Family – What is it like in China?

Last week my lesson was all about family and genealogy because at the beginning of this week was the Chinese holiday Tomb Sweeping Day, which is traditionally when people clean the graves and tombs of their ancestors. Now it is more like a simple Day of the Dead or All Soul’s Day when people just visit the graves, bring flowers or streamers or something to decorate and of course the much required fireworks for celebration.

Anyway, my lesson on family gave me the idea to write a post about family in China since most people where I come from have a skewed view of what a family would be like here, and I wanted to correct some of those misconceptions. In 1978, the infamous one-child policy came into effect and has influenced families in China and the perception of China all around the world.

While in fact the policy did only allow for one child for each family for many years, over the last 25 it has been amended with a list of exceptions and in various regions. When I came to China, I expected like many of you would to see only single-child families and that all of my students would be single children. I was sorely mistaken.

About fifty percent of my students have siblings, some of them because they come from the countryside where the rule wasn’t enforced as strongly and others because of the exceptions. I have one student with three older sisters.

Here is a list of some exceptions as far as I have learned them from students and others. This list is not fully comprehensive or accurate according to the law, but this is what I’ve come to understand from observations and casual conversations with people who live with the rule.

  • If you are a farmer, you may have two children.
  • If you are an ethnic minority, you may have more than one child.
  • If both you and your spouse are single children, you may have two children.
  • If you have money and go through an application process, you may have more than one kid.

Now, I don’t agree with government regulation of families, but these exceptions are a step in the right direction and many Chinese say it is necessary because of their population (this seems a common excuse for almost anything in China). Some of them are recent addendums and others have been around for years. This rule hasn’t only influenced the size of families or the perception of China in foreign lands, but it has affected the family culture.

Because families are allowed only one or a couple of children, it is very important for people to have them. This means that some people who wouldn’t normally get married to have kids. A couple may not even love each other or care about being together, but their marriage is one of convenience to have a child.

Another result of the rule is the misunderstanding of English family words like cousin and sibling. Many times, Chinese children who are single children will refer to their cousins as siblings because they act like siblings. They will often call their cousins brothers or sisters. This I tried to correct among my students.

As part of the lesson last week, I had them share stories about their ancestors. Most of my students, not having knowledge of or access to family history records, told stories about their grandparents. They included memories from that generation of foot-binding, fighting in wars, and living through famines, of heroes, travels and traditions.

I encouraged them to learn more about their families even though some said they didn’t think it is important to learn about them. I explained how it is good to know where they come from and learn from past generations.

2 responses to “Family – What is it like in China?

  1. I found out about this when I visited China last year. Like some I had expected to only see one child families. I did couchsurfing and thus got to see familylife myself and sometimes met families with more than one child. I was confused about it and they gave the same explainations you’ve written down.
    On one hand I can agree with this law since their population is huuuuge but on the other it takes away peoples freedom to choose and creates many other problems such as childtrafficking, enfanticide of girls and a overpopulation of men who can’t find a wife.

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