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Transforming Patriarchy (Review)

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Gonc̗alo Santos and Stevan Harrel (eds). 2017.
Transforming Patriarchy: Chinese Families in the Twenty-First Century
Seattle and London: University of Washington Press
ISBN 97802959999821

Transforming Patriarchy contains the revised contributions of a conference organized by the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle (Saale) in 2013. The volume provides a multifaceted and knowledgeable picture of present day families in the People’s Republic of China. While focusing on patriarchy, the scope is much larger including much of the ongoing social change in the country. The understanding of the impact of Chinese modernization and social reform on family life and particularly on generational and gender relations will be amplified by this highly informative book.

A valuable introduction is provided by the two editors. The outline clarifies the general intention of the conference topic, i.e. ‘the significance of the most recent transformations in the age of market reforms, large-scale industrialization, massive urbanization, and fast-paced globalization’ (p. 4). The editors place emphasis on the fact that the transformation of patriarchy is not a uniform process. On the contrary, causes and factors of change operate in manifold ways at different levels of society and permeate the family structure. As a result, the nature and the degree of changes vary from city to countryside and differ between regions and social classes.

The decisive aim of the introduction is to clarify the concept of patriarchy, to frame the ongoing debate and to integrate the individual contributions into the overall concept of the volume. A brief history mentions the classical anthropological position of Lewis Morgan and Friedrich Engels and the structure of dominance (‘patriarchalism’) analyzed by Max Weber. The editors’ intention is to modify the classical positions in order to apply them better to the Chinese context. They highlight two axes of inequality to be taken into account, i.e. generation and gender. These two axes interact with each other and are shaped by different factors working on the individual, national and global level. Chinese patriarchy is conceived as a ‘system of family and kinship that produces and is produced by gender and generational inequalities both within and beyond the domestic sphere’ (p. 10). Patriarchy is not abolished by social change but it is ‘transformed’ and as such shapes social relations. It is important to elucidate how these changes of the family system interact with different variables of the Chinese society, e.g. class, education, and the rural-urban divide.

As emphasized in research work concerning the pre-socialist Han-Chinese Confucian family system, the patriarchal structures were both private and public, establishing the distribution of power inside the family in almost the same way as in the relationship between emperor and subjects. The main focus of this book is the gender system and ‘patriarchal configurations’ as elements of the family system. Both, the generational and the gender axis, are shaped by prestige and power relations. The authors offer a valuable analytical perspective on the interplay of different factors and avoid linear trend analysis, e.g. modernization theories conceptualizing a straightforward and worldwide trend of replacement of the extended family by the nuclear family due to industrialization and urbanization. Feminist positions stressing only male dominance and gender inequality are also seen as an oversimplified approach.

The authors distinguish four periods in the transformation of patriarchy during the last hundred years, i.e. the Republican era, the Maoist era, the early Reform period and the late Reform period, starting from the mid-1990s. The transformation during the last Reform period and present-day’s situation of the family in rural and urban areas is the prime focus of the volume. The result is a key paradox: on one hand, Chinese families resemble families in industrialized Western countries in many respects and on the other hand, they preserve their special Chinese character. Gender and generational inequality are closely interrelated, and they are shaped by complex sociocultural and political-economic factors.

The 12 contributions – mostly from ethnographic fieldwork – are arranged in three main parts of the book, i.e. (1) Rural Reconfigurations, (2) Class, Gender, and Patriarchy in Urban Society and (3) New Technologies, New Institutions. As can be assumed, the preservation of classic patriarchal elements is stronger in the countryside, whereas urban families are exposed to labor market and housing conditions favoring the conjugal and nuclear family. A modern global consumer style and new values which are superimposed on traditional ideas and power relations also change gender roles, mate selection and generational responsibilities in urban families. Although, family systems differ between rural and urban regions, a rapid transformation occurred due to economic and political influences – especially the Birth-Planning Policy. And moreover, the clear cut rural–urban divide in China, maintained by the hukou (household registration) and the danwei (work unit) systems and resulting immobility of the population, faded out. Labor migration from rural areas to the cities connected both spheres, and the urbanization processes hamper the precise differentiation between rural and urban regions, districts and population.

Case studies and biographical accounts from different rural and urban regions substantiate the argumentation about patriarchal transformation. Some of the main results can be summarized as follows: relations between generations are predominantly shaped by caregiving activities and financial support, e.g. old age or childcare activities. Caregiving by grandparents is an important factor, structuring migrant as well as urban families. Parents do no longer expect sons to be more reliable in supporting them when they get old. Daughters are increasingly valued as reliable supporters for both their in-laws and their natal families. Women have a better standing within their families as they contribute to the household income. Mate selection by parents is on the wane, but parental consent with the mate choice is desired. High familial and societal pressure is exerted on young people to marry and to procreate. Marriage costs for the prospective husband’s family are a hot topic. Appropriate wedding ceremonies and the purchase of an apartment or a house are expected to be provided by the husband. Not to comply with these expectations lowers men’s marriage chances. The Birth-Planning Policy is an extremely important issue as it brought about a generation of singletons. The results of this policy shape the generational relations, upgrade the status of women, and enhance educational attainments and consumer behavior. Recent political efforts to build up a post-danwei social security system and pro-rural policies endow people with a basic material security and lower the pressure on the singleton generation to support their elders. While traditional values persist, new institutions, like old age homes, paid household services or commercial eldercare insurances, offer the opportunity to comply with the values of filial piety and at the same time enable each generation to live on their own. Commodification of filial piety is an excellent example of patriarchal transformation, containing tradition and modernity.

Research results presented in the book come from field work carried out in different regions as well as in rural and urban areas. A comprehensive assessment of family life in a country as large as China is not possible. Nevertheless, the quantitatively important group of the urban population, working, being retired or laid off from the state-owned, collectively-owned or private enterprises, is missing in the presentation. Each of the ethnographic studies or biographical descriptions applies to a particular setting and offers rich evidence within the given context. All contributions add to the multifaceted picture of changing gender and generational relations in China. Results from case studies apply to a particular research context and contain information with uncertain comparability or representability to other regions or social groups. Methods, analysis and interpretation of the conducted field research or biographical interviews could have been more explicitly communicated. In spite of these critical annotations, the book contributes to a deeper understanding of the ongoing transformation in China with changes of social norms, social relations and familial behavior modifying the traditional concept of patriarchy.

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