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Temporalités chinoises

A Mosaic Temporality: New Dynamics of the Gender and Marriage System in Contemporary Urban China

Une mosaïque de temporalités : les nouvelles dynamiques de genre et du système du mariage dans la Chine urbaine contemporaine
Una temporalidad en mosaico: nuevas dinámicas del sistema matrimonial y de género en la China urbana contemporánea
Ji Yingchun


La société chinoise contemporaine témoigne d’une complexe reconfiguration institutionnelle et culturelle encore en cours, dans le sillage de la transition d’une économie socialiste planifiée vers l’économie de marché, puis de son engagement plus avancé dans la globalisation et le néolibéralisme. Dans le cadre de cette redéfinition des contours de la société chinoise, se mêlent comme les fragments d’une mosaïque temporelle géante, tradition et modernité, résurgence de la tradition patriarcale confucéenne, version socialiste et version capitaliste de la modernité, héritage socialiste. Face aux incertitudes croissantes du marché, les individus de la Chine post-réforme doivent faire preuve de solidarité familiale, la famille constituant un filet de sécurité économique, un port d’attache émotionnel ainsi qu’une forteresse spirituelle. Les parents chinois investissent lourdement sur leurs enfants et continuent de les prendre en charge à l’âge adulte, tandis que les jeunes sont fortement contraints à s’occuper de leurs parents âgés, ceux-ci ayant tendance à considérer leur progéniture comme leur production privée qui a demandé beaucoup de sacrifices. Ce familialisme résurgent n’est pas l’exacte réplique du modèle traditionnel, il est modifié sans pour autant être identifiable aux modèles familiaux individualistes des contextes occidentaux. Le familialisme mosaïque se caractérise par une symbiose séquentielle entre parents et enfants faisant face ensemble à des contraintes financières et à des imprévus, sans aucun filet de sûreté social. Dans le même temps, le confucianisme patriarcal bénéficie dans une certaine mesure d’une cure de jouvence, avec une réactivation, voire une glorification, des rôles traditionnels féminins d’épouse et de mère ; cohabitant par ailleurs sans accroc avec le discours néolibéral articulant choix personnels et responsabilité, mais pas le droit individuel. Parents et enfants, mari et femme dépendent les uns des autres dans le noyau intime de la famille, selon un schéma clairement genré.

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Research for the present paper was supported by the Program for Professor of Special Appointment (Eastern Scholar) at the Shanghai Institutions of Higher Learning (TP2015032), and the Key Project by the National Social Science Foundation of China (15AZD080).


1Over the last four decades, China has transitioned from a socialist, centralized economy to a market economy encouraging productivity and profit-seeking. This macro regime transition has thus changed the institutional and cultural configuration that shaped gender inequality and the family institution in contemporary China. Scholars, ordinary people and policy makers have increasingly recognized the deteriorating and complex gender dynamics in post-reform China, where women once boasted one of the highest employment rates but were affected by the lowest gender equality in the world (Attané 2012; Stockman 1994; Whyte & Parish 1985; Wolf 1985).

2A recent popular post circulated on WeChat (Chinese mobile phone-based social network with more than 900 million active users) lamented the lost, “outstanding traditional culture.” The author claimed that in ancient times, a sensible wife would arrange a concubine for her husband after several years of marriage without the husband or mother-in-law having to bother doing it. This seems to echo a resurgence of the Confucian patriarchal tradition as pointed out by quite a few scholars (Chen 2005; Cook & Dong 2011; Ji 2015a & b; Ji & Yeung 2014; Sun & Chen 2015). More recently, after the new president was elected in France, a joke (duanzi) that warned female teachers not to pay too much attention to their male pupils circulated on WeChat circles and chatting groups, ignoring the recent news that a young Taiwanese woman had committed suicide, probably due to forced sex by her male teacher back in her teens. These phenomena are by no means statistically representative, but reflect the deeply disturbing reality of gender dynamics in post-Mao China, and imply how both tradition and modernity are working at the same time to shape the gender landscape.

3However, it is insufficient to investigate the new gender dynamics in post-reform China without delving into the changing, yet deeply gendered institution of family and marriage. As families are disembedded from the almighty danwei (work unit) of socialist China (Yan, 2010), they seem to have nowhere to land in post-reform China, since services and benefits provided by the danwei-based welfare system are gradually being privatized and marketized (Cook & Dong, 2011). Family members thus have to stick together as a safety net, to some degree through their obligations towards each other as defined by Confucian tradition, since a welfare system and other state institutions to support individuals and families are lacking (Ji, Wu, Sun & He, 2017). The significance and salience of family is thus self-evident for ordinary people struggling through daily life.

4The Chinese society appears to increasingly care about young people’s, particularly young women’s, marriage. Anxious parents occupy parks in cities throughout the country, desperate to find a spouse for their children among strangers, while single women, usually educated women in big cities, who have not yet married by the age of 27 are degraded as “leftover” women, as if getting married were the highest, if not the only achievement, for a woman (Fincher, 2014; Gaetano, 2010; Ji, 2015b; To, 2013). Yet, what puzzles demographers worldwide is not why Chinese women postpone marriage, but why, after years of rapid modernization, and in striking contrast to its East Asian neighbors and Western counterparts as well, marriage is still relatively early and nearly universal (Ji, 2015a; Jones, 2005 & 2007; Jones & Gubhaju, 2009; Raymo, Park, Xie & Yeung, 2015).

5The aim of this paper is thus to discuss the reinstitutionalization of gender inequality and the family institution in the context of a mosaic temporality. By a mosaic temporality, I refer to the ongoing, complex, institutional and cultural reconfiguration of Chinese society, driven by the transition from the socialist planned economy to marketization and its more recent, deep involvement in globalization and neoliberalism. In the reshaping of Chinese society—in this gigantic mosaic—tradition and modernity, the resurgence of Confucianism, the socialist version of modernity, the capitalist version of modernity, and the socialist heritage are interwoven, and all seem to play a role. For this paper, key issues are to sort through this mosaic temporality to investigate how changing gender dynamics as well as the resurgent Confucian patriarchal tradition in the transitional Chinese society are reshaping the family institution, how the meaning and function of families are changing, and what family means nowadays to ordinary Chinese of different generations and gender.

6The paper is divided into two parts. The first part discusses how the increasingly separated public and private spheres, driven by marketization and privatization towards capitalist modernity, have shaped women’s work-family conflict, which further upsets women’s status both in the family and on the labor market. I further describe how a perplexing gender ideology comes into being and justifies the on-going gender dynamics in post-reform China. I argue that the on-going changes of gender inequality in contemporary, post-reform China are characterized by a mosaic pattern, where tradition and modernity appear to coexist.

7The second part discusses the meaning of family and the dynamics of marriage formation, highlighting the social phenomenon of the so-called “leftover” women in China. Facing increasing financial constraints and economic uncertainties, the small, nuclear, two-earner family appears modern, but its patriarchal grip and gendered expectations are in fact being fortified. Particularly for young women, traditional gender role expectations intermingle with modern aspirations to individual development, while, at the macro level, tradition and modernity simultaneously clash and converge, creating a mosaic reality whose future development is increasingly uncertain (Ji 2015b).

8I argue that the temporality of gender and the family in contemporary China is characterized by a resurgence of Confucian patriarchal tradition that goes hand-in-hand with the neoliberal rhetoric of individual responsibility. This hybrid discourse emphasizes, on the one hand, women’s role as wife and mother and their obligations to the family as the traditional virtue, and on the other hand, a modern viewpoint ascribing women’s sacrifices to their own, personal choice.

9Further, I will show how patriarchal influence and practices, socialist heritage, market logics and neoliberalism constitute a complex modernity, which contextualizes the changing dynamics of gender and the family system in China. This complex echoes Beck and Grande’s (2010) concept of first and second modernity and reflexive cosmopolitanization, and furthermore Yan’s (2010) partial individualization, as well as Chang’s (2010) compressed modernity.

10However, these concepts are only partially useful to understand the changing gender and family dynamics in the modernization process of contemporary China. First, the above-mentioned mosaic chips do not just coexist, they actually interplay and shape each other; individuals choose among different elements, develop somewhat conflicting, yet coherent and integrated decisions (at least in their own eyes). Thus, in a mosaic temporality, Confucian tradition, socialist imprinting, market logics, or highly individualistic inclinations are seamlessly woven together. Second, without a full understanding of the changing dynamics of the gender system in post-reform China, we are unable to draw a realistic picture of how the Chinese family system undergoes reinstitutionalization during the process of modernization. It should be noted that in the context of mosaic modernity, gender is not just a parameter, but rather a lens for understanding the ongoing processes of modernization in contemporary Chinese society.

The Changing Dynamics of the Gender System

The Dual State Apparatus of the Socialist Era

11Taking off from Song (2011) and Zuo and Jiang’s (2009) “private life embedded in a public sphere” (Si Qian Yu Gong or Gong Si Xiang Qian), simultaneous “construction of family and state” (jia guo tong gou) and Zuo’s (2013) critique of women’s sacrifice in the socialist era, Ji et al. (2017) pointed out that the dual state apparatus of the danwei system and the socialist gender egalitarian ideology were a key mechanism in organizing gender dynamics under Socialism.

12Following Engels’ idea that women’s emancipation must be realized by their participation in the labor force and by abolishing the private family’s economic function (the basis of a traditional feudal society), the Chinese government successfully mobilized women to participate in the construction of Socialism. The danwei system took over the family’s basic economic function with the “iron bowl” lifetime employment system and also provided from-cradle-to-tomb services, such as nurseries, kindergartens, schools, medical care, dining halls, pensions, etc. The state thus successfully took over the position of the family patriarch to protect individuals. Furthermore, the extended family and kinship system that used to organize the traditional Chinese society at ground level was destroyed and replaced by the Communist official system in rural villages and danwei in urban China (Dittmer & Lu 1996; Lu 1989; Yan 2010). Series of laws and institutions were established to guarantee women’s right to a love marriage, ownership of property, access to education and employment, etc. (Davis & Friedman 2014; Davis & Harrell 1993). Overall, the private sphere was well integrated into the public sphere while patriarchal traditions were more or less confined to the private family and domestic roles remained gendered (Ji et al, 2017; Song, 2011; Zou & Jiang, 2009). At the same time, the dominant Marxist ideology promoted gender equality—yet in socialist China it emphasized men’s and women’s self-sacrifice and obligation to the state, prioritizing the socialist construction over the family—with women having to make additional sacrifices for the family (Zuo 2005, 2013; Zuo & Jiang 2009). As Zuo (2013) argues, it was this “obligation equality,” i. e. equal sacrifices/duties, instead of equal rights, that helped to generate an imagined equality during the socialist era.

13Of course, there are other implications beneath the highly-valued gender equality of the socialist era. Though labor was greatly glorified in socialist times, working women’s housework was regarded as their own particular problem (te shu kun nan) and housewives’ unpaid labor was considered secondary to the paid work in danwei for the construction of socialism (Song 2011). Gender occupational segregation and earning disparities still exist in pre-reform China (Jin, 2006a; Zuo and Jiang, 2009). The socialist style of gender equality was also criticized as “gender erasure” (Yang 1999) and regarded men as the default criterion for women (Croll, 1995; Jin, 2006b; Tong, 2008; Yang, 1999; Zuo, 2013).

14Nonetheless, the harmonious operation of the dual state apparatus of danwei and Marxist egalitarian gender ideology helped to achieve a peak of gender equality in the last sixty years of the Chinese society. Unfortunately, the single danwei system and the propaganda-based ideology have been proved vulnerable and unsustainable. The collapse of the dual state system and the indecisiveness of gender equality in the private family domain thus paved the way to gender dynamics shaped by separate instead of relatively integrated public and private spheres in post-reform China (Ji et al. 2017).

Dual Income Families and Women’s Work-Family Conflict in the Era of Marketization

15With the fading of the socialist dual state apparatus of gender equality in the transition process towards marketization—the collapse of the danwei system and the declining influence of Marxist gender egalitarian ideology—the once integrated public and private spheres are increasingly separating (Ji et al., 2017). With danwei no longer providing lifetime employment, and as more uncertainties arise in the transition era, it seems more crucial than ever before for both husband and wife to financially contribute to the family. Although women’s employment has declined and the gender earnings gap has widened (Appleton et al., 2005; Attané, 2012; Chi & Li, 2014; Zhang et al., 2008), their income is still substantial, and the dual earning family is still the norm (Stockman, Bonney & Sheng, 1995; Xiao & Hong, 2010). During the large scale State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) lay-offs in the 1990s and early 2000s, about 30 million workers were laid off, and women were disproportionally affected (Dong et al. 2006; Giles et al. 2006). However, after the decline of women’s employment rates from 89.4 percent in 1990 to 62.3 percent in 2003, the recent comeback of women’s participation in the labor force (75.5 percent in 2010) is believed to be mostly due to women of underprivileged socioeconomic background (Wu & Zhou 2015). This further stresses the significance of dual income, considering the rapid rise of living costs in urban China.

16Further, the state is gradually privatizing and shifting reproductive and care services back to individual families (Cook & Dong, 2011; Shang & Wu, 2011; Yan, 2010; Zuo & Jiang, 2009). For example, during 2001-2010, the number and proportion of danwei-run kindergartens declined from 7 221 to 2 912, and from 26 percent to 8 percent, respectively (Zhang & Maclean, 2012). With the gendered norm maintained within the individual family, women thus have to shoulder these extra duties, resulting in an intensified work-family conflict (Cook & Dong, 2011; Ji et al., 2017; Song, 2011). Empirical research shows that both men’s and women’s housework time has declined in post-reform China, but women still support the bulk of domestic tasks (Chen, 2005; Dong & An, 2015). In 2000, Chinese women spent about 1,3 more hours on housework per day than their male counterparts, and this gender disparity decreased to almost 1 hour in 2010 (Liu, Tong & Fu, 2015).

17With the rising of the urban middle class and probably due to the long-term one-child policy, intensive motherhood has gradually become prevalent among urban families (He, 2017; Jin & Yang, 2015; Su, Ni & Ji, 2017). This tends to devour more of women’s time and energy, and multiply their domestic responsibilities. Also, women’s double burden can further justify employers’ discrimination towards them and contribute to the obstacles they encounter on the labor market (Ji et al., 2017). Recent studies reported motherhood was being penalized in the marketization era (Du & Dong, 2013; Mu & Xie, 2016; Yu & Xie, 2014; Zhang & Hannum, 2015). Confronted by persistent low fertility and rapid aging of the population, the Chinese government has recently relaxed the one-child family policy to a selective two-child policy in 2013 and then a two-child policy in 2015. Chinese women are thus under pressure to have a second child without adequate and affordable child-care centers and related institutional support, which may further dampen their already disadvantaged labor market status (Ji, Sun, McDonald & He, 2017).

A Perplexing Gender Ideology

18As the dominant Marxist egalitarian gender ideology loses its paramount status in ordinary people’s daily life, various factors seem to interfere in a complex gender ideology in post-reform China. Many scholars have paid attention to the resurgence of Confucian patriarchy (Chen, 2005; Cook & Dong, 2011; Ji, 2015a & b; Ji & Yeung, 2014; Sun & Chen, 2015), which was not surprising in itself, considering that it was not eliminated but well contained within the private family during the socialist era (Song 2011). At the same time, the discourse enhancing personal qualities (su zhi) and competence was emphasized to describe women as the inferior worker in the market (Wu, 2009). Wu argued that the patriarchal tradition stressing gender roles is converging with the market discourse to justify discrimination and women’s double burden, seemingly condoned by the state.

19With the intensification and broadening of globalization, marketization born of the danwei economy along with contained Confucian patriarchy in post-1980s China, coincided historically with the birth and spread of neoliberalism. That mysterious alliance has heavily colored the modernization process in contemporary China. As China’s marketization is more and more enmeshed in globalization, more recent research reported an alliance between the resurgent patriarchal tradition and neoliberalism (Ji, 2015a; Sun & Chen, 2015). Mainstream media has become more interested in attributing individualistic reasons or solutions to women’s issues while ignoring structural inequalities (Sun & Chen, 2015).

20In Sun and Chen’s research, a middle class urban woman was portrayed as happily contemplating and planning to quit her highly successful career job and smoothly slip into sweet family life without a qualm. This view stresses and values personal choice. One of Ji’s (2015b) informants, a successful career woman in cosmopolitan Shanghai carefully defended her career in the public sphere, by respecting the traditional, Chinese, gendered role expectations that men are in charge outside and women inside (nan zhu wai, nu zhu nei), though she complained that men were “brainwashed by 5000 years of feudal thinking.”

21From the above, it is clear that the reinstitution of gender inequality is part of the mosaic dynamics of modernization in present-day China. The socialist heritage, the patriarchal Confucian tradition, market logics and heightened neoliberalism are jointly shaping the changing gender dynamics. This paradoxical process echoes Yan’s (2010) argument of a mix of pre-modernity, first modernity, and second modernity in China, Chang’s (2010) compressed modernity in East Asia and Beck and Grande’s (2010) reflexive cosmopolitanization.

22The transition from the socialist to the market regime thus shapes the institutional and ideological forces that are reorganizing gender inequality and resinstitutionalizing the family system in post-reform China. Further, the separation of the two spheres and the intricate gender ideology inevitably involve changes in the private family sphere. The next section thus adopts a gendered perspective to investigate individuals’ motivations and the complex mechanisms of intergenerational and conjugal interactions.

Mosaic Familialism: Intergenerational symbiosis and Gendered Marriage

Family Matters

23In socialist times, the danwei system took over the family patriarch’s role to provide economic security for individuals, and helped reduce women’s work-family conflict. But, during the transition from the socialist planned economy to marketization, the danwei system collapsed. Life employment is no longer guaranteed. And the family’s economic functions that danwei had taken over, are now at least partially thrown back to each individual family—though no longer an economic unit, the family functions as an economic pool and safety net and seems more important than ever before. Further, previously fairly-shared social reproduction duties and care services have shifted back from danwei to individual families (Cook & Dong 2011). At the same time, there are no well-established state welfare system or other newly built institutions to take over the functions of and services provided by the old danwei system (Ji, Wu, Sun & He 2017). Basically, the individual family has become its members’ social security system.

24In Beck and Grande (2010) and Yan’s (2010) words, as individuals are “disembedded” from the danwei system, there is no welfare state waiting to catch them on the rebound. Individuals thus have to return to the family. With the privatization of housing, marketization of health care and education, and skyrocketing living expenses due to rapid economic growth and urbanization, the family has become increasingly more important for young people than in socialist times, at least in terms of finances. Family is thus the frontier and ultimate fortress for its members’ survival and welfare.

25As parents have heavily invested in their one child, scientific mothering and intensive mothering is rising among new urban middle-class families (He, 2017; Jin & Yang, 2015; Su, Ni & Ji, 2017; Tao, 2015 & 2016). Parents subscribe to various parenting magazines/books, join in several parent, or parent-teacher groups, spend handsomely on all kinds of extracurricular activities for their child. Parent-child lessons, head start programs, piano lessons, painting classes, tutoring in math, coaching in English, etc. spring up like bamboo shoots. It is not uncommon that some middle-class mothers quit work to focus on their children’s education and rent an apartment near the school to help their only child focus on studying (Jin & Yang, 2015). All these generous investments in the children can consolidate parent-child bonding, but can also enhance parents’ control over children and then children’s obligation towards the parents. This parents-child “symbiosis” due to the lack of welfare support, and the financial constraints due to China’s rapid modernization, are likely to reinforce the traditional familialism and patriarchal power, thus resulting in a mosaic familialism, mixing both modern and traditional elements.

26Although family size decreased dramatically, due to the strict one-child family policy, and though the dual income family is the norm to a certain degree, elements of the traditional family may well be strengthened rather than weakened. For example, though the nuclear family is the norm, co-residence is rather high in China, and, without a sound social welfare system, people have to resort to their adult children for old age care (Xu et al., 2007). Traditionally, Chinese parents raise their sons to be their old age support (yang er fang lao); nonetheless, many recent studies show that daughters now provide more for their parents, though receiving less, compared to sons (Hu, 2017; Tang, Ma & Shi, 2009; Zhan & Montgomery, 2003; Zheng & Yi, 2014). Some scholars argue that a daughter supporting old parents signals women’s empowerment (Fong, 2002), but it is actually a new form of familialism that perfectly fits in with the patriarchal expectation of women’s caring roles. The difference is that in the traditional society, women were expected to care for their parents-in-law; nowadays they are expected to care both for their parents-in-law and their own parents, partly a consequence of the low fertility-rate because of the long-term, one-child family policy.

27In contrast, with housing costs shooting up, urban youth either have to live with their parents or depend on their parents to buy or help them buy a house (Li & Shin, 2013; Xu, 2004; Yan, 2013). A new social phenomenon called Kenlaoyizu (“boomerang kids” in English) is rising in China (Song & Qi, 2011). Regardless whether adult children have an income or not, parents continue to provide them with financial help as well as services, from house buying to room decoration, grandchildren’s education, daily expenses, etc. In present-day China, it is a norm that the groom’s parents buy a house/apartment for the new couple (Wang, 2017). It is thus no surprise that parents still have a say in children’s marriage and their future life, although arranged marriage was eliminated and replaced by love marriage, at least nominally soon after the 1950s marriage law (Ji, 2015b).

28With accumulated wealth during China’s rapid economic development, the older generations are able to provide more financial aid and other resources for young people and family bonding can be strong. But in the long run, it is doubtful if the young people can reciprocally provide the elderly with care both in terms of labor and financially. Also, this reciprocity can be suspended at any time, if the younger generation cannot afford to do so or decides not to do so, considering the fact that there is no danwei system representing the state to support the individual family, or extended family or kinship system in the locality to boost the authority of the family patriarch, as in the traditional Chinese society.

29Nonetheless, there is no doubt that, with parents and even older generations’ heavy investment in the next generation through to their adulthood, the young people are under great obligation to providing old age care for their parents, and parents may regard their heavily-invested offspring as their private product. This resurgent but modified familialism, is not an exact replication of traditional familialism, but it is definitely different from the family modes characterized by individualism in Western contexts. I thus call this distinct family pattern a mosaic familialism, characterized by a sequential symbiosis between parents and children facing financial constraints and unforeseeable uncertainties given a weak social welfare system. In this mosaic pattern, modernity and tradition stand side by side; men and women, parents and children, husband and wife live and work together, negotiate between traditional norms and modern desires, test and practice gender and generation boundaries, exchange love and money, and form a strong yet vulnerable safety net embedded in the intricate temporality of Chinese society. The father is no longer the dominant family patriarch as in traditional familialism, and the parent-child relationship is to a large degree an interdependent symbiosis. Therefore, it can both suffocate and nurture budding individualism and to some degree strengthen elements of traditional norms such as e.g. the relatively early and universal marriage norm, especially for women.

Why Get Married?

30Both parents and their adult child, especially when the child is a daughter, are under great pressure for the child to get married if the latter has not yet married in nowadays China. Since the family has become the economic security and welfare-net, parents of one daughter are particularly worried about their only child’s well-being, and hope she will have the same family safety-net via marriage in the future and have her own child to take care of her when she gets old (Ji 2015b). Similar to the situation of other Asian neighbors, where cohabitation is uncommon and nonmarital child-bearing is rare, fertility is still closely linked to marriage in China (Ji 2015a; Ji & Yeung 2014; Jones 2007; Jones & Gubhaju 2009; Raymo et al. 2015). Normally, without a marriage license, one cannot get a birth certificate in China, resulting in no hukou for the new-born baby (Ji & Yeung 2014), which thus puts great pressure on young people to marry. Also, hukou, a residential certificate in China usually including rural and urban hukou, is linked to various entitlements and life opportunities even in post-reform, marketized China, such as schooling, housing, healthcare, and social security. All these factors explain the mystery of near universal marriage in today’s Chinese society.

31 Furthermore, given the long-term implementation of the one-child family policy, the plausible strengthening of the economic and security functions of the nuclear family, and the possible ideological swing in a more conservative direction stressing women’s traditional roles as wife and mother, it is not a surprise that family formation is ultra-significant for ordinary Chinese. It is thus understandable that Chinese women, particularly, are under overwhelming pressure, from the society, the family, and most likely themselves, to get married. If they have not yet done so in their late twenties or thirties, they are denounced as “leftover” women (Ji 2015b).

32Therefore, the mosaic familialism of intergenerational symbiosis seems to relentlessly press the young generation, particularly young women, to marry early. Yet, it is not without fighting back. Educated Chinese women in big cities are beginning to postpone and some will even forego marriage completely in the future and thus be labelled “leftover” women (Ji 2015b). After discussing the social forces behind marriage formation in China, the next question is: what are the mechanisms of mating? Do they too form a mosaic, shaped by modernity and tradition simultaneously?

Matching Doors and Hypergamy: Paradoxical?

33As the society transits from the danwei to a market economy, the state loses its control over individuals’ private life. Marriage seems to become a personal affair. Educational assortative mating is reported on the increase in recent decades in China (Han 2010; Hu & Qian 2015). Other factors such as income and hukou are also part of the rising homogamy based on individual characteristics (Hu & Qian 2015; Qian & Qian 2017). Yet, as the temporality of Chinese society and family is well embarked upon the intricate entanglement of tradition and modernity, it is interesting to see that the seemingly paradoxical rules of old mating logics are still well alive beneath the new practices, i.e. comparable family backgrounds and hypergamy (Fan forthcoming; Hu 2016; Ji 2015b).

34The above has already demonstrated that, when trying to grasp why individuals get married, family matters; what is more, family and individual concerns are skillfully interwoven . As Ji (2015b) discovered, even highly educated women in the most modern Chinese city of Shanghai still endorse the idea of compatible family backgrounds or matching doors (men dang hu dui, i.e. the groom’s and bride’s family backgrounds should be equal or matching in terms of socioeconomic status), once popular in the feudal society of arranged marriages. Men Dang Hu Dui was common practice for traditional arranged marriages in the Chinese society then, but these educated women seem to develop new, personal ideas about that old familial concept. To them, it is not just the matching of the parents’ families, but also the compatibility between the young people themselves, of their education, values, life style and other personal characteristics. The matching of young people’s values and views actually bears high significance.

35As Ji’s (2015b) informants narrated, the practice of hypergamy operates at the same time, i.e. A men matching B women, B men matching C women, and C men matching D women, in the ranking of desirability/popularity in the marriage market, resulting in the “leftover” of A women and D men. A women are usually the urban educated, D men rather rural and underprivileged (Ji 2015b; Ji & Yeung 2014). However, not all women subscribe to the traditional idea of hypergamy, and some educated women do accept younger and less affluent men to be their spouse. It is the men who cannot accept modern women who are mature, competent and successful (Ji 2015b).

36It is likely that the two rules of traditional mating—matching doors, together with the modern idea of individualistic romantic love and matching of other individual characteristics – are operating at the same time among different groups of people, revealing the gendered pattern of hypergamy. This complexity produces the phenomenon of “leftover” women in modern China. Some people may illustrate assortative mating by the matching doors, others may fit into the hypergamy mode, and still others combine the two. And a seemingly traditional mentality does nonetheless not exclude romantic love. For example, a young couple meets in college and falls in love. They may be both from urban, middle class, family backgrounds, with the husband having a graduate degree and the wife a college degree. It seems that, sometimes, the rules of matching doors and individual compatibility or romantic love can work in the same direction: tradition and modernity intersect in the mindsets and behaviors of individuals who are from different social groups, different localities, and different social domains in today’s Chinese society. This is consistent with what I termed mosaic familialism. Moreover, it deserves noting here that without a gender lens, it is not possible to adequately understand this mosaic temporality. I will now further discuss gendered division of labor in the family.

Gender Relationships in the Family

37During the transition to marketization, women’s work-family conflict has intensified, as the two spheres are increasingly separating. The dual-income family is still the norm in post-reform China and women’s income remains substantial for the family. With social reproduction responsibilities and care services privatized to individual families, the gender division of labor inside the family has become more important than in the socialist era (Ji et al. 2017). Empirical research shows that men’s housework time increases, but still significantly lags behind women’s contribution; for example, in 2010, Chinese women spent almost 1 more hour daily on housework than Chinese men (Chen 2005; Liu, Tong & Fu 2015). Studies discover that wives usually feel that the unequal household division of labor is acceptable, as long as husbands fulfill their gender-specific duty, bringing substantial income into the family (Zuo & Bian 2001). Moreover, even if wives’ income is indispensable to the family or equivalent to the husbands’, it is still regarded as secondary and they are not deemed providers as their husbands are (Zuo & Bian 2001).

38As Song (2011) analyzed, in the socialist era, women’s gendered labor was carefully woven into the socialist construction, and gendered division of labor was well maintained in the private family. That is why during the transition to market time, when many social services were thrown back on women’s shoulders, they did not show much resistance. The resurgence of patriarchal tradition further justifies women’s double burden and sacrifice inside the family. This is also why women’s extra work at home is deemed fair and their substantial income is regarded as secondary. In the modern, nuclear, dual income family, women’s housework fits the patriarchal expectations and their income is also given a gendered meaning. With the deepening of marketization, China’s further involvement in globalization, and the influence of neoliberalism, women’s sacrifice to the family fits the traditional gender expectation but is glazed over with a modern pigment called personal choice and individual competence. In Sun and Chen (2015)’s investigation, middle-class women’s returning to the home is embellished as representing a competent and happy decision, a personal choice made of their own free will. Although the above families composed of career women or competent wives seem formally modern, the values underpinning them remain rather traditional, providing another piece of evidence of mosaic familialism.

39Yet, this new mosaic familialism featured by parent-child symbiosis differs from traditional familialism dominated by the family patriarch; family bonding is strengthened and family members are obliged to provide for each other in the face of economic constraints and increasing risks; patriarchal Confucianism is rejuvenated to a certain extent and women’s traditional wife and mother role is once again stressed, if not glorified; and neoliberal discourse articulating personal choice and responsibility, but not individual rights, stands by seamlessly. In terms of both pressures underlying family formation and mechanisms of mating, we see all the above elements coalesce.

Discussion and Conclusion

40Clearly, the process of changing gender dynamics and family institutions in China during the transition from socialist to capitalist modernity, and later during the rapid globalization, displays a mosaic nature, where the Confucian tradition, socialist modernity and market modernity, and then later reflexive cosmopolitanization walk hand-in-hand, and to some degree shape each other into a complex tradition-modernity mosaic. This still changing complexity echoes Beck and Grande’s (2010) first modernity and reflexive cosmopolitanism, Yan’s (2010) partial individualization and Chang’s (2010) compressed modernity.

41To fully understand the mosaic temporality that shapes the dynamics of the changing gender and family system in post-reform urban China, we have to understand the structural and ideological dynamics during the socialist-to-capitalist modernity transition, such as the fact that no inclusive welfare system was established after the collapse of the danwei system which de facto provided comprehensive social services to individuals working in the system, as well as the spiritual vacuum caused by the waning of the dominant Marxist ideology.

42It is in this context that the family becomes the security fortress for individuals, in both an economic and spiritual sense, in a changing society full of rising uncertainties and unforeseeable risks. As Yan (2010) analyzed, in the socialist era, individuals disembedded from the patriarchal family, instead of being re-embedded in a strong welfare state as in Western capitalist societies, were more or less crushed by prevalent collectivism. He dubbed this individualization process partial individualization, and also considered the underdevelopment or lack of personal rights. Yet, to fully understand the intricate individualization and modernization process of present-day China, we have to dig further into the nature of the family as a social institution and examine its structural basis being transformed in the transitional society with a deliberately gendered lens.

43In pre-reform China, a comprehensive danwei system was built to replace the ground level social organization of the traditional Chinese kinship system. However, during the transition to the market, without the protection of the danwei system, family members have to stick to each other for economic security and reproductive and care services. Although the family is no longer an economic unit as in the traditional, self-sufficient agrarian economy, it can serve the function of economic pool and security, particularly for young people facing rocketing living costs. Parents with more financial resources can sponsor their children, including education, housing, family formation and child-rearing, and potentially have a say in their children’s life choices over the long term. Therefore, the potentially liberated individualism crushed by socialist collectivism has to depend on or compromise with familialism. But this familialism lacks the support of the extended family and kinship system of the traditional family as an economic unit. The intimately bonded parent-child relationship is to some degree operating through their mutual obligations, which seem to be relevant to the logics of obligation equality working in the person-state and person-family relationships of the socialist era (Jin, 2006b; Zuo, 2013). However, it is important to point out that without a sound welfare system and multiple institutions to support the family, this two-way system of parent-child obligations is not sustainable. On the one side, parents intensively invest in their children. This not only compromises parents’ own welfare, it also justifies and augments their interference in the child’s life, and further heavily burdens children with their future obligation to their parents, e.g. old age caring. On the other side, if one party (often the child) decides not to fulfil their obligations or reciprocate, then this micro system is at a great risk of breaking down.

44If one considers the family and marriage as gendered institutions, without scrutinizing the changing dynamics of the gender system, one’s understanding of the changing family dynamics in China is incomplete at best, or at worst falls into androcentrism. In this mosaic familialism of the sequential parent-child symbiosis system, women’s traditional gender role is stressed and they must take over many of the reproductive duties thrown back on the family. Women are under pressure to get married and marry early, to give birth and probably have a second child, to take care of both the young and the old, to care for both their parents-in-law and their own parents. The motivations and mechanisms underlying marriage formation and the dynamics of conjugality are a mosaic with a clearly gendered pattern.

45With regard to the reorganization of gender inequality, the perplexing gender ideology in post-reform China deserves more discussion here. In post-reform China, first, the state discourse of Marxist ideology receded and the discourse of tradition and the market, stressing individual qualities and competence, were linked. Then the patriarchal tradition became allied with neoliberalism, emphasizing individual responsibility and personal choice. Song’s (2011) analysis is inspiring here. She shows clearly that due to the culture of obligation, women did not show much resistance when reproductive and caring services were thrown back to each family from the danwei. As some Chinese feminist scholars (Jin, 2006b; Zuo, 2013) demonstrated, personal sacrifice rather than individual right is the key to understanding socialist gender equality. It is highly likely that through women’s sacrifice the patriarchal tradition and neoliberalist individual choice are effectively connected.

46Another question deserves more discussion here. How is one to understand women’s “personal choice” to return to the home, why women seem to be voluntarily supporting elements of patriarchal gender norms, particularly when the conjugal and familial relationship is involved? In addition to the above analysis, it is important to note that during the transition, the dual state apparatus of the danwei system and Marxist gender ideology collapsed and was not replaced by a welfare system or alternative supporting institutions and an egalitarian gender ideology. Individuals have to live their life in this mixed, uncertain, and somewhat risky, mosaic context. Sometimes, women criticize men’s relatively conservative gender ideology and disapprove of patriarchal control over their marriage and related decisions. But at other times, they consciously negotiate and compromise between the traditional gender roles (role expectations) as wives and mothers in the private family and their personal achievements in the public domain.

47During the transition from the socialist regime to the market regime in contemporary China, this ongoing transition contextualizes the dynamics of China’s mosaic temporality, and a complex modernity emerges in China’s transformation from socialist to capitalist modernity in the sweeping process of globalization. I argue that this mosaic temporality is shaping the reinstitutionalization of gender and family systems in contemporary China; furthermore, the reinstitutionalization of gender and the family system itself is constituent of the mosaic temporality. Here, gender is not only a variable but a systematic social force that reshaped and is still shaping China’s developing, mosaic modernity.

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Ji Yingchun, « A Mosaic Temporality: New Dynamics of the Gender and Marriage System in Contemporary Urban China »Temporalités [En ligne], 26 | 2017, mis en ligne le 24 avril 2018, consulté le 17 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Ji Yingchun

Professor of sociology, the School of Sociology and Political Science, Shanghai University

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