Xiaoling Shu on Her Book, “Chinese Marriages in Transition: From Patriarchy to New Familism”

Xiaoling Shu is professor of sociology at the University of California Davis. She holds an M.S. in Computer Science and a Ph.D. in Sociology, both from the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on the impacts of two of the most profound processes of our times – marketization and globalization – on gender inequalities, subjective sense of well-being, and gender, family, marriage, and sexual behaviors and attitudes. She uses data science models on national and international data to carry out country-specific (China, the United States, and the United Kingdom) and cross-national analyses. She is the author of Knowledge Discovery in the Social Science: A Data Mining Approach (University of California Press, 2020) and Chinese Marriages in Transition: From Patriarchy to New Familism (with J. Chen, Rutgers University Press, 2023). She has served as Chair of the Section on Asia and Asian America of the American Sociological Association, President of the International Chinese Sociological Association, Director of East Asia Studies and Vice-Chair and Graduate Director of Sociology at UC Davis.
Celine X Wang '26 interviewed Dr. Xiaoling Shu on September 28, 2023.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Xiaoling Shu.

Your book addresses the issues of gender ideology, gender equality, and women's dual roles in the workforce and at home. I'm especially intrigued by your idea of Flexible Traditionalist. What does it mean in the Chinese context?

First, let me provide you with some basic background information on how I measure gender ideology. One of the dimensions I measure is a hierarchical dimension of gender inequality, for example, the belief in male supremacy. A second dimension is a horizontal differentiation of gender roles, such as the belief that women are good at homemaking and men at breadwinning. I created such a mapping system to depict four types of gender ideologies—imagine a two-by-two table. The Traditional Essentialist ideology is the prevailing ideology in which women are seen as inferior and should stay at home. This is the prevailing ideology in Islamic societies. By contrast, the Liberal Egalitarian belief endorses gender equality and women's paid employment and this ideology is popular among people in Nordic countries. The third type of ideology called the Egalitarian Essentialist ideology embraces individual liberalism that is widespread in liberal and conservative welfare states such as the U.S., U.K., and Germany. These kinds of belief systems support gender equality but see women as more fit to stay home as mothers and wives. The fourth ideology, which is the prevailing ideology in China and other countries with a socialist legacy, is called the Flexible Traditionalist belief. It endorses women's paid employment but regards women as inferior and undeserving of equal opportunities and treatment. 

Thus, in China, the Flexible Traditionalist ideology is embedded in a persistent belief in male supremacy, while accepting women's labor force participation and their economic contribution to the household. Women, including mothers of young children, are expected to hold paid employment while fulfilling the traditional roles of wives and mothers. However, they're not seen as entitled to equal opportunities in the labor market or in political participation. And so, in the Chinese context, this Neo-Traditional belief is a product of its unique development trajectory. The Chinese party-state, in the process of promoting gender equality, believed that the best route was through female labor force participation or female employment. After decades of moving women into paid work, there was almost a universal belief that women are expected to have paid employment and contribute to the household financially. But at the same time, despite one of the highest female labor force participation rates in the world, Chinese women's economic roles and contributions to the household economy are yet to be converted into equal status in the society. In other words, women are still seen as inferior to men. They're not given the same opportunities and rights in the labor market, in politics, and to a lesser degree in education. Interestingly, it's much harder to depress women in education when they test higher than men. 

You describe that modernization has made traditional, stringent Confucianist views on women's roles, less influential in women's choices. However, you just mentioned that women are still seen as inferior and encouraged to return home sometimes. If it's not the traditional Confucianist ideals, then what have been the predominant factors that have prompted women to return home as mothers and wives?

It is more complicated than saying it's not Confucianism since there is still a strong element of Confucianism and Confucianism's patriarchal belief system, ironically. Let me start with the term “modernization,” namely the one that the Chinese party-state promoted in the socialist era that has diminished Confucian influences on Chinese society broadly. Chinese society transitioned away from the so-called classic form of Confucianist ideals of the family as a patriarchal institution. Female labor force participation rose sharply and became one of the highest globally. It was also widely accepted that women can be loving and warm mothers while working full time and contributing to household income. But things changed after the economic reform when China opened up to the global economy. With economic liberalization and looser societal control, several influences including old ones, like Confucianism, reversed the socialist trend. Some women returned to the home as full-time homemakers. 

Neoliberal ideas and the practices resulting from market reform and market transition influenced this in part. During the socialist era, the socialist state provided benefits through work units—the companies, government agencies, or universities or schools. Many of these benefits such as childcare centers, dining halls, and even schools that were company-run or university-run enabled women to work full time. Such institutionalized support was provided to working mothers and wives, mostly free of charge. However, after the market transition, many of those facilities became marketized. People made the calculation as to whether they made enough money to pay for childcare, for example. For some low paid women, it wasn’t worth it. 

Another influence was the exposure to Western ideas of Egalitarian Essentialism. As noted, in Egalitarian Essentialism, men and women should be treated as equal but different beings. Women are seen as having different abilities, different tastes, and different skills, and thus they are regarded as more fit to be mothers, wives, and homemakers. Men are perceived as more powerful, instrumental, smarter, and less emotional, and thus are seen as more fit to be breadwinners and leaders. These ideas also made their way to China. Some think that this belief system is more “modern” because it comes from the powerful Western advanced societies. 

And then lastly, ironically, there was also the rejuvenation of the Confucian idea of female virtue.  Women should be devoted mothers and devoted wives and make sacrifices for other members of their household. For quite a long period, there has been a rejuvenation of the Confucian belief system and a notion of female virtue that exalts women who make sacrifices. You see this in TV shows and in mass media. There were also new types of workshops and training camps to educate young women about female virtue, which is basically Confucianism and its model of ideal women. 

Those are the three types of influences that simultaneously encourage or promote women to return home. As a result, there has been a slight decline in the female labor force participation rate. There are other factors also at play, like women staying in educational institutions for a longer period of time, which also negatively impacts the labor force participation rate. 

In your response, you briefly touched on how lower and higher income women respond differently. Could you elaborate on this please? 

Usually, income is connected with education. The women who are more highly educated have more resources, more skills, and more power in society. Sometimes they can get away with some of the societal constraints or the societally prescribed roles that are imposed upon them. On the other hand, the relatively poorly educated women don't have the necessary awareness of their self-interest. Earlier data showed that rural women who were mostly poorly educated and had the lowest income and the lowest status in society also had the most conservative gender attitudes. Their views were more conservative than their male counterparts in rural China. This is quite unique in Chinese society, because globally, all women regardless of education, background, and income, tend to hold a more egalitarian gender attitude than men. But in China, these women are more conservative than their male counterparts. They don't act and think out of self-interest. It shows how strong socialization power is. It's so strong that it's canceled their self-interest. They think and act to protect men's interests. They are guardians of patriarchy. This is no longer the case as shown in data from recent national surveys.

Are college educated women different from very those with relatively little education, little income and little power? 

College-educated women, as I mentioned, have more resources to break free from traditional constraints. But this does not necessarily mean they, as trendsetters, automatically lead to large-scale societal transformation. While they are leading the change, I'm hesitant to forecast that this change will trickle down and lead to a wider transformation because even these women with all the resources are still stigmatized. They're called leftover women when they remain unmarried. At the same time, they also need to battle the emergent conservative turn in gender ideology in China, particularly among men—even the college-educated ones. Hence, the new trend is an increasing gender gap over time in terms of the belief in gender equality. So, college-educated women become stronger and stronger believers in advocating for their rights and status in society. At the same time, men, even college-educated men, probably feel threatened by that and become more conservative and more protective of their status, power, and self-interest. This is a barrier to any significant form of societal change.

Do you think that this phenomenon is unique to China? Do you see this elsewhere?

I didn't research this, but this would be a great research question. There is also a conservative turn in US society. I don't see China as quite unique in this regard, even if the degree to which this is happening is quite unique. The magnitude of the gender divergence is startling.

You mention that women are increasingly fighting a battle between individual fulfillment and family ties. In a society that still seems heavily influenced by traditional ideas of filial piety, how did “New Familism” emerge as a norm and practice?

Familism means prioritizing family over individual rights and freedom. I use the term New Familism to characterize the prevailing form of family transition in China that retains some characteristics of familism while adopting new ideas and practices.  

The so-called normative Western model of family transition was from multigenerational households to nuclear/conjugal families and to modern families of single parents, stepfamilies, same-sex families, etc.  However, the Chinese trajectory is different from this linear pattern. Cross-generational filial piety remains a strong belief, and practices of multigenerational codependency in the forms of resource and labor transfer or even co-residence remain strong and frequent. New familism thus consists of these “old” practices in addition to “new” trends of the declining belief in male supremacy and the male line of family continuity, and the increasing tolerance for novel family forms of single-parenthood, cohabitation, and childlessness. 

In recent years, China has been establishing programs or policies to promote marriage and childbearing. Do you think that these measures address the root causes of declining marriage rates and birth rates that you discuss in your research?

Yes, I think they are good efforts, but they are hardly enough. Let me elaborate on the influences on marriage and childbearing in China. Some factors or reasons are similar to those experienced in developed societies, while others are unique to Chinese society. 

The first one is the rising awareness in China of individual entitlement to pursue self-fulfillment. A second influence is that childrearing is perceived as economically unattainable or unnecessary because of a higher standard of child-care and education. Certain new practices have made childrearing highly costly or unaffordable. At the same time, people who have a dependence on their children for old age care have declined. With the improvement of pension plans and increasingly sufficient old age care facilities, childbearing and rearing are no longer an economic necessity. A third one is unique to Chinese society, namely, that childbirth requires many preconditions. One precondition is marriage because non-marital birth is largely stigmatized, Moreover, marriage is often conditioned on home ownership. The urban housing market has experienced an astronomical rise in price and homes are often beyond the reach of many young men, even with support from their parents. Another influence is the pursuit of hypergamy, meaning women marry up in terms of income, education, and social status. That's a very common practice in China and probably many other societies too. And then it turns out there is a mismatch among men in the marriage market. There's an oversupply of highly educated women and not enough highly educated men. There are highly educated women and poorly educated men left without marriage matches in Chinese society. Additionally, for women in China, childbirth carries a heavy cost in the labor market if they want to retain their employment and career prospects. Many businesses are reluctant to provide maternity leave. It is costly and employers often see mothers as less productive or less reliable employees. Also, women with children are often deprived of pay, training, and promotion opportunities. Lastly, the economic boom comes with the cost of overwork. Perhaps you’ve heard about “966” which means working from nine to six every day for six days a week. Women are negatively impacted by overwork directly and indirectly. Most women who shoulder the bulk of household burden are unable to work overtime. Indirectly, it means women are playing supporting roles behind men who overwork. Men can only afford to overwork because they have their female partners who take over family obligations. Those men benefit from women who provide support for them. 

As a result of all these complicated influences on marriage and childbearing, the current policies and projects by the party-state are attempting to reduce the financial and physical cost of childrearing. For example, eliminating after-school cram schools and tutoring programs, or providing a small increase in monetary incentives for having a second or a third child. Protective policies for women's rights and paternity leave also help; some workplaces started to actually provide parental leave not only for the mothers but also for the fathers. Those are welcome new practices, but they are far from adequate.  Deep change will take revolutionary thinking to identify policies and promotions to make significant impacts. One example is the restriction on non-marital births, how sometimes you cannot register your children and get a hukou. And there are other constraints, like how egg freezing is limited to married women. The ban on surrogate pregnancy is another example. These types of limitations directly impact highly educated women who tend to want to have children at an older age. Another revolutionary, more transformative idea is for men to change—that's even harder. Changing men's attitudes to become more willing to share the burden of housework and childrearing is hard, especially given the ongoing trend of men becoming more conservative. In sum, I don't think a state can single-handedly achieve that deep level of societal transformation. 

Celine X. Wang '26Student Journalist


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