Choosing China: Families Across Time

By Patricia Stirling
August 1st, 2018

Now twenty-lane freeways in China are clogged with cars, instead of the old mainstay of bicycles -- including Rolls Royces and Ferraris driven by a new generation who have known nothing but wealth their entire lives. They are the fu er dai – children of those who got rich when China suddenly opened up in the 1980s (The Ka-Ching Dynasty!).

I happened to be in Hong Kong, in 1985, when it was mentioned to me that China was opening its borders to Western tourists for the first time. I was told I ought to go now, as they may be reclosed again at any time. I’d never had any desire to go to China, or any Communist country, but since it might be my only chance, I got a Chinese visa and took a local train to the border.

But I hadn’t expected to find myself on what seemed to be an entirely different planet! The country had been cut off from the rest of the world – behind its Communist Iron Curtain – for several generations, not unlike how North Korea is now. But a difference is that now technology makes media coverage of the other side available -- albeit to a limited extent -- both inside and outside of North Korea. Not so at all with China at that time!

When I crossed the border at Lo Wu, I realized that if I had to go to the bathroom, I had no idea how to locate one – or even ask if there was one! The written signs everywhere were in Chinese characters only. This was my first indication that it was going to be exhausting to have to constantly solve puzzles to do the simplest thing in China. And everywhere – rural and urban --was crowded with people. Being a Westerner – an alien that had dropped in from the other side -- I was a constant focus of amazement and terror. People stopped and stared, crowded around me, and followed me everywhere.

I didn’t know how to greet them, or initiate a conversation – let alone ask them to please just leave me alone! Using a Chinese phrase book I’d brought from Hong Kong, I gradually learned to memorize the Chinese characters for getting into the correct line to buy train, boat, and bus tickets. The lines were always very long – day and night – and the only tickets available were always several days in advance, so next I’d have to acquire accommodations to wait it out. The hotels separated out and grouped together everyone who had come from the other side – even the overseas Chinese tourists from Hong Kong and Taiwan -- to protect the local Chinese from mingling and being corrupted.

The sleeper car of a train I took was packed with rows of three levels of bunk beds, and each bunk held five or six men, women, or children – including the one that I’d reserved! My phrasebook enabled me to communicate with the people on my bunk, and they went to a great deal of trouble to give me space to lie down, and even made me herb tea! I was able to sleep beautifully on that train, sounder than I’d ever slept anywhere.

Chinese cities – even the towns! -- were huge, but there was not a speck of neon (like Hong Kong), not even a billboard, anywhere. There were no vehicles except for taxis, buses, Army trucks, and government limos. Instead, thousands and thousands of bicycles swam smoothly over the roads. All men, women, and children dressed in baggy khaki Mao suits (uniforms), whatever their job or age, in the city and out in the country.

I saw no homelessness (like in the US), or disease and utter poverty (like other Asian countries), but society seemed adorned by and composed of a stark minimum of products and devoid of style, as if it were wearing out the last of its own hand-me-downs and the domestic items rejected by the rest of the communist world. There was nothing remotely familiar about the cast-offs or rejects (like the t-shirts worn in Africa donated by the US), because Iron Curtain and communist trade had for generations kept the inside in and the outside (Capitalists -- specifically the West) out.

Oddly, what also what seemed lacking was the family unit. A Chinese mother may be accompanied by a single child, but never a swarm of kids. The only rare groups of children I’d see would be in classrooms – like children anywhere – being tended over by a Mao-suited female instructor. I was pleased to see woman workers in equal numbers and same attire as men workers. But I was baffled at their seeming displacement from the role of bearing and raising children.

Traditionally, the ideal Chinese family had been a “joint” family of several generations living under the same roof (sons bringing their wives) as a family homestead. It was convenient for managing the harvest, which was very labor intensive, and caring for the very old and very young. Marriages were arranged to be the most beneficial for both families, love being viewed as detrimental, distracting husband and wife from their primary responsibility to the “joint” family. Because of the vast, separated geographical areas of the country, people felt detached from the government and held their prime loyalty to the family. Children were strictly taught not to bring shame to the family and be completely devoted. They felt an obligation to please them in every way possible.

The role of women in Chinese culture was largely shaped by the influence of Confucianism, an early philosophy that assumed a distinct difference between the social places and expected behaviors of men and women. It was men who structured society, regulating women to dependence. As children, girls were confined indoors to learn domestic duties and social graces, while boys played outdoors and studied the classics. Both biological and cultural forces were believed to maintain this regard towards the genders.

Women traditionally worked out in the fields, but were secluded from being seen in cities. They could not divorce or inherit property. Female children were less valued because of their limited physical strength, and the parents needed to pay a dowry when a girl was married off to another family. Girls may be sacrificed during times of famine. Females were not educated, yet nonetheless charged with educating the children and managing the house budget.

When the Communist Party came to power during the mid-20th century, it gave women the right to vote and involvement in the government, as well as equal rights with men in marriage. The traditional “joint” family system was discouraged in support of loyalty to the state (collective farms took its place). The elderly were provided with retirement benefits and health care by the state.

But during the eighties, society shifted again -- from strict communism toward the materialism of the West. The government enacted a social security law to continue care for the elderly, but it’s not yet included in the wage system of rural workers.

The shift toward capitalism also brought the resurgence of arranged marriages and the sacrifice (selective abortion) of female babies, although this time it was due to the one child population control policy issued by the government in 1978. No wonder the puzzling displacement of the female role from mother to worker!

Parents still preferred to keep a son, which has resulted in a drastically altered entire generation of family structure. The number of marriageable men now in Chinese society is hugely disproportionate to the number of women available to marry.

From Mao suits and bicycles to Ferlinghettis, Bentleys, and technological magic splendor, extreme changes can happen in Chinese society during just one swift generation. It astounds me to think back to the bleak landscape it was not so long ago, and I have terrific faith and anticipation in today’s brilliantly assertive China’s positive contribution and constructive involvement in the global economy and culture. And on such a grand scale, as the third largest country geographically, possessing one-fifth the world’s population – imagine the power!


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