There is a novel in China called “four generations living together”, which sums up a once-common Chinese family composition: from great-grandfather and great-grandmother to great-grandson, a family of ten or even dozens of people live together.

The situation is a bit like that of southern Europeans who like to live in groups, especially the extended families in southern Italy. But today, the composition of the Chinese family is in great contrast to that of the last century. In any case, compared with North America, there are still some obvious differences in the composition of Chinese families and the way they get along with each other.

Two patterns of Chinese families

Let us repeat once again a major premise: China has a vast territory of more than 1.4 billion population, 56 ethnic groups, and 9.6 million square kilometers. If you try to summarize China in extremely simple concept, then there must be more mistakes than facts. So, it is better to focus on angles of family life rather than describing the life stories of every Chinese.

There are two major forms of families in China: one includes only two generations of parents and children, and the other includes three or more generations of relatives.

 The former is the so called “nuclear family” and the latter “extended family”. Please note that these two expressions are relatively rare in the Chinese context that if you mention these two comcepts to ordinary Chinese, they may barely know anything.

Nuclear families are common in wealthier parts of China, especially in coastal cities in the southeast and Beijing. As large cities tend to accommodate more jobs, and employment leads to population mobility and new settlers, some young “outsiders” often found nuclear families in big cities. Their parents are likely to stay in China’s central and western provinces and live a relatively poor but low-cost life. In addition, locals in big cities tend to buy or at least rent new houses when they get married, which can also lead them to leave their parents and found new nuclear families.

On the other hand, extended families can be seen all over China, which is also a more traditional way of family composition in eastern culture. If young people in the central and western regions choose to buy and live in their hometown, they do not necessarily live under the same roof as their parents, yet it is equally possible for them to buy property close to their parents. There is also a lot of communication-especially in rural areas, which can also be regarded as a large family. In big cities, young people who cannot afford new appartments are often forced to live with their parents, and it is much harder for them to get married and found their own families.


It should be noted that despite urban residents, especially apartment residents, may not live far away from their parents, the urban way of life makes it difficult for them to have frequent contact with their parents, which meants that they physically live together but still regarded as two families. More often, because of the rapid development of Chinese cities, housing prices in the central urban areas where parents’ generation lives tend to soar, making it difficult for young people to buy properties closer to their parents. In such situation, even if two generations live in the same city, the relationship will not be so close.

Obviously, both families have their own problems. The nuclear family causes many elderly couples to live without the care of their children, while the medical and nursing conditions in China’s rural areas are relatively worse, which leads to the plight of many elderly people.

In extended families, Chinese people have to face China’s eternal moral problem-filial piety for a long time.

What is filial piety?

Filial piety is a Confucian concept, which means that children should respect, support, and obey their parents in accordance with certain rules, so as to repay the “raising” of their parents. Different from what we usually call kinship, filial piety often requires children to be “absolutely obedient”, which means that no matter whether parents are intimate and kind to their children, children must treat their parents in an intimate, thoughtful, and even humble manner.

Due to the deliberate propaganda of the rulers, Confucianism played an important role in the social governance and moral construction in ancient China. Despite after the May 4th Movement in the period of the Republic of China and a series of scientific and cultural education in New China, the government has no longer encouraged some backward, pedantic and even barbaric ideology in Confucianism, filial piety is still regarded by many Chinese as a neccesary moral standard in contemporary society. Although the number of people who believe in and promote the culture of filial piety has greatly decreased with the increasing modernization of China, it is undeniable that there are still more followers of the filial piety in China than other countries.

If the original tenet of Confucian classics is used to explain “filial piety”, then filial piety is undoubtedly a backward and extremely barbaric culture, a tool used by the elders in the family to control maintain authority. Even if some exaggerated role models and complex rituals are excluded, a relatively mild and less “religious” filial piety may still be widely questioned, the essence of the concept lies in the existence of parents’ “higher status” than their children. Dedicating unconditional love and support is now undoubtedly at odds with the values of most contemporary young people.


However, filial piety is definitely not a twisted ideology which came from nowhere – very specific historical background leads to its formation. In fact, the culture of filial piety is ostensibly a requirement of children’s thought and behavior, however, it also objectively leads to Chinese parents’ willingness to pay more for their children in exchange for their children’s return.

For example, there is a joke in China called “six wallets”, which means that the husband, wife, husband’s parents and wife’s parents should pay for the marriage house for the husband and wife together. This situation may be quite rare in the West and highly unlike to become a “convention” or become the mainstream of today’s society, while in China, the phenomenon of “six wallets” is very common. This phenomenon shows that even after their children reach adulthood, even if their children already have income which is usually higher than their parents`, many Chinese parents are still willing to pay a pretty penny.

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There are also many Chinese parents who are willing to raise their grandchildren, which is also a very common phenomenon in China. Young people who work in big cities often spend their most of their time on work, as a result, they have no time to raise their children while their retired parents become the best “nannies” for their children. Although Chinese people also know that there are many potential problems for grandparents to carry out childhood education instead of parents, in real life, many families don`t have other opptions.

Chinese parents usually pay heavily on their children’s education. China’s compulsory education covers nine years of primary and junior high school, and after that, the vast majority of parents will encourage and pay for their children to receive higher education. What is even more unthinkable for Europeans and Americans is that the vast majority of Chinese parents will also pay their children’s college bills, even if these “children” are already adults. Few college students in China need to work hard to pay the education loans. In most cases, even the living expenses of Chinese college students are mainly borne by their parents.

Let’s go back to filial piety itself. Precisely, due to the fear of their parents’ long-term control, many young Chinese no longer ask or even take the initiative to refuse their parents for buying houses or raising children. But even so, most Chinese students are still willing to let their parents proivde economic support during the education stage, which establishes a closer relationship between Chinese parents and their children than in Europe and the United States.

Other disputes

Another side effect of the culture of filial piety is that elderly parents are tied more tightly to their adult children in China, leading to a more significant “dispute between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law”. A wife who can legally impose any specific restrictions on her husband and a mother who can make many “moral” demands on her son often have disputes over a variety of details. The contradiction between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law is one of the most common family contradictions in China. In order to avoid such contradiction, many males will try their best not to live with their mothers or minimize their contact with their mother. However, it may also be difficult for these group of males to enjoy the convenience of “six wallets”.

The phenomenon of large families similar to that in southern Europe is still common in China, especially in the rural areas of the southeast coastal provinces. The Chinese call this phenomenon “clan”. Depending on the region, some clans are very powerful. The leaders have control over many local industries and arrange the lives of the younger generations of the clan. In some extreme cases, the clan is as powerful as a small country, even enough difficult for local police in China to exercise effective jurisdiction over the clan territory. Therefore, large clans are often associated with gangs, even smuggling and drug trafficking.


Like Westerners, living with parents in adulthood is also definitely not a very “honorable” or “worth showing off” thing in China. On the other hand, house prices in some of China’s top cities are so exaggerated that even renting becomes a heaven burden, while China’s rapid economic growth has slowed slightly in recent years, affecting the employment and income of young people to some extent. Under such circumstances, more and more young people are willing to live in their parents’ homes, and their parents also give economoic support to their children

The Chinese generally do not call this phenomenon “evouring the elderly”. In the view of the Chinese, a person can be regarded as a “normal person” as long as he has a formal job and a certain income, even if the income is difficult to cover his own cost of living in a big city. On the contrary, if a person is idle all day and lacks a stable job, it will be regarded as a “bad person” and “useless”, no matter it lives individually or not.

Chinese families also tend to take the economic as the family core. In a small family, the memeber with the highest income has the highest decision-making power, and given the reality in China, most of them are husbands or fathers; in an extended family, people with higher social status and higher income tend to be more respected.

It needs to be emphasized that China’s social form is changing as fast as its economic development. In the 1970s and 1980s, Chinese family values were still very significant. Extended families often met regularly, and different families often supported each other to tide over the most difficult times. By the 21 century, population of many big cities in China had played down the concept of family and paid more attention to the relationship with their immediate family members. As a result, it may be common in rural China to borrow money from relatives, but in cities, such loans are much more likely to be rejected.

The Covid-19 outbreak comes ahead of the Chinese New year, which impeded many people’s trip home to visit their relatives. But even so, there are still many people in China who risk infection and spread to visit relatives and friends across cities during the New year. The reason is that today when the concept of family is getting weaker and weaker, the opportunity for many Chinese to get together with their relatives is only the annual Spring Festival. What is slightly sad is that those “nuclear families” who live in big cities are likely to meet their parents in their hometown only during the Spring Festival.