Yunxiang Yan on familialism and individualization in China

A child in Nanjing is pretending to pedal away with a cart carrying his entire family in the back seats.

Yunxiang Yan is professor of anthropology and the director of the Center for Chinese Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. He earned his B.A. in Chinese Literature from Peking University in 1982 and Ph.D. in Social Anthropology from Harvard University in 1993. He is the author of The Flow of Gifts: Reciprocity and Social Networks in a Chinese Village (Stanford University Press, 1996), Private Life under Socialism: Love, Intimacy, and Family Change in a Chinese Village, 1949-1999 (Stanford University Press, 2003), and The Individualization of Chinese Society (Berg publishers, 2009). His research interests include family and kinship, social change, the individual and individualization, and moral changes in post-Mao China. On October 7, 2016, he spoke to Erica Rawles CMC ‘17.

What made you interested in the structure of the family specifically in rural China, as opposed to urban China? How does the transformation of rural families due to individualization differ from that of urban families?

First of all, I am not a political scientist. I was trained as an anthropologist and in my field, family kinship is very important. We pay a lot of attention to how people as individuals relate to each other to make sense of their life. Relationships thrive in the institution of the family. Studying a family gives me the advantage of closely observing individual life. 

Normally the trend of individualization starts in urban areas due to better access to information about the outside world and due to urban people’s higher degree of mobility. With all these factors together one can easily predict that individualization occurs to a higher degree in cities. Therefore, if I go to the countryside and study the same trend and the findings are similar, I can demonstrate that what is happening in Chinese cities is also happening in the countryside.

In your 2011 article, “The Individualization of the Family in Rural China,” you speak about the changes of traditional values specifically within rural families due to the trend of individualization. What additional changes do you predict the rural family in China will undergo assuming that individualization continues to grow in the future?

Within the framework of a state that implemented economic reform, it was almost necessary to continue pushing individualization, even merely for the sake of promoting individual productivity and competitiveness. Therefore, I think it will continue. Plus we shouldn’t forget the influence of globalization, new information, inspirations, and ideas coming from the outside world, many of which might take the form of consumerism. These ideas rely on emphasizing individualism. To say that an individual has rights is to say an individual has all the entitlements of joy and good things in the world. So this influence has also helped to promote individualism and it is very likely to continue.

On that front I have some new findings, which partially changed the direction of my previous observations, so your question is very sharp. It takes me right to the core of the changes I observed. Western societies boost individualism and place a heavy emphasis on individual rights, individual happiness, autonomy, freedom, choice, and a whole set of things. By contrast, individualization in China happened as a strategy of modernization, heavily pushed from the top down by the state, promoting certain institutional changes that forced individuals to take more responsibility to become more competitive and more productive. So the values of the rural family changed and what you see is almost like half-cooked individualism. Individual responsibility to compete is emphasized and an equal emphasis is placed on individual obligations to the family. Individualism occurs in order to make more productive individuals, while the purpose of productivity remains more or less the same – to work hard for a larger group rather than merely for yourself. That larger immediate group is the family.

What are the benefits and drawbacks to individualism/privatization, not just for the rural family, but for society as a whole? Do you think the structural changes to society can be detrimental in any respect? 

Benefits are obvious, even in this halfway, half-baked process. You can still see an increased space for the individual, the legitimization of the individual self, and the individual’s desires for self, including self-development and so on. 

As I have already indicated, the trend of individualization was pushed from the top down for the very instrumental purpose of modernizing China and increasing the wealth and power of the nation state. The state pushed individual productivity and competitiveness. At the same time, the state downplayed the other side of individualism – the autonomy, choice, freedom, and most importantly, the classic liberal approach that emphasizes that the individual’s happiness should be an end in it of itself. In the Chinese process of individualization, the individual is still being perceived, encouraged, and promoted as a means to an end. Although that end has been modified or changed since the Maoist era, with less emphasis on self-sacrifice for the nation state, the end still stresses individual sacrifice. Now one sacrifices for the larger extended family. So that’s why I said that out of this individualization process we only saw half-baked individualization. Meanwhile, we see a growing paradoxical emergence of a new familialism emerging.

But there is an obvious downside of this same trend. Individualization does not necessarily give the individual more liberty to engage in political life or to be more active in the public realm, like participating in social movements or forming free associations. Those free associations nurture a new kind of moral self to play a more important role in public life while pursuing individual happiness. This latter part has not been nurtured in China and has even been discouraged by the state and by the government. That is a downside of this particular Chinese model of individualization. It can result in primarily a consumerist individualization emphasizing individual entitlement of a material life rather than emphasizing individual responsibilities and entitlement to participate in political and public life.

What effect, if any, do you think the rise of individualization has on morality?

There are multiple effects of individualization on morality. Individualization by definition encourages diversity, and diversity means people could have, and indeed have had, different opinions toward social phenomenon and social actions. One very important change in the moral landscape of China is the diversification of values which led to the diversification of moral judgment. People no longer measure a single phenomenon of moral behavior with a monolithic and authoritative ethical standard. Instead people may have diversified their views. I like to cite a concrete example from about two years ago. A famous public figure, a female intellectual professor in China, said that her partner is a woman, but that her partner is not a lesbian and she is not a lesbian either. She said that she is straight and her partner is straight in a certain sense because she is a man in a woman’s body. That statement stirred up huge public debate and garnered attention because before this announcement there was no such notion of transgender as a possibility, and therefore the Chinese public learned of this as something new. Then, instead of overwhelmingly condemning the professor for engaging in such a never heard of relationship, people began to say that at least we should have a sympathetic understanding. So one way or another, people began to have different opinions. But more importantly, some people argued that this is a private matter and therefore other people have no right to interfere. 

Further liberal development would probably lead to the state where other people do not even have the right to judge the situation. But right now they’re just saying we should be more tolerant. That is a very good example showing how diversified the moral landscape is and how tolerance has increased. It has a very important impact on individualization. 

Of course there’s a negative aspect as well since the individualization process is heavily wrapped in consumerism, so there is an aggressive emphasis on individual gains. Therefore, you see trends of growth and trends of extreme self-eccentric behaviors. You see examples of behaviors that promote individual gain at the price of hurting other individuals. For instance, take the food safety problem. People produce and circulate poisonous food merely to make profit with zero concern for the effect of poisoning other innocent consumers who the producers and distributors don’t know personally. This kind of behavior had a very negative impact in the moral landscape because it damaged social trust, making the strangers appear to be vulnerable and both parties mutually untrustworthy. One never knows whether other strangers will hurt you and people tend to take strangers as easy targets. My point is that we need to have more balanced and comprehensive view on individualization.

Would the negative impact also have to do with the fact that because of individualization people spend more time with themselves and their families and less time interacting with the community and in public spaces?

Yes, it does. It has to do with the point I raised earlier: with the increasing trend of individualization there is a decline in public interaction and a decline in the public interest in political and social issues. Civil society in China has not become more prevalent, and in this case not directly because of the party state’s hostile, even oppressive, treatment of civil society, but because of this market orientated or self-interested individualization.

It seems that the shift toward individualism and the goal of a happy life can often conflict with the high pressure for these children to succeed in a way narrowly defined by their parents. How do you see these two simultaneously occurring phenomena influencing each other and third-generation children? 

These two conflicting trends have created a serious dilemma for young parents who were born after 1980, most of whom are singletons, most of whom grew up with extremely strong parental protection and were showered with parental care, love, and material resources. They were known to be little-emperors/little-empresses in China. So now it’s their turn. They are now in their thirties, and they have begun to feel the burdens of life, especially regarding how to raise a perfect child of their own. But meanwhile, growing up as the singleton in the era of consumerism, globalization, and the trend of individualization, they are also used to a comfortable material life. So they are caught in between and they need to work hard and pay enough attention to their own child so that their child can be brought up as perfect and with opportunities for future success. 

Due to limited material resources and time, they are caught in the dilemma of making a material sacrifice for the next generation and enjoying their own life. Fortunately for them, they can turn to their own parents, meaning the grandparents, and continue to squeeze them for resources, time and help. It creates a new phenomenon such that the family is defined as a three-generation unit. Grandparents become a central piece of family, providing material resources and taking on part of the parental duties of the younger parents who were born after the single-child policy. For them this is a continuation of their parental responsibilities. 

But you may wonder what the motivations are for the grandparents. After twenty years of hard work, their children have grown up and become parents. They are now retired, but they still have to work for their grandchild. This raises for them the core issue of the meaning of their life. How can grandparents make sense of all of their efforts? The pursuit of material wealth is important, but after several decades of the market economy in which China has done well, many people with high levels of wealth are trying to make sense of their life. To answer this question the focus has shifted to the grandchild, who provides them this very important source of meaning. Now they are making sacrifices for something bigger than the pure self. This forces the younger parents to rely heavily on their own parents, and the two generations of parents to work together to deal with the dilemma of individualization and the pressure to be successful. So there are more interlocking relationships across generation lines.

Would you say that the goal for a happy life can coincide with bringing up the children so that sometimes there is not really a conflict?

In contemporary Western societies, let’s say in American society, parents also invest a lot in their children, particularly in education and then send them to extracurricular programs to make them well-rounded, increase their future competitiveness, and so on. While this seems similar to China, there’s a difference. The difference is that while doing all of this, American parents still consider their individual happiness as the goal. They are doing all of this for their children as a part of a pursuit of their own individual happiness. They would say, “I have raised a perfect child. I have boosted my child’s position, all under the condition that I love to do this.” Otherwise they can choose to do something else. By contrast, in China it is a kind of imperative. You have no choice; it is part of your moral duty to sacrifice yourself for a bigger goal. That bigger goal could be defined as a nation state or as socialism during the Maoist period. Now it is being redefined as a modern, happy, extended family, with the focus being the third generation – the grandchildren.

While there is a disparity between wealth and resources in rural and urban China, in your talk at the Keck Center China Conference, you spoke about the life aspirations that are commonly shared across China. Because it might often be more difficult for rural parents and children to reach these aspirations, what affect does that have on the parent-filial relationships in rural communities, compared to the return of parental power in urban China?

That’s a very good question because in the talk today I also spoke about power relationships across generation lines and how it seems that materialism or material resources play a very important role. Whoever has the commanding power of material resources has an upper-hand position in intergenerational relationships. From that perspective, the senior generation in the countryside is disadvantaged because they did not have many material resources to begin with. The countryside has always fallen behind in economic development and in terms of the possession of information, knowledge and personal network. In nearly all aspects of making a successful life, rural parents, are at a vulnerable, disadvantaged position. They have much less to offer to their adult children. If they share the same life aspirations, which is the case I first referenced, they have much less ability to obtain or reach that goal. Thus, the gap between reality and aspiration appears to be bigger. Not only are they disappointed, but because they have less ability to help their adult children, there also tends to be more tension in intergenerational relationships. There will be less respect, less intimacy, less harmony and less mutual support across generational lines in the countryside as opposed to the cities. Therefore, there have been more reports on the crisis of filial piety in the countryside than in the cities. This also has to do with the information age of mass media where the information about happy life and material wealth travels very fast. Kids growing up in the countryside who do not have significant access to resources, but do have access to a TV set, can literally see what a comfortable life is, which just increases the tension and the gap.

On June 16, 1944 in Hansa Bay, New Guinea, an Australian Broadcasting Commission war correspondent interviewed a Chinese family who was captured by the Japanese at Madang and put to work at a garden in Potsdam.
Erica Rawles CMC ‘17Student Journalist
Featured image source: "A kid is playing that he's driving a tri-cycle with all his family behind. Nanjing, China." by Stougard – own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –
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