Chinese Family Institution: Adapting to the Changing Times Essay

China in a Brief

China is considered to have one of the world’s oldest civilizations - Chinese Family Institution: Adapting to the Changing Times Essay introduction. In fact, for a number of centuries, China’s civilization was the most advanced in the world thereby creating an impact which still proves significant up to the present day. These golden times of Chinese civilization produced great inventions that would contribute tremendous benefits for the modern world. Among these inventions were the paper, the art of printing, the compass that made navigation more accurate and the gunpowder (“China factfile..” 2006, para. 1). But because of its massive land area and the diversity of its ethnic groups, the country was not able to sustain the civilization it was once known to be. Added to these are the constant warring among tribes, external invasion and civil wars. These factors halted the further flourishing of the once great civilization.

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            In 1912, the last of the dynasties, the Qing Dynasty was overthrown and the first republic was established under the leadership of Sun Yat-sen and the Kuomintang Party. But it was not until 1920, under Gen. Chiang Kai-shek, that the country was unified under a central government. Immediately, political development with the vision of transforming China into a modern and democratic state was implemented.

            In the intervening years, the emergence of the communist movement under Mao Zedong, posed a threat to the existing nationalist government that led to the Chinese Civil War. The Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945 forced an uneasy alliance between the Nationalists and the Communists. After the defeat of the Japanese, the civil war was resumed between these two movements which culminated in the defeat of the Nationalists in 1949 and lead to the establishment of communist China known as the People’s Republic of China (“People’s Republic of China, 2006”).

Today, China is acknowledged as one of the leading superpowers in the world especially after the collapse of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Its economy ranks fourth in the world with major trading partners around the world since the country changed its economy from a centrally planned system to a more market-oriented one (“Economy..” 2006, para. 1).

Family structure and nature in China

The current population of China is estimated at 1.3 billion, comprising about 20 percent of the world’s population. Majority, or 92 percent of the population, belong to the Han Chinese ethnic group with the 8 percent divided between the Tai, Turkic, Burmic, Manchu-Tungus, Tibetan, Miao-Yao, Korean, Mon-Khmer, Tajik, Pai, Tu-Chia and Mongolian ethnic groups (“China”, 2006).

Majority of the ethnic minority groups live in outlying areas that are thinly populated. Tensions between a number of minority groups and the Han majority have always been uneasy although these are mostly suppressed but fears are widespread that these could easily worsen. The 2004 violence in Henan province is a clear example of this (“People’s Republic of China, 2006”).

As in every nation of the world, China considers its family institution as one of the most important unit that comprises a community. And as in most Asian families as well, the Chinese families are closely knitted. Many of these families, especially in the rural areas, still subscribe to ancient traditions and cultures that had been handed down through generations. In stark contrast, however, many urban families have embraced the ways of the modern world, even succumbing to Western influence, partly because of the advancement of technology in urban centers as well as the government’s rapid drive to modernization. In this way, Chinese families can therefore be classified in two: The urban and the rural, although of course, this is a most general statement.

Chinese society, and for that matter the families in particular, has undergone major transformations in recent years. Many of the rural dwellers are moving to the cities, consequently giving up traditional lifestyles. Many families relocating in cities have adapted to the Western ways in terms of clothing, technology and even thinking although subtly. In urban centers, sales of cell phones and computers have soared in recent years. The number of personal computers sold in 2003 reached 22 million, second only to that sold in the United States. Consequently, Internet usage rose to more than 100 million users, a significant increase of 17 million from 2004. (“Cell phone..”, 2006, para. 1) Global Internet giants like Yahoo Inc., Inc. and eBay Inc. have entered the China wireless market, acquiring domestic start-ups with combined amount of US$375 million.

This modernization is highlighting the sharp contrast between the rural and urban families with millions being left behind in this rapid advance in technology. From 13 percent in 1950, urban population now make up 40 percent of the total population and is expected to reach 60 percent by 2030. This migration of families into urban centers caused the emergence of a new class of people—the urban poor. Although the Chinese government says the number of rural poor has actually fallen to 29 million people, from 85 million in 1990, this, however, is disputed by a World Bank study saying the number of poor is much higher than the 29 million (Ravallion n.d.).

The Chinese population is expected to increase by more than 10 million a year in the next ten years. This population growth will only start to decrease when it reaches its peak of 1.6 billion people by the middle of the 21st century, the State Family Planning Commission, the commission tasked to tackle the population issue, said. From 1964-1974, China experienced a high-speed growth where its population increased by 700 million to 900 million in just ten years, significantly shortening to five years the time needed for the population to increase by 100 million. Women in their prime age of fertility (20 to 29) has exceeded 100 million on the average each year giving the added cause for alarm because of the huge birth potential. This population issue, if not addressed properly by the Chinese government, will affect the survival and development not only of China itself, but also affect the instability of the whole world. Already, the negative impact of China’s huge population is affecting social and economic development. Despite the fast pace of economic growth, the nation’s per-capita gross national product still fall behind compared to developed countries of the world, precisely because of its huge population.  Because of the gravity that this could impact, the Chinese government has enacted measures aimed at controlling this impending population explosion. Its aim is to improve the people’s quality of life in terms of health care, medical, educational and social services, particularly the large rural population living in areas where poverty still abound (“Family Planning in China”, 1995).

The national family planning program adopted by the national government is, of course, aimed at the basic structure of the community—the family.

To combat the population problem and to help families sustain viable living standards, the government launched in 1979 the Planned Birth policy, more popularly known in the Western nations as the One-child policy. This program has become controversial because of its unorthodox methods regarding selective and forced abortions to issues about human rights abuses, as averred by outside observers (“People’s Republic of China, 2006”). The government of China has been criticized for this policy but the government has no choice but to adopt a strong measure to avert what could turn out to be a national disaster if left unchecked.

The policy strongly promotes that each couple is limited to having only one child and it is in fact, strongly enforced in urban areas, although actual implementation varies depending on the location. In several rural areas, families are allowed to have two children with the following conditions. First, if the first child is a female. This is in consideration for those living in rural areas that initially resisted the policy because a male child is expected to help in the agricultural labor for the said families. Another reason is the traditional preference for male offspring. Second, the next child should be born after three or four years from the first one. If a couple exceeds the child limit policy, fines are slapped, or in many cases, the couples are required to pay economic penalties. Also, these families would no longer be entitled to receive bonuses coming from the birth control program. The children of the couples who adhered to the one-child policy pay less for some services such as education compared to those children whose parents were not able to abide by the policy (“People’s Republic of China, 2006”).

There are also some exceptions which exist in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. Parents who are both the only child of their respective parents are allowed to have more than one child. Also, two parents with Masters Degrees from universities may opt to have more than one child. The rationale behind this is that well-educated parents have a higher chance of being employed in more lucrative and high-paying jobs, thereby being able to shoulder the cost of having more than one child.

Furthermore, all non-Han ethnic groups are subjected to different rules. Those in urban areas are usually allowed to have more than one child, while those in rural areas are allowed to have three or four children. In some instances, some couples simply have to pay a fine, or the so-called social maintenance fee, if they want to have additional children (“Family Planning in China”, 1995).

Since being enforced for several years, there are already tangible results from the Planned Birth policy. For example, the current population of 1.3 billion is estimated to be lower by 300 million because of the family planning program. Fertility rate fell to 1.7 births per woman, compared to 2.1 in the United States. The government claims that the reduction in fertility lessened the severity of problems that goes with overpopulation. Some of these problems are epidemic breakouts and poor social services. The country’s urban population has basically adapted to the population control program as evidenced by low birth rates, low death rates and low growth, although the rural population is still in the process of producing results from the program. In addition, statistics from the United Nations showed that the country’s population growth rate has been significantly lower than the average level compared with other developing countries (“Family Planning in China”, 1995).

Experts believed that because of the family planning program, China’s population were effectively put under control, whereas without the program, the country’s population would possibly have now passed the 1.5 billion mark. The promotion of family planning has created a favorable environment for the community of families and their socioeconomic development were safeguarded, which is very important for the continued development of the country.

However, in spite of the many beneficial results of the program, the country still faces difficulties in providing clean water, sufficient food and adequate services to its population, indicating that continuing action is needed to keep the population under control. The majority of the massive rural population still live in areas of poverty. While many urban dwellers have great access to government services such as clean water or education, there is a great shortage of these in the rural areas.

But there are others who argue that the birth control program was so successful that in fact, the policy has to be changed because of the aging and negative population growth in some areas. Still, the government should maintain a sustainable development path to ensure that population growth would not exceed that of the economic development rate.

Whatever the arguments are, clearly, the Planned Birth policy affected the very foundations of the family institution in China. Many families subscribed to the policy willingly while still many were simply not able to follow or did not intend to follow it for their own reasons. The policy’s wide-ranging effects to the each and every family in China cannot be limited to just figures and statistics. Surely, there are other unquantifiable effects to this social institution which can truly be gleaned probably in the generations to come.

Social and cultural links

Families in China are replete with cultural and social traditions. In many of these traditions, families in China are clearly patriarchal in orientation and in fact still exist in contemporary China. In ancient times, women in China are expected to conform to the norms of the society which imposes several guidelines for their behavior and overall personality.

The Chinese philosopher and follower of Confucianism Mencius outlined three subordinations for women. According to him, a woman was to be subordinate to her father in youth, to her husband in maturity and to her son in old age. Added to these, the female historian Ban Zhao wrote the Lessons for Women, an advice on how women should behave. In it, Ban outlines four virtues that women must abide by. These are proper virtue, proper speech, proper countenance and proper merit. From these teachings, women in ancient Chinese societies are expected to be virtuous and subordinate to men (“People’s Republic of China”, 2006”).

Many women in old China subscribe to the teachings that men are by nature, the stronger and superior being than women. They also believe in the familiar notion that men govern the outer world, while the women govern the home (Ching-kei, Lei-ying, n.d.).

As Chinese civilization progressed, women status in society also evolved. It is during the reign of the Tang Dynasty that the height of women’s status was realized. In that period, women generally have more freedom in choosing their own fashion and their conduct is not very much restricted by the subordinations and virtues of before. At the end of the period of Tang Dynasty to the beginning of the Song Dynasty, a fashion for little feet started. Footbinding was introduced and women belonging to families of the elite practiced this tradition more than the common people. In the Ming Dynasty, women were introduced to the tradition of virtuous widowhood. Women, even if widowed at the prime of their age, were expected to stay single and not remarry (“People’s Republic of China, 2006”).

Before 1949, women have no independence in their choice of a husband. Instead, the family of the women were the ones who would the bride’s prospective husband. Marriages were arranged based on different reasons like the need for reproduction. Other reasons for the arranged marriage are based on the needs of the bride’s father or the would-be husband. Still, some marriages were arranged for the sake of honor.

There are basically traditionally six marriage rituals in ancient China (Ching-kei, Lei-ying, n.d.).

First is the proposal. This is the first step in the rituals. A prospective husband finds a girl he wants to marry. Matchmaking follows with the help of a matchmaker to resolve conflict of interests among the two families who, most of the time, are largely unknown to each other.

Second is birthday matching. After the bride’s family accepts the proposal, the matchmaker would then compare the birthdates of the couple using Chinese astrology. If the couple is compatible, the families would proceed to the next step.

Third is betrothal gifts. The couple’s families arrange for the matchmaker to present the betrothal gifts and betrothal letter to the bride’s family.

Fourth is presenting of wedding gifts. Most common gifts are food and other delicacies although these gifts may vary depending on family wealth as well as on local customs.

Fifth is picking the wedding day. Naturally, the Chinese calendar is consulted for the right time to hold the wedding.

Sixth is the wedding ceremony. This is the final ritual where the actual wedding ceremony is celebrated and the bride and groom became officially married couple.

Although centuries have passed since these traditions were practiced, the patriarchal society is still practiced in contemporary China. Women still feel the immense pressure to get married, if possible, before reaching the age of 30. But the difference is that women are free to choose their husbands and many of the rituals are no longer observed.

Another important family tradition of old in China is the concept of face. Face refers to two distinct but related concepts in Chinese social relations. These are called the “mianzi,” and the other is “lianzi.“ These are used in speech rather than in writings (Ho, 1976).

Lian refers to the confidence in a person’s moral character by society while mianzi refers to social perceptions of a person’s prestige. Face translates to power and influence in Chinese society which is why it is very important for a person to maintain face. To lose lian would mean to lose the trust of the people in the community while loss of mianzi refers to loss of authority. This concept is still observed in contemporary China and other Asian cultures and even in the Western world. The expression “to lose face” is probably the modern equivalent of this concept (Ho, 1976).

All these culture and social traditions contributed tremendously to the formation and evolution of the contemporary families of China. There are other traditions and cultures that have one way or another contributed to the development of the Chinese family institution. While some families completely discarded these traditions, especially in the urban population, there are still some families who adhere to old-age traditions and practices, albeit with modifications, to adapt in the modern world.

American family structure

            The current US population is estimated at more than 299,000,000 with the country’s population growth rate measured at about 0.59 % (“People, 2006”). According to the US Census Bureau, 55 percent of the US population growth from 2002 to 2003 was from natural occurrences while 45 percent were due to migration from different parts of the world.

            The composition of the US population can be said as unique among the peoples of the world in the sense that it is a mixture of different nationalities that migrated and later on acquired US citizenship. To properly discuss the structure of the American population in general, and the families that composed this population in particular, it is necessary to classify its population into different races, and not into ethnic groups.

            Majority or 74 percent of the population belong to the White race, who naturally is considered to be the major leaders and movers of the country. Other races comprising the US population are the Black/African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, American Indians/Alaska Natives, Hawaiians and some other minor races (“Fact Sheet”). It is interesting to note that the Hispanic population as of late has overtaken those of the Black/African-Americans.

            Considering these settings, the American family structure can be considered a diverse convergence of cultures and traditions represented by every family’s root origins.

Chinese families vis-à-vis US families

            Many Chinese families have adapted to the ways of the West, especially in the urban population, but still they hold on to one or two traditions handed down through generations. Those who live in rural areas, traditions are bound to be more tightly observed. Similarly, although American families are perceived to be very progressive, there are still a lot who subscribe to the old cultures and traditions handed to them by their forefathers who migrated to the country. All over the American society, touches of Asian, Jew and European traditions are observed among family members.

            Similarly, both the Chinese and American families share a rich and historical past that their populations are very proud of. American and Chinese heritage are both regarded by the rest of the world as having contributed a great deal to the civilization of today.

Compared to these shared similarities, differences in structure and status between these families are more pronounced.

For example, although the Chinese families of today have become more relaxed about their old traditions and cultures, they are still far from the ways of the families in the Western world, specifically the United States.

            For another, Chinese families are far more conservative compared to families in the United States. Families in China are more tightly knitted, with extended families and all, compared to the United States. In contrast, families from the United States tend to be more progressive in many ways like marriage, adolescence and independence. This contrast can also be the result of religion and not solely because of old traditions and cultures.

            Another significant difference between the US and Chinese families is their economic status. The structure of social classes is distinctly different between the two. There are more American families that are affluent and are able to afford to send their children to school while this is not so in China. Although according to the government of China, the level of poverty in China has gone down, many are still poor precisely because of its huge population. The American middle-class family is a strong component of the US society while in China, this kind of class is practically non-existent.

Much of the similarities and differences between Chinese and American families can be traced to their preservation of the old cultures and traditions of their forefathers handed down through generations. Another factor that contributes in bringing about similarities to these two cultures is the emergence of technology, especially among their youth. More and more Chinese youth are being acquainted to the Western ways through music, movies, fashion and food.


With the advancement of technology, the flooding of Western clothing, food and music, many Chinese youth seem to discard the old ways of their forefathers. There is nothing wrong with adapting to the changing face of the future, and even discarding those old traditions that are obsolete and sometimes outright ridiculous, but it is important for these youth to remember to keep their identity. And they can only do these by looking back to the social traditions and cultures of their past that shaped their nation and in particular, their families.

This same technological advancement have brought about an invisible bridge that is bridging the gap between the conservative and the progressive, the old and the new, the free-spirited and the reserved. In general, however, majority of Chinese families practice their old traditions and there are those who work to preserve these traditions.


The basic unit of society that is the family is the foundation of every nation. A strong family culture and tradition ensures a country’s survival against the onslaught of negative influences both inside and outside its borders. In the case of China, a country that has, for centuries is closed to the outside world, which in the recent past has opened its world to the Western world and has adopted more freer economic policies, a strong moral foundation and its time-tested values are its best protection against the negative and decadent influences of the West.

The significance of this paper is to give an outsider’s insight into the nature and structure of Chinese families and is aimed to contribute in the cause to help uplift their standards of living. It is also hoped that this paper will help in the formulation of programs aimed at alleviating the plight of the poor.

And most importantly, the significance of this paper can be measured in terms of giving recognition and the proper attention that the Chinese families deserved so that their status can be placed into its rightful perspective.


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“China”. (2006). Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved August 18, 2006, from

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“Economy – overview”. (2006). Retrieved from

“China factfile: History”. (2006). Retrieved August 18, 2006 from

Ching-kei, M., & Lei-ying, C. Amazing Facts of The Chinese Ancient Culture. Pilot Publish Company Limited

“Fact Sheet”. (2006) American FactFinder. Retrieved August 22, 2006 from

“Family Planning in China” (1995). Retrieved from planning

Ho, D. (1976), On the Concept of Face,: American Journal of Sociology, 81 (4), 867-84.

“People”. (2006). American FactFinder. Retrieved August 22, 2006 from counts

“People’s Republic of China”. Retrieved August 18, 2006 from of China

Ravallion, M. (n.d.) Fighting Poverty: Findings and Lessons from China’s Success.

(World Bank). Retrieved from

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