Just to talk about
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Just to talk about

Family Dynamics in 20th Century China

The photo shows a mountain landscape with a fog that makes the contours blurry. In the foreground the branches of a leafless tree
Photo by Joey Huang on Unsplash

Over the course of the twentieth century, China went through many changes that resulted in shifting family dynamics. While in the past, marriage was decided by the parents, it later became possible for their children to choose their own husband or wife.

The one-child policy of 1978 put an end to many couples having as many children as they wanted, and instead had to settle with just one. While children were obligated to obey their parents, many modern offspring are more willing to disagree with the people who raised them and make their own choices.

Through the classic 1930s novel by Pearl S. Buck, The Good Earth, and Yunxiang Yan’s study of the Chinese village Xiajia in his book, Private Life Under Socialism, it is possible to get insight into how the parent-child relationship, husband-wife relationship, and in-law relationship in the Chinese family have changed from pre-revolutionary times to the end of the 1990s.

Parent-Child Relationship

In China, especially before pre-revolutionary times, offspring were expected to be obedient to their parents, whether they liked it or not. This is evident in The Good Earth, where the main character Wang Lung looked after his father by bringing him hot water to ease his coughing, helping him bathe, and by keeping him fed.

This also extended to other members of the family who were also of an older generation, such as Wang Lung’s uncle. Even though Wang Lung’s uncle and the rest of his family are depicted as lazy, Wang Lung can’t refuse to help them because they are family.

The one time that Wang Lung dares to talk back to his uncle, he immediately has to retract what he says, out of fear that his uncle will tell the whole village, angrily telling him:

“Have you no religion, no morals, that you are so lacking in filial conduct? Have you not heard it said that in the Sacred Edicts it is commanded that a man is never to correct an elder?” (Buck :63).

Before pre-revolutionary times, loyalty to family was important, and any sign of disobedience was looked down upon. Laws even existed that protected the power and privileges of parents, to the point that parents could ask the local government to prosecute an unfilial son without any evidence since as far as they were concerned, no parent was ever wrong.

Punishments for unfilial sons could be harsh, such as death by strangulation for a son who dared to scold a parent or grandparent.

Over the course of the twentieth century, as China underwent several kinds of transformations, the relationship between parents and their children began to change. In fact, according to Yan:

By the end of the 1990s the living conditions of some elderly parents had worsened, and the family status of elders continued to decline. Elders trembled to speak of their fate, the middle-aged were worried about their immediate future, and young couples were confused by the storm of complaints from their parents and grandparents. (163)

Since care for the elderly tended to vary among the younger generations, many of them often find themselves in different living arrangements, experience parental abuse, and intergenerational conflicts.

One contributing factor that can explain the lack of filial piety in recent decades is a decrease in government support. According to Yan:

“Throughout the history of China, the state and the cultural elite regarded filial piety as a fundamental ethical and social norm” (Yan :182).

While the Chinese government still considered elderly support to be important, in recent decades they have tried to promote equality among family members, regardless of age and gender. As Yan puts it,

“A fundamental change in the elderly support system was never the intention of the state, but the state indeed made the notion of filial piety less important in order to promote loyalty to the party-state” (183).

Now when elderly parents seek help against an unfilial son, the newer legal system makes it difficult for the son to get punished. At best, the worst punishment that a son can get now for not supporting their parents is to provide financial support for them.

A dilemma that most Chinese parents face as they get older is whether they will live with their married sons. For the most part,

“many young couples want independence and leave their parents’ homes when they marry, their elderly parents end up living in a nuclear or empty nest family” (Yan :163).

Sometimes, parents that do manage to live with their married son end up being subjected to parental abuse. Yan discovered in his study of parental abuse that

“Six of the eleven instances of parent abuse involved senior villagers over the age of 70 in 1998. One elderly couple, ages 71 and 73, had been literally thrown out by their third son after living in his house for more than three years” (168).

With so many cases of parental abuse being present, it is worth examining exactly the stance by parents and their children regarding elderly support.

According to Yan,

“in general, parents claim that elderly support is the ultimate responsibility of every individual and the moral trait that distinguishes human beings from animals” (173).

While married children agree that elderly support is important, they do hold several differing views. Mainly, they:

Rejected the traditional idea that giving life to a child is the parents’ [favor] to the child and that the child cannot repay this highest debt. They argued that giving birth to a child is just a natural event that transforms a couple into parents, not a great favor to the child, because the child has no choice about birth. Once a child is born, it is the parents’ duty to raise the child, they said. (Yan :176)

While changes in the parent-child relationship may have had negative consequences on the parents, not all changes have been for the worse. One of the main benefits that have come from the changing dynamics between parents and their children is better-improved relationships with the daughter. In many cases of parental abuse:

The daughters were the elderly parents’ last resort for help when the married sons refused to fulfill their obligations. A more common pattern, however, is for daughters to visit their parents frequently, providing the care and emotional support that neither a married son nor a daughter-in-law can offer. (Yan :180)

After the one-child policy came into effect in China, even the government started to push the idea that having a daughter is a great idea for parents hoping to invest in their old age. This new appreciation for the daughter has resulted in most parents no longer holding a preference for having sons, compared to generations before pre-revolution China.

Husband-Wife Relationship

Another dynamic that has changed over the course of the twentieth century is the relationship between husband and wife. Arranged marriages used to be the norm in China, as is present in The Good Earth. Wang Lung’s father had arranged for his son to marry a slave girl, because:

“with weddings costing as they do in these evil days and every woman wanting gold rings and silk clothes before she will take a man, there remain only slaves to be had for the poor” (Buck :8).

Even though Wang Lung didn’t want to marry a slave girl, he respected his father’s judgment and went through with it. Wang Lung’s wife, O-lan, is presented as obedient to her husband, hard-working, and often quiet.

These are traits that might have been of immense value for a wife in pre-revolution China. However, Wang Lung never expresses any love for his wife and doesn’t realize her importance until she dies. Later in the story, Wang Lung plans ahead and arranges for his daughter to be married off to the son of a merchant named Liu, even though they are barely ten years old.

Since Wang Lung cannot arrange the matter personally, he sends the servant of Lotus, named Cuckoo, to arrange the deal. All Wang Lung had to do is sign

“the papers for the second girl’s betrothal and the dowry was decided upon and the gifts of clothing and jewelry for her marriage day were fixed” (Buck :249).

Two of Wang Lung’s sons would also go through arranged marriages, with their wives coming to live under Wang Lung’s household.

One dynamic that existed in pre-revolution China that isn’t practised anymore is polygamy. While Wang Lung never found O-lan to be attractive, at one point, he comes to notice that his wife is

“a dull and common creature, who plodded in silence without thought of how she appeared to others” (Buck :168).

Finding his wife to be unattractive, Wang Lung ends up getting a second wife, the beautiful Lotus, without even considering how O-lan would feel about this. In a sense, Lotus proves that Wang Lung’s father had been correct in arranging for his son to marry an ugly woman, for while Lotus is beautiful, she contributes nothing to the household and constantly demands material possessions. Nevertheless, Wang Lung’s ease at being able to have another wife demonstrates what little power women had in pre-revolution China.

As the twentieth century progressed, China experienced many changes that affected the husband-wife relationship. For example, a new marriage law that was introduced in 1950 altered several marriage customs in China by legally banning

“arranged marriages, concubinage, and purchased marriages” (Yan :48).

When arranged marriages were still common, only the parents had a say in picking the spouse,

“the suitability of mates from the young persons’ perspective was not an issue” (Yan :76).

By the 1990s, three major developments took place, which were: The obvious increase of intimacy in courtship and postengagement interactions, … contemporary youth also pay more attention to their future spouse’s individual characteristics, such as physical appearance, respect and caring, emotional expressivity, and communication skills, … [and] village youths of the 1990s tended to be more open and vocal than their parents and older siblings in expressing their emotions to their lovers and future spouses. (Yan :84)

With arranged marriages out of the picture, newer generations had the freedom to choose their ideal mate because they held genuine feelings of romantic love for them, and didn’t have to worry anymore about what their parents would think. This isn’t to say that romantic love never existed in China, but reforms in Chinese society made it possible for couples to express their love in ways that would have been seen as shameful by previous generations.

When it came to choosing their potential mate, Yunxiang Yan found that men and women in the 1990s did have certain expectations of their spouses. As Yan learned, young women imagine the ideal husband as coming

“from a well-off family because most young women hoped to avoid poverty, … the young man’s ability to work, … and physical appearance is also important” (80).

Yan found that young men carried similar expectations, although in a different order of importance. One quality that young men looked for when choosing a potential mate

“was a woman’s personality: she should have a good temper and be gentle and sweet. Villagers believe that personality traits are inherited through family lines, so the personalities of a young woman’s parents were also considered” (Yan :80).

While Wang Lung’s critiques of his wife O-lan’s physical appearance might seem harsh by today’s standards, these surveys that were conducted by Yunxiang Yan demonstrate that most men and women do take physical appearance into account when choosing a potential spouse.

In-Law Relationships

The last dynamic that has changed over the course of the twentieth century is in-law relationships. In pre-revolution China, once a woman was married, they were expected to leave their own family and live with their husband’s family.

This is best shown in The Good Earth, where O-lan is expected to care for Wang Lung’s father right after she is married to Wang Lung. Before getting married, Wang Lung cherishes that he won’t have to look after his father anymore, for now,

“there was a woman coming to the house. Never again would [he] have to rise summer and winter at dawn to light the fire” (Buck :3).

In-law relationships also extended to the parents, themselves. At one point, Wang Lung seeks to set up arranged marriages for his offspring, and learns of a merchant named Liu. Through his interactions with Liu, Wang Lung was able to find his first son a wife, agreed to let his daughter marry Liu’s son when they came of age, and also found his second son a job as a merchant.

These interactions demonstrate that when it came to marriage for their children, Chinese parents were more interested in marrying their children to families who could benefit them and maintaining positive relations with parents-in-law was one way to achieve that.

Once a daughter was married off, they were expected to care for their parents-in-law and never returned with their real family. This was because of

“the institutional arrangement of Chinese kinship, by the cultural constraints of traditional ethics, and by her husband” (Yan :181).

As this tradition has weakened over the years, daughters have the freedom to care more for their parents. As one daughter had explained to Yan,

“There is a natural bond between me and my parents because they gave me my life and raised me. But what did my parents-in-law do for me? Nothing! Thanks to the new society [the recent social changes], I don’t have to pretend I care for them [the parents-in-law]. Why should I?” (180).

While sons-in-law and daughters-in-law may have had the freedom to not care for their in-laws, that didn’t mean that the parents-in-law were okay with it. In his studies of Xiajia village, Yunxiang Yan learned of cases where parents-in-law were unwilling to give up their power, leading to tragic results.

For example, one elderly man named Mr. Li committed suicide because he had been having problems with his daughter-in-law and son, leading to Mr. Li threatening to kill himself numerous times. Villagers that Yan interviewed described Mr. Li as

“an aggressive person in public life and tyrant at home” (86).

After his wife died, Mr. Li chose to live with his younger son but wanted to keep his power and stay in control. Mr. Li’s daughter-in-law, however, never listened to any of his orders. Unwilling to give up:

Mr. Li fought fiercely to defend his position, often bringing family disputes to the village office. He did not gain the full support of the village cadres, however, because his daughter-in-law had successfully convinced them that the old man’s tyrannical behavior should be held in check (Yan :87).

Yan found that among the older villagers that he interviewed, while all of them agreed that the daughter-in-law had been disobedient and the husband should have done something to stop the conflict between his father and wife from getting worse, some of them also felt that Mr. Li was responsible for his downfall as well, believing that he could have easily left his son’s household after the conflict started and used the money he had saved up to live out his life comfortably, by himself.

The emphasis on equality that the Chinese government has pushed in recent decades, including both gender and age, meant that even the power held by parents-in-law in previous generations had weakened, as well.


In examining the parent-child, husband and wife, and in-law relationships in China over the course of the twentieth century, it is obvious that they have all experienced significant changes.

While it is still possible to find parents, who share a close bond with their children, children have the freedom to make their own choices, without having to worry about being punished by the government for expressing any signs of disobedience.

With arranged marriages no longer being practised, many couples can finally be together because they genuinely hold feelings of romantic love, and do not have to worry about disapproving parents.

With daughters no longer having to leave their own families to care for their in-laws, daughters have the freedom to care more for their own families.

Even in the twenty-first century, both The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck and Private Life Under Socialism by Yunxiang Yan help give insight into how the family dynamics of Chinese society shifted over the course of one century.



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Jesse Perez

Jesse Perez


I am an alumni of CSN and UNLV with a Bachelor’s degree in English.