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A different kind of Chinese family

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[Editor’s note: Charles Stafford interviewed James L. “Woody” Watson, Rubie S. Watson and Yunxiang Yan in Los Angeles on 2 May 2019. The occasion for this was a conference that Yunxiang Yan had organised on “The Rise of Neo-Familism in Contemporary China”.  Further details about the participants in the conference are provided at the end of the interview.]

AOTC: Before we turn to the issue of Chinese neo-familism, I do have a general question for Woody and Rubie. Woody was remarking before on the extent to which things have changed – not only in China, but also in the anthropology of China.

Woody Watson: It’s changed tremendously. When I started, the anthropology of China was essentially the anthropology of the Hong Kong New Territories and Taiwan, and there were only a handful of people on the entire planet who worked on the relevant issues. You could get them together in one seminar room. There were central problems that we could all grapple with because we were all dealing with limited territorial space and limited social systems. The most striking difference today – 50 plus years beyond – is that young scholars in this field are all over China now and every aspect of the place is being studied. It’s now the study of a massively complicated, huge society. In the past, it was very narrow studies of small, rural communities that we could all manage. You know what I mean because you did that in Taiwan. And Rubie and I ended up in two of these small places. And Yunxiang also, in his first research, ended up in Heilongjiang in a very defined rural area. Now if you look at the papers for this conference, they’re from all over China and focus on all wildly diverse issues – which are almost impossible to think of in terms of a “societal system”. There are multiple systems.

AOTC: Since you put it like that, I wonder if you feel that the kind of thing you studied at the start of your career is still relevant to the kinds of things these young anthropologists are doing today in radically different contexts. In order words, does the shift make your work redundant or do you see continuities?

Rubie Watson: There is continuity of certain kinds. In relation to the small family – or whatever we want to call that group of people – there are themes that continue to be discussed and thought about, of course. At the level of extended kinship, I think there’s a big difference. One can argue that the Maoists did a really, really good job in destroying – and I don’t believe that’s too strong a word – that intervening level between the small family and the state. Of course, there are still examples of lineage-oriented communities around, but what are these lineages compared to what they would have been 100 years ago? I’m not sure that they the same kind of thing at all. So, I do see overlap at the level of intimate family life. But in terms of extended kinship, broader community life, temple associations, etc., I’m not sure there’s that much carry over. Maybe there is, but that’s one of the questions in my mind.

AOTC: Actually, one question I have from reading the papers for this conference is why colleagues are not talking about kin relations other than those between grandparents, parents and children. Even today people in China have siblings – there’s more than one child in many families – and they have aunts and uncles, and cousins too. But we tend not to pay so much attention to those relations analytically. I wonder where this other kinship went, the type to do with cousins and so on. This could provide a link between that very intimate level of family life we study now and the broader kinship organisation we were studying in the past.

RW: Yes, although the focus of the papers may just be an artefact of what people were asked to focus on for this particular conference! They were obedient.

Yunxiang Yan: One can argue that there has been an historical decline, worldwide, in the importance of large kinship organisations. And in place of this we see a rising focus on the individual, and on intimate family life, smaller family groupings. And yet we still see cooperative kinship groups playing some kind of role, as they do today in parts of China. The question is whether they are playing the old dominating role, where small families and individual members of these families were actually supposed to submit themselves to this organisation. Or is it the other way around: the larger organisation is actually working for the benefit of these smaller families and for individuals. If it’s the latter, then things have fundamentally changed.

RW: From the 1950s until the 1980s, or thereabouts, it was wonderful for anthropologists to have the New Territories, and also Taiwan, where we could work on developing frameworks and models. The outcome might have been completely wrong! But we could read each other’s work, and communicate about it intensively, which you can’t really do now in the same way, and that has made a huge difference. But is this necessarily a bad thing? When I was reading the papers for this conference, I was thinking about the work of two social historians whos books I’ve recently reviewed – Matthew Somer and Johanna Ransmeier. They are talking about the bottom level of Chinese society in the 17th to early 20th centuries, e.g. talking about floating populations and how they were trying to make do, trying to form families, something they couldn’t actually manage very successfully. And I think about how the people we studied in the New Territories and Taiwan tended to have pretty good families. We just missed that whole level of transience, i.e. the left-outs in family formation. It isn’t that this wasn’t going on in China, it’s that we were privileged in some way by working in this domain in which we could talk to each other, but we were missing a lot.

AOTC: Right, and now the diversity of the experience is harder to characterise and grasp analytically. But let’s go back to the idea of Chinese neo-familism, which I know is something that Yunxiang is still trying to work out. Could you explain what you mean by this in basic terms?

YY: Neo-familism basically emerges from the tension between collectivism and individualism. And the rise of individualism is at the very core of modernity, of course. At this core, we find the legitimation, cultivation and promotion of individual desires – and that is basically the most attractive part of modernity, from the point of view of individuals. These desires include not only material and sexual desires but also the desire to be recognised, to be respected, and to have certain rights. Familism, traditionally defined, is a denial of all of these desires, at least for the present. So in traditional familism we find delayed gratification: you will have all of these things in the future when you become a grandparent, let’s say, but now you have to work hard for the elders. This is in direct conflict with individualism which, in a strong form, wants nothing but instant gratification. So for the Chinese people there is a challenge. On the one hand, they are deeply embedded not only in traditional familism and its value system but also in the everyday life practices that go along with this. On the other hand, they are attracted to this core of modernity. And, as I often say, once you have good things you start to feel you can’t live without them.

AOTC: So, neo-familism is an emerging phenomenon in China that comes from the tension between traditional familistic and new individualistic orientations. What you get now is a compromise – a hybrid. Is that right?

YY: Yes, but a hybrid in a very dynamic sense. In Taiwan, for example, people in the 50s and 60s were really struggling very hard to set up the ideal family for themselves. But now you have many people there who simply don’t want this. The form, structure and nature of the family per se is in flux.

AOTC: Could you quickly explain, for readers who know little of modern China, the kind of challenge this kind of transition poses?

YY: Imagine that I want these good things, e.g. consumer items, or I want my child to have the very best education. But I also feel deep in my heart that I must be nice to my parents, who are getting older. So, the question is whether you can really take care of all these priorities at the same time. Your emotional focus, your attention, is limited. If you fail to do one thing, you will feel guilty about it. Or, another problem can be that the wants keep changing, so you will still feel the scarcity of resources: you would like to have even more. So all of these are problems in real life for different people.

RW: I do get the argument that there’s still a type of familism out there, but I’m less sure that it is “neo”. When I think of the traditional Chinese family, I think of the three p’s: patrilineal, patriarchal and patrilocal, backed up by the ancestral cult and Confucian ideology and all of that. I’m not sure what of those things is carrying over into the kind of familism we see today.

YY: This puts me in the hot seat! But I would say that nationwide you can find regions and places that still are run to some extent in line with three p’s. And then, at the level of inspirations for, and aspirations of, individuals: some people still want it. Traditional familism as an ideal still exists, at least among a lot of men.

RW: The good old days…

YY: Right, they think if you could go back to how it was, that would be ideal.  And in terms of the “neo”: it’s somewhere in-between. New familism in the West is about the family working for the individual, particularly in the 1990s. But now ideologically in China you can’t claim that, most people would still say “I want to make my family happy”. And then you get your benefits from the family benefits. So the old frameworks are still affecting people, how they express their opinions, how they claim legitimacy. In other words, you don’t have a naked, fully legitimised individualism in China, and perhaps never will. I think that’s where the “neo” comes from. Especially if you consider the state and other factors that play a part in this.

RW: Yes, I thought you might possibly say that what makes this type of familism “neo” is the state. The state, in a way, is harkening back – of course, they don’t want to provide any social welfare. They are recreating in their own minds the Confucian family in order to pass off all these responsibilities of childcare, elder care, unemployment benefits, that kind of thing.

YY: Of course, there is also the Maoist attack on the family to be taken into account: during that era, the state didn’t want to have an independent societal force out there. Family used to be that societal force – extended kinship in particular. Actually, you see a continuity in China from the May 4th movement of 1919 all the way down to the present. Even to some extent the idea of restoring the so-called Confucian family, but it isn’t the traditional thing at all: it’s a limited, small family in the intimate sphere. If you go beyond that, there’s a chance you’ll become a civil and societal force, competing with the state. But without this, the state has to shoulder all the responsibilities. So, this is the right formula for the state.

AOTC: I do think we should ask what “the state” is in all of this. In the Chinese case, we’re talking about the state being a huge agent – but what is meant by this? The people making policies and enacting them, including at grassroots level, also have families, values, private aspirations, etc. In other words, it’s not just the state versus the people: there are many ordinary people in “the state”.

YY: Yes, and as you were mentioning earlier it is the case that because of the improvement of education over time, and other factors, you get a really different set of people being involved in state organisations today than in the past. They also have their own interests as a group and they push certain things.

WW: Let me raise another issue, the question of children. In reading the papers and thinking about China today, one of the things that really strikes me is this: if I look at the photographs from our research in the New Territories over the long term, they are littered with children, kids, everywhere. Every ritual, every family shot, there are waves of kids. If you look at the photos we have of village events, there are rafts of children of every age. Every family had multiple kids. And there are kids managing kids. 10 year old girls carrying their brothers around, all day long. And when I read the papers for this conference, I feel that there are so few kids. It’s like they are hermetically sealed, a different species of human. For the people I worked with, the idea that anybody would focus all of their attention on one child would be completely bizarre, a kind of illness if it happened. This was partly because every family had bunches of them but also because every grandmother had not only one precious grandchild but packets of them.

AOTC: Perhaps one factor in this is that the children today are incredibly busy. In my first fieldwork place, the children were not that busy – they did schoolwork a lot, but also played around and were highly visible, e.g. during rituals, just as you describe.

WW: What I’m asking, then, is are we encountering some totally different social institution of the family, and at what point did we shift into that. I’m also struck by the description in one of the papers of a daughter in law who lays around all day and won’t get out of bed – or so her mother in law says. I wonder what kind of Martian family we are dealing with? How can this be possible?

RW: The radical nature of the changes is what’s striking.

YY: It’s neo familism without natalism, without having a lot of children.

AOTC: Yes, but I also wonder if what we’re seeing isn’t partly an artefact of the research we’re doing, the questions we’re asking. It goes back to the point I made about siblings, aunts and uncles. These relations still exist, especially in rural areas, and cousins can be incredibly important. So, some children are isolated, they are ‘singletons’ and they are super busy with school work and other pursuits. But I wonder if we’re also overlooking some of the children’s worlds that exist.

YY: They are not in our paradigm.

RW: But rural versus urban is a huge factor in all the questions we’re asking.

YY: And the recent change in population policy to allow two children hasn’t changed things very much!

RW: In that regard, China didn’t look like an East Asian country, but now it is starting to look like one.


AOTC: Before we wrap up, can I please change topics radically, and ask Woody to tell us something about his work on border police.

WW: I still have in mind to do a couple of essays that deal with the police who worked on the New Territories border with China. I’m very interested in the ethnic dimension. Every flavour of colonial ethnicity was there at one time or another. From the Caribbean, from Palestine, from India and Pakistan. You know, Rubie and I have been working on the village of San Tin for fifty years. And it was at the tail-end of the Cultural Revolution when we started, and there were still border problems. Occasionally we would learn about people who were swimming across the border, escaping. You could tell because the dogs started going crazy. It was dangerous for local people to go out at night in those years because of the problems at the border.

Thirty years later, when the Hong Kong archives were opened at the Public Records Office – i.e. because of the thirty year rule – Rubie and I dutifully went to the archives and started digging around. Lo and behold, there were packets of material that the Hong Kong police had prepared on their encounters with refugees and with the Chinese police. You find some things that are hair-raising and upsetting, including what the Chinese police did to those who were escaping. Basically, the British police were told not to intervene too much because this was an incredibly tense period and they didn’t want Hong Kong to become the next flashpoint in a possible conflict between China and the West. But what was striking was that many of these things were occurring when we were living out there, and little of this came through to us in the village at the time. It’s as if the border was a separate world. How many feet away was it?  Maybe 150 yards from where we lived. Now I’m interested in exploring these questions through the eyes of the police, as well as the Ghurkha troops who patrolled the border. Plus the Black Watch regiment from Scotland.

RW: Part of the story is that it was, alternatively, a hot border and a cold border, a closed border and an open border – as in Northern Ireland.

AOTC: I remember you telling me, a couple of years ago, about the men who ended up doing this. You could apply for a police job in Scotland, for example, and you end up there.

WW: One of the former British district officers we ended up knowing quite well was charged with recruiting police officers to come to Hong Kong. So he would go to Glasgow and appear in front of the pubs, waiting for the pubs to open in the afternoon, waiting for young men to show up. He recruited dozens of young unemployed men and they shipped them out to Hong Kong. Within six months they were on the border.

YY: It must have been a good deal for them?

WW: The pay was good. But what I found fascinating is that they learned how to speak Cantonese in record time!  Basically, they had no problems about just starting to speak the language. They did have some basic language training, but they also had no compunction: what do you mean, a foreign language? I speak with the English from London!

Many of them became very well adapted and they rose in the police force ranks. Some of them ended up living there. Some of them married Chinese women; some brought their families over from Scotland. It’s a mirror image of the system we were studying – that is, Chinese villagers emigrating to Britain.

So, I hope I can do some justice to these men and their history, as well as the history of this border. The records are amazing. And the backgrounds are complex in the extreme, e.g. you’ve got the Punjabi Sikhs working alongside men from Shandong. There had been a British colonial outpost in Shandong called Weihaiwei until they shut it down in 1930. What happened to all the cops there? Many ended up in Hong Kong. They were different from the local Cantonese, and they were useful for the British on the border. They could speak Mandarin, and who was on the other side of the border? Guys from Shandong who were in Mao’s army. The Shandong men on both sides could communicate. And the British were somewhat wary of putting Cantonese cops on the border. They knew there were too many connections between people. So the Hong Kong authorities needed Glaswegians, Punjabi Sikhs, Shandongren and others. The history of the Hong Kong border police force reflects the history of empire. I hope I can do justice to this story.

Actually, there’s another important thing about these cops: they could type! And the records are in English. They kept careful records, because they didn’t want to be held accountable for starting World War Three. Every little episode could have set off a major confrontation. The Chinese army could decide at any moment to charge across the border. Who knows how big it could have been?

RW: The British policy during the 60s and 70s was that if refugees crossed the border illegally but made it to Kowloon, they got a Hong Kong identity card and were allowed to stay. If you got picked up in the New Territories, they sent you back. So what you find in these archives are long interviews with people that they were sending back. Partly it was intelligence: “You say you’re from this village, what’s going on there? How much rice is stored up, what’s the military presence?”  The American Congress was very critical of the British for not just opening the border and letting everyone come across. This was the height of American anti-Communism. So the police tried to document why they were sending people back. And they tried to have a policy of at least explaining to themselves why they were doing it. I’m working on this aspect of the colonial files and its all very poignant: who got to stay and who got sent back.

WW: I’m not sure what we’ll do with all this stuff, or how we’ll ever finish it.

YY: Type it up, like the policemen!


The Rise of Neo-Familism in Contemporary China

Conference held at UCLA, May 3-4, 2019

Becky Hsu & Chih-Jou Jay Chen, “Intergenerational support, filial piety, and life satisfaction in China, 2006 and 2016”

Sara Friedman, “What is family happiness? Middle-class Chinese families opting out of the city”

Vanessa Fong et al, “The ‘leftover’ majority: why urban men and women born under China’s one-child policy remained unmarried through age 27”

Erin Thomason, “United in suffering: rural grandparents and the intergenerational contributions of care”

Wei Wei, “The grandparent factor: coming-out, childcare and the normalization of Chinese queer families”

Claudia Huang, “Families under (peer) pressure): self-advocacy and ambivalence among women in collective dance groups”

Lihong Shi, “Losing an only child in a child-centered society: parental grief among China’s shidu parents”

Xiang Zou, “Weiqu, neo-familism in practice, and caring for older inpatients in a Chinese rural hospital”

Jing Jun, “Family, the state and the mentally ill: a question of responsibility”

Wei-Chun Tsao and Kuang-Hui Yeh, “The contemporary evolution of familism in Taiwan: from new filial piety to subcontracting and outsourcing filial piety”

Pan Tianshu, “Between hype and hope: ethnographic perspectives on actually existing gerontechnology in Nanjing and Shanghai”

William Jankowiak, “The Chinese proto neo-family configuration: a historical ethnography”

Yunxiang Yan, “Neo-familism and the statist model of family policies”

Charles Stafford, “Familism, neo-familism and individualism in China, Taiwan and the USA”

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