Hostname: page-component-5d59c44645-k78ct Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-02-29T21:27:33.673Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Family Management and Family Division in Contemporary Rural China*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 February 2009


Field-work in north, south and west China villages reveals that prior to the establishment of the People's Republic family organization at all three sites was characterized by the same customary arrangements concerning ownership of property, economic ties among family members, family management and family division. During the collective era and the present period of family fanning changes in these aspects of family life have been along similar lines. I was in a Hebei village for four months during 1986–87, and in 1990 carried out three-month periods of field-work in villages in Shanghai county and on the Chengdu Plain in Sichuan.

A Symposium on Rural Family Change
Copyright © The China Quarterly 1992

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1. Women's private funds, known in standard Mandarin as sifang qian, comprised a traditional form of property distinct from that owned by the family as a unit. See Cohen, Myron L., House United, House Divided: The Chinese Family in Taiwan (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976), pp. 178190.Google Scholar

2. My use of “traditional” is with reference to continuities with late imperial (Qing) culture and society.

3. Cohen, , House United, House Divided.Google Scholar

4. Classic representations of this position include Lang, Olga, Chinese Family and Society (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1946)Google Scholar; Levy, Marion J. Jr., The Family Revolution in Modern China (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1949CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Freedman, Maurice, “The Chinese domestic family: models,” and “The family in China: past and present,” in Skinner, G. William (ed.), The Study of Chinese Society: Essays by Maurice Freedman (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1979), pp. 235254.Google Scholar

5. The important contributions include Pasternak, Burton, Guests in the Dragon: Social Demography of a Chinese District, 1895–1946 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983)Google Scholar and Pasternak, , “On the causes and demographic consequences of uxorilocal marriage in China,” in Hanley, Susan B. and Wolf, Arthur f. (eds.), Family and Population in East Asian History (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985)Google Scholar; Wolf, Arthur P. and Huang, Chieh-shan, Marriage and Adoption in China, 1845–1945 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1980).Google Scholar

6. Wolf, and Huang, , Marriage and AdoptionGoogle Scholar, refer to what I have called “standard” marriage as “major marriage”; it involves providing at least the minimum required ritualized transfer of the bride from her natal home to that of the groom. With “little daughter-in-law marriage” (“minor marriage” for Wolf and Huang) the transfer occurs during infancy or early childhood; ritual is either greatly reduced, postponed or absent altogether.

7. Ibid. p. 72.

8. For descriptions of family division practices in north China see Shiga, Shūzō, “Family property and the law of inheritance in traditional China,” in Buxbaum, David C. (ed.), Chinese Family Law and Social Change in Historical and Comparative Perspective (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979), pp. 109150Google Scholar; Johnston, R. F., Lion and Dragon in Northern China (London: John Murray, 1910), pp. 149153Google Scholar. For eastern China (Jiangsu) see Fukutake, Tadashi, Asian Rural Society: China, India, Japan (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1967), p. 86Google Scholar; Fei, Hsiao-tung [Fei Xiaotong], Peasant Life in China: A Field Study of Country Life in the Yangtze Valley (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1939), pp. 6569Google Scholar. An account of family division in south-eastern China (Fujian) is in Yueh-hwa, Lin, The Golden Wing: A Sociological Study of Chinese Familism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947), pp. 122–28.Google Scholar

9. For the expression of these ideals among the scholarly elite see Furth, Charlotte, “The patriarch's legacy: household instructions and the transmission of orthodox values,” in Liu, Kwang-Ching (ed.), Orthodoxy in Late Imperial China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), pp. 187211Google Scholar. Examples of popular antipathy towards family division are in Fei, Hsiao-tung [Fei Xiaotong] and Chang, Chih-i, Earthbound China: A Study of Rural Economy in Yunnan (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1948), pp. 114–15Google Scholar; Wolf, Margery, The House of Lim: A Study of a Chinese Farm Family (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1969), pp. 141–48.Google Scholar

10. This point is developed in Cohen, House United, House Divided.

11. See, for example, Wolf, and Huang, , Marriage and Adoption, pp. 352–53.Google Scholar

12. On land distribution procedures see Kojima, Reeitsu, “Agricultural organization: new forms, new contradictions,” The China Quarterly, No. 116 (1988), pp. 706735.Google Scholar

13. As in Tung, Fei Hsiao [Fei Xiaotong] et al., Small Towns in China: Functions, Problems, and Prospects (Beijing: New World Press, 1986).Google Scholar

14. Among some of the contributions to the rapidly expanding literature on familyrun and other private enterprises in post-decollectivization China are Croll, Elisabeth, “Some implications of the rural economic reforms for the Chinese peasant household,” in Saith, Ashwani (ed.), The Re-emergence of the Chinese Peasantry (London: Croom Helm, 1987), pp. 105136Google Scholar; Lardy, Nicholas R., “State intervention and peasant opportunities,”Google Scholar and Nee, Victor, “Peasant household individualism,” both in Parish, William L. (ed.), Chinese Rural Development: The Great Transformation (Armonk, New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1985), pp. 3356, 164192Google Scholar; two other articles by Nee, Victor are “The peasant household economy and decollectivization in China,” Journal of Asian and African Studies, Vol. 21, No. 3–4 (1986), pp. 185203CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and “Peasant entrepreneurship and the politics of regulation in China,” in Nee, Victor and Stark, David (eds.), Remaking the Economic Institutions of Socialism: China and Eastern Europe (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989).Google Scholar

15. Kojima, Reeitsu, “Agricultural organization.”Google Scholar

16. According to a relatively recent statement of this position, “the traditional family structure operated as an obstacle to modernization in China, creating conditions of nepotism or blocking the formation of strong intermediate organizations.” See Rozman, Gilbert (ed.), The Modernization of China (New York: Free Press, 1981), p. 384Google Scholar. For a brief summary of the earlier literature which holds Chinese “familism” to be antithetical to modernization see Siu-lun Wong, “The applicability of Asian family values to other sociocultural settings,” in Berger, Peter L. and Hsiao, Hsin-Huang Michael (eds.), In Search of an East Asian Development Model (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1988), pp. 134152Google Scholar. In the context of the general reappraisal of the relationship between tradition and economic development in China (and elsewhere in East Asia), Confucianism is now being considered as a positive force for modernization. See de Bary, Wm. Theodore, East Asian Civilizations: A Dialogue in Five Stages (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988)Google Scholar and Rozman, Gilbert (ed.), The East Asian Region: Confucian Heritage and its Modern Adaptation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).Google Scholar

17. See, for example, such classic statements as Freedman, Maurice, “The handling of money: a note on the background to the economic sophistication of Overseas Chinese,”Google Scholar in Skinner, (ed.), The Study of Chinese Society, pp. 2226Google Scholar; Skinner, G. William, Chinese Society in Thailand: An Analytical History (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1957), pp. 99108.Google Scholar Later discussions of the positive role of the Chinese family in development and modernization, based largely on Taiwan research, include Harrell, Stevan, “Why do the Chinese work so hard: reflections on an entrepreneurial ethic,”Google Scholar and Stites, Richard W., “Industrial work as entrepreneurial strategy,” both in Modern China, Vol. 11, No. 2 (1985), pp. 203226, 227246.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Also see Niehoff, Justin T., “The villager as industrialist: ideologies of household manufacturing in rural Taiwan,” Modern China, Vol. 13, No. 3 (1987), pp. 278309CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Greenhalgh, Susan, “Social causes and consequences of Taiwan's postwar economic development,” in Chang, Kwang-chih, Li, Kuang-chou, Wolf, Arthur P. and Yin, Alexander Chienchung (eds.), Anthropological Studies of the Taiwan Area: Accomplishments and Prospects (Taipei: Department of Anthropology, National Taiwan University, 1989), pp. 351390.Google ScholarWang, Siu-lun, “The applicability of Asian family values,”Google Scholar considers the importance of the Chinese family for Hong Kong's economic growth.

18. For examples of uxorilocal marriage contracts see Chen, Fu-mei Chang and Myers, Ramon H., “Customary law and the economic growth of China during the Ch'ing period,” part one, Ch'ing-shih wen-t'i, Vol. 3, No. 5 (1976), pp. 132.Google Scholar

19. See especially Cohen, , House United, House Divided.Google Scholar

20. Lang, , Chinese Family and Society, p. 160.Google Scholar

21. Ibid. p. 164.

22. Shiga, Shūzō, “Family property and the law of inheritance, p. 122.Google Scholar

23. See Cohen, Myron L., “Lineage organization in North China,” Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 49, No. 4 (1990), pp. 509534.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

24. For a recent study see Huang, Philip C. C., The Peasant Family and Rural Development in the Yangzi Delta, 1350–1988 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990).Google Scholar Surveys of the earlier literature include Naquin, Susan and Rawski, Evelyn S., Chinese Society in the Eighteenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987)Google Scholar and Rawski, Evelyn S., “Economic and social foundations of Late Imperial Culture,” in Johnson, David, Nathan, Andrew J., and Rawski, Evelyn S. (eds.), Popular Culture in Late Imperial China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), pp. 333.Google Scholar

25. On diversification as a family strategy among the elite during Ming and Qing see Ho, Ping-ti, The Ladder of Success in Imperial China: Aspects of Social Mobility, 1368–1911 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1962), esp. pp. 290–91.Google Scholar The importance of this same strategy for ordinary villagers is noted in Yang, Martin C., A Chinese Village: Taitou, Shantung Province (New York: Columbia University Press, 1945), pp. 7677, 84.Google Scholar For rural Taiwan see Cohen, , House United, House DividedGoogle Scholar, where this matter is discussed at length.

26. On the widespread use of contracts in late imperial society see Cohen, Myron L., “The role of contract in traditional Chinese social organization,” in Proceedings VIIIth International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences, 1968, Tokyo and Kyoto, Vol. 2, Ethnology (Tokyo: Science Council of Japan, 1969), pp. 130–32Google Scholar; Chen, Fu-mei Chang and Myers, Ramon H., “Customary law and the economic growth of China during the Ch'ing period,” parts one and two, Ch'ing-shih wen-t'i, Vol. 3, No. 5 (11, 1976), pp. 132Google Scholar; Vol. 3, No. 10 (December 1978), pp. 4–27.

27. Cf. Shiga, Shūzō, “Family property and the law of inheritance,” p. 122.Google Scholar

28. On this matter see Ocko, Jonathan, “Women, property, and law in the People's Republic of China,” in Watson, Rubie S. and Ebrey, Patricia Buckley (eds.), Marriage and Inequality in Chinese Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), pp. 313346.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

29. Family division is reflected in the government-managed household registers, however, which record “household partition” (fenhu). Yet there is not total correspondence between these records and family membership or family division. A family may have its members registered in different households, especially if the status of some family members is “farmer” (nongmin), while others are “residents” (jumin) or “workers” (gongren).

30. Wolf, Arthur P., “Chinese family size: a myth revisited,” in Hsieh, Jih-chang and Chuang, Ying-chang (eds.), The Chinese Family and Its Ritual Behavior (Taipei: Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica, 1985), pp. 3049.Google Scholar

31. Similar findings with respect to a village near Xiamen, Fujian, are discussed in Shu-min, Huang, “Re-examining the extended family in Chinese peasant society: findings from a Fujian village,” Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, No. 27 (01 1992), pp. 2538.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

32. See Cohen, , House United, House Divided, pp. 205210.Google Scholar

33. Cohen, , House United, House Divided, pp. 7475, 213.Google Scholar

34. For examples of Taiwan division contracts see ibid. pp. 243–253.

35. All personal names have been omitted or changed to upper-case letters.