Across large swaths of rural China, families still see sons as a form of insurance for when they get old. Sons usually shoulder the responsibility of carrying on the family bloodline, take care of their elderly parents, and inherit their property.
But in practice, daughters play an active role in elderly care, especially now that more and more men leave China’s countryside in search of work elsewhere. This shift has increasingly left daughters in charge of caring for their aging parents, even after they get married. So, as women take on some of the responsibilities once assigned to men, has their position in the family improved? And has there been any change to the unequal power dynamics between sons and daughters?
Parental funerals offer a window through which to examine these questions. Funerals are important rituals, and the way the deceased’s children share the responsibilities for preparing the ceremony reflects family power dynamics. One rural funeral I observed in Fuyang, a city in the eastern province of Anhui, is a good example.
Many of Fuyang’s residents have left the area to work in China’s bigger, more lucrative cities. More than half of the area’s farmers now work outside Fuyang, and most of those left behind are women, the elderly, and young children. Back in March 2013, an 80-year-old man surnamed Wang passed away in Fuyang. Over the next three days, his three sons and three daughters held a traditional funeral in his honor.
In the days surrounding the funeral, the deceased’s sons carefully completed the traditional rites. A funeral consists of a series of symbolic rituals, primarily meant to bury the deceased and confirm the right of their sons to carry on the family line. In China, for example, one of the deceased’s children should sit in vigil beside the body before interment, and the eldest son should smash a porcelain bowl on the floor as the body is removed from the home. Traditional patrilineal systems exclude women from the inheritance, and so it falls to men to play the primary role when burying their parents.
Wang’s sons were responsible for all decisions regarding how best to host the funeral. They paid all the expenses and reserved the sole right to use any money given to them by members of their community. After their mother passes away, the men will also inherit all their parents’ property.
On the day itself, the men of the family performed almost every major ritual. They walked at the front of the procession to carry the cinerary casket containing Wang senior’s ashes, held their father’s portrait, and lowered the casket into the ground.
Rural funerals often involve a number of gender taboos that keep women outside the formal family order. Women are not allowed to enter the family burial ground, and their names are not written into ledgers recording donors of monetary gifts. In effect, they are almost wholly excluded from the funeral rites. Wang’s daughters only took part in the funeral lamentations, where they expressed how much they missed the deceased by wailing loudly.
By performing the funeral rites, Wang’s sons presented an image of a loving, filial, and harmonious family, blessed with sons and grandsons. Yet even as Wang’s funeral was being held, a furious battle was underway in the background, as the daughters quarreled over the arrangements for their mother’s care now that her husband had passed away.
Wang’s daughters spent a long time gathered in the mourning hall, discussing how best to provide for their mother, with their brothers- and sisters-in-law occasionally chiming in. Once all the funeral expenses were accounted for, the family had 6,200 yuan ($1,000) in gift money left over. The sons wanted to divvy up the funds, but the daughters insisted that it go toward supporting their mother in her old age.
Wang’s daughters won the debate largely because they had done much for their elderly parents already, without any expectation of reward. In 2006, Wang had a stroke that left him bedridden. His wife was his primary caregiver; his sons provided them with 400 kilograms of grain a year but seldom returned home to visit. Meanwhile, Wang’s two oldest daughters made frequent trips home, bringing with them their parents’ favorite foods and helping their mother do the laundry and buy new clothes. The youngest daughter, who worked outside of Fuyang, sent part of her wages to her parents every year and paid for her mother to have her cataracts removed.
Traditionally, Chinese people believed that daughters played only a secondary role in elderly care, providing their parents with emotional support and little else. Yet Wang’s daughters also provided essential material support to both their parents.
Family rituals in China center around men, but in practice women wield a relatively large amount of influence in decision-making processes. These fluid gender dynamics show how tradition and modernity coexist in the country’s changing rural households. On the one hand, within families, relationships are becoming more equitable; on the other, patrilineal cultural constructs and inheritance rules continue to dominate rural society.
Sometimes the symbolic power men enjoy runs only skin deep. Although funeral rituals generally vaunt the ostensible power of the eldest son as the new head of the family, in practice he wields no real influence over his siblings. And while men are the Wangs’ formal representatives, women wield significant influence over their husbands and brothers: The eldest son is teased for being “henpecked” and frequently parrots his wife’s ideas.
Many of today’s rural families remember the sustained assaults on the traditional patrilineal family structure brought about by the Destroy the Four Olds campaign — a Cultural Revolution policy that attacked “feudal” ideas, culture, customs, and habits in the name of socialist modernization. The changing social status of women — first as farmworkers in the collective era, and now as financial contributors to the family via other means — has also caused shifts in family relationships and dynamics. The disparity between older and younger generations is diminishing as the former’s power wanes and the latter grows stronger.
Meanwhile, the husband-wife relationship is moving toward greater equality. Yet outside the family, on the village level, patrilineal inheritance customs and unequal gender relationships remain largely unchanged. Thus, as the rural family has shifted, a paradox has developed: Within families, women enjoy greater equality and autonomy, yet the gender imbalances inherent to patrilineal family cultures continue to exist at the community level.
Any power that women wield in family life tends to derive from how actively they contribute to family affairs and their ability to strategically pressure their male relatives at the right time. But because modern female power in the family lacks the legitimacy of traditional culture, it is informal, depends on women’s individual efforts, and varies among families. In daily life, women are able to act relatively independently, but if they want legitimacy for their actions, then they must nonetheless respect men’s authority on formal occasions, seek out their ritualized final approval, and exercise their influence through men.
Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A funeral is held at a village in Zigong, Sichuan province, March 14, 2008. IC)