In Chinese Families, Who Really Has the Power of the Purse?
In Western families, there’s nothing particularly unusual about family members setting aside a bit of money for their personal use: haircuts, drinks with friends, or a nice new outfit. That’s increasingly true in China, too. Only, in a country where the overwhelming majority of couples are expected to pool all their resources together and the practice of maintaining a personal cash stash is stigmatized, some Chinese go to extreme lengths to guarantee themselves a bit of financial independence. On the video-streaming platform Bilibili, a cottage industry of humor videos centered around strange hoarding places has cropped up. Other viral videos highlight the awkward moment when one family member discovers another has been secretly socking away funds for a rainy day: a drunk husband gloating as he removes the top of a vase to reveal his secret personal fund, for instance, or a father who’s used the same hiding spot for so long it contains currency no longer in circulation.
Although they’re sometimes exaggerated for effect, the underlying dilemma is all too real. Traditionally, in Chinese families, all earnings are managed as a collective asset: Keeping part of one’s earnings from the rest of the family is seen as evidence of a lack of filial piety and therefore immoral. Though traditional Chinese family values are gradually fading away and the rise of consumerism has prompted younger Chinese to seek greater financial independence, the stigma against personal allowances, known as sifangqian, has not wholly faded. The overall interests of the family unit still trump those of the individual, and sneakily setting aside an allowance remains a moral gray area.
The term sifangqian originally referred to private savings kept by women. In traditional society, women’s inheritance rights and autonomy were severely curtailed. Secretly setting aside money for themselves or their immediate family thus afforded these women a modicum of freedom. Interestingly, however, in contemporary China, the gendered connotations of sifangqian have largely flipped. With women taking an increasingly dominant role in managing the family accounts, more and more men have resorted to keeping sifangqian. In one national survey, 74% of married men reported having secret savings: Of these, 53% cited the feeling of security it gave them as a reason, while 34% said they did so because it allowed them greater freedom.
In my fieldwork in rural China, I found it was quite common for women to keep strict control over the family savings, meaning their husbands had to maintain a private stash if they wanted to go out with their friends. Cai Kang, the pseudonym of a public transit worker in the eastern Anhui province, earned an average of more than 5,000 yuan ($770) per month, which he was expected to hand over to his wife. Back home in his village, his wife tightly monitored his spending and gave him little in the way of pocket money, fearing that he’d spend it recklessly in the county seat where he worked. But when Cai met his friends outside of work or went to play mahjong, he found it terribly undignified to show up with an empty wallet. As a result, he began to keep sifangqian. “For example, if I earn 6,000 yuan, I’ll say I only earned 5,000,” he told me. “Because the salary I earn away from home is not a fixed amount, she wouldn’t have any way of checking even if she was suspicious."
As the viral videos on Bilibili suggest, Chinese norms around money and sifangqian have reversed to the point where maintaining private savings has come to be identified as one of the classic markers of a “whipped” man. But does the fact that women control the family purse really mean their economic status in the family is equal to, or even more than men’s?
Not quite. A considerable number of the women — especially young women — in charge of family finances are housewives. They mainly manage family affairs, rarely participate in farm work, do not have jobs outside the home, and lack independent sources of income. This is precisely why they feel the need to maintain such a tight grip on the family budget and restrict their husbands’ expenses.
And although their financial authority within the home has risen, they enjoy this power only because their husbands have granted it to them, and it comes with certain responsibilities. For instance, most of the women who acquire this right from their husbands have no bad habits or have a knack for managing money. Although Cai complained about his wife’s strict control, he was also willing to admit to being a spendthrift. Putting his wife in charge of the household funds was thus a practical decision in the best interests of his family.
Women put in charge of managing the family budget still don’t have total control on how funds are allocated, either. For example, during the Spring Festival holidays, they are generally expected to give their parents and in-laws gifts and money as part of their filial duties. Yet, if they spend too much, or are seen to be favoring their own parents over their in-laws, they may find themselves in trouble.
Just as female control over family funds is not a manifestation of superior or even equal financial status, keeping a private allowance is not always a sign of selfishness. In many cases, private savings are actually a way to reconcile conflict between personal desires, the responsibility of filial piety to one’s extended family, and the interests of the nuclear family. Some men told me their wives strictly controlled how much they could spend on their aging parents. This often happens when the relationship between the wife and her in-laws is tense, or when the husband has several brothers who disagree on who should bear responsibility for taking care of their parents. In such cases, setting aside some private funds becomes a way for these men to fulfill their filial duties.
Though traditional multigenerational and extended households are gradually disappearing in China, personal desires and individual autonomy are still trumped by the need to preserve the harmony of the core family unit. In this, female control over the family purse and men’s tendency to withhold some sifangqian money are two sides of the same coin.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.
(Header image: Visual elements from erhui1979 and Benderbay/Digital Vision/People Visual, reedited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)