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Tradition—persistence And Transition

Several key features of the Chinese family system according to family life-cycle have existed in Chinese societies for thousands of years. Some of them are still valid in modern Chinese societies, whereas others are changing.

Family structure. The large, complex family has been viewed as the typical form of the Chinese family. In this type of family, parents commonly lived with more than one married son and their families, or two or more married brothers lived with or without their parents in the same unit. However, under the effects of the material conditions, demographic factors, and cultural ideals, the predominant pattern was co-residence of parents with only one married son and his family. That is, three-generation-stem-family (san-dai-tong-tang) was generally the traditional, typical, and prevalent form of family (Levy 1971).

However, the nuclear family has become the predominant household composition in both Taiwan and contemporary China, with the effects of industrialization, modernization. In addition, China is also affected by the socioeconomic policies of the Communist Party. The stem family is still common in rural China and in Taiwan. A special temporary form of stem family called meal rotation (lwenhwo-tou)is typical in Taiwan. In meal rotation, married sons take turns providing meals and residence for their parents according to a fixed rotation schedule (Hsieh, 1985). This long lasting family structure facilitates mutual care of the young and the old.

Mate selection. With the influence of Confucianism, romantic love between husband and wife was considered detrimental to the supremacy of filial piety between the parent-son relationships. Courtship, in ancient China, was for men to seek concubines or mistresses; it had no place in conventional marriage. Given the emphasis on family importance, one's future mate was decided by one's parents or grandparents, and not by the young couple themselves. Because marital relations were part of one's filial duty to parents, the choice was more important for parents taking a daughter-in-law to continue the family line and to help out with the household chores than for the son taking a wife (Baker 1979). The arranged marriage could ensure that criteria of strength, skill, and conscientiousness were used in the choice rather than criteria of beauty. Personal affection and free choice based on love were considered not only unnecessary but also harmful. The Chinese believed that real affection grew up in marriage, be it romantic or not. Should personal gratification not exist, the couple was still together to continue the family, not to like each other.

The Chinese also emphasized the importance for decent young people not mingle or fall in love until they were married. However, parents never fully succeeded in keeping boys and girls apart or in eliminating love from their life. Premarital sex was forbidden for both genders, but the rule was more strictly enforced for girls than for boys. Young men's sexual experimentation was more likely with prostitutes or household servant girls (Levy 1971).

Although most parents and the society itself still consider premarital sex unacceptable, boys and girls mingle freely in both Taiwan and China. Attractions between one another are prevalent. Despite the moral prohibition, more and more young people think premarital sex is acceptable especially when two people are in love. However, more young boys than girls believe so. Survey researchers have found that it is not unusual for young people to engage in premarital sex. For example, among college students in Taipei (the capital of Taiwan), 37.5% of male students and 26.7% of female students have had premarital sex (Yen, Lin and Chang 1998). Among university students in Beijing (the capital of China), on the other hand, 15% of males and 13% of females have admitted doing so (Li et al. 1999).

Along with freer association between the two genders and the pursuit of romantic love among the youth, the Civil Code of 1930 proposed by the Kuomintang and the Marriage Law of 1950 and 1980 by the Chinese Communist Party have weakened parental control in mate selection. Young people in Taiwan and China alike are more likely to choose their own mate with parents' approval, or under parental arrangement with the children's consent (Yi and Hsung 1994; Riley 1994). The thousand-year-old parent-run system has been transformed into a joint parent-child system. An increasingly child-run pattern is also quite common.

Marriage. Marrying outside the same surname group was demanded by law as well as the custom in ancient China. The husband-wife relationship was strictly held to be supplementary and subordinate to the parents-son relationship. Love was irrelevant. A filial son would devote everything to his parents at the expense of his marital and other relationships. If there were a quarrel between his wife and his parents, he would have no alternative but to side with his parents, even to the extent of divorcing his wife. Marriage was for the purpose of providing heirs for the family and continuing the father-son line, so the husband/wife tie was not one of affection but of duty. Should affection develop, display of it before other family member was disapproved of socially. No upright man showed signs of intimacy in public, not even with his wife. It was regarded as licentious for female to display their personal charms (Hsu 1971).

Division of labor in the household was primarily based on gender. The men dominated the public sector and work in the fields or elsewhere outsidet the home. The women occupied the domestic sector, by managing the household and providing service for its members. Regarding decisionmaking in the household, the husband enjoyed absolute power.

Traditionally, Chinese girls married early—as soon as possible after puberty. Marriage brought about drastic changes in women's lives but not so in men's. Once a woman married, she had to leave her natal home and live with her husband's family. A frequent meeting with members from natal family was improper. The first duties for a woman were to her husband's parents, and secondly was she responsible to her husband. Unfortunately, tension and conflict between mothers- and daughtersin-law was frequent. The power, however, always lay with the mother-in-law due to her superiority of generation and age and the emphasis on filial piety.

Regardless of her hard work for her husband's family, a daughter-in-law was seldom counted as zi-jia-ren, nor could she enjoy favoritism, especially if she had no son. As an outsider, without a son to secure her status, a woman was doomed to powerlessness. The head of the family might demand that his son take a concubine, and the wife could only cooperate (Leslie and Korman 1989).

The Marriage Laws of 1950 and 1980 in China and the revisions of Civil Code in Taiwan have helped to raise the status of Chinese women. The average age at marriage has been rising for both men and women. Once married, women do not change their surnames. They also have full inheritance rights with men. Mandatory formal education and participating in paid labor market altogether increase wives' power to achieve a more egalitarian style of decision-making and domestic division of labor. This phenomenon is more predominant in cities than in rural areas, and is more common in China than in Taiwan.

Despite the significant progress, the persistence of tradition still restricts women to inferior status. Wives' full-time paid employment does not guarantee that their husbands will help with household chores. Many young couples begin their marriages by living with the husband's instead of the wife's parents. The mother-inlaw/daughter-in-law relationship remains difficult. Visiting the natal home still frequently causes conflict between these two women (Kung 1999).

Child socialization. The differential treatment of the child on the basis of gender began at birth. The birth of a son was greeted joyfully. Daughters, in contrast, were usually deemed liabilities. They experienced a much greater risk of being sold out to act as servants, concubines, or prostitutes. Infanticide often happened.

The Chinese were tender and affectionate toward small children. Discipline was held to a minimum (Levy 1971). Through story-telling, for example, young children learned to obey their parents and older siblings, and, more importantly, to devote themselves to be filial. At the age of three or four, some restrictions began, as did segregation by gender. Boys were under their fathers' direct supervision. Girls were inducted into women's tasks. Education for girls was considered unnecessary and even harmful.

A daughter was trained for marriage, to be a good wife, nurturing mother, and a diligent daughter-in-law. The best training for marriage was illustrated in the Four Attributes—proper virtue, speech, carriage, and work (Mann 1991). Should the daughter turn out to be a poor wife or an unfit daughter-in-law, criticism would be directed to her mother as the person responsible for her training in the domestic arts.

Foot-binding, started from early childhood, also confined women to home and made them safer, less mobile property. In 1902 the Ching empress and in 1912 the president of the Republic of China respectively issued edicts that outlawed footbinding. However, the practice did not end until the end of the Sino-Japanese War, Second (1945) (Gao 1995).

Because of the Family-Planning program in Taiwan and One-Child Policy in China, respectively, far fewer children are born in contemporary Chinese families. Daughters are cherished as are sons. Gender segregation no longer exists. Daughters can also enjoy equal rights, but sons are still preferred particularly in the rural areas. Female infanticide still happens occasionally and even has increased in China since the One-Child Policy era began in the 1970s and 1980s.

Extensive school attendance and nonfamily employment have set the youth free from absolute parental authority and much family responsibility. Teenage subcultures have emerged as well. Although the relationship between parents and children has become a more equal and relaxed one, Chinese parents still emphasize training and discipline in addition to care taking (Chao 1994).

Divorce and remarriage. Divorce in imperial China was very rare. Husbands could initiate a divorce on any one of the following seven grounds: (1) failing to have a son, (2) adultery, (3) disobedience to parents-in-law, (4) gossiping, (5) theft, (6) jealousy and ill-will, or (7) incurable disease. These are so called Seven Outs (qi-chu). Divorce also happened by mutual agreement, but actually required the consent of the heads of the families. Finally, divorce could be initiated by order of the authorities. In each case the welfare of the family was emphasized, not the interests of the couple (Lang 1968). Marriage was infrequently dissolved on the wife's initiative. The poor could not afford divorce and remarriage. The wealthy regarded it as shameful; the taking of concubines thus became a common alternative.

The Chinese considered it sad and tragic for women to be divorced and frowned upon them. They were not entitled to inherit any property, nor Shoes for bound feet shown next to a coffee cup for size comparison. Foot-binding confined women to home and made them safer, less mobile property. HSIANG-MING KUNG would other families consider them suitable marriage prospects. They could only go back to their families, but their repudiation brought shame on themselves and their families as well. Their alternatives were suicide, begging, prostitution or becoming nuns.

Revisions of the marriage laws in both Taiwan and China alike grant modern Chinese women equal rights on divorce, child custody, and remarriage. Most divorces nowadays result from mutual consent or from insistence by either party, although for women to be divorced due to failure to produce a son still happens occasioinally. The divorce rates in Chinese societies have been increasing (Thornton and Lin 1994). Although marriage laws have been changed, divorced women are still more discriminated against than are divorced men. For example, the court may appoint a guardian in the interest of the children; and court rulings generally favor the father.

Old age and widowhood. The elderly, as the closest living contacts with ancestors, traditionally received humble respect and esteem from younger family members and had first claim on the family's resources. This was the most secure and comfortable period for men and women alike. Filial piety ensured that the old father still preserved the privilege of venting his anger upon any member of the family, even though his authority in the fields might lessen as he aged. His wife, having produced a male heir, was partner to her husband rather than an outsider in maintaining the family. If not pleased, she had the authority to ask her son to divorce his wife. However, due to her gender, her power was never as complete as her husband's.

The life of widows in traditional China was no less miserable than that of divorced women. Although widowers could remarry without restraint, the pressure of public opinion ever since Sung dynasty (A.D. 960–1279) prevented widows from remarrying. The remarriage of widows was discouraged, and their husbands' families could actually block a remarriage. Nor could the widow take property with her into a remarriage. The only way a widow could retain a position of honor was to stay as the elderly mother in her late husband's home. This way, her family could procure an honorific arch after her death (Yao 1983). A widow's well-being was less valuable than the family's fame.

The decline in fertility and increase in life expectancy both contribute to the growth in the aging population for Taiwan and China. Modern industrial life has weakened the superior status of the aged. The power of filial norms that call for children to live with their elderly parents has declined (Yeh 1997, Xiao 1999). Many aged persons are in danger of being left without financial support. The situation is even worse for aged women because they experience double jeopardy on age and gender grounds. Those elderly parents who still live with their adult son usually have to help with house keeping, child caring, and they sometimes suffer from the grimaces of the younger generation. Elderly abuse is no longer a rare phenomenon. Regardless of revisions of the inheritance laws that guarantee the inheritance rights of widows as well as the elimination of the value of widowhood chastity, remarriage for widows, especially those with grown children, continues to be considered disgraceful. In fact, widowed as well as divorced women in Taiwan experience the highest distress level compared with men and women across all marital statuses (Kung 1997).


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Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsChina - Regulations Of Family Relationships, Tradition—persistence And Transition