AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 167

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Session 167: Migration, Gender and the Changing Family in China

Organizer: Danning Wang, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

Chair: Hong Zhang, Colby College, USA

Discussants: Tamara Jacka, Australian National University, Australia; Rubie S. Watson, Harvard University, USA

This panel examines the intersections between migration, gender and the family in China. Papers illustrate how migration fosters diversity and flexibility among household residential forms and family arrangements, and especially gender roles and intergenerational relations. Migration impacts notions of intimacy and romance, and contributes to new trends in marriage and fertility. Panelists are attentive both to the culturally specific context in which these phenomena occur and the agency of migrants in driving social change. Thus, panelists consider not only the institutional constraints on migration, such as the hukou system and socioeconomic push-pull forces, but also the changing cultural definitions of the Chinese family, shifting intergenerational obligations, and transformed gendered domestic responsibilities. Papers moreover highlight migrant women’s agency in courtship, marriage and daily family life under various structural, institutional, and cultural constraints. Ultimately the panel reflects on the changing and contested meaning and definition of family in China and the importance of taking the family into consideration in the study of migration and social change in China.

In search of a modern urban life: New marriage trends and family life of young migrant couples in China
Hong Zhang, Colby College, USA

One prominent feature of China’s estimated 200 million migrant workers is their relative youth age with over 70 percent under the age of 30. Despite the fact China’s hukou system continues to impose structural constraints for young rural migrants to settle down in cities, more and more young rural migrants are seeking long-term work and life opportunities in the urban destinations. Based on the data collected in both Beijing and a Hubei village in central China in 2009-2010, this study documents new dating behaviors, marriage patterns and post-marital arrangements of the young migrant couples. In particular, this paper focuses on the rise of cross-regional marriages and the new conjugal and cross-generational relations that such marriages bring about. It attempts to address three interrelated issues. First, how do young couples in cross-regional marriages themselves view their ‘unconventional’ marriage? In general, cross-regional marriages encounter strong parental objections especially from the bride’s parents. What then do cross-regional marriages tell us about young rural migrant women’s agency and their aspiration for new family life and urban work? Second, whether crosss-regional marriages are related to the educational level, job types, and sibling set of the couples and in what ways? Third, how do ‘cross-regional’ marriages impact child care, and the couple’s plans for the future?

Settling Down or Returning Home: Migration Intention and Split Households of Rural Migrants in Beijing
Cindy Fan, University of California, Los Angeles, USA

Research on migration and the family often assumes a middle-class American discourse, namely, temporary migrants will return soon or the family migrates as one unit. But another discourse, one focusing on the disruption due to long-term temporary migration, is perhaps more suitable for framing the discussion about rural-urban migrants in China. Split households are a common form of social organization for rural Chinese. The sojourner model was most popular in the 1980s and 1990s, but increasingly sole migrants are joined by their spouse and family members. These newer forms of migration beg the questions whether the split-household practices will continue and whether migrants are ready to and capable of settling down in cities. Based on a survey of Beijing’s urban villages (chengzhongcun) conducted in 2008, I examine the settlement intention of rural migrants. I found that male, young and single migrants, migrants that have longer migration experience, and those that are more highly educated, are more likely to choose to stay in the city. Migrants that invest in job training, have greater trust in people around them, and are more confident in themselves, are more interested in settling down than returning. Contrary to expectation, having their spouse and children in the city does not signal a strong intention to stay; nor do migrants’ interactions with their community. These findings highlight migrants’ human capital, agency, and attitude, as explanations for the choice between settling down and returning home, but they also suggest that split households will persist in the Chinese countryside.

Migrant Working Women Remaking Gender and Family in China
Arianne M. Gaetano, Auburn University, USA

This paper heeds recent calls to merge the study of migration with the anthropological study of gender and kinship. The Chinese family today is in flux, along with gender identities, roles and relations. Decades of economic reforms and globalization have brought greater autonomy and economic and social clout to youth, especially to young women. At the same time, fertility rates have declined and average family size has decreased. As a result, the family has been revolutionized with the conjugal couple and their (generally sole) offspring at its center. The large-scale rural-urban migration of young people and rural women in particular has been a key catalyst for these rapid and momentous changes. Indeed, the life courses of migrant women often diverge from the normative marriage, post-marital residence, and high fertility patterns that long ensured the reproduction of the rural Chinese family. This paper explores the context of such change by considering migrant women’s aspirations for their own and their families’ futures, as well as the social structures and discourses that enable and constrain their agency. I draw upon the life histories of a handful of women who migrated from rural areas in the late 1990s and early 2000s and have since married and formed new families of their own. The paper highlights and analyzes the gaps between their expectations and realities, and probes their changing conceptions of the ideal family and their concomitant gender roles and obligations within it.

Trust and Shame While Living among Strangers: Female Migrant Workers’ Attitudes toward Premarital Pregnancy
Danning Wang, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

Systematic demographic analysis demonstrated that although nearly all East Asian countries reached a low total fertility rate during the past two to three decades, such fertility transition happened in totally different cultural and social contexts. Different from the West, childbearing in non-marital relationships is still a cultural taboo maintained strictly by the social and cultural morality in these countries. Premarital and extramarital fertility rates are so low in East Asia that childbearing is only highly associated with marriage. This culturally legitimatized norm remains powerful in regulating people's reproductive behaviors. Increasing number of young people, women in particular, deliberately avoid marriage as a way to avoid childbearing. China is no longer a notable exception. One decade ago, young peasant couples moved to the cities to give birth of their "unofficial" children. Nowadays, more and more rural youths come to the cities for jobs, income, and searching for self. This paper compares two generations of rural migrant workers’ family and marriage experience in urban China to illustrate how the cultural taboo remains an effective cultural force in regulating young migrant workers’ reproductive lives.