‘4-2-1‘: The Changing Chinese Family Structure

December 29, 2006
Editor: wocm

Currently, China is undergoing a family restructuring process. The former pyramid shape is being replaced by an inverse pyramid. The typical Chinese family today can be classified as “4-2-1.4” represents the parents and parents-in-law, “2” represents the husband and wife, and the “1” refers to the only child of the couple. The center of the family is on the “1” the grandchild.


Lin Na, 25, gave birth to a baby girl last year. Six months later, she went back to work, leaving her parents to take care of her daughter. The white collar Beijing woman showed herself to be quite helpless when she said: “I may not be a good mother or a good daughter.” 


Chen Zhengjia, Lin’s husband, works for Beijing Telecom Company. Before their marriage, he used to do broadband installation. But now, he has already sensed the great change in his role in the family: “Suddenly, I became a husband and a father. In addition, I want to remain a loyal son to my parents. So I can no longer play around like a child anymore.”




What the couple has in common is that they were both born after 1978, the year China adopted its family planning policy. The only child generation is now writing a new page in Chinese family life with its own characteristics. This generation knows how to fight for their life goals, but they are also displaying the bewilderment of new Chinese families.


‘4-2-1‘: The Changing Chinese Family Structure


The "1", Center of "4-2-1" Family

Even though she married early, Ms. Liu believes she made the right decision. She said: “Before my parents get too old, they can help us take care of our daughter. Otherwise, if we had a child a few years later, we may need to take care of her and our parents on both sides. It would be impossible for both of us.”


This is what4-2-1” families think. The “2” have to prepare for both the older and the younger generations.


The first generation of only children has reached adulthood and began starting their own families. However, apparently, they are not fully prepared for the change in their lives. They are psychologically immature, requiring their parents’ care, so many young couples do not feel ready to be parents.


As a broadband installation man, Chen Zhengjia, drives around the city everyday. From Monday to Thursday, they deliver their daughter to Chen’s parents’ house. On weekends, the couple sends her to Liu’s parents’ house. “If we could raise our daughter by ourselves, it would be fine. But now we need to make enough money for her future.”


“All for the sake of the child.” The “1” remains the center of the family. Traditional family education has not changed much despite the rebellion of the generation born after the 1970s. After they start their own families, they begin to understand their parents. Children are the future, and young couples are still children in their parents’ eyes. So the older generation is sharing the burden of their children’s new families. But the older generation’s problems may appear in a decade. Who can afford to take care of 4 old people?


Aging People, Big Issue for Only Child Generation

In fact, it is estimated that the percentage of people aged 60 or older in China will rise from 7 percent now to 11.8 percent in 2020. And there will be more than 400 million people aged 65 and older and more than 100 million aged 80 and older by the middle of this century. The aging population poses a serious challenge for society. In traditional Chinese society, the younger generation supports and cares for their elderly family members. But as the aging problem becomes more serious, it will undoubtedly become a difficult problem from younger generations.


Mr. Chen said jokingly, “It would be better if I had a brother or a sister.” Now, the couple works hard to save money not only to raise their daughter, but also take care of their parents.


This is not a special problem faced only by Chen and Liu. Indeed, the whole nation is facing the pressure of the aging population and the situation may worsen in the following years.


New Chinese Family, Changing the Family Structure

On the one hand, for most single children, their parents’ assistance in childcare is a good thing. On the other hand, there are some problems that cause them anxiety. Education worries them a lot.


Like Chen’s parents, they only known how to feed and bathe their daughter. Though there are music cassettes, they do not think it is necessary for their daughter to listen to them. So they forget to play them most of the time. This has made the couple worry a lot. Although some old people may have received good educations, there is a big differences in personal ideology and values between the two generations.


To solve the problem, Liu has thought of raising her daughter by themselves when she gets older. “For family gatherings or eating, we may go to my parents’ house. Other times, we need to be parents and take care of our child.”


The clash between the two generations on how to educate the child may be comparatively easy to solve or avoid. A clash on family life styles may be more serious and lead to disaster.


Xiao Xu, an accountant in Nanjing, divorced shortly after she married because her parents-in-law’s indulged her husband. After he lost his job, her husband played computer games in the internet cafes for two months. She complained and urged her husband to do something meaningful, which her mother-in-law overheard. Then the fighting began because her mother-in-law said, “He is my son, I will give him money to play as he likes! It is none of your business.” The clash finally led to the break-up of the new family.


In this bizarre “4-2-1 family” structure, the daughter-in-law is usually in an awkward position. Mother-in-laws like to protect their sons, making wives feel marginalized.


What is the main reason for this phenomenon? Xiao Xu says, “I think that many young people of our generation are quite similar. Our parents were born in the 1940s and 50s. They didn’t receive  much education or social experience. So when we enter society, they cannot give us guidance. We have to do it ourselves.”


The “4-2-1” family structure is emerging and will replace the previous family structure in China. Whether the role of the middle “2” can successfully shoulder the responsibility of their families remains a question. The changing structure of the family, together with changing social rules, may cause changes in new couples’ personal values, life goals, investments, and social status.


(Source: New Weekly Magazine Translated by Women of China)


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