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China: Education and Family Bonds

World Policy Journal begins each issue with the Big Question, where we ask a panel of experts to provide insight into the cover theme. The question for the fall 2017 Constructing Family issue is: What values from your parents' generation would you preserve in a changing world? Below, Xiaoling Shu argues that an emphasis on education and family interdependence persists despite the modernization of Chinese society.

By Xiaoling Shu

For thousands of years, the major pillars of China’s traditional family system have been filial piety, interdependence, marriage and childbirth, an emphasis on education, and the importance of patrilineal descent. Yet many of these values and practices have been eroded by modernization. While households used to include distant relatives, it’s now normal for a nuclear family to live alone. In urban China, social welfare systems are gradually replacing family care for elders, and marriage and childbirth rates have declined while cohabitation and divorce rates have skyrocketed. Many women work full-time and are expected to contribute substantially to family income.

Despite these sweeping transformations, some traditional Chinese family values are being upheld. One is the emphasis on education, which remains steadfast. In ancient Chinese society, scholars were held in the highest regard, and this legacy has persisted. Regardless of their own education or occupation, almost universally, parents and grandparents hold high educational aspirations for their children. They encourage their children to achieve more, and are willing to devote time, attention, and financial resources to advance education at all costs—even if it comes at the price of their own wellbeing. The continuation of this Confucian tradition has helped propel rapid developments in China’s economic, educational and scientific sectors over the last few decades.

Another value that has persisted is family interdependence. Even though bonds have weakened, families are still honored and respected in rural and urban China. While it is no longer the norm for extended families to live together, family members still retain strong ties, and often depend on each other for financial and interpersonal support. Parents encourage and help their adult children by providing financial assistance and childcare, and children care for their elderly parents by providing emotional support, financial subsidies, and physical help. Modernization has had some negative effects on families, yet the persistence of strong family ties and certain traditional values has contributed positively to China’s wellbeing.

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Xiaoling Shu is a professor of sociology and director of East Asian studies at the University of California Davis.

[Photo courtesy of 12019]

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