The Chinese Family Under Mao

Yesterday we looked at the traditional idea of family in China through most of its history. Today we look at the changes that have taken place in the last six decades as China has gone through the Cultural Revolution and opened itself to the world.

Maoist China to Modern day

Mao saw the clan and the family as institutions that kept the peasants oppressed so he issued several policies to break down the family structure. Families were made to eat in cafeterias; which meant no home needed a kitchen, children were raised in daycare centers instead of being looked after by relatives, parents were cremated instead of buried, and the ancestor tablets (family records) and ancestral halls were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution.

Mao’s attempts to remove the family from the center of Chinese life ultimately failed, but not before destroying a few aspects of traditional culture.

When the ancestral temples were destroyed most families lost the records of their extended family. This has lead to a major shift in China, family is now seen as the 3 living generations, beyond that is largely forgotten. My friend is a devout communist and an ardent defender of the party (the one who wrote about joining the party), but the loss of his family’s history is one act that he has not forgiven Mao for. The temples have not been rebuilt, and most ancestor worship has disappeared.

The Communists changed family in another fundamental way by giving Chinese women the same rights as Chinese men. This means that far more women are now working outside the home, and women now also exercise their right to divorce. This empowerment has changed how parents view their offspring, as it is now thought better to have a daughter than a son if you want to ensure that you will be taken care of in retirement.

Women’s growing role in the work place has left a gap in the family structure for child care. In the communist period, factories built daycares to remove the importance of family. When State-owned enterprises privatized they closed their daycares. To address this problem it has become common to have the grandparents move in for several years to help with raising the child. So it is still common to find the three generations living together under one roof.

Attempts to popularize cremation have largely failed. The annual QingMing festival (a day to clean off graves) always reveals dozens of tombs that dot the countryside. I remember visiting a grave with a Chinese friend. Her family made an attempt to resurrect some kind tradition, but it was clear that the burning of incense and awkward prayer were coming from a hazy memory of the way things used to be.

Tomorrow we’ll be looking at how the Chinese view the importance of family, and some of the common arrangements that seem strange to foreigners.

About T

I have been working in China for nearly five years now. I have traveled to more than 30 cities and towns, and have lived in 3 provinces. I am interested in issues concerning development in China and the rest of the world. I hope to provide a balanced look at some of the issues facing China as it continues its rise to power.
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16 Responses to The Chinese Family Under Mao

  1. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Mao said “Women hold up half the sky” but it seems to me that they are still undervalued in China. Male children are still preferred. Read Xinran’s latest book “Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother” which gives voice to many accounts of this gender preference.

    • Allan says:

      Agreed. China is still hugely patriarchal, i would disagree that people want girls more than boys that certain is not my experience here. People still check the sex of their baby during pregnancy, though hospitals are forbidden from telling parents (allegedly) because some will abort the foetus if it is a girl. Hence the sex differential in favour of boys.

      • Tom says:

        It depends largely on the place. In the city there is more and more talk about how girls won’t abandon their parents like sons do. The sex differential is from the first few decades of the one child policy, it’s not as great now in the current generation being born.

      • Allan says:

        Traditionally the daughter would move into her husbands home and would have to take care of her in-laws. Leaving the yuemu 岳母 and yuefu 岳父 to fend for themselves to a certain extent. Today this happens less and the obligation is towards both sets of parents. So today people are happier about having daughters due to the fact that the daughter will not abandon her parents for her husband’s family, not because sons abandon their own families.

        Another reason that daughters are becoming more popular (but by no means an overriding reason) is that sons are expensive. As one lady told me today if you have a daughter you will save about 1,000,000RMB in property, wedding etc. As it is expected that the husbands parents will buy the flat for the newly weds.

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  3. Pelo says:

    Good stuff. Looking forward to tomorrow’s post.

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  6. john book says:

    Someone might think you are a professional writer… Great job, sir.

    and for those who care, my wife made it home this morning…. the train to the airport that wasn’t supposed to run all the way there, ran all the way there before the electricity was turned off!!! Praise God! Next step is her radiation test.

    • Tom says:

      I’m quite relieved that she has made it out ok. We have been praying for your family here. Hopefully she will pass through the detectors without glowing.

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  11. says:

    See, I am always telling Chinese people that were I Chinese, I would rather have a daughter. Yet I’m surprised how many maintain the old “feudalistic” traditions. I’ve had some city folk tell me they don’t care one way or the other, but I’ve also had quite a few say they wanted a son. I’ve never had anyone tell me they wanted a daughter and were willing to abort a male fetus. There’s a wonderful ethnography on this, but I forgot the title. It was conducted in a rural area, and the researcher (Chinese-American) found that when given the opportunity to have 2 children, few people bothered finding out the fetus’ gender as it was too expensive to bribe. Most actually wanted a son and a daughter. However, if the first child was a girl, then almost 100% of the time they would bribe the doctor to find out the gender so they could abort the fetus if it was a girl. So, it appears the issue isn’t the daughter, but the lack of a son. If a son was born first, families would either choose not to have another child, or they would choose not to find out the gender. After all, no need to be concerned… In my family, my sister is the oldest, followed by my brother… I’m the youngest. I often have very confused friends ask why my parents didn’t abort me… are they rich? lol. The logic is that they had their son, so why continue to have kids? Sexism is also present in other ways, though. It’s not uncommon for Chinese companies to tell girls outright that they don’t want to hire them because eventually they’ll get pregnant and want time off. It’s still a bit whacked out…

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