Chinese ideal family: four generations under one roof

The Chinese ideal family, four generations living together, symbolizes the ideals of harmony, happiness, longevity, and a large thriving family.

The Chinese ideal of family: Four generations under one roof

Written by Sun Ying
Illustrator: Lin Lin
Photo by Li Jianduo, Yin Yue
文/ 孙颖 插图
林琳 图片
On the second day of the Chinese New Year, the first snowfall of the year came down in Northern China. According to local customs, this is the day when married women are supposed to return to their parents’ homes. Wu Qian and her husband Jing Yazhou, living in Beijing, ate their breakfast and then took the high-speed train to Tianjin with their son Xiao Yu. With the two cities being only 100-odd kilometers apart, the journey took no more than half an hour.

The snowflakes floated outside the train windows, but as the train approached its destination, the snow turned to drizzle. Wu Qian and her family got off the train and headed for her grandmother’s home, which was not far from the station. On the same day, six other small core families were also on their way there for the reunion of the big extended family.

Before their arrival, Wu’s parents and other older relatives had been busy preparing for the day. The house had been cleaned thoroughly, houseplants brightened the balcony, and sizzling sounds and pleasant aromas were emanating from the kitchen. The windows were decorated with red paper-cuttings known as diàoqián ‘hanging money’, a distinctive feature of Tianjin’s New Year celebrations. The arrival of Wu Qian’s family instantly livens up the whole house, filling it with warm greetings, New Year wishes and children’s laughter. In a short while, all 19 family members arrive at the house.

 The Chinese ideal of family: Four generations under one roof

Wu Qian’s grandmother Niu Yuqing, born in 1926, gave birth to four children, Wu Qian’s mother Li Runping being the third oldest. She has an elder sister Li Run’eh, an elder brother Li Jianduo and a younger brother Li Jianhui, all born in the 1950s or 1960s.

Niu Yuqing’s husband passed away when their children were still young and the scarcity of material goods at the time made life incredibly difficult for the family. “My father died when I was 13,” said the eldest son Li Jianduo. “It was very difficult for my mother to raise us, all by herself.” Today, at the thought of the hardships the family had endured during his childhood, Jianduo’s eyes will still brim with tears.

It was during that period that he became aware of his responsibility as the eldest son, to “take on the role of the father and help his mother with the chores.” His brother and sisters looked up to him with deep respect and regarded him as the head of the family. Even now, he is still in charge of managing and coordinating aspects of family life.

The Chinese ideal of family: Four generations under one roof

Unlike in the West, where family members tend to treat each other as equals, members of a Chinese ideal family are differentiated by an unspoken hierarchical order. One’s position in the family is usually determined by one’s seniority or age, whereby aside from the parents, the eldest son usually shoulders more responsibility and enjoys more authority among those of his generation.

Under this hierarchical order, such principles as “respecting the old and caring for the young” and “loving fathers raise filial sons” have become the code of ethics that binds a family together. The older generation is responsible for looking after the younger generation, while the younger generation should be obedient and respectful towards their elders. These principles, passed on by word of mouth and taught from one generation to another, have been ingrained in the Chinese psyche.

After Niu Yuqing’s children grew up and started their own families, they would still visit their mother every weekend out of habit. Later the habit became an unshakable family rule and was even observed by the grandchildren.

The Chinese ideal family: Four generations under one roof

When Jianduo was 29, his son Peng was born, and Wu Qian, the daughter of Jianduo’s younger sister, was also born in the same year. As the number of grandchildren increased, the eldest sister’s son Tao, who was already six years old, became the “big brother” of his generation. The youngest member of this generation was Sha, daughter of the youngest brother Jianhui.

Born in the 1980s, each of the grandchildren is the only child in their own household. Even though they don’t have siblings as their parents do, they frequently see each other at family gatherings and have developed a strong sense of kinship with each other, all being very close to their grandmother as well.

As the oldest son in the third generation, Tao feels duty-bound to act as the big brother. As far as Sha can remember, Tao has always taken care of her and her cousins. During the ten years when she studied abroad, she often received caring text messages from Tao enquiring after her.

Sha also cherishes a special bond with her grandmother. She can still remember one particular visit to her grandma’s during a trip back home from abroad. When she was about to leave, Grandma got up, walked to the table, picked out a slightly scratched apple and handed it to her, saying: “I kowtowed to the Buddha for this apple. You must eat it.”

“Later I heard that Grandma had woken suddenly from her sleep the night before I was due back and asked if I was there.” Sha recounted emotively. “Grandma is almost 90 years old, but she is always worried about every one of her grandchildren. I lived abroad for ten years and failed in my filial duty; I have to do my best to make up for it.”

The Chinese ideal family: Four generations under one roof

Sha’s return to China has given the family more opportunities to get together. What is more exciting is that members of the fourth generation of the Li family are already growing up, which means that this family can finally have four generations under one roof.

“Four generations under one roof” has always been the ideal concept of family life for Chinese people. The idea of four generations of a family living together symbolizes the ideals of harmony, happiness, longevity, and a large thriving family. However, the saying “four generations under one roof” no longer means the same thing in modern times.

With changes in living conditions and the reduction in the size of an Chinese ideal family, it has become less and less common for four generations to live together. The traditional household with extended family living together has transformed into the three-person household consisting only of husband, wife and child. Statistics show that the average size of a Chinese household before the 1950s was 5.3 people, but this has decreased to 3.02 in 2012.

Although the practice of four generations living under one roof is no longer the order of the day, the family ideal it represents remains unchanged. Ninety percent of the elderly in China still live at home instead of in a nursing home as the younger generation considers it their duty to take good care of their parents.

The Chinese ideal family: Four generations under one roof

The Chinese ideal family rule of visiting grandma at the weekend is still practiced by the Li family even after the arrival of its fourth generation, the oldest member being merely six years old, the youngest no older than two. Whenever they visit, the first thing the children do is run to say hello to their great-grandmother. The younger kids especially love to snuggle up against her and don’t want to leave her side. The sight of her great-grandchildren always brings a broad smile to Granny’s face.

Perhaps for Chinese people, a Chinese ideal family is only complete if a dozen or so members of the extended family get together and prepare a meal for their parents, or maybe it is when the whole family sits together with children in their laps and leafs through old and faded family photos.

More about Chinese Family at ConfuciusMag:


pdfPublished in Confucius Institute Magazine.
Number 37. Volume II. March 2015.
View/Download the print issue in PDF


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