Chinese family structureMany challenges await the Western businessperson in China, but one factor that may escape immediate notice is the significance of the Chinese family. While family in China is primarily a social issue, its centrality within Chinese everyday life, as well as the changes and pressures forced upon it by the rapid rise of the Chinese economy, often create an inescapable impact on businesses in China.

Why are Chinese employees more likely to resign after the New Year holiday than at other times of the year? Why are Chinese employees passive and not prone to take the initiative? Why do Chinese employees seem to feel an inordinate amount of pressure? Understanding these issues and the role of the family in China can help Western businesses to better manage their operations in China as well as maintain better relationships with their employees.

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The History of Family in China

The family has long been a key component within Chinese society, and many aspects of Chinese life can be tied to honoring one’s parents or ancestors. In fact, the majority of the “five relationships” espoused by Confucius were directly centered on the family. Due to this focus on the family, it was common for the Chinese, even when fully grown with children of their own, to not only remain in or close to their hometown, but also have many, if not all, living generations of a family living under the same roof (四世同堂). Chinese who may have done business far from home, or may have been appointed to government posts far away, would normally have found time to return home on a regular basis, giving rise to the popular Chinese saying: “falling leaves returning to the root of the tree that sired them.” 

The concept of family in China was so important that it was one of the few moral and ideological concepts to survive the decade-long turmoil and chaos of the Cultural Revolution relatively unscathed. While many Chinese elders lament the fact that young adults born in the 1980’s or later possess no clear moral compass or strong standards of behavior, no one in China has forgotten the importance of family.

The Chinese Family Structure

The Chinese family structure has traditionally been rigid and hierarchical, with elders still receiving the largest degree of reverence, respect and obedience, a practice that has continued into the modern age. And while Confucius may have preached that showing 家庭respect and filial piety to one’s elders did in no way require blind obedience, in actual practice throughout Chinese history and today, many parents and grandparents expect their children/grandchildren to do as they are told. Within the traditional Chinese family structure, each family member has a specific form of address in Chinese, with different forms of address for an older and younger brother, sisters, aunts, uncles, grandfathers and grandmothers, on both the maternal and paternal sides of a family.

And while this naturally can appear complicated to the uninitiated Westerner, in fact, it was and is incredibly important to the Chinese family structure. A significant aspect of life in the Chinese family is showing the proper amount of respect to the appropriate members of the family. For example, a father’s elder brother will accordingly rank higher than his younger brother, and there exist separate terms to differentiate the two, to both members of the family as well as to outsiders. And these terms also offer insight into the position of a girl within the traditional Chinese family unit. Many of the terms for family members on the maternal side of the family begin with the character “Wài (外),” literally meaning “outside, ” indicative of the fact that Chinese women, even after marrying into a new home were still considered to be outsiders.

China’s Rapid Economic Growth and Working Away from Home

In the new China, the Chinese family faces many challenges and contradictions to the old way of life that threaten its traditional stability. As China’s economy continues to grow and expand, many young and seasonal workers have been drawn to the bigger cities in the more prosperous regions in China. They come to find better jobs and more money, in many cases sending much of what they earn to their families, who may reside in small towns where income is very low. But as Chinese young adults enter their late twenties, they come under increasing pressure from family to marry, have children and settle down, which much of the time requires moving back home.

Also, unlike Westerners, many young Chinese have a hard time away from home and do not do well alone and on their own. Every year as the Spring Festival rolls around, almost all Chinese living away from home begin the long and sometimes arduous journey back to their hometowns. Free from the stress, loneliness, and toil of the big cities, it is not uncommon for young workers to decide abruptly to “take a break,” quickly giving notice (if at all) to their current employers, and it is common for workers to take off weeks or months at a time. And while some Western employers may be prone to assume that their young employees lack loyalty, morals or good character, it is important to remember that family is the highest priority in China and trumps loyalty to all else.

The One-Child Policy

The situation with family in China is in some ways made worse by the Chinese One Child Policy, which was first implemented in the late 1970‘s. The policy had previously allowed parents only one offspring, leading to an upset in the traditional structure of the family. Instead of the usual bottom-heavy structure, one child is now supported and brought up by two parents and four grandparents, resulting in an inordinate amount of attention and pressure placed upon the child.

With regard to the workplace, this can potentially have two negative side-effects. First, with only one child available to succeed and support them in their old age (expected by parents in China) parents and grandparents will aim to be even more in control of their child. In modern China, every aspect of a child’s life, including courses of study, careers, friends and free time is decided and managed by the parents and other relatives. When those children later enter the workplace, they generally not only have little to no experience thinking and making decisions on their own but also as a result of a school system focused on memorization and diminished free-thinking, they have been specifically taught to avoid such things. Second, under the sole focus and care of so many family members, Chinese children of the post-1980’s generation have acquired a reputation for being spoiled and self-centered, also known as the “Little Emperor Syndrome.” One result is that young talent in China is more likely to become dissatisfied with their current employment. They are much more likely than their Western counterparts to switch jobs after short periods, chasing happiness or a larger paycheck.

Throughout the entire scope of a Chinese person’s life (including study, work, and life in general), family signifies a type of responsibility, though there exist both positive and negative aspects to this. The traditional interpretation of familial responsibility is that Chinese children are expected to study, work, and live life in a “proper” manner. Therefore Chinese people’s personalities tend to be both cautious and introverted. Many times when a Chinese child or young adult is preparing to make an important decision about their future, they will often take into consideration the feelings of their parents and their responsibility to their family. So in many respects the “family” plays a large role in influencing a person’s decisions, even going so far as to cause an individual to sacrifice their own aspirations and goals to satisfy the needs of the family. In China, it is commonly said that parents live for their children, and children also live for their parents. However when parents and children are all sacrificing their own interests, neither is able to live for themselves.

-Sarah Zhao, White-collar Worker, Shanghai

What to Be Aware of as a Westerner

Westerners in China unfamiliar with the Chinese family and the local talent market can find themselves with workers that they don’t understand, an unproductive office staff, high turnover rates, and endless headaches. However, with patience, the right mindset and proper planning, the impact of these issues can be reduced. First of all, many young Chinese (and older ones as well) can indeed adapt to a “Western working model,” but it is unfair to immediately expect them to change their ways. Remember that in a local Chinese company (or even among their own families), showing initiative, displaying individuality or offering suggestions to managers will not only likely be ignored, but can also lead to workers being criticized or ostracized by their colleagues and managers. It is important to be patient while these workers learn, and show that you are willing to listen to them on a consistent basis, and not just when it’s convenient.

Also, be ready for the likely event that not all workers will want to be managed in a Western manner. In this case it’s important to acquaint oneself with the basic concepts of Chinese culture, and be sure to give them the proper amount of face and respect for a job well done and not to take it away in front of others. With regard to possible the high turnover rates you might experience around the time of the Chinese New Year, make sure to plan ahead and have potential candidates identified by HR early before it’s too late. And remember that a Chinese worker’s loyalty is to their family first; it’s not that they have no loyalty or have shoddy principles, that’s just the way the culture is. For a western business or businessperson in China, in order to succeed it’s important to learn and adapt.

Thanks for reading!

 Do you have any more questions on the family in China, or on the effect it can have on both life and work? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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