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Fatherhood Chinese Style

By Pat Albertson and Andrew Norrie

Andrew Norrie has spent much of the last three years working as an english language teacher in the Chinese city of Xi’an in Shaanxi province, during which time he met and married Trikessa.

Being immersed in the culture of both modern and traditional China, Andrew was able to make some interesting observations about China’s “one-child” policy and Chinese family life, particularly the role of the father and husband within the family.

Perhaps the greatest misconception held by Westerners about modern Chinese family life is the “one child” policy.

Here the key word is “policy”; it isn’t a hard and fast law. Urban families (who make up about 35% of the population) are permitted to have only one child. However, rural families are permitted to have a second child if the first was a girl, and members of China’s fifty-six or so ethnic minorities can have up to three children.

Currently, the average number of children in Chinese families is 2.2, which may not be far removed from the average for countries such as New Zealand.

If urban families have more than one child, they face very heavy fines from the government and this acts as a very strong deterrent for most urban parents. Urban families also have access to better education and family planning advice so having the “one child” policy has been most successful.

For some urban families, having a second child poses no real financial handicap; they are perfectly willing to pay the fine to the government.

Indeed, in larger cities, like Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai, having a second child is now seen as a mark of success and also as a new “status symbol”. Perhaps this is lost on “western” people, but to be able to say “my children” instead of “my child” quickly identifies the utterer as a member of China’s new urban elite.

Obviously, some resentment is likely to be found in China in regard to the state’s population control measures, and some of Andrew’s students in Shaanxi Teachers University said that they wished they had a brother or sister while realising there was little they could do about it.

The Chinese government has gone to considerable lengths to educate the population as to the necessity of its “one-child” policy and this appears to make having (or being) an only child a little more acceptable. (It is estimated that without having some control over its population growth, China would now have a population of approximately 1.8 billion people which would seriously impede its economic development).

In any event, the state is currently looking at relaxing some aspects of its population growth policy, especially for urban families, many of whom now have very good incomes and can (and some do) support two children.

It may be imagined that, with the “one-child” policy in place for urban families, there may be a tendency for the father and mother to “spoil” an only child. However Andrew observed that Chinese parents generally look after their children extremely well in any case, and therefore the number of children in the family was largely irrelevant in terms of child care.

While both parents take an active role in playing with their child(ren), the day-to-day work of raising the child is done by the mother. The main role of the urban Chinese father is to earn money to support the family. Many urban Chinese men give most of their salaries to their wives since it is considered that women are far better at managing money than men.

This is especially true when there are children to support.

Because a child will often have either one or both sets of grandparents living close, this provides the new family with “on-call child-minding”, a function Chinese grandparents are happy and willing to perform. Both grandfather and grandmother appear to take an equal role in this.

In this way, both the father and mother are able to continue working knowing that other family members will be caring for their child.

Most urban Chinese children are still brought up according to what may be regarded as “traditional” norms. “Modern” (ie: “western”) methods of parenting are only very slowly making inroads amongst the urban Chinese. A very rare creature in urban China is the “sensitive new age guy”.

He would be regarded as a weak, effeminate man by most Chinese men, and many women. What most Chinese women want in a man – and, by implication, a husband – is someone who is honest, trustworthy and reliable. For many urban families, it is the wife and mother who may be regarded as running the home.

The husband merely provides the money – and the child’s family name.

Unfortunately, there appears to have been a notable increase in the number of divorces in China in recent times. When a family separates, the children will generally go with their mother rather than the father.

Despite 53 years of Communist rule in China, traditional ways are very strong, especially in terms of extended family structure.

Cousins of a similar age regard each other as brother and sister, and very close friends refer to each other in a similar manner. When Andrew first met younger members of his Chinese wife’s family, he was introduced as their uncle. For the vast majority of Confucian Asia (East Asia), family and friendship networks are extremely important, and you don’t need a biological connection to be a “family member”.

The closer to the major cities the more “modern” the attitude is towards family life. But even in major urban areas, people’s ideas of family life may indeed be described as “traditional”. And, at least for the foreseeable future, it would seem to stay that way.

Next: Some Dads Can’t Win

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