Thursday, February 25, 2010

Chinese Family Values and the Division of Labor, Part I

Today's post finds me pondering a rather unusual and possibly controversial topic.  My wife reads a number of Chinese blog and media sites, principally one called Wenxuecity, and one recent essay which appeared there has led to a great deal of discussion, both on that site and in my household.

After a lot of persuading, I finally convinced my wife to translate it for me, with some help from me getting it into better form for an American audience.

Disclaimer alert!  Of course, one can never really "translate" much of anything, language, culture, and human thought processes being the slippery little devils that they are.  "Translations" generally fall somewhere on a continuum between the extremes of being faithful to every quirk of language at the one end, running the risk of diminishing the audience's understanding of the exact meaning (unless, of course, the particular audience is so familiar with a culture and its language that this risk is minimized), to the translator making sweeping changes at his own discretion in order to best capture what he sees as the author's intended meaning.

The Chinese language, being what it is, I opted for the second extreme.  This, of course, loses much of the insight that can be gained from seeing how another culture uses its language to express ideas, but what's a blogger to do?  Unlike other writings in languages that might be broadly lumped together as Western, Chinese prose is full of alien structures and phraseology with no Western parallels and that an American is unlikely to understand.  And phonetically Spartan though the spoken language is, Chinese prose tends towards the grandiose and flowery by American standards, which compounds the problem.  For example, in the title I used the word "Essays" for some phraseology my wife described as meaning something along the lines of "explorations of the issues surrounding" all the while waving her arms about like a magician over his hat just before he pulls out the rabbit.  Such a translation might have had an American believe that what followed was the definitive exposition on the subject and of encyclopedic depth, not a ~2,000 word essay.  Anyway, an essay is a writer's "exploration" of an idea; it really is an essay, so I just called it an essay rather than using the more literal phraseology.

Likewise, I took other liberties where I saw fit.  Hopefully, I got it mostly right and did justice to the author's point of view.  I certainly admire this piece and have every reason to make it as accurate as possible.

As a further bit of warning, this post has the potential to get VERY long, especially as at the very least it will contain the entirety of another post within it.

So, without further ado, the essay:


Essays on American Culture #12:  America’s Full-Time Mothers

-- and Mistakes in the Upbringing of Chinese Children

by Yun Yi 
as translated by Yu and Scott Angell

I think most people will agree with the notion that men and women are equal proportionately to a civilization’s level of advancement.  That is, the more civilized, the more equal men and women’s status in society.   In the eyes of most Chinese people, this equality is visible as women leaving the household and escaping the status of housewife.  If we understand equality in this way, America should be a country devoid of housewives.  However, after arriving in America, most Chinese will be surprised to observe that the occupation of housewife is quite popular here.  Especially once a family has children, many American women leave their jobs and stay at home to take care of children full-time.

Is this because America doesn’t have the concept of equality between the sexes?  It is easy to see after careful observation that American women are for the most part treated with greater respect by men than one would observe in China (at least on first appearances).  In addition, the law is quite thorough with respect to this issue.  So, what causes America to have so many full-time housewives?

I think we should look for the answer in the culture and traditions of the society.

American’s have the belief that parents ought to raise their own children.  In the American family, there is often more than one child because there is no one-child policy.  If one is committed to this idea that one must personally bring up one’s own child, many women find themselves forced to stay at home.  Many professional women must “sacrifice” their own careers the first few year after a child is born in order to take care of the child.   Of course, staying at home and taking care of kids is not just out of a commitment to this ideal, it is also largely out of the willingness of the mother:  she is happy to do this because separation from her child is unbearable.

I remember I experienced an unforgettable cultural shock after I had just arrived in America.  At that time, I knew a thirty year old American woman named Cindy, who had a four year old son.  I can tell that she loved and cared for her son very much.  After I found out she was a nurse by occupation, I expressed to her how lucky I thought her son was to have a mother like her.  She instantly answered uneasily, “Oh, no!  It is I who am lucky to have a son like him!”  Her response surprised me greatly, because in my thirty years of life, I have never heard a Chinese mother say something similar.  (This could possibly be because Chinese mothers tend to be more reserved.)
Isn’t it true?  Chinese children are taught to think of how much trouble they bring to their parents.  
Ten months of pregnancy, the pain of delivery, the burden of caring for a child that cannot care for itself, new expenses for food and other daily expenses, and a child owes his parents for the rest of his life.
Gradually, once I had lived in America for some time, I found that many American mothers voluntarily stay at home to take care of their children out of the emotional need to do so.  To be at home with one’s children, for them, is not to be in a state of misery, but is a desirable role to play and must be performed by the mother herself, never delegated to anyone else.  So, in America, one rarely observes children being raised by their grandparents at their parents’ behest.  Not only does one rarely observe this phenomenon, but one also observes that many grandparents must ask their own children’s permission to visit with grandchildren.  (Vice versa, if the young couple wants help with childcare, the help is usually temporary, and not always granted.)  I remember when I was painting portraits (most orders are from grandparents ordering portraits of their grandchildren), one time a customer came to see my painting, and after expressing his appreciation for the work, he told me very proudly that his daughter understood him very well.  "She lets me visit my grandson for a whole day every week," he said.

In contrast, we Chinese, especially those living abroad, frequently give our children to their grandparents immediately after they are born and continue pursuing our own career goals.  It is hard for most Americans to understand this behavior, and many would even consider this an irresponsible attitude.  Since, from their point of view, a mother should never be separated from her newborn except through the force of some overwhelming circumstance, one time a casual American acquaintance of mine asked me, “Do you Chinese have the tradition to let grandparents take care of their newborn grandchildren?”  I said that it is not really a “tradition,” but is mostly because Chinese living abroad are too busy and must seek help.  Even though I said this, in my heart I knew this was only half-true, because there are many young Chinese parents that did not give up their children to the older generation due to hardship. 

I lived abroad for ten years and visited China twice, when I also noticed another phenomenon.  It is rare to see small children in public in China.  In America, it is common to see parents with their children in public.  Of course, this could also be due to the fact that one travels by car in America and it is more convenient to transport one’s children this way.  But one must say, part of the reason might be that most Chinese children do not live with their parents. 

America is really a paradise for children.  The smiling faces of children are evidence of this.  From my own observation, the main difference between American and Chinese children is not to be seen in their clothes or toys but in their facial expressions.  American kids frequently smile in response to seeing even a stranger and are full of spunk.  But Chinese children (as well as other Asian children) usually dislike interaction with others and avoid eye contact.  It is rare to see them smiling at strangers.

Child psychology has already proven that childhood is the foundation of one’s life.  A person who grows up with enough care and love (especially mother’s love) are psychologically healthier than those who did not receive as much love from their parents.  So, every time that I see an American child smiling and full of spunk, in contrast to Chinese children's more serious expressions, it is natural for me to ask whether or not this is due to a difference in being raised by a full-time mother or a career-oriented mother. 

Long ago, I read a book by psychologist Erich Fromm called The Art of Loving.  This book influenced my outlook on life greatly.  Erich Fromm thinks the fetus in the womb is in an unconscious and secure state, but after it is born, the unavoidable insecurity and solitude sets in.  During the early stages of a human’s life, this insecurity and solitude will be weakened with a parent’s care, and a healthier psychology develops.  This is why it is very important for a child to be with his own parents in the early years.

To be taken care of by a full-time mother, children are born with the most important thing in their lives – love.  They have a great advantage in their development.  First, they won’t be as tempted by greed; because they are fully satisfied emotionally, they won’t feel as compelled to seek external material things to fulfill themselves.  Secondly, they are more confident, because they were appreciated by their mothers as soon as they were born, and they know that their lives are very valuable from the beginning.  Lastly, because of these two advantages, the natural satisfaction and confidence that they receive, they are healthier psychologically and have a stronger ability to cope with the uncertainties of life.  (Note 1).

In contrast, to our Chinese way of thinking, children, especially in early childhood, are not very important.  “Three-year-olds have no taste buds,” so the saying goes.  Children have no conceptions or expectations of life.  As long as the baby has milk and somebody to change his diaper, a parent has done his duty.  Spiritual development comes later, once the child has achieved a certain level of complexity. 

Many Chinese will argue that even though Chinese parents haven’t stayed with their children while they were young, look at how much money they have spent on their kids.  I have to say that, compared to the care and love of early childhood, the money spent is like throwing away the watermelon to pick up a sesame seed.  A psychologically healthy person will be happy whether or not he is materially wealthy.

After learning Western pediatric psychology, I must insist that this opinion is correct.  Chinese have shown much higher levels of greed for material wealth and social status in comparison to other nations of the world.  (Not every nation or race, but at least in comparison to Westerners.)  This situation represents a state of only quasi-healthy psychology.  This status mostly comes from insecurity in childhood:  one who was never considered valuable will therefore need much material wealth and social status to prove the value of his life once he grows up.

Isn’t it true that we Chinese, even though we always talk about not being envious, even though we have the philosopher Lao Zhuang professing the evils of envy, find that we compete much more severely than anyone else for tokens of status?  Both within China and among those Chinese living abroad there is a strong tendency towards comparisons with others, from salary, houses, and cars, to kids, clothing, education, schools, etc.

What about Americans?  It is not that Americans aren’t envious, but in comparison they are more realistic.  Take, for example, children’s education.  The rate of Chinese parents sending their children to learn piano is much higher than American parents.  Yet, when we talk about musical talent, Chinese can’t compare with Americans.  (Westerners generally are more gifted in music in comparison to Chinese.  Personal opinion, but I insist.)  But Americans would not force their children to learn piano, partially due to the financial situation, partially because the children may not want to play the piano.  But for a Chinese family, as long as it is remotely affordable, the children will be sent to piano lessons, and will not consider if the kids will actually have a future playing the piano or if the money will be wasted.

For many Chinese parents, they feel that they have invested so much during their children’s childhood that their own lives look deprived in comparison, and they become bored with their own prospects.  Their children become the focus of hope in their lives, and they become less self-satisfied than their Western counterparts.

So, I think we Chinese must consider two issues in raising our own children:  our traditional ignorance towards the importance of early childhood, and the issue of the equality of the sexes being allowed to dispose of women’s natural gifts (especially with respect to being a mother).  The American “full-time mother” (Note 2) is not in violation of the principle of equality between the sexes, but actually represents a deeper understanding of the laws of nature:  sexual equality is not shown purely by superficial similarities of circumstance, such as similarity in occupation, but also in the actual proficiency at one’s chosen occupation and respect for women’s natural gifts.  (Note 3)

As a supporter of the idea of sexual equality, I fully respect the American “full-time mother.” 

Note 1:  This analysis is general and does not exclude the existence of special cases.
Note 2:  Financial status is one of the considerations of a full time mother, but it is not the only consideration.  Many wealthy mothers in mainland China still do not want to be a full-time mother.
Note 3:  Concerning the analysis of women’s gifts:  this is not to exclude some women who may choose a different lifestyle because of their other natural talents and interests.  So my opinion is in agreement with the general rule but also respects the existence of special rare cases. 

If you come from an American background, odds are good that you found a few ideas expressed in that essay that you never expected to see in print.  It is amazing to me the kinds of things which are taken for granted by one culture seem to be not only alien concepts, but are even viewed as preposterous by another.  It is difficult for most of us to imagine experiencing an "unforgettable cultural shock" at a woman saying she was lucky to be the mother of her son, or being perplexed by the idea that parents ought to raise their own children would be an overriding cultural norm.

This essay brings up so many interesting topics, I can't possibly cover every aspect that really ought to be addressed. I'll just have to be choosy.

Where to begin the discussion?  Perhaps with commonalities.

Ms. Yi appears to have experienced something similar to an effect I have noticed in my own life.  There is a certain amount of "growing" that occurs by having an in-depth experience with another culture.  However, it is not so much that you actually learn a great deal about that other culture -- the "horizon-broadening" aspect of the thing is, in my opinion, a complete myth.  I'm not sure that any amount of "immersion" will ever allow someone brought up as a Westerner to really understand an Easterner, or vice versa.  And maybe that's not such a bad thing.

Rather, what you really wind up doing is gaining fantastic insight into your own culture by seeing cultural cause-and-effect at work among people who operate on a completely different set of assumptions from your own.  Their world will never really make that much sense to you, but all of a sudden your own world does, and everyday aspects of your own existence that you spent a lifetime glossing over and taking for granted suddenly become fascinating and extremely valuable to you.

Ms. Yi's column stirred up a fair amount of controversy when originally posted, as I suppose is to be expected.  She took a great deal of heat for making these observations and stating fairly bold opinions with respect to the Chinese community.  She also received some well-deserved praise.

Things really hit the fan when the criticism was leveled that Ms. Yi was trying to imply that Chinese mothers do not love their children.  That sort of thing has a tendency to cause a discussion to get ugly fast.  I do not find that to be the thrust of the article at all, and suspect that such charges were leveled in a cheap attempt to slander the piece and avoid facing the actual substance of the ideas she presents.  As the man said, "I think he doth protest too much," and it appears that more than a few readers found a sting lurking in her arguments that they felt compelled to lash out against.  In any event, whatever one might think, the overwhelming response to the article would tend to suggest that Ms. Yi has hit upon a subject of intense interest and that her insights are provocative to say the least.

But, you ask, what in the world does any of this have to do with the subject of economics?  Why, everything!

The Division of Labor and the Family

Bluntly stated, the division of labor is the economy.  How we arrange our efforts at productive enterprise to integrate most effectively with the activities of others, and how we make our choices at investment and consumption of the fruits of our efforts lie at the very heart of virtually every question an economist might bother to ask. To define economics as the study of the division of labor wouldn't be too shabby a definition.  I've seen worse.

It should be fairly obvious upon simple inspection that the family is almost certain to act as a fundamental structure within the division of labor, as this is where a great deal of economic activity takes place and its welfare is the focus of most individual economic actor's attentions.  We would naturally expect that differences in family structure would have all kinds of interesting effects on the micro scale as the way individuals perceive their relationships to one another and to the wider economy influence their decisions and the patterns their activities take.  We will see a lot of that shortly.

But what is far more interesting to me is how the structure of family might influence the division of labor and the entire economic structure at the very highest levels.  My knowledge of psychology is fairly weak, but it seems to me that the family is the first place one develops ideas and expectations on the subject of proper interactions with other people.  It would seem to me that lessons learned here and the expectations they ingrain into our individual outlooks would have profound effects on the way the economy develops from the very bottom of the production structure all the way up to the highest levels.  Unfortunately, I'm a little afraid that such a discussion might devolve into an exercise in idle speculation and arm-waving.  But who knows?  Maybe we'll stir up something good.

Gentle Reader, if you're an American (and I'm assuming you are), you already know a great deal about the structure of the Western family.  At least, you think you do.  So, I think I'll begin with a brief discussion of what makes the Chinese family situation different from ours.  And perhaps by way of contrast, you might even learn something a little more about yourself!

The Chinese Family - The Old Days

For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.
Genesis 2:24
For the average churchgoing American, this is one of those well-known bible passages that the eyes tend to pass over without much reflection.  For us, defining a human marriage this way is something akin to making a big point of saying that a hand has five fingers.  We tend to take such facts for granted, never mind questioning whether or not they are "facts" to begin with.  It is almost strange to us to bother to say the thing in the first place.

However, from the traditional Chinese point of view, this would actually be a hard passage to swallow.  The sticking point would be the part about "shall leave."  They would see no reason why it would be necessary for the child to leave the family.  In the old days at least, when a young man married, his new wife simply came over to live with his family.  The bride was thought of as joining a new family, but the groom was considered to be staying with his own.  Families stayed vertically integrated, at least as far as I can tell, until death, and to my understanding this vertical bond between parent and child was far stronger and far more important than the bond we Westerners consider the center of the family, the bond between husband and wife.  Children, at least male children, were expected to live with their parents more or less forever.  I'm sure there were exceptions, but the point is, this was the expectation.

The Western marriage ceremony would make little sense to the Chinese of old.  Sadly, it seems that it is beginning to make little sense to Westerners as well.  The groom shows up of his own accord, standing among peers (groomsmen), but significantly not with his family, who hardly participate in the ceremony at all except as honored guests.  The bride is "given away" by her family directly to the groom, not to his family.  Thus bride and groom stand alone together as a separate family entity, swearing fidelity to one another before witnesses and the Christian God, another prominent element lacking from the Chinese conception of family.

I am unfamiliar with the exact rituals of a traditional Chinese wedding, though I would tend to suspect that they would vary a great deal from place to place (China is a far less homogeneous place than most outsiders would suspect) and would stress the fact that the bride has left her old family and now belongs to the family of her husband, consistent with the presumed transition in family structure.  Hence the traditional preference for boys over girls.  Raising a girl is a waste because the family does not get to keep her.

However, most of us are aware that in the last century very great changes took place within China.  The effects of these changes were far reaching and have had profound effects on very nearly every aspect of life.

The Cultural Revolution and Chinese Cultural Norms
I think that the effects of the Cultural Revolution on modern Chinese civilization are woefully underestimated.  I base this not on a deep understanding of the history of the events themselves, which I frankly do not possess, but more on what I have come to understand of it through the opinions of people who lived through it.  Trying to understand much of anything about modern China without taking this major event into account is like trying to understand modern America while ignoring the baby boomer generation.  In fact, it is probably worse.

Modern discussion of the subject tends to focus on The Cultural Revolution as a political movement and its more overt and clearly visible effects on government, politics and the like.  Like most attention paid to political affairs, I think this completely misses the point and demonstrates a complete misunderstanding of cause and effect. Once again, conservatives find an excuse to blame improper government policy for every conceivable problem, while liberals focus on government as the only possible solution to whatever problems may exist.  Meanwhile, nobody is paying attention to anything else and there is nobody left to figure out what is actually going on if, heaven forbid, the cause happens to lie elsewhere.  I suppose that if there are any secrets of the universe left outside the realm of national politics, their discovery will be left to us libertarians, the only ones who  still seem to think that a thought given over to government is a thought wasted.

From what I can gather, The Cultural Revolution had a great deal in common with America's own 1960's radicalism, and like its American counterpart, was at least as much a cultural and social movement as a political one.  Also like its American counterpart, it was a youth movement with an ideology focused primarily on challenging the legitimacy of social mores and cultural norms without really having much substantial to offer of its own to replace the value systems under attack.  One of the more important issues at stake, as in the both the American movement and the revolution that preceded it, was the role of women in society and sexual equality.

Unlike the American movement, the Cultural Revolution had a larger following, found greater public sympathy, and had a far greater social impact.  At that time, China had a disproportionately large youth cohort, much like the baby boomer generation here, but considerably larger in magnitude.  Such youthful ideals had more young minds to appeal to, and less in the way of an established legal or social tradition to act as inertia against it, a revolution having occurred only recently.

The net result, at least with respect to the present discussion, is that the more ancient family structure found itself in direct conflict with the prevailing social attitude of the day.  The old "paternalistic" system was eroded away...without the Cultural Revolution really providing any guidance as to what should or should not replace it, provided that it reflected "equality," of course.  Practically speaking, an Americanized system of moderately independent families has taken over with the residues of the old system still visible.  Multiple generations living together under one roof, cozy relationships among extended families, and yes, grandparents raising their grandchildren, are all easily visible reminders of the old way of doing things trying to cope with new attitudes.  Perhaps the most vivid manifestation of the struggle between old and new is the almost combative relationship that has erupted between mother in-laws and their in-law daughters ("That evil @#?$* stole my son!") as the old family possessiveness chafes against the new independence.

But the important thing to keep in mind when reading Ms. Yi's essay is that there is not yet any real cultural attachment to any particular way of doing things. The old way has been marginalized without replacement, and the entire family system is in a curious state of flux.  Thus it is very peculiar to her and other Chinese that Americans, who are known to have "liberal" attitudes and to value "equality," should nevertheless have very specific and rigid beliefs about how a family is structured.  Likewise is it that Americans, who take these things for granted, should expect that their Chinese counterparts should base their behaviors on traditions just as Americans do.  They are willing to accept that others may do things differently, but are a bit surprised when they find that others don't have much of any fixed view of "how things oughta be" at all, especially on an emotionally charged issue central to pretty much everyone's life.

Thanks to events such as the Cultural Revolution, when one observes a "cultural difference" with the Chinese, one is not necessarily confronting a different set of cultural norms, but in some cases a lack of any entrenched cultural norm altogether.  And when you don't have a strong reason for doing things in any particular fashion, the tendency is towards pragmatism.

A Few Thoughts on "American Culture"

One final word before continuing on to the subject of just what that pragmatism looks like and how it impacts the family and the division of labor -- it is often said that when humans are left free to do as they please, what they usually wind up doing is copying one another. What the speakers of this oh-so-clever quip often fail to realize is that the phenomenon they are describing is the essence of culture.  Culture is what we do when we aren't sure what we should do for reasons we don't always understand and can't usually state.  It is the way that we think for reasons that we aren't sure why.  We overlook this as a form of culture because we have come to associate our identities with the state far too much for our own good.  We do not see the obvious when it stares us in the face. Our behavior does not have to be governed by law to be governed by something.

There is a perception throughout the world, including in America and especially in China, that America has "no culture," being a very "young" civilization, "liberal," and atomized in our daily lives. Never mind that America had a history before it had a government, and that the first Western Americans, immigrants thought they may have been, came from places with their own histories and deeply entrenched cultures.  Never mind that our "atomized culture" is profoundly dependent on what is probably the most intricate and extended division of labor in human history and is the envy of the world, though they don't know it and fail to recognize it.  Let's face it -- this is almost the only aspect of America and the greater West that attracts the modern immigrant, and yet comparatively few seem to question how it can exist here, but in so few other places.  Those that do, once again, rarely look outside the realm of government policy.  Such developments do not happen by chance, and they certainly aren't the work of government.

How surprised these people find themselves, Americans included, running smack into a great deal of culture when they confront entrenched, deeply held views such as these that they didn't even know existed. Most Americans will probably not identify religion or culture or tradition as the source of their opinion on such matters -- precisely because the thought to question such things never enters their heads.  Law and government must at least state and enforce their policies to ensure compliance.  Culture needs neither.  It does not even need our conscious awareness to operate.  Could there be a greater demonstration of which is the greater power?

Culture is more than superficial differences in cuisine, music, dress, or even language, though that hits closer to the mark.  It is the unknown, unexamined, unquestioned principles embedded so deeply into our souls that we do not know that they are there, guiding our behavior and our thoughts without us even knowing.  America's cultural roots are deep and ancient, far older than her silly little government and far and away more powerful.

In the interest of timeliness, I will continue this post at some later date, more or less where I have left off.  There is simply too much ground to cover to do this topic any justice, and too little time to do it.

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