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Chinese Families in the Post-Mao Era
University of California PressCopyright © 1993 Deborah S. Davis and Stevan Harrell
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Chapter OneUrban Families in the Eighties: An Analysis of Chinese Surveys
During the 1980s our knowledge of the shape of urban family life in the People's Republic of China increased several fold. Some quite excellent research, to be sure, had been conducted by Western scholars in the 1970s through interviews with emigrants in Hong Kong. But it was only in the eighties that Western sociologists, anthropologists, and demographers at long last were able to conduct research inside China. And perhaps more important, it was only in the 1980s that China's own social scientists were able to begin serious research of their own.
Under Mao, scholarship in the social sciences had been sacrificed to the whims and dictates of politics. The government had deemed sociology potentially dangerous, in that it intruded on the Party's desire to hold a monopoly over analyses of society. All sociology departments were abolished in 1952, and it was not until 1979-80 that three departments-in Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai-were reestablished by the government as a first step in rebuilding a capacity to monitor and analyze social problems. Sociology departments soon opened at universities in other cities, with staff hurriedly recruited from other disciplines.
Though the field was still new, a substantial number of Chinese surveys on urban family composition were conducted between the years 1982 and 1985. The most significant of these projects was a coordinated effort in 1982-83 to study family patterns of eight residential districts in five of China's major cities: Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Nanjing, and Chengdu. The more than a dozen scholars who cooperated in this endeavor published a 566-page book that not only included essays on their separate findings but also provided appendices with hundreds of tables of local and cumulative data. A rush of other surveys followed: of young marrieds, of middle-aged women, of the elderly, and so forth. By 1986, however, this boomlet in survey research was on the wane, and the number of new survey findings that were openly published declined precipitously thereafter.
Not all of this research was methodologically sound in sampling techniques, nor did commonsense always prevail in the composition of questionnaire questions. Some of the researchers, without training and new to this mode of social science research, were obviously learning on the job. Perhaps a third of the survey reports from those years are of little use on account of such problems. But the other two-thirds, those that appear to have been reasonably sound methodologically, are invaluable in promoting our understanding of social change in urban China. Cumulatively, they enable us to see the broader outlines of urban family structures and the changes these were undergoing.
Unfortunately, this is not at all true with respect to rural surveys-which is why this book does not contain a parallel chapter on Chinese findings about peasant families. Rural surveys by Chinese sociologists are hard to come by, and the comparatively few that do exist generally seem to have been conducted hurriedly, using abnormally small samples. Overwhelmingly, Chinese scholars have concentrated instead on the residents of big-city neighborhoods.
This chapter will draw upon some thirty-five of these urban surveys. Since almost all of them date from 1982 to 1986, much of my analysis will concentrate on the shape of urban Chinese families in the first half of the eighties. In a number of places my analysis will differ from those of the Chinese authors, and my citation of their statistical findings does not imply that they are responsible for the interpretations I have placed upon this data. The first sections of the chapter will draw heavily upon the statistics of the five-city survey, to set out the circumstances of families at the opening of the eighties. The latter sections will refer almost exclusively to other, later surveys.
Wu chengshi jiating janjiu xiangmu zu (Research Project Group on the Families of Five Cities), Zhongguo chengshi jiating (Chinese urban families) (Jinan: Shandong renmin chubanshe, 1985). The scholars involved in this project subsequently published two edited conference volumes of papers that discussed the findings: Pan Yunkang, ed., Zhongguo chengshi hunyin yu jiating (Chinese urban marriages and families) (Jinan: Shandong renmin chubanshe, 1987); and Liu Ying and Bi Suzhen, eds., Zhongguo hunyin jiating yanjiu (Research on Chinese marriages and families) (Beijing: Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, 1987).
The major exception is the native village of the grand old man of Chinese sociology, Fei Xiaotong. Fei has sent assistants into the field to survey this one village repeatedly. First the simple facts. As of the early 1980s, according to the five-cities survey, some two-thirds of all the households in China's major cities were nuclear in composition: that is, they consisted only of parents and their children. We often think of Chinese families as including not just a married couple and their children but also one or more grandparents-that is, stem families - and the data showed that, while urban China was largely composed of nuclear families, stem families, too, were indeed commonplace, constituting a quarter of all households. The 1982-83 survey of eight neighborhoods in five of China's major cities revealed that nuclear and stem families combined accounted for more than 90 percent of all households (table 2.1).
What was the prevalent trend, though? Were increasing numbers of newlyweds setting up their own independent households rather than living with parents-in-law in stem families? Not if we go by the figures gathered by the five-cities survey. These show that prior to the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the numbers of urban newlyweds who formed independent households were already on the rise, and that this trend had continued into the 1950s, but leveled off and subsequently dipped sharply. As can be observed in table 2.2, approximately 57 percent of the urban newlyweds who married during the dozen years between 1954 and 1965 had established their own households, but the incidence of this practice had been cut almost in half, to 32 percent, within the next dozen years.
One plausible explanation for the earlier shift into independent households is that the first decade of Communist Party rule had witnessed a large wave of immigration of single young adults into China's cities from the countryside. They had had no families in the cities to fall back on, and when they married had necessarily set up independent families. This inflow of migrants was cut off in 1958, and strict controls against new migrants were introduced thereafter. We may presume that for at least the half decade immediately after the inflow from the countryside was halted, large numbers of the young adults who had arrived before 1959 were continuing to marry, which would explain the persistence during 1958-65 of a relatively high level of independent households of newlyweds (see table 2.2). But from the mid-sixties onward, the vast bulk of the marriage-age young people were from established urban families and, accordingly, could move in with parents after marriage.
Notably, it is also evident in table 2.2 that among the couples who married in the half-decade following Mao's death (the years 1977-82), the proportion establishing independent families was substantially lower than in the prior decade of 1966-76 and scarcely higher than for newlyweds in the years before 1937. What accounts for the overwhelming preponderance of stem families among this younger generation of newlyweds? It should be remembered that a large portion of China's urban young people had been shipped off to the countryside to settle as peasants in 1968, when the Red Guards were crushed and the Cultural Revolution violence ended. They were joined in the countryside during the 1970s by a large proportion of the new urban secondary-school graduates, under a government policy of having the villages absorb the great bulk of the urban young people who were surplus to the needs of the urban labor force. By the late 1970s, fully eighteen million urban youths had been forced into the countryside. Very few of them married during this decade of enforced rustication, in the belief that married couples would be less likely to receive permission to return to the cities. The wait was rewarded, for between 1975 and 1979 one province after another abandoned the hated to-the-countryside movement and ordered most of the youths back to the cities. During the succeeding years, covering the period 1977-82, a large number of this horde of returned young people were not able to secure any regular urban employment nor the wherewithal to obtain separate accommodations when, after so many years of delay, they finally married. Such couples crowded into parents' apartments (the bride's if adequate space was not available at the groom's) until separate housing became available.
That a temporary lack of alternative accommodations was a fundamental reason for the high proportion of stem families among newlyweds is suggested by the fact that most young couples moved out of the parents' home after only several years. A 1985 survey of 419 such multigenerational households in the city of Tianjin nicely illustrates this: 65 percent of the younger couples who had initially participated in stem families had moved out within the first five years of their marriage; and a further 17 percent moved out in the sixth to the tenth year of marriage: that is, in all, more than 80 percent of such stem-family participants moved out to form independent households within the first ten years of marriage. This phenomenon was true not only for the most recent generation of young couples; the same shift out of parental homes had been true, too, of older cohorts of couples.
The consequence was that a clear majority of middle-aged couples, as of the early 1980s, were living in independent nuclear families, not with parents-in-law. Table 2.3, based on a survey of a Beijing neighborhood in late 1982, shows this very much to be the case for wives aged thirty-three to forty-five.
Demographics alone would dictate that many of these middle-aged couples would by necessity live as nuclear households. In past decades, from the 1940s through the end of the 1950s, urban families very often were giving birth to three to five children; and with the near-abandonment of the joint-family tradition (see below), when these children grew up all but one of them necessarily had to leave the household, either immediately at the time of their wedding or when their next younger brother married. This goes far in explaining the phenomenon, seen above, whereby a high proportion of young couples shifted out of the parental home within the first five years of marriage. The longer-term stem families usually have comprised the elder couple, the youngest son, and his wife and children.
The shift of young married couples into nuclear households may have gone beyond this, however. Chinese statistics suggest that in many cases even the last remaining child moved out, leaving the older couple on their own. Table 2.3, for example, shows that fully 77 percent of the surveyed Beijing women who in 1982 were in the age group thirty-three to forty-five lived in their own nuclear family-and that only 21 percent of the women in that age group lived in a stem or joint family. This latter statistic must have included a substantial number of women in their forties who were living in a stem family with their own newly married children, rather than living with their old parents-in-law. In short, the great bulk of the younger middle-aged women were living entirely apart from their elders.
Are we viewing here new trends in intrafamily patterns, or instead longtime mores? This question can be answered by examining the situation of the households of interviewees' parents, on the eve of interviewees' weddings, as observed in table 2.4. On average, the parents of a groom would have been in their late forties or early fifties (and since brides generally have wed at a younger age than have grooms, the brides' parents would have been a few years younger than the grooms' parents: say, in their early to late forties). By examining the data vis-à-vis people who wed in different time periods, we can derive a picture of the changing status of the households of these two age-sets of middle-aged couples. Table 2.4 is again based on data from the five-cities survey of 1982-83.
It is evident from table 2.4 that as of the early 1980s, the nuclear-family form was more frequent among the middle-aged than in any previous decade, but this had not led to declines in the incidence of stem-family organization. Rather, it can be seen from the table that over these decades both forms of family organization had been the beneficiaries of sharp declines in single- member households and of a sharp decline, too, in the incidence of joint families (that is, families in which two or more married children and their spouses live together, normally with an elderly parent or parents). Similar trends have been evident in Taiwan.
In urban China, this decline in single-member households is presumably the dual consequence both of lower levels of bachelorhood and spinstership and, among all the elderly who had married, of a rising survival rate among offspring. That is to say, a considerably higher proportion of elderly widows today presumably can count on having one or more grown children who can take them in if the need arises.
The decline in the numbers of joint families can largely be attributed to the changed class structure of post-1949 China; many of the joint families of earlier times had been built upon and held together by the wealth and property of the paterfamilias. The scarcity of joint families can also be attributed in part to the cramped living conditions that are almost universal in modern Chinese cities, and which preclude the sharing of the parents' meager accommodations by a large number of people. Whatever the exact factors that have been at work here, the incidence of joint families in a 1935-37 survey in Shanghai ranged from 7 percent among working-class families to 19 percent among the upper classes, whereas quite different figures apply for more recent decades. In a survey by Whyte and Parish of Guangdong urban families as of the mid- 1970s, joint families constituted only some 2 percent of households. That same figure held true for China's large cities as of the early 1980s. As is seen in table 2.1, joint families constituted only 2.3 percent of households in the five-cities survey of 1982-83. (In many cases, I would surmise, these are households containing more than one set of newlyweds who have not yet been able to find suitable accommodations elsewhere.
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