Shengliver’s Note: In this entry, Shengliver explores Chinese family patterns.




Xu Xiaoqing is a teenage girl in my new class this semester. She caught my eye for two incidents.


One morning I asked her to come to the podium to recite the lesson to the class. She came up and planted herself at the teacher’s desk. Then she set about the task, rather hesitantly. She was progressing fine when she stopped and turned to me, mumbling, “I’m scared. I cannot go on.” It was crystal clear that she was suffering from stage fright, speaking in a low and shaky voice and behaving timidly. I asked the class, “Can we give the girl a rain check?” The class nodded.


Well, she did quite well the next day. Upon finishing, she was congratulated with her classmates’ applause.


In her first journal entry, she narrated her winter holiday experiences. Quite happy, actually. She ate well and played well. One surprising fact from the entry is that she has 2 siblings. In today’s China, it is quite extraordinary to have three kids in one family. The national family planning policy stipulates one child for one family. I expressed my surprise in my comment, penning on the paper, “Wow, what a big family! You are lucky to have 2 siblings. How can your parents have three kids?”


For the second week’s journal entry, she told me her story. She said her dad died when she was only four. Her original sentence reads: “My dad disappeared when I was four and I didn’t know why.” When I was reading it, my heart skipped a beat.


Later her mother remarried, she wrote. After the remarriage, she was sent away to her NEW grandparents. All through the entry, she did not mention her stepfather at all. I bet she is not getting on with him.


At the end of the entry, she shared with me one of her dreams. In the dream, she met her father. I asked her if she still had some memory of her father. And I hope the bit of memory of her father will carry her on. Luckily she loves her mom and her mom loves her, too.




Xu Xiaoqing’s story prompted me to muse on the current trend in Chinese family patterns. The following family patterns are found in contemporary Chinese society.




Nuclear families are the predominant model. A nuclear family consists of two parents and their children. In China, most nuclear families have only one child owing to the one-child policy. However, a lot of nuclear families have more than one child either because they have twins or because they circumvent the official restriction by bribing the family planning officials or by paying for the birth of their second or third child. Actually in both of my classes a lot of boys and girls have a sibling. I was wondering whether the one-child policy was strictly enforced.




In the 1970s, stepfamilies made up only a small portion of Chinese families. Then divorce was rare. However, the divorce rate has been on the rise, keeping pace with the nation’s economic boom. Most stepfamilies in China result from remarriages. Stepfamilies involve complicated cases. In some, both spouses married and divorced before they formed their new union. In some, one spouse married before but it is the first marriage for the other. In some, one spouse has a kid from the previous marriage. In some, both have a kid from their previous marriages.


It is well known that relationships in a stepfamily can be tense. There are horror stories about how cruelly stepparents treat their children. In Xu’s family, she gets on with her mom for sure. But her relationship with the stepfather is probably not good enough.




Extended families used to be the prevalent Chinese family model. An extended family has at least three generations living under the same roof. There are parents and their children, uncles and aunts, and grandparents. As a boy I lived in an extended family.


However, the model is a rarity now. In rural China, most young men leave their parents and live with their wife in a new home once they get married. In urban China, married couples in most cases have their career and work elsewhere either in the same city as their parents or in another part of the country.




The number of single-parent families is increasing. Most single-parent families are a result of divorces and loss of a spouse. Contrasted with western societies, Chinese single-parent families rarely result from unmarried births or extramarital births. Teenage pregnancies in China are not a big issue. If a teenage pregnancy does occur, it seldom brings about the birth of a child. Stigma attached to such pregnancies would lead to ending the pregnancy by abortion.




This word is interesting. It is an acronym of Double Income No KIDS. A DINK is one of the couple who are married, have their own careers, are well paid, but have no kids.


Traditional Chinese family values still reign supreme. As a consequence, the number of DINKS is small. But there are DINKS in some high-salaried professions. Some DINKS choose not to have kids for career reasons; some for their lifestyle; and some for biological reasons.




An empty-nester is a person who lives alone without any family around. His home is his nest and he is compared to a bird whose birdies have grown up and flown the nest for their own life in the wide world.


This term has been translated into 空穴老人. It is a brand-new phrase in Chinese. China’s immobile lifestyle is gradually giving way to one marked by increased mobility and a faster pace. People are no longer bound to one job at one geographical location all their life. When young people graduate from university, they will, in most cases, choose to work where an ideal position is available. The workplace is not necessarily where their parents are settled.


In Chinese townships as well as metropolises, the number of empty nesters is rising year by year. Probably this is an area where Chinese society should improve the service for empty nesters apart from senior citizens.




Still some adults for various reasons cannot have their biological offspring. These people may opt to take a kid in and raise it as their legal child. This is called adoption. We do have a lot of adoptive families. My youngest brother was adopted by one of my aunts. Now he is their son and he carries their family name.




In my hometown, one year, a couple left for Xinjiang for a job there. But their son was left behind. The son was put in the care of another couple while the parents were away. This in English is called fostering. This is not a very common practice in Chinese society. But it is there and probably fostering will get more common as the mobility increases. There could be a case where both parents are absent and their children have to be looked after by someone else.




Homosexuals are not legally recognised in China. Mainstream culture still kind of puts stigma on homosexuality. Gays and lesbians are underground. In some cities there are some secret homosexual societies. They meet somewhere but it is hard for them to go public. So a gay or lesbian couple probably do not dare to adopt any child, for their own existence and sexual orientation are still at risk.




Yesterday on a TV channel there was a show featuring a surrogate mother. What is a surrogate mother then?


A surrogate mother is a woman who conceives a baby for another couple. This baby may be her biological child but not necessarily so. She can conceive the child through artificial insemination using the man’s sperm and another woman’s egg. She will give up the child to the couple who have reached a legal agreement with her. Usually a surrogate mother is paid for the conception.


Well, this is also new in China. But the cases are increasing. On the TV show I watched, the surrogate mother was fighting a legal case to get the child back. Probably she was emotionally attached to the child.




Miss Xu Xiaoqing’s life story raised my concern over child rights and child abuse in China.


Generally speaking a Chinese child is adored by all the family. Do you still remember the title Little Emperor given to an only child of a family? Love is showered upon the kid, in many cases excessively. It is true that some Chinese kids are spoiled.


However, there are still kids landing somewhere outside the normal model. Where a parent or parents are missing, and where kids are having trouble with their normal physical and mental development, help and social work should be in place. Besides, kidnapping and child trafficking is still a serious problem in some rural areas where a lot of Chinese couples still have a preference for a boy. Some couples buy a son from the child traffickers.


I am afraid societal work of this category is still next to a blank paper in China although the police have been cracking down on human trafficking. A fast changing China will undoubtedly present new challenges. Solved, challenges turn into opportunities. Unsolved, they degenerate into hurdles for the nation to cross in its striving for better society.


May all the kids live happy and healthy.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Kelly
    Aug 20, 2009 @ 03:44:50

    Detailed summary and analysis of Chinese family patterns.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: