This is the "Introduction" page of the "The Chinese Family in the Twentieth Century" guide.
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The Chinese Family in the Twentieth Century  

Last Updated: Mar 21, 2010 URL: Print Guide RSS UpdatesEmail Alerts

Introduction Print Page

Organizing Idea

This unit is intended to demonstrate continuity and change over time.  By analyzing twentieth century Chinese history through the family, students will have a familiar framework in which to study the political and economic events that rocked China.  Students will also develop a sense of the magnitude of the impact of an individual's decision and action on others inside and outside one's family. Finally students will read and view authentic sources of Chinese history from American and non-American viewpoints.


Essential Questions

  1. By what principles has the Chinese family been traditionally organized?  What practical implications did this organization have on the daily lives of each member of the family?
  2. What policies did the Communist Party follow in reforming and modernizing the Chinese family?  What implications did these changes have on women and children?
  3. How has the Chinese family adjusted to today's political and economic conditions within China?

Student Objectives

  1. Students will describe the Confucian and communist relationships among people, define filial piety, and speculate about the behavior of each member of the family during the traditional era and in the modern communist state.
  2. Students will read and view primary source documents, discuss in small and large groups and write critical and reflective reviews of primary source documents.
  3. Students will empathize with the privileges and restrictions placed on members of a family throughout Chinese history.


Students will write, produce, and present a well-researched and rehearsed role-play of a multigenerational Chinese family. In performing the original scenes, each family member must recount a significant personal experience directly connected a major political, economic, or cultural event of twentieth century China.  Student performances will be assessed for their historical accuracy and clarity, original and creative thought, professional performance, and cooperative group participation.

For students who fear public performance, or when class sizes or school resources prevent an actual stage-performed play, these alternative assessments could be utilized instead:  a collection of short stories bound into a book or a series of letters exchanged among family members.


Background Narrative

The family has traditionally been the basic unit of Chinese society.  Throughout the imperial period and into the beginning of the twentieth century, the relationship among family members was proscribed by Confucian teachings.  The revered philosopher sought order in the ancient ties within a family.  Confucius codified the position of the patriarch as the sole arbiter for the family unit.  All family members were subservient to the eldest male just as all loyal subjects were subservient to the Celestial Emperor.  This hierarchy also dictated relationships between a father and his children, a husband to his wife and concubines, and an elder sibling to a younger.  Marriages, births, and deaths were all accompanied by rituals designed to reinforce these unequal, but mutually supportive roles.  Matchmakers usually arranged marriages for the mutual benefit of both families.  Brides' families paid a dowry, and marriage ceremonies were often judged by their size and sound.

Sons were cherished additions to a family, not only for their physical and economic ability to contribute to the family, but also as the carrier of the family name.  Only a son could properly venerate his parents and ancestors and provide for them after death.  Daughters were considered a small happiness because they would marry into another family.  To make her more desirable to a potential spouse, a daughter's feet were broken and bound to produce three to four inch stubs suitable only for pattering around the house.  In times of famine or dangerous warfare, daughters were the last to be fed and newborn girls were smothered.  While such severe actions were rare, they did occur and left a lasting legacy of discrimination against females.

Traditional Chinese architecture reinforced familial relationships.  All activity was directed towards the center of the dwelling.  Houses protected and sheltered the family from outsiders.  Entrances were often offset and visitors were relegated to public spaces near the front of a house.  The most important members of the family, the elders, were given the best accommodations in the house.  The pecking order of the rest of family could often be determined by the location where each member slept.  A mainstay of nearly all Chinese houses was an altar dedicated to the ancestors.  The altar could be quite formal to hold a life-size portrait of the ancestors or as simple as a plaque listing the names of the ancestors.  Ancestors were an integral part of the family and received food and other offerings periodically, more often on his or her birth or death day, Chinese New Year, and the Day of Sweeping the Graves.  Filial piety (or obligation to one's family) was the overriding social moré of traditional China. 

In the modern era the family has undergone considerable change with respect to filial piety and the position of women.  The communist revolution set out to destroy traditional familial bonds by attacking the Four Olds--old ideas, habits, customs, and culture--and by elevating women to an equal position as a comrade in arms.  A key strategy was the use of repetitive community meetings to purge Confucian ideals from people's thoughts.  The Marriage Law of 1950 outlawed many harsh practices directed against women including arranged marriages, concubinage, dowries, and child brides.  Women were also granted the right to file for a divorce.

As the Chinese Communist Party centralized its power, families were subjugated to the greater goal of running the country.  Both men and women entered the workforce and children were enrolled in new schools.  Literacy increased dramatically.  However, this practice often separated them from their parents as Mao's words of wisdom replaced those taught at home.  A common phrase was"Father is close, Mother is close, but neither is as close as Chairman Mao."  Families were often broken apart in support of the ideology encouraged by the party officials, most dramatically during the Cultural Revolution.  Mao's young revolutionary followers, called Red Guards, were expected to experience the revolution themselves.  In doing so, they were encouraged to expose their teachers and even their parents as traitors to the revolutionary cause.  Once a member of a family was denounced as a class enemy, other family members had to draw a line to separate themselves from the accused.  Many did abandon their families and for those that remained loyal, the punishments were doubly harsh.  Family members were held incommunicado for extended periods of time or sent to thought reform labor camps.  Red Guards were also sent to the countryside to learn from the peasants.  Many young people spent years away from their families and found their return to the cities was forbidden by the bureaucratic controls on migration.  Traditional familial bonds were forcibly broken by time, distance, and fanatical adherence to Maoist theory.

The economic reforms of the last twenty years have also affected the Chinese family.  Men and women have actively sought employment outside and often far away from their homes.  Migration into cities from the countryside is illegal in China and yet millions of peasants arrive in urban areas looking for work each day.  Many migrants are young women whose families cannot provide for them in their home villages.  The population explosion that accompanied China's economic recovery has also placed new burdens on the Chinese family, including the one-child-per-family policy.  Girls are the immediate victims of this policy as many of their births go unregistered, or worse, are aborted.  The effects of advanced technology, such as ultrasound detection, coupled with the traditional preference for male offspring have left China with a significant gender gap and thousands of bachelors.

When a couple wishes to marry, the decision has economic and social consequences.  Many people in China receive housing and health care benefits from his or her work unit, and a couple must have the approval of their work units before they can marry.  Often the wedding ceremony has many Western elements, including a white gown for the bride.  Nevertheless, economic liberalization has not produced political liberalization. In the wake of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of 1989, many people have not demanded more political rights for fear of retribution to their families.

The Chinese family has withstood incredible pressure to conform to the ideals and norms established by the Chinese state.  Whether it was Confucian values, revolutionary Maoism, or the search for economic and political liberation, the family has endured numerous changes as it bent with the prevailing political winds.  Throughout the tumultuous twentieth century, the family is still the basic unit of Chinese society.  Many elements of traditional China survive and are interwoven with modern arrangements.  Family members demonstrate a tremendous respect and deference for each member, especially those in the eldest generation.  Children are cherished.  Marriages and deaths are marked by rituals that display the importance of continuing the family lineage.  The next generation is seeking to make its mark in China.


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