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.