From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Asian Miscellany (9)—Family Life in Modern China

[a] Family 1967 RF
My last few posts in "Asian Miscellany" have been driven by deadline—and many of them will follow in the coming weeks and months, since I have signed contracts to deliver a whole passel of encyclopedic material to various publishers before a self-imposed deadline of January 30th. As I explained in the introduction, this series of posts allows me to try out a few ideas that I plan eventually to include in various encyclopedias or on-line sites that have asked for my input. They are not the same as the pieces that will eventually be published, but constitute more of a "long draft," meant to work through a few ideas as I work on brief essays that often mandate strict "word counts" of 250, 500, 1,000, or 2,000 words. 

For today's post, I have been asked to write about "family" in modern China. If you have been following this series of essays, you will see that it is another "impossible" topic. My hope is to give readers a sense of some of the issues surrounding family life in China, both modern and historical (the latter being more important to the study of the present than some writers seem to think). It can only be a series of glimpses in these thousand words, but the themes I have chosen are not necessarily the ones you will find in other brief treatments. I focus on the "round" family and, not insignificantly, school pressures as a constant in family life. Take a look.

Feel free to peruse the other Modern China posts in Asian Miscellany. 
1 One-Child              2 Education             3 Food/Drink          4 House           5 Work          
6 Entertainment       7 Sports/Games       8 Urban/Rural        9 Family Life    10 Children
Family Life in Modern China

[b] Two generations RF
In a much earlier era, the picture of a “perfect” family in China was one that was said to be “round.” It contained five generations, three of them thriving, and the other two at either their beginning (in the case of young children) or end (with aging great-grandparents). This “round” family was, in actual practice, almost unknown in Chinese history. Keeping a child of age one or two in good health was challenge enough; maintaining a great-grandparent’s health was even more difficult. The ideal remained, however, and even today every Chinese family has some sense of the “five generation” model hovering in the background.

Rural Life 
In rural China, it is difficult to separate family life from family labor, and this has not changed significantly over the decades. A trip across back roads of China will show the traveler a wide array of images, and most of them are tied—one way or another—to farming and the vocations that are connected to it. A bus ride through several counties in Hunan Province (in southern China), for example, will show the traveler lush rice fields, with people working knee deep in muddy water, and sheltered from the southern sun with everything from traditional triangular hats to NBA log caps. In early morning or late afternoon, adults will more than occasionally be accompanied by children in the fields.  

[c] Mobility RF
Flash-forward to autumn, and the same bus trip will show a late-October harvest, with grain drying on seemingly every inch of pavement or smooth ground. Children and adults smooth the grains and shuffle them for optimal drying, even as work gives way to a few shots at the basketball hoop or games of stickball. Everywhere—and at all times—children will be studying, and this is no less true in rural China than in urban centers. 

Urban Life

The “playing field” for family life is both far smaller in urban centers and, at the very same time, almost limitless. In major urban centers, the housing unit almost never extends from an open front door to fields, hills, and drying grain under basketball hoops. Family life is much more concentrated behind apartment doors, with neighbors one knows less well than in the country.

[d] Urban RF
 It is important not to romanticize one or the other, though. Any walk through a major city, such as Chengdu in China’s “upper southwest” will show family interactions different from those in rural areas—families in lavish restaurants, department stores, and specialty shops. A distinctly urban kind of family moment occurs in large bookstores that can only happen in a family den or community library in a rural setting. There, parents and children animatedly talk about an array of books that cannot be found in other locations. Parks are another center of life for the three generations most commonly together, where children, parents, and grandparents (or some combination of them) spend their leisure time.

Urban family life centers on school, as well. Because urban centers hold the vast majority of corporations and high-paying positions in the country, it should not be surprising that the focus on education and success is very great in large cities. China’s wealthiest cities are known for their enviable success in international testing competitions (Shanghai’s schools did particularly well recently), and the pace in the best schools is a challenge for both students and the parents who both support and rest their expectations on them.

Pressure and Opportunity 
[e] Reading RF
Family life with children means family life with school. It is the overwhelming reality in China, and the pressure exceeds what most Americans experience. Although some of the educational pressures are greater in the larger cities of China, in all areas there are constant expectations from teachers and school administrators that parents make sure their children are prepared. The stereotype is that these things do not happen readily in less-educated rural areas, yet the one constant that can be heard in conversations with parents all over China is the pressure parents feel to have their children do well in school. A little bit of probing takes this a step deeper. To be sure, parents want their children to be successful. But just as parents in previous decades or centuries have felt (all over the world), they are often most concerned that their children at least do well enough to be regarded in the wide but unspectacular range of “good” students. 

Children might be quite surprised to hear this latter statement, since they often feel the pressure in a very different way. Many complain that it is “too much,” and that their grandparents and parents show far less affectionate than stern (parents often admit as much, and say that it is a sad necessity). Family life has changing pressures, to be sure (buying a house, getting married, having children—often with additional pressure from parents—educating children, and then helping those children, in turn, to start the process). Although “pressure” may seem like a strange theme in a discussion of family life, a little thought will make it clear that it is a very real factor in relations between children, parents, and grandparents. 
***  *** 
The reader of this brief essay will have seen many parallels with life in the United States or Europe. This is to be expected, since the “structural constants” of housing, schooling, and passing the torch to subsequent generations are to be found in every society across the globe. The cultural particularities of Chinese family life are worthy of careful consideration, though. The fact that schooling in China is geared toward success in examinations (not merely having “good grades”) separates it from some of the situations an American student might experience. The expectations and hopes of six adults—parents and grandparents—focused on just one (“only”) child is another fairly distinctive (and recent) difference. Family life in all societies is fascinating for its global continuities and specific contrasts, and China provides a fascinating picture of the generational dynamic.

Feel free to peruse the other Modern China posts in Asian Miscellany. 
1 One-Child              2 Education             3 Food/Drink          4 House           5 Work          
6 Entertainment       7 Sports/Games       8 Urban/Rural        9 Family Life    10 Children 
[f] Many moons ago RF

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