Space Race: Why Young Chinese Are Cutting Ties With Relatives
For Zhang Yu, Mid-Autumn Festival this year was a muted affair. The 25-year-old Shanghai resident chose to spend it with just her parents and sister in their hometown in the eastern Shandong province, forgoing the traditional large family gatherings.
A decade apart from extended family has left her feeling disconnected, to the point where she feels most of them are strangers. “I’m content living my own life without meddling in theirs,” Zhang told Sixth Tone, accepting her stance as cold but comfortable.
Also in her 20s, Saumy Chen took a more drastic approach. She informed all her paternal relatives that she would decisively cut ties with them all, with the exception of one cousin. Her declaration, made in a family messaging group amid anger and frustration, was followed by her systematically deleting them as contacts.
“It’s the right time to bid a farewell to all those struggles,” said Chen, who spoke with Sixth Tone using a pseudonym to protect her privacy, referring to the longstanding animosity she’s endured from her family since childhood.
Across the country, young Chinese adults are increasingly distancing themselves from their relatives, a departure from the efforts of their parents’ generation to maintain familial connections.
This growing inclination to redefine family ties is part of a broader pattern emerging across China, particularly among the post-1990s generation. Young adults like Zhang are coming to terms with this distance, while others, like Chen, are decisively cutting ties, deeming these relationships no longer vital.
This evolution, known as duanqin, or “broken kinship,” gained widespread attention in May following a viral social media post by Chinese magazine Sanlian Lifeweek.
The post, which drew over 145,000 likes and 1,400 comments on the microblogging platform Weibo, highlighted the generational divide. “The kinship that the older generation spent time, effort, and money to maintain is not highly valued by the younger generation. They tend to avoid comparisons and conflicts with relatives,” it said.
A poll embedded in the same post asked for reasons behind the disinterest in visiting family. Nearly half of the 116,000 respondents considered it normal, attributing it to minimal daily contact, while another 43% believed some relatives simply “aren’t worth visiting.” This topic resurfaced again recently, when a young woman’s decision to distance herself from many family members, as a way to address her depression, spread rapidly across social media.
Hu Xiaowu, an associate professor at Nanjing University, noted the rising trend of duanqin in an essay published in 2022, in which he underscored its prevalence among those born in the 1990s and 2000s. “While the post-’70s and post-’80s generations still care and miss their network of kinship despite a lack of contact due to long-time separation and busy schedules, the post-’90s and post-’00s disconnect from their relatives both behaviorally and emotionally,” Hu told Sixth Tone.
His essay included a survey, which revealed that most individuals under 30 rarely contact their relatives. And no frequent contact was reported among those under 18, compared to 19% of people in their 40s and 25% of those over 50 having contact with relatives.
Zhang sees her weakened ties with her cousins as a reflection of the distance between her father and his siblings, who migrated to various cities in Shandong to start their families. The annual visits to their grandparents in the countryside during Spring Festival dwindled after her grandfather’s death a decade ago.
“They never got used to staying in touch regularly, and, as men, they often hesitate to express their emotions,” said Zhang, referring to her father and uncles. This was underscored when her family learned of her eldest aunt’s death and funeral through third parties, having not been invited to the services.
Chang Qingsong, associate professor at Xiamen University’s School of Sociology and Anthropology, told Sixth Tone that shrinking family sizes and the emergence of new family structures, like single-parent or dual-income-no-kids (DINK) households, have contributed to familial estrangement in an increasingly urban and migratory society.
“This includes not only physical distancing and reduced face-to-face interactions but also subjective emotional detachment, such as feelings of unfamiliarity and mistrust towards relatives, leading to a decreased willingness to interact,” said Chang.
Urbanization in China has more than doubled in the past three decades, reaching 65% in 2022. And the number of people migrating within the country has also surged, reaching 376 million in 2020 — a stark increase from 6.5 million in 1982 and 221 million in 2010.
In the early 2000s, the term “floating generation” was used to describe young migrant workers who no longer prioritize connections with their original families and hometowns. “In a modern society, the influence of secondary relationships like friends and colleagues has been on the rise. More and more people are inclined to prioritize making friends over spending time with relatives,” explained Chang.
“The internet has revolutionized our social interactions,” says Yin Zitian, a 23-year-old student who prefers speaking to her friends over social media rather than attending family gatherings. Yin only meets family during festivals or weddings, explaining that her reticence stems from a history of negative encounters after her parents’ divorce and her relatives’ critical attitudes towards her life choices.
Meanwhile, Zhang says she feels like she’s playing the role of a perfect child when meeting relatives. She sees these gatherings as an “invisible war” where parents boast about their children’s accomplishments, which has further deterred her from seeking a genuine connection with her relatives.
In another Weibo poll, over 40% of 190,000 respondents cited a “conflict of ideas” as the main driver of weakening family ties, with nearly a quarter believing they can live well without these connections. On the lifestyle app Xiaohongshu, users frequently discuss overbearing relatives and share strategies on how to manage these relationships under a hashtag “annoying relatives” that has attracted over 130 million views.
In an interview with the domestic outlet Young Finance, professor Hu noted that though family pressure is universal across generations, today’s youth feel it more acutely than their parents did. But instead of internalizing the negativity or seeking empathy, they confront pressures more assertively, often through the internet.
Recalling the heated argument that ensued from her decision to cut family ties, Chen sees her actions as a necessary form of self-defense after repeated mental distress. “Perhaps our generation finds itself in an awkward position. We’re aware of the root causes of many issues, but objectively we may not be able to resolve them,” she explained. Although some relatives apologized, she felt they never truly grasped her concerns.
“To some extent, we’re a bit selfish as we focus more on ourselves and don’t learn to care about others much,” mused Yin, attributing it to the one-child policy’s legacy. As sole children, they often receive undivided parental attention, which may diminish their appreciation for broader family relationships.
But not all youngsters feel the same detachment. According to Yin, some of her friends maintain regular contact with their extended family. While she respects their closeness, she doesn’t feel compelled to alter her own approach. “The disconnect isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” she remarked.
Professor Hu suggests that societal concern over family estrangement may be overstated, as it hasn’t significantly harmed society. Future changes, he believes, particularly in the wake of the government relaxing the one-child policy, or changes in social mobility, might naturally revive closer family bonds.
According to Zhang, not all ties have been cut. Last year, a cousin who had long been out of touch sought her assistance with his academic work. “It seems being family made it easier for him to reach out,” said Zhang. “For us, staying connected is more a matter of choice.”
(Header image: IC)