The Chinese Idea of Family First

Over the past few days we’ve been looking at changes in the practices of Chinese families (here and here), today we are going to be looking a little closer at how Chinese define the importance of family and why that looks so different from our own definition.

The Chinese view is that “Family” is absolutely the most important part of their lives, and the responsibilities to their family trump their individual interests. These sacrifices to improve their family’s standing are seen as acts of filiality, and are the Chinese standard of a “good” child.

This idea of family leads to some interesting living arrangements.

In the countryside parents often will leave their children behind to work factory jobs in the cities. Nearly 1/3 of China’s population now floats between the two worlds. The parents come home only once a year at Spring Festival, bringing hard earned cash and literal piles of presents.

Also I am friends with a Chinese doctor and his wife here in the city. They both have good jobs by Chinese standards, but they have still sent their son to be raised by his parents. I couldn’t imagine having a child and not raising it myself. They know though that if they work long hours now they will be able to provide a much more comfortable life for the child, and that his grandparents will dote on him far more than a babysitter would.

These arrangements are made with the best interests of the child in mind, but they don’t always work out as planned. I mentioned in an earlier post, that one student was regularly beaten by her relatives while her parents worked. It also leads the students to seriously question their parents’ love at time. It breaks my heart when students tell me that in their entire life they have never been hugged by their parents, or been told that they are loved. In English corners I’ve heard them convince themselves that even though it has never been said, they are loved.

To westerners, with our outside view, it seems like money is the most important thing in China. After all, to us spending time with our family is how we show our love for our parents or children. Chinese people want to be able to spend more time with their families, but as their relatives and the jobs that provide the money for a better life are often in separate places, they choose to sacrifice their own interests for the ones they love.

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.
This entry was posted in Chinese Culture & Language, Life in China and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to The Chinese Idea of Family First

  1. Pingback: The Chinese Family Under Mao | Seeing Red in China

  2. Dan says:

    Well, the fact that their parents have never verbally expressed “I love you” or hugged them doesn’t mean anything in and of itself. I lived with my parents growing up, but I have never said “I love you” to my parents – and I had to introduce hugging to them after high school. To Chinese people, explicit Western PDAs between family members probably seem just as weird as the lack of PDAs seems to Westerners!

    • Meanest Operate Unruly says:


      it has been proven that a lack of physical contact between human beings can lead to serious developmental issues.

      • Tom says:

        Thanks for the comment. I’d be interested in reading more about that if you have a link I hope you will share it. I know there were studies done with baby monkeys, but that is hard to say is an exact match, since Chinese society reinforces the idea that you don’t need to be told you are loved.

  3. Pelo says:

    At some point in the future, would you consider doing a post on dating and marriage in China, and how these have evolved over time? I am curious to know about the similarities and differences between American and Chinese cultures.


  4. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Likewise, Dan, I grew up without ever hearing my parents say they loved me. Also, my Dad worked at extra jobs to provide for us, so never played with us. Now my parents say “Love you!” but only after my sister married an American and introduced their demonstrative ways to us stiff upper lip Brits! I know that Chinese people are generally not “huggy feely” people but I never doubt their love for each other. Family loyalty is of paramount importance at the cost of individuality. I have no grandchildren as my married daughter and her husband do not want children. Chinese friends say they do not have that choice as they are obliged to produce the hopefully male heir for their families.

    • Tom says:

      The Chinese family I think is often characterized by selfless actions, always working to better the situation of the whole family, not just themselves.

  5. john book says:

    Most Japanese are not hugging, I love you types. At the same time, I had boys and girls in my classes that cried in front of everyone that their dads had never, ever showed affection of any sort to them or involved themselves in their lives. Dads in particular are distant with kids; the excuse being …no time… must work for family. Moms do everything for sons, especially oldest sons.

    Most Japanese with any education or ambition want eldest sons to succeed in ALL school levels through university so they get the best jobs later…so in old age, parents are cared for.

    Some moms will even sleep with sons so the kid doesn’t get frustrated by his male urges and not pay good attention to his studies. Moms will also sleep with instructors or his family members so the kid can get better grades.
    These moms are called, “Education Mothers”.

    Families are supposed to be the greatest thing in Japanese life. Often it is…. often the concept of it is. Often, the kids are thought of as a burden or are almost ignored. As long as the kids get good grades in schools and study their heads off and enter the best schools possible, kids are pretty often given free rein…. (little monsters often)….

    Parents expressing “love” to each other or t kids like we Westerners do…are few and far between.

    Ah! The stories I could tell you….

    • Superannuate Remotely says:

      the irony is that you will be less inclined to kill someone of another race/country or fight in a war if you’ve been properly, adequately and UNCONDITIONALLY loved.

      read into that what you will.

  6. Sara says:

    As you wrote, money seems to be the most important things for Chinese people, but recently I’ve learned that in many (most?) cases it’s for the family and relatives. Hard working men don’t exhaust them selves at work to get money for them selves, but to ensure a better life for their family and especially kids. If someone is working for 12 hours a day, or even more, how much time could he/she have for the family? But in the other hand if he/she isn’t working, it could me far worse for the family. Being poor isn’t easy.

    • Tom says:

      Exactly my point. To most Westerners it looks like money is more important, but it is always a sacrifice to be working so much.

      • Superannuate Remotely says:

        i suppose knowing what i know about the industrious nature of chinese workers is why i hold the party in such low regard- sure they have brought jobs and industry – if only to maintain their own power, but surely the elites are the ones who are truly benefiting. what they allow the rest to have is exactly that – what they allow them to have.

  7. Pingback: The Chinese Idea of Family First :: Seeing Red in China

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  9. Sarah says:

    Me and my boyfriend have argued about this countless times. My boyfriend feels its selfish that my parents use their money to go on holidays together rather than save it for their children. While I feel that is totally normal, No point slaving for years and then dying before you can use your money. My boyfriend has the opposite perspective we must save for the future… I always find it absurd how Chinese parents can send often their only child to live with their grandparents while they work.

  10. Pingback: Qing Ming Festival and Traditional Chinese Ideas About Death | Seeing Red in China

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  12. Sean says:

    The Documentary ‘Last Train Home’ directed by Lixin Fan is a story based around migrant workers from rural Sichuan working in Guanzhou whose children are minded by their Grandmother. It tells the exact issues which you have outlined above and really exposes the hardship and pain that is experienced by these people, not only parents but the children too. If you ask me these people are the real heroes of China they work so hard and ask only in return that their children have the chance for a decent education and better prospects in the future, selfishness or material fascination can definitely not be words used to describe their motivations!! I really recommend this documentary for anyone who wants to gain a better insight into how the modern family in rural China operates and the challenges they face.

  13. Pingback: Last Train Home – Movie Review | Seeing Red in China

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