Mothers and teachers take beribboned little girls to a park. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Marriage in China is essentially universal; divorce is rare. The traditional family system is based on male kinship. Since the 1970s China’s family-planning policy has required couples who want a child to apply for permission.

For twenty-five hundred years, through relatively secure and stable times and through stormy and catastrophic times, China’s family system has provided continuity in the social structure. Clans based on male kinship, in keeping with the precepts of the philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE), coordinated village life under the autocratic rule of dynasties and subordinate elites. Even today, after a century of drastic changes and social development, China’s family system remains remarkably similar to that of its historical pattern.

Historically the patriarchal system was perpetuated by marriages arranged between the family of the groom and a family, usually from another village, whose daughter was a suitable bride. So nearly universal was marriage that the vast majority of Chinese found their social place in this family structure. As the twenty-first century begins, the preceding century of modernization and liberation of women has not deeply shaken China’s patrilocal marriage (brides living with the groom’s family) and family system in the rural areas.

Ideal and Reality

Traditionally the ideal Confucian family was an extended family that consisted of three or four generations who lived under the same or nearby roofs. The highest-ranking male was supposed to make family decisions, perhaps in consultation with other male kin. All others in the rigid family hierarchy under him were to obey these decisions. Theoretically the result was family harmony. Land, tools, houses, animals, furniture, and other belongings were to be held by the extended family unit. When the patriarch of the family unit died or was unable to govern, his sons became the heads of their extended families, with family land and other possessions being distributed among them. The practice of ancestor worship supported this system as reverence for ancestors was extended to reverence for the living older generation, especially the patriarch. Sons were needed to preside at some of the ceremonies; daughters were not qualified.

Almost every male outranked almost every female, except that young boys had to obey grown women in the family. Females were considered to be perpetual outsiders because the marriage system brought a bride from an outside family and village into her husband’s family and village. Even daughters who were born into the extended family were regarded as low-status, temporary sojourners because they were destined to marry out.

Indeed, the reality bore some resemblance to this ideal because females and subordinate males were economically dependent on the patriarchal family and risked social isolation and even destitution or starvation if they rebelled against the system of patriarchal control. But people were not necessarily as compliant and submissive as portrayed in this harmonious ideal. Their different personalities, preferences, and perspectives naturally clashed with some of the expectations of the system. Poverty also mandated adjustments that were at odds with the prescribed scenario. Besides, most of the time demographic realities prevented achievement of the extended family ideal. Illness was common, and the death rate was high. Data from 1929 to 1931 indicate that females and males in rural farm families had life expectancies of only twenty-four and twenty-five years, respectively. The low life expectancy was caused in part by high infant and young child mortality rates (three-fifths of children died before age five). But even those children who survived to age five could expect to live only to age thirty-eight on average. It was notable when both parents in a nuclear family lived long enough to raise their children to adulthood. Families of three generations tended to last only a short time because death claimed the older generation and many in the younger generations. Families of four generations were very rare.

Twentieth-Century Changes

China entered the twentieth century with the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) in near collapse and imperialist and colonial powers encroaching on China from all sides. Qing government leaders and revolutionary leaders alike searched in desperation for a way to save China from disintegration and foreign incursion. They considered importing foreign ideas and systems, such as foreign-style military and industrial production, a new form of government (a republic or a democracy), and modern educational systems. Leading thinkers also noted that China’s autocratic and patriarchal marriage and family system was a powerful force that prevented or slowed necessary change. They therefore adopted ideologies that would overhaul the traditional family system. In particular, Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang) leaders and Communist leaders opposed the practice of arranged marriage and supported equality between men and women. The Communists and the Nationalists also opposed the practice of female foot binding.

Marriage Law of 1950

China’s Communist government from the beginning was determined to overturn patriarchal family and marriage customs. In fact, the first major law passed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was the Marriage Law of 1950, which outlawed arranged marriage, prostitution, polygamy, child marriage, and concubinage; it allowed divorce and free choice of marriage partners and set a minimum marriage age of eighteen for women and twenty for men. The government promoted male-female equality and weakened the economic power of the family, especially by collectivizing agriculture under the commune system.

The system of marriage underwent a slow transformation under the government’s leadership during the second half of the twentieth century. The average ages at marriage rose slowly during the early PRC decades and rose rapidly during the 1970s. The average age at first marriage from 1929 to 1931 had been 17.5 years for women and 21.3 years for men. By the late 1990s the average age at first marriage had risen to twenty-two for women and twenty-four for men. Some marriages are still arranged by the families, but law requires that marriages be registered and that the bride and groom tell the registration official that the marriage is voluntary. Today some marriages are love marriages, freely chosen by two young people, but most marriages are contracted through a system of introductions in which family, friends, or colleagues bring the man and woman and their families together. After a number of meetings, if the man and woman and their parents agree, the marriage is contracted.

Marriage remains essentially universal: In 2005, 99.3 percent of women ages thirty-five through thirty-nine had married, as had 95.2 percent of men in that age bracket. The remaining single men could not marry because of China’s shortage of women caused by earlier female infanticide and maltreatment of girls.

Positions of Men and Women

Traditionally males were so important and females so unimportant that many family genealogies recorded only males, generation after generation, ignoring the female half of the family. The birth of a male was cause to rejoice; from birth sons were groomed for eventual dominance. If food or money for medical treatment were scarce, these commodities were directed toward the boys
and men. As China’s economy has industrialized, most of the nonagricultural jobs have gone to men, and men are still regarded as a family’s economic core.

Since coming to power the Chinese Communist Party has worked against this formidable belief system and with significant positive results. But even today most families, particularly rural families, believe that they must have a son. Objective reasons exist, such as the lack of an old-age security system in rural China. Parents feel that they need a son to care for them when they grow old; a daughter will marry out of the family, but a son will bring in a daughter-in-law to help care for them. And yet even if such practical needs can be met in other ways, the emotional preference for a son remains.


During imperial times female infanticide was common at all economic levels. Selective neglect of daughters also meant that they died throughout childhood. During the Communist period the killing of infants was outlawed; female infanticide and mistreatment of girls declined gradually. The lowest point of female losses occurred during the 1960s and 1970s, when excess female child mortality (mortality beyond the expected rates) killed about 2 percent of girls in each birth cohort. But after introduction of the one-child family-planning policy in 1978 and 1979, excess deaths of girls rose suddenly to 3 percent of each birth cohort. Since the 1980s technology that can be used for sex-selective abortion of female fetuses has led to major losses of females in utero. Since 1999 China has had at least 120 boys per 100 girls at ages 0–4, one of the world’s worst gender imbalances. Analysis of data from successive Chinese censuses indicates that life-threatening discrimination against females is now confined mostly to the prenatal period and the first couple of years of life. Girls still experience discrimination after that, but the most recent data indicate that it seldom leads to death after the first two years of life.

One Child per Couple

During the 1950s and 1960s women in China averaged six births each. After the famine of the Great Leap Forward the government began to take seriously the need to slow population growth. Cities conducted a rigorous campaign to persuade or require couples to have fewer children. By 1966 urban fertility decreased to three births per woman. Then, during the early 1970s, the government conducted an increasingly compulsory campaign in the rural areas, demanding that couples cease childbearing at three births, then two births. During the late 1970s, based on population projections, the government determined that the only way to stop population growth soon was to require all couples to stop childbearing after one child. Financial incentives were given to couples who pledged to have only one child, with special education and health benefits given to that one child. Couples who resisted the one-child limit were penalized with fines, the required use of an intrauterine device (IUD) after one birth, forced abortion, and required sterilization (usually of the mother) after two or more births. Rural fertility dropped from 6.4 births per woman in 1970 to 3.1 in 1977; urban fertility dropped further to 1.6 births per woman. The nation’s population growth rate was reduced from almost 3 percent per year during the late 1960s (for a population doubling time of about twenty-five years) to 1.5 percent during the 1980s (for a doubling time of just under fifty years).

The most intense campaign of involuntary family planning was conducted in 1983 as medical teams went to villages to carry out forced sterilizations, abortions, and IUD insertions. This campaign led to a popular backlash, and the government temporarily lessened the coercion. Meanwhile, an associated increase in female infanticide worried the government. The demand for a son among rural families was so great that most provinces changed their rural family-planning policies to allow couples who had a firstborn daughter to have a second child but adhered to the one-child limit if the first child was a son.

Since the 1970s China’s family-planning policy has required couples who want a child to apply for permission to become pregnant and give birth. If authorities give couples a “birth quota,” couples may proceed to have a child; otherwise they face potentially serious political and economic consequences. Insertion of an IUD is required after one birth for most women, and sterilization is required after a second birth whether the birth was allowed or not. These “passive” techniques of birth control will stop pregnancy even if the couple actually wants a child, which is why the government usually insists on these techniques. Of couples who use contraception, 40 percent choose to have one partner sterilized, and 51 percent use an IUD. Since the early 1990s the nation’s fertility level has been below replacement-level fertility at about 1.6–1.8 births per woman. Since 1998 the population growth rate has been 0.5–1 percent per year, which is very low for a developing country.

Some international funding organizations and some governments have condemned this compulsory and often coercive family-planning program. In response China is conducting a pilot program in selected locations to implement a more client-friendly family-planning program. The program allows couples more choices of birth-control techniques, but couples still are not allowed to have more children than permitted before. China is the only country that has a compulsory family-planning program.

China’s low death and birth rates, however, have had mainly positive effects. Today most Chinese people live to advanced years. Therefore educational and health and other financial investments in children and adults pay off because the recipients live relatively long lives and thus can contribute longer to society. Small numbers of births, combined with rising incomes, mean that each child can receive more food, health care, clothing, education, and attention than was the case with larger families in the past. Low fertility reduces female deaths from pregnancy and childbirth and frees women to pursue careers and opportunities beyond childrearing. Nonetheless, in many ways compulsory family planning is harmful to families, couples, and women. Those couples who love children and want another are usually prevented from having more than their quota. Family-planning clinics use either X-ray or ultrasound to inspect the abdomens of women every few months to confirm that their IUDs are still in place; frequent use of X-rays may harm the women’s health. Forced abortions are often performed during the second and third trimesters, which is dangerous for the health of the mothers. Even putting aside such health issues, compulsory abdominal X-ray or ultrasound inspections, IUD insertions, sterilizations, and abortions are violations of women’s bodies and of their rights.

As in the past, almost everyone in China now marries, and almost every couple has at least one child. This fact means that the family structure is very much intact despite low fertility. People currently mostly live as part of an extended family, a “stem” family (three generations living together but with just one son and his wife and child or children in the household), or a nuclear family (parents and children only). Often the families of the older parents—the sons and their spouses and children and sometimes the married daughters in urban areas—continue to have frequent contact even if they live in separate dwellings.

Low fertility and mortality, however, mean that China’s population is aging. The proportion of elderly will rapidly increase in future decades; there is concern that the smaller numbers of children and grandchildren will be unable to cope with or financially support their elderly family members; and there is serious doubt abo
ut the government’s ability to step into the breach.

Family and Economic Reform

Since the death of Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong (1976) and the implementation of economic reforms (1978–79), the proportion of the population living in urban areas has increased from 18 percent to 45 percent. Urban life has weakened the patriarchal nature of the family (partly because access to agricultural land is not a factor), raised the status of women, decreased illiteracy, and raised educational levels.

Urban living, with all of its modern and Western influences, has also begun to affect China’s two-parent, one-child family structure: Divorce rates are rising in China’s larger cities, thus making the patrilineal nature of the family even more vulnerable for a fast-growing section of the population. But compared to the United States, where roughly one-third of all first marriages end in divorce—and despite the “sanctioning” of divorce by the CCP in the reformed Marriage Laws of 1950—the divorce rate in China overall remains extremely low: 1.2 percent of men and 0.8 percent of women. (The unbalanced statistics reflect the trend for ex-wives to remarry more often after the break-ups of their marriages than ex-husbands.)

Economic reforms have renewed the power of the family in rural China because the rights to use agricultural land, to make decisions about its use, and to sell the products for profit have reverted to the family unit from the communal production team. Wealth and income again belong to the patriarchal family unit, although the gradual shift from agriculture gives some decision-making power to the men and women who earn outside income. Rural marriage is still usually patrilocal and patrilineal. Limits on permanent migration out of the village continue to reinforce the rural family’s control over its members. Although temporary migration from a village is allowed, most migrants must assume that they cannot permanently leave the rural areas.

China’s strengthened rural family today is, from an economic standpoint, a flexible and positive force in the midst of rapid economic change. The rural family keeps its tiny pieces of arable land and farms them but also frees up its surplus laborers to work in rural industry or services or to migrate for work. The family diversifies its sources of income and spreads its risks across different economic sectors and into different places. It pools its resources for goals of the family. It supports its dependents—children, elderly, the underemployed and unemployed, the sick and disabled. This support is important because barely any social safety net exists in China’s vast rural areas.

Source of Stability

Today China’s rural families are robust in the face of considerable uncertainty. The transition from agriculture to nonagricultural sectors of the economy in rural China is occurring inside the family, as it has for the last century in rural families of the United States. The strong family is also helping urban China survive the destabilizing storms of massive layoffs of workers in state-owned industries and widespread loss of medical insurance benefits.

China’s traditional marriage and family systems have been buffeted by political attacks, communal farming, economic development, legal changes, the rising status of women, and foreign ideas and influences. Some changes, such as the decline of arranged marriage, have been deep and real. Within today’s families decision making is less hierarchical and more shared and consultative than it was in the past. No longer is ancestor worship a strong belief system.

Despite the real changes, China’s patrilocal and patrilineal family remains strong. It has survived and has enjoyed renewal because it works. As China moves toward a market economy, millions of people have to change what they do to earn a living. Millions are displaced or sidelined during the transition, and the dislocation and confusion are profound. China’s people need their families to fall back on, and people are doing what they can to keep their families intact. Marriage and family are surprisingly strong in China today, and they show few signs of weakening.

Further Reading

Banister, J. (1987). China’s changing population. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Barclay, G. W., Coale, A. J., Stoto, M. A., & Trussell, J. T. (1976, October). A reassessment of the demography of traditional rural China. Population Index, 42(4), 606–635.

China National Bureau of Statistics. (2006). China population statistics yearbook 2006. Beijing: China Statistics Press.

China National Bureau of Statistics. (2007). China population and employment statistics yearbook 2007. Beijing: China Statistics Press.

China National Bureau of Statistics. (2007). China statistical yearbook 2007. Beijing: China Statistics Press.

Coale, A. J., & Banister, J. (1994, August). Five decades of missing females in China. Demography, 31(3), 459–479.

Lee, James Z., & Wang Feng. (1999). One quarter of humanity: Malthusian mythology and Chinese realities, 1700–2000. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Scharping, T. (2003). Birth control in China 1949–2000: Population policy and demographic development. London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon.

Source: Banister, Judith. (2009). Marriage and Family. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1404–1409. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

A young Chinese couple get married in a park. Western style bridal gowns have become popular in China. PHOTO BY TOM CHRISTENSEN.

A southern Chinese mother transports her baby in an “air conditioned” carrier along with other shopping bags, Macao, China. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Marriage and Family (H?ny?n hé ji?tíng ?????)|H?ny?n hé ji?tíng ????? (Marriage and Family)

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