Cultural Norms and Their Impact On Families

By Andrew Sandon

How do we know whether there are cultural norms, what they are, and how they affect family patterns? Family historians often rely on popular literature, essays, and diaries to reveal long-term changes in family values. Another approach is to evaluate the effects of economic or demographic forces on family and to appeal to culture or changes in attitudes to explain historical trends that cannot be attributed to those factors. Survey researchers potentially could introduce measures of attitudes into their analyses. For instance, the Comparative Study of Elderly in Asia project organized focus groups with elderly parents and middle-aged children in four countries to probe their expectations and experiences with coresidence (summarized by Milagros et al. 1995). More typical in research on the East Asian family is the approach taken by Logan, Bian, and Bian (1998). They identify some practical circumstances that promote new family traditions as well as some patterns that seem consistent with traditional attitudes as described by Levy, such as patrilocal residence by married children.

China is an ideal case for the study of change and transformation due to its experience of rapid industrialization. Within four decades, China was transformed from a trading hub end to an industrialized economy based on mass production of different products. The China state's prescriptions for the family have always been rather straightforward and simple, corresponding closely with economic imperatives. However, quickly-implemented shifts in the nature of the country's economic development have meant that family policies have likewise experienced abrupt turnarounds.

As China embarked on its development into a rational industrial society, childbearing couples were advised that "Two is (more than) enough." Aligned to this policy of small families were affiliated policies governing access to public housing. Education policies were also calibrated to meet family imperatives. The country's state-led industrialization was based primarily on cheap labour.

By way of contrast, as acute labour shortages and corresponding spiraling costs began to hinder growth, selected groups-especially the educated-were urged to have larger families. An array of tax incentives was established, not dissimilar to those designed to attract foreign investments, to encourage an increase in reproductive rates amongst those with higher incomes. These economic-driven changes in family policy produced concomitant changes in labour force and education profiles by gender. The female labour participation rate rose (Unger, 2003, p.76)

Levy (1949), an early family sociologist, saw signs of a process of social change in which cultural values and material conditions would evolve together, creating what he considered a more modern family pattern. Levy described the traditional family as a unit with strong partriarchal authority and patrilineal descent, in which "one of the sons marries and continues to live with the parents, while the other sons and daughters marry and go out of the family unit" (55-56). Urbanization and industrialization, he believed, would result in rising living standards and employment of women outside the home. Hence sons and daughters would tend to have more similar roles, and daughters would be granted greater autonomy and respect. Individualism would result in according more weight to children's' needs as individuals, and less to respect to parents, as the basis of intergenerational relations. The implications of these cultural and material changes for coresidence were clear to Levy: it would decline in frequency, especially for married children; it would lose its strong preference for living with sons; and it would grow more responsive to adult children's needs (rather than parents' desires).

Because current family patterns in China still resemble those of the time when Levy was writing, half a century ago, contemporary researchers suggest that traditional norms have proved unexpectedly resilient and adaptable to new conditions (Whyte,1973, p.184). Davis-Friedman (1991) has suggested that "filial behavior served the state as well as the individual, and past and present definitions of family obligations effectively merged. . . . In the context of socialist ideology and the reality of persistent scarcities, traditional ideals supportive of intergenerational solidarity survived, and were reproduced in succeeding generations" (128-29). Referring to the role of parents in marriage decisions, Riley (1994) similarly reasons that "there are both cultural and structural reasons for the continuing involvement of parents" (802). Riley, like Davis-Friedman, argues that "the combination of strong family norms and particular aspects of a socialist economy has actually served to strengthen intrafamilial ties" (791).

Economic conditions have only served to subvert citizens' cognitive autonomy and their capacity to rethink a new paradigm to cope with the impact of economic transformations on social reproduction (Goode, 1970, p.35).

Preliminary research indicates that Chinese families today are just as enamored of love, intimacy, and the family as are their wage-worker counterparts of the industrialized West (on the latter see Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 1995, Blankenhorn 1990, and Hareven 1996: 20). A survey of 22-year-old young Chinese adults shows that 90 per cent are desirous of marriage and having children (Straits Times 2000: 1). In the world of love (in contrast to the crass world of commerce and selfish interests), one can seek a small Utopia where there is sharing, cooperation and passion. In order to study the issue of changing family values we interviewed young Chinese man Ted who comes from middle-class family in Pekin, China. Ted told us about three-generations of his family. Therefore, comparing the evidence obtained from the interview with Ted to recent findings about social context in China we can conclude that family values in China did not change significantly but to some extent.

Straddling economic imperatives, state prescriptions, and popular romantic ideals propagated by the culture industry, this study reveals families in the process of knitting together their own family mosaics. Whether these daily activities can ultimately bring happiness to family members, however, is an issue that remains indeterminate.

Common elements that describe "the family" that are found across classes, cultures, and genders in China include the "family as basic social unit" carrying connotations of "stability", "mutual support", "haven" and "warmth" (Pan&Naigu, 2003, p.12). In response to the question of "what is the family," For Sue, a 49-year-old Chinese mother and Ted's aunt, the concept of family elicited associations of "the ideal of mutual affection and support, spending time together, consideration, personal sacrifices and care, and a husband taking responsibility for the wellbeing of the family."

In China state legitimation is fundamental to the definition of the appropriate family form. For instance, co-habitation is still frowned upon and mentioned only in hushed tones. Couples will normally be coy and not openly admit to their co-habitation (Sheng, 1991, p.45). Ted's brother had an indelible stigma due to his parents' divorce and his mum having a "live-in" boyfriend. He could only use the word "step-father" hesitatingly, when the word "uncle" did not suffice to convey his meaning. As single parent, Sue, Ted's aunt, had to work conscientiously to compensate her children because her act of divorce had burdened them with the label of "abnormality" and "strangeness." Mandy, Ted's 20-year old sister, had and affair with a married colleague and that case simultaneously ostracized her and left her exposed to verbal abuse by colleagues. One of her colleagues made remarks such as "slut" fill her with guilt and shame. While buying into the new concept of romance associated with pleasure and hedonistic consumption touted by cultural tastemakers, Mandy could not escape the old concept of romance that closely ties in to morality, domesticity and marriage. For Mandy, the concept of marriage comprises passion, romance and love, in no uncertain terms. Her romance with her partner was all-consuming. But alas, their romance was marred by the fact that their union was not recognized by the public.

The dominant ideal of the family in China also portrays a similar bias towards the primacy of blood bonds and the predominance of blood ties as the basis of family formation (March and Miall 2000; Glenn 1991; Claxton-Oldfield 2000). Our investigation reveals that in case of remarriage involving older children, the tendency was for mutual rejection between step-parents and their step-children. For instance, Chin, 18-year-old Ted's cousin, rejected outright her mother's current live-in boyfriend, even though the latter had spent years trying to nurture her. Chin was uncomfortable as she struggled with feelings of dislike and alienation, all because her mother's boyfriend was not her own biological father.

Additionally, for the traditional Chinese, a male child is a normal requirement for family stability and continuity. 48-year-old Kim, Ted's aunt, felt guilty and ashamed for not producing an heir for her husband. She continued having children in the hope of landing a son and thus erasing her guilt over failing to fulfill her promised role of mother and wife. For most Chinese, sons serve as keepers of family altars. They also perform the funeral rituals when their parents pass away. Such is the strength of ideology that even when it is revealed that males have a biological role in the determination of the sex of the child, most women continue to feel guilty if they do not produce a male child (Geertz, 2001, p.56).

However, depending on the status and role of Ted's family members, parts of the cultural ideal of the family actually differ in emphasis for various persons. For working class women like Sue, topmost in their mind is the hope that they can stop work when they marry and have a family. On the other hand, graduate educated women like Melissa, Ted's sister, dream of fulfilling their desire of a high-powered career. Having to give up a job to care for husband and child would represent a sacrifice. For the educated confident woman, the ideal of a family was one where her husband's salary could support paid domestic help to free her from the chores of domesticity

For a man, family is a comfort zone made possible by a non-working wife. 54-year old Ted's uncle, a textile shop-owner, believes that a wife's job is to take care of husband's needs and she should also be the one doing all the housework.

Older men see themselves as authoritarian heads of dependent broods, including the wife and children. The state's open acknowledgement that authoritarianism and "strong leadership" are good for the country (Tremewan, 1994, p.56) perhaps encourages men to openly tout their authoritarianism as a macho trait of which they should be proud.

Comparing Ted's responses about three generations of his family allows for the observation of behavior transformation over the family life cycle. While first-generation women are absolutely identified with the family and have no concept whatsoever of the self, those of the second generation display an emerging self-concept that asserts itself only when faced with extreme suffering. Young women of the third generation, however, can build on experiences of previous generations and have benefited from universally available educational opportunities and globalization of local cultures. They therefore have more options for modeling their selfhood and family life. Divorce for this generation is still stigmatized but is an option because women are educated enough to take advantage of the tight labour market.

The case of Tedd's grandmother Wong, aged 80, shows the values of the first-generation women. Her marriage to a gambler proved to be a disaster, but she continued in the marriage to avoid the social censure of being labeled "unclean" and "polluted". Also, as a wife, she had to "follow whomever you marry". Slogging hard as maid and dishwasher she tried supporting six children, but soon had to give two of them away, a boy and a girl. Despite such sufferings, she hung on to the belief that a "woman's place is always in the family." She could not understand how "modern women can prioritize their careers at the expense of neglecting their children." She views her mistake as one of not choosing the right man for a husband. But ultimately, Grandma Wong believes a working-class woman has to "bow down to life" and be filial, not only to her own parents but also to her mother-in-law.

Grandma Wong's daughter, Li, now 54, continued with the traditional sacrificial role destined for poor uneducated older daughters. She was a substitute mother for her siblings even after her marriage, when she worked at home as a baby sitter. However, hers is a vision of an expanded role for women as good wife, daughter, and filial daughter-in-law. She sees women carrying a heavy load that also includes bringing in food into the home. This is evident in her own role of supporting her taxi driver husband's meager income with some sewing and child-care.

In contrast, daughter Amy, who has a tertiary education and is in her thirties, has chosen to remain single. She ignores the advice and pressures from relatives and friends. She believes that "women have the right to pursue their ideal lifestyle," and categorically rejects the role played by her own mother and grandmother. Amy does not see herself as a "sacrificing wife and daughter-in-law who does everything for the family." Additionally, having witnessed the sacrifices of friends and colleagues who have all given up their dreams of career and fun, she did not want to go their way.

Easy access to education and a tight labor market for female labor appear to be the chief driving forces shaping change in family ideology (Jamieson, 1998, p.44). These conditions have successfully impressed upon women a certain level of confidence which has led to their pioneering new flexible roles for themselves, their spouses, and their children.

Our comparisons across three-generation families that were based upon the interview with Ted reveal the intricacies involved when families "do their own thing," that is, accept, accommodate, or reject old ideologies. While our interview disclosed grandparents clinging faithfully to ideologies dismissive of selfhood for wives and daughters, they also show grandchildren sliding easily into new economic roles and autonomy. These findings lead us to see the Chinese family and society in a new light compared to past research. At the surface there is visible evidence of apparently traditional behaviors (a high rate of coresidence). Beneath the surface is a system unlike the traditional society envisioned by modernization theory. Parents can choose from a broad array of cultural models. They tend to express more traditional values if these meet their needs and otherwise to adopt a more modern outlook. Parents' family behavior, we conclude, represents strategic decisions among diverse choices provided by their culture, a more active and dynamic process than would be expected in a traditional society.

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