the other hand, expansion of the functions of government and the market has caused a decline in the power of the family. As for the uncertain role of the family, the two scholars and Gary Becker all maintain an optimistic attitude. As Becker’s article 1988 article “The Family and the State” in the “Journal of Law and Economics” points out, if no one interferes with the role of the family in favor of family autonomy, there is a risk that parents will not be able to provide sufficiently for their children’s education or for care of family members, not to mention other potential problems. Through the implementation of government policies (such as the provision of kindergarten and day care services and measures for care of the elderly), these problems can be solved and the family becomes more efficient.
Can knowledge gleaned from the experience of the American family be applied to Chinese society, making the Chinese family more effective? From the work of C. Y. Cyrus Chu and Ruoh-Rong Yu, it can be surmised that the expansion of the Chinese family is different from that of the American family in that the safety net created by family members and the intimate relationship between generations have allowed the Chinese family to remain effective. If China were to rashly import America’s social safety structure, providing unemployment insurance, welfare packages, etc., it might make the Chinese individual dependent on this sort of social safety net rather than actively fostering family relationships, thus slackening the tight family safety net or causing it to collapse altogether. Moreover, a great deal of Western research has found that when provided with unemployment insurance and social welfare, some prefer to depend on the government for their own subsistence and refuse to work, resulting in dire social problems and serious financial burdens. Rather than pump its resources into the construction of a social safety net, it is better for the government to work on maintaining family safety nets, allowing Chinese families to sustain their traditional form as much as possible.
Thanks to the onslaught of Western culture, some may think that the moon shines a little brighter on the Western world and that Western systems and rules are worth imitating. The investigation in the book “Understanding Chinese Families” helps us to understand the Chinese family, to reconsider the advantages of the traditional Chinese household and to realize that we don’t have to take after America.