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Marriage and family evolving in modern China

LI BINGJIE | 2021-10-14 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A newly married couple dressed in traditional Chinese wedding costume in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province Photo: CFP

As China’s economy and society develop, people’s mindset, behaviors, and their family structures and functions are also changing. Scholars are more drawn to the current situation of marriage and family in China, its important changes, and its difficulties as well as solutions. An online forum held this July was themed on Chinese people’s love, marriage, and family life over the past 100 years. Some important issues of the present-day society were discussed in the forum, including cross-generational interaction, old-age support, childrearing, and family policies. 
Traditional  vs. modern mindsets
The love and marriage life of rural women are key subjects for sociologists. Ji Yingchun, a professor at Shanghai University, said that under the marriage-related pressure posed by men and their families, some women in rural areas have to choose flash marriages or marry young. Since rural male residents tend to outnumber female residents, in order to get married as soon as possible, some rural males faced with “marriage squeeze” have to resort to proactive marriage strategies by leveraging the double standards in the traditional cultural norms. 
At the forum, Cao Rui and Chen Beili from Shanghai Business School shed light on lower class young women’s marriage life. Disciplined by traditional family and gender conceptions, these women tend to be exploited since they have to contribute financially to their brothers’ marriages, which can be understood as an intra-generational exploitation. Meanwhile, they may also shift the exploitation by transferring their household duties and role of mother onto the elderly, as a way of struggling for the right to seek love and life as an individual. 
The study of how common it is for women to trade for men’s socioeconomic status with beauty, in a way, reflects the level of gender equality of a society. Based on data from five editions of the China Family Panel Studies survey, Xu Qi and Pan Xiuming from Nanjing University found that “bartering physical attractiveness with social status” is not common in Chinese marriages. However, exchange is common among “education,” “occupation,” “income,” and “family background.” 
More equalized gender roles 
Professor Wu Yuxiao and his colleague from Nanjing University compared the answers to the questions related to “whether men should be society-oriented while women should be family-oriented,” one of the questions in the investigations into the social status of Chinese women in 1990, 2000, and 2010 (those who agree to the proposition are considered conservative, whilst those against were deemed modern and advanced). They found that different age groups and gender groups of respondents tend to have different mindsets about gender roles. Their mindsets are also influenced by the times. 
2010 was a turning point, before which the number of respondents who agreed to the proposition rose by the year, but has dropped greatly ever since. That is to say, after a “resurgence,” the traditional mindset began to be offset by an inclination towards gender equality. As they age, females tend to become more traditional, whereas males change only slightly. The generation effect for women was an inverted “U” shape, with women born after the 60s being the most conservative. The gender mindset of males and females born after 1985 was polarized, meaning men are more conservative while women more modern. 
The traditional and modern mindset of gender roles collide into each other in scenarios of family and working place, marked by a clear tendency of equalization. 
Xu Xiaohe from the University of Texas analyzed the relationship among housework, gender mindsets, and the conflicts between work and family life. He found that women’s housework time has a positive influence on family to work conflict (FWC), but a less obvious effect on work to family conflict (WFC). 
Meanwhile, the traditional gender mindset not only increases work and family conflict, but also adjusts and reduces the connections between housework time and work/family conflict. 
Xu Junjie from Shaanxi Normal University found that the gender mindset regarding partners sharing housework has a negative regulation effect on women’s satisfaction for their marriage. Women with a more modern and equal mindset for gender roles are more sensitive to housework distribution, and are more likely to expect their partners to share the housework. 
Zhang Chunni from Peking University proposed that in comparison to traditional gender roles and mindsets, what deserves more attention is the influence of modern gender roles on individual behaviors, family relationships, and social progress. 
Caring for young and old 
Nowadays, the issue of parenting anxiety has aroused wide attention. Guo Ge from the University of Science and Technology Beijing took independent food intake as a point of departure to reveal the modern “reflexive” inherent tension-charged parenting logic of young parents in some cities across China and points out that soothing cultural anxiety and seeking personal identity present the practical impetuses driving young couples to have “proper parenting.” 
Li Shanshan from East China Normal University observed the whole process where parents of some middle-class families in Shanghai are involved in children’s homework, and worked out the four participation modes based on the two dimensions of parents’ participation and children’s response, and provided new theoretical perspectives and empirical evidence to understand middle-class families’ parenting anxiety. 
Grandparenting has been one of the strategies for individuals and families to cope with social risks and parenting pressure, which in practice involves quite complicated intergenerational relations. Shi Leilei from Hohai University has found that the gender of young offspring is an important factor that affects grandparents’ decision to support parenting, and the “son-preference” and “urgency” principles have different priorities. In case of conflict, family members make allowances for each other and appeal to their empathy mechanism for coordination. 
Zheng Yang from Harbin Normal University points out that grandparents are selfless contributors in intergenerational interaction, and also “intruders” to nuclear families that lack parenting resources. This phenomenon shows that urban families are now in the face of tradition vs. modern strategic interaction, and autonomous vs. dependence struggles. 
Zheng Dandan and Liu Xiaoming from Huazhong University of Science and Technology, and Hu Shiyong and Li Ruiyun from Wuhan University of Technology have employed the concept of “immediate family” and paid attention to the interaction and collaboration between nuclear families of adult siblings to support their parents, and made up the deficiency in academia in paying much more attention to nuclear families than kinship. 
Fan Rong and Nie Jianliang from Northwest University, and Cen Xinyi from Peking University, highlighted the themes of family member structure and minset regarding elderly care. Fan and Nie found that spouse health and intimacy have an impact on their risk perception, and having children around and a good household financial condition can clearly reduce their perception of possible risks. Cen paid more attention to children’s gender structure’s impact on the older concept of “raising sons for the twilight years,” which shows the shift from “raising sons for old age” to “raising daughters for old age.” 
Li Yinhui and Guo Xiaoxuan from Northwest University of Politics and Law analyzed daughters’ parent-supporting and old people’s property distribution intentions, and found that currently old people’s property distribution contains the modern features of exchange rationality and performance evaluation, and further pointed out that sons and daughters earn different rewards for their contribution, with daughters contributing more but just getting as much reward as sons or even less. 
Yang Juhua from Minzu University of China sensed the impact of digital technology on intergenerational relations, and revealed the bargaining between older people’s seniority vs. prime age superiority. He pointed out that their two-way socialization and harmonious co-existence are possible, and theoretically probed into the weak position of old people in the digital era, and the development towards co-figurative culture. 
Family policies needed 
Li Yong, a professor from Southwest University of Political Science and Law, pointed out that the system of compensation for housework does not take into full consideration the particular role of women, and tends to realize gender equality only on the surface. Li Yong suggested that some issues, including the time and methods of exercising rights and ways of compensation in the system should be seriously discussed to ensure real gender equality in every family. 
Ren Yuan and Wei Feng, professors from Fudan University, believed that institutional childcare can significantly help to extend women’s labor participation and working hours. They also advocate enlarging institutional childcare services for kids aged three and younger and alleviating work-family conflicts and the motherhood penalty confronted by women in order to build a fertility-friendly society. 
By analyzing some problems in individual families and figuring out the cultural concept, practical logic, and inner contradictions behind the complex family changes in China, participants in the forum aimed to see society clearly, and jointly promote the development of theoretical research and policy related to family. 
Li Bingjie is from Huazhong University of Science and Technology. 
Edited by WENG RONG