China is in the midst of a major demographic transition. While falling fertility, an aging population, and other matters of national import have dominated headlines, this shift has been felt just as keenly at the family level. Over the past decade, the cost of child rearing has risen, and the average household size has dropped from 3.1 persons to 2.62. Worried about the future, families are investing heavily in their children’s success — a debt children often struggle to repay.
This process, argues scholar Yan Yunxiang, constitutes the emergence of a new kind of “familism” — an ideology in which family interests take precedence over individual ones. Yan, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, sees this “neo-familism” as distinct from traditional Chinese familism, which revolved around ancestor worship and the perpetuation of one’s lineage. Success under neo-familism is defined in material terms such as wealth and consumption.
This year, Yan edited “Chinese Families Upside Down,” a collection of essays from academics that seeks to go beyond the conventional focus on filial piety to examine the new dynamics of intergenerational relations under neo-familism. Speaking with Sixth Tone over the phone, Yan talked about how and why family structures have received an unprecedented degree of high-level policy attention in recent years, the changes taking place in Chinese families, and the growing anxiety felt by parents and children in an increasingly risk-laden society. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Yan Yunxiang gives a lecture, 2012. Courtesy of Todd Cheney
Sixth Tone: In your 2003 book “Private Life Under Socialism,” you write about the rise of the individual, the importance of personal happiness, and the emergence of pragmatic individualism in China. In “Chinese Families Upside Down,” published this year, your focus has shifted to the rise of a new kind of familism. When did you first notice the rise of neo-familism?
Yan Yunxiang: After the publication of my book in 2003, I shifted my research focus to the ongoing process of individualization. This encompassed two closely related aspects: the rise of the individual, as Chinese individuals stood up for their individual rights and engaged in the endless pursuit for individual happiness; and the individualization of the social structure, in which institutional reforms have made the individual the basic unit of social life. The withdrawal of the state from the provision of social welfare has forced individuals to take more responsibility for their wellbeing and put more effort into competing with one another in an increasingly precarious and risky social environment.
China has become a “risk society.” Its modernization project has produced systematic hazards and insecurities that redefine how government and society act. The individualization process involves shifting the responsibility for managing these risks onto the individual, which is inherently problematic and counterproductive. The issue of food safety, for example, is a systemic problem, but one for which we have to come up with individual solutions, such as mutual assistance networks for learning how to identify counterfeit or toxic foods. Individuals must rely on their knowledge and abilities to avoid systemic risks; this process, in turn, exacerbates inequalities.
How individuals deal with systemic risk has always been a big concern of mine. The reason why individualization has been systematically embraced by states around the world, including both European welfare states and post-reform China, is that it allows states to shift risks onto individuals. In the Chinese case, individuals are being asked to face and solve these systemic risks, but lack the resources to do so, forcing them to turn back to their parents and families for support. So, the individualization process has paradoxically made the family increasingly important, and that is what I have been studying since about 2015.
Sixth Tone: One of the concepts you’ve used is “descending familism,” in which a family’s resources are tilted toward the children and grandchildren. For example, right now it is very common for an entire family, including both sets of grandparents, to focus its efforts on looking after a single child. This represents an important change in Chinese family structures, but it is not unique to China. What are some of the social conditions that make a society more prone to the emergence of descending familism?
Yan Yunxiang: Well, let me first clarify that I coined the term of descending familism around 2015 to analyze the downward flow of family resources from older to younger generations. But I only used it in one published article in 2016 and then I switched to the broader term “neo-familism,” which incorporates the meaning of descending familism but also includes several other important dimensions of family change.
The first condition is the previous presence of traditional familism, like we observe in Italy and Mexico. The other condition is the absence of classic individualism, which advocates for the ontological centrality of the individual as an indivisible, autonomous, and self-reliant being who is in an equal relationship to all fellow human beings. Classic individualism and familism are mutually incompatible. In China, our understanding of individualism is both incomplete and unbalanced. Misreadings of individualism tend to toggle between the insistence on one’s rights while ignoring one’s obligations — i.e., the “uncivil individual” — and a reliance on familial support to achieve personal gains, apparent in the ken lao phenomenon wherein young Chinese live off their parents. In essence, it is egotism. As the sociologist Fei Xiaotong pointed out a long time ago, egotism is deeply embedded in traditional Chinese family and social structures.
While many countries have seen a strengthening of intergenerational relationships in recent decades, especially grandparenting, there is a difference between grandparental support and descending familism. In the United States, for example, grandparenting is often found in single-parent families, but it takes the form of emergency aid: provided when needed and the grandparents withdraw once the immediate problem is solved. In China, however, grandparenting has grown into a moral obligation that every elderly person must fulfill, though it is also a generator of life meaning that most elderly people embrace. If any grandparent refuses to help raise her or his grandchild, that individual is likely to be seen as morally deficient.
Grandparenting is only one of the features of the neo-familism that has emerged in China over the past 30 years. In contrast to the traditional familism of ancestor worship, in neo-familism, all sorts of family resources are being transferred from the senior generation to junior generations, especially to grandchildren. It is important to emphasize that this downward flow of resources refers not only to material goods but also to spiritual resources, including both emotional care and life meaning.
Consequently, intergenerational intimacy has increased significantly in China, even to the point where parents and children can reach a unity at the level of personal identity. In some cases, intergenerational intimacy could even be said to have surpassed horizontal conjugal intimacy: Chinese parents now are not only deeply involved in the marriages of their children, but also sometimes arrange their children’s divorces.
Meanwhile, under neo-familism, individual success is not enough — there must be family-wide success. And the measure of a family’s happiness and success has become very materialistic. Social media has blown this point out of proportion. People are always anxiously checking their feeds to see how their family life stacks up and trying to show off their beautiful wives, successful husbands, or exceptional children. The success of children is becoming more and more important because it is a sign of the family’s success. And the success of the family becomes a key criterion for personal success. In other words, under neo-familism, the identity of the individual is increasingly fused with the family.
Sixth Tone: For many, family matters are a growing source of anxiety. This can be seen from the rise of buzzwords like ji wa — a term for children being crushed under the weight of parental expectations and activities. What do you think is driving this anxiety?
Yan Yunxiang: The ji wa phenomenon is often attributed to the middle-class anxiety over declining status. Discussions on the falling status of the middle class are a common feature of American society as well. But Americans are mostly talking about the diminishing opportunities for upward mobility among themselves and for themselves; few would relate it to their children’s future prospects.
In a scene from the popular Chinese TV series “A Love for Dilemma,” a couple worried about whether their daughter would be able to go to a university like theirs, whether she would be able to find a job like theirs, and whether it would be possible for her to buy a house like theirs and live a life like theirs. Those are the questions that define the anxiety of declining status under neo-familism: You are not only worrying about your own life, but also about your children’s chances to thrive in 20 years. This expands the scope of the anxiety.
The rise of conspicuous consumption has also contributed to these feelings. And the competition over “success” only becomes more intense when all families define success according to the same criteria. Due to the accelerated speed of social change in the digital era, what parents do now to prepare their children for the distant future is not necessarily effective. But, given our monolithic definition of success, all they can do is try to measure up. The result is that the standard for success continually rises. Ten years ago, piano lessons were a popular extracurricular activity for Chinese children. Today, equivalent activities include equestrian sports and hockey, with some considered obviously superior to others. It is not about letting children choose what interests them or how well they learn; it is about making sure their extracurricular activities position them for success.
Sixth Tone: Neo-familism has impacted not just the family as a unit, but also its individual members and intrafamily power dynamics. How have women been affected by this paradigm?
Yan Yunxiang: Neo-familism has led to a new phenomenon known as “intensive motherhood,” meaning mothers have taken up new responsibilities and been given more resources to exercise their agency in child-rearing: a task that is, as I discussed earlier, at the very center of family life under neo-familism. On the surface, this seems like a positive development, but on closer analysis, it is perhaps nothing more than a modern extension of the traditional view that a woman’s value is tied to her role as a mother. If a mother is not living up to expectations in parenting, she may find herself marginalized within the family. In this sense, neo-familism seems to be, at best, a mixed blessing for women. At worst, it might push them back to into the traditional box of “virtuous motherhood.”
Meanwhile, as Chinese society debates how to handle declining birth rates, the moral pressure on women of childbearing age to give birth — whether from the family or the state — will likely increase. Yet, worldwide, the second demographic transition — lower birth rates; fewer marriages; more divorces, cohabitation, remarriages, and single-parent families — has proven difficult to reverse through artificial means like policy. The causes of this demographic transition include new definitions of individual identity, new understandings of the meaning of life, and lifestyle changes, which can hardly be undone by policy incentives.
A man plays Chinese chess with his grandson at a local park in Beijing, May 12, 2021. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images/People Visual
Sixth Tone: You have written about how the family and family values are featured in Chinese political discourse, and how these concepts are closely linked to China’s national development. Why is the family so important to the “Chinese Dream”?
Yan Yunxiang: Let me answer you from the perspective of the individualization process. In my opinion, after more than 40 years of institutional changes, China’s individualization process has entered a new stage, one which I am tempted to call “individualization 2.0.” This new stage is characterized by three aspects: neo-familism, nationalism, and materialism.
Under what could be called “individualization 1.0,” the primary driver was the state, which, through institutional reforms, pushed individuals to take more responsibility and enhance their competitiveness for the market economy. In this process, the desires and pursuits of the individual were legitimized (after their previous suppression in the socialist era), and the individual was dis-embedded from the traditional family and socialist collective and thrust onto the market. Under “individualization 2.0,” the state-led socialist market economy has already been established, and the focus is on re-embedding the individual into it through neo-familism and nationalism. In this new stage, the state remains the primary driver, but it is steering things in a new direction.
As discussed earlier, individualization forces individuals to deal with systematic problems through individual efforts, which does nothing except intensify competition among individuals. As a result, many young people are not optimistic about their individual futures: they feel themselves under significant pressure at work and at home, and, no matter how hard they push themselves, they struggle to see a way to realize their dreams. Hence you have the rise of trends like “lying flat.” Yet, for all their personal disappointments, many Chinese young people are full of hope for the future of their country and the nation, which, at a rather abstract level, helps them to generate meaning in their own lives. It is a very interesting contrast.
Recent developments suggest that China is becoming a “society of family-state” (jiaguo) in which individuals are linked to the state through their families rather than by way of societal forces, such as free associations and self-organized communities. Under these circumstances, it is crucial to ideologically incorporate the family into the state, because if people place too much emphasis on family interests alone, they will neglect their civic obligations. So, officials have begun emphasizing the unity of familism and patriotism —the unity of the family dream and the national dream — as a way of re-embedding the individual into the family and the family into the state, while ensuring that no other form of social organization can insert itself between the individual and the state. In this system, the individual is embedded into the mega-community of the state through the family.
In this system, materialism is the glue connecting the family and the nation. In the private sphere, the dreams and happiness of families are increasingly realized through consumerism, and people define their place in society according to material status. In the public sphere, the country’s development is also measured according to materialistic criteria, such as GDP. From a materialistic point of view, many young people see rising GDP as a sign that the future of the country as a whole — if not their own personal fate — is promising, especially when compared with Western countries.
If we look at western and northern Europe, these regions have already entered a post-materialist stage, where people do not define their identities by the pursuit of luxury goods, but instead have begun to pursue simpler lifestyles. They express their individuality in anti-materialist ways through a sort of “lifestyle politics.” In China, although there have been sporadic signs of anti-materialism, such as the “lie flat” or “low desire” discourses, these are tempered by a fear that China will become a low-desire society like Japan and its economic growth will be hindered. And because the bar for conspicuous consumption and material success is always going up, the majority feel they still need to work much harder before they can have the “financial freedom” to relax. This also works to suppress criticism of or reflections on our lifestyles.
Sixth Tone: The results of the latest census showed that China’s average household size has declined from 3.10 in 2010 to 2.62 last year. This implies a reduction in the size of Chinese families and a change in family structures, such as an increase in single-person households or unmarried cohabitation. Could this signal that Chinese society is developing a more inclusive or pluralistic attitude toward family structures? Or will it lead to a conservative backlash, in which the family paradigm is pushed toward the traditional model?
Yan Yunxiang: Following the logic of traditional Chinese culture, pluralism is considered a threat to society. In reality, this is the fear of disorder, as pluralism implies the possibility of different orders.
Whether the changes in Chinese family structures will result in greater inclusion of pluralistic families depends on the degree to which our society tolerates diversity. In our current risk-laden society, if we cannot figure out a way for people to be independent and comfortable regardless of their lifestyle — if there is only one accepted way of living, and this lifestyle can only be achieved through the support of family and friends — then neo-familism and its monolithic ideals will persist. If anything, as risks rise and families shrink, the neo-familial model may become even more dominant.
A family takes a selfie in Beijing, Feb. 10, 2021. People Visual
Sixth Tone: Recent years have seen a marked rise in family-based social activism in China, such as PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and groups for parents of autistic children. These groups and individuals see themselves as speaking out and acting on behalf of marginalized and stigmatized children. How do they fit into the rise of neo-familism, and what are the characteristics and limitations of such engagements in the Chinese context?
Yan Yunxiang: Parents of autistic children or sexual minorities have a super-strong motivation to go out and advocate for the interests of their children, in part because neo-familism has made the child or children the center of the universe in each family and for each parent. Here we can see the Janus-face of familism, so to speak.
Children with intellectual disabilities or nonconventional sexual orientations are stigmatized and marginalized because they fall outside the norms and cannot play the roles assigned to them by the conventional family script. When these children are classified as “deviant” and “abnormal,” their parents are also stigmatized and tainted by association, and they cannot find support from existing familial networks. This rather hostile face of familism, however, can be countervailed by the child-centeredness of neo-familism, which is indeed what has been happening. Parents of stigmatized children have been pushed from their circles of relatives and friends — many by shame and others by discrimination — but they have discovered the power of mutual assistance from others in similar situations. They have established their own groups to advocate on behalf of their children, and through their engagement in participatory advocacy, these parents can even experience personal growth as well.
Because neo-familism portrays parents as selflessly dedicated to their children, this kind of advocacy is more acceptable in the Chinese context, and parents have some space in which to operate. Some family-based organizations have even begun to care for other disadvantaged people, going beyond their initial purview, which was based on family interests.
How far this can go remains an open question. But parent advocacy at least demonstrates that neo-familism is neither necessarily conservative, nor always antithetical to the public interest.
Translator: Matt Turner; editor: Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Residents take a walk in a residential community in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, 2019. People Visual)