Reconstructing Chinese Fatherhood
At this May’s “two sessions” legislative meetings, delegates once again proposed the government pass a national law entitling fathers to paid parental leave. It was far from the first time this subject has been raised in an official setting: Similar proposals have been made repeatedly over the past decade, though to no effect.
Underlying the push for paternity leave is an issue many have been discussing and debating in recent years: Chinese fathers’ role in caring for their children. At a time when women feel burdened by their responsibilities as mothers, men rarely take part in the everyday work involved in looking after the kids — a situation sometimes jokingly referred to in China as “widowed parenting.”
The historical role of Chinese fathers was in keeping with Confucian notions of hierarchy, which heavily emphasized a father’s power over his offspring. Although the ideal Confucian father-child relationship was one in which the father was kind and the child filial, most relevant texts contain almost nothing about fathers’ responsibilities to financially support their young children — much less take care of them in everyday life.
By emphasizing a father’s absolute power and rarely stipulating his duties as a parent, Confucian fatherhood is nowadays viewed as deeply patriarchal. Yet there was also a gap between Confucian norms and real life: There were both tyrannical fathers and loving ones who fretted constantly about their children’s safety.
Confucian father-son relations began to be challenged in the 19th century, and by the beginning of the 20th century, intellectuals were putting serious thought into how the country could bring about changes to fatherhood. In “What is Required to Be a Father Today,” a 1919 tract by Lu Xun, the father of modern Chinese literature called for rejecting the notion that, because parents give birth to a child, they have done something inherently good for their children, and so their children are inherently indebted to them.
Lu Xun opposed the patriarchal dictatorship of Confucianism, instead emphasizing the responsibilities of a father to his offspring. In his own life, he worked hard alongside his wife to care for his newborn son by feeding him, bathing him, and telling him bedtime stories.
But the idea that fathers should provide daily care for their children did not become mainstream in early 20th century China. In a country preoccupied with national salvation and industrialization, a combination of Confucian notions such as “men outside (the home), women within” and imported ideas ranging from social Darwinism to eugenics led many to view the main task of mothers as raising a generation of children strong enough to support the nation.
Meanwhile, as ideals of women’s liberation mixed with the practical need to enrich the people and the country, women were encouraged to enter the workforce. Soon they occupied a double role: performing both paid work and the unpaid labor of child-rearing.
Because protecting motherhood was seen as the basis for preserving the nation and saving the country, however, many positions considered difficult or potentially harmful to one’s health were made off-limits to women. Although a number of jobs predominantly done by women — such as those in the textile and tobacco industries — were in fact no less dangerous or damaging to one’s health than many jobs typically done by men, this occupational segregation resulted in a gender disparity in wages and job security.
The government also drew up regulations concerning paid maternity leave for female workers. In the eyes of many employers, women were not as strong as men, less committed to work, and expensive to hire. Meanwhile, men’s responsibilities for providing everyday care for their children was rarely considered. With this, new ideal paternal and maternal roles took shape. Fathers were expected to be breadwinners and rarely provided daily care for their children; mothers were the primary caregivers, and earning wages came second.
In the three decades after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, government policies mandating universal employment and low wages left urban men unable to earn enough to support their families. This resulted in a new norm among urban families in China — the double income family — as couples usually shared the economic responsibility of child-rearing.
Yet women’s roles as the primary caregivers in a family were reinforced by both formal benefits like the paid maternity leave generally provided by state-run factories and informal practices such as women clocking out from work earlier than men. Men, meanwhile, developed paternal characteristics reminiscent of the early Soviet Union — ready to answer the call of the government and their factory whenever necessary by working away from home or going on long business trips. As such, even during the planned economy period, men were often institutionally exempt from the responsibility of looking after children.
After China instituted market reforms in 1978, the provision of child care benefits — which could not directly increase the surplus value extracted by the state and enterprises — came to be regarded as a burden on employers and was halted in many places. With this, child care responsibilities previously shared by women and their state-owned employers once again became the responsibility of families and women.
Partly due to their eligibility for paid maternal leave, women were also increasingly looked down upon as workers. Employers preferred men, who were denied rights like paid paternity leave and exempted from daily childcare responsibilities. The general privileges fathers enjoyed gave them a better chance to be their family’s breadwinners than mothers. The average urban wage gap further widened: Women made 85% as much as men in the 1980s; by the early ’10s, they made about 60% as much as men.
Since the turn of the century, the definition of childhood development has expanded from maintaining children’s physical health to nurturing their physical, educational, mental, personal, and creative development. As motherhood has become evermore onerous, the conflicts between paid work and unpaid parenting have intensified, and the crisis in child care has become a recognized social problem.
However, some positive portrayals of active fathers have emerged. For example, the 2013 reality show “Dad, Where Are We Going?” was acclaimed for showing fathers caring for their children.
In reality, many fathers have been quietly providing regular care for their children for years. My own father cooked breakfast for the whole family, and when I was younger, he would help me with my schoolwork, take me on outings, and did not dictate my future to me.
Such models of fatherhood should be given greater support and encouragement. In fact, since 1993, almost all provincial governments in China have required companies to offer male employees who adhere to the country’s family-planning policy short-term nursing leave. Yet these policies have never been adapted into a national paid paternity leave policy by the central government.
Whether the Chinese government is willing to deal with the core gender inequality in expecting women to perform unpaid child care, whether it acknowledges that men have the right and responsibility to participate fully in their children’s daily lives, and whether it supports the rights of children to enjoy their fathers’ care remain open questions. While the establishment of paid paternity leave is not a cure-all — and could stand to be improved upon from a number of angles — formally recognizing the rights and responsibilities of fathers in caring for their children would be a first step toward finding a solution.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: A father holds his daughter at a park in Jilin, Jilin province, June 16, 2019. Zhu Wanchang/People Visual)