Free «Significant cross-cultural differences in kinship systems between U.S.A and China» Essay Sample

Within the scope of this research, we will compare the kinship systems of United States and China. Since the early 1970s, both popular and scholarly literature in the United States have highlighted issues of family change. (Cherlin 1992) Although the debate has been couched in terms of whether the family is failing as society's primary institution of child socialization, it was stimulated by the growing awareness of significant changes occurring within families. That the family has changed, in particular over the last three decades, is a subject of general agreement. That the major changes have to do with the declining significance of 'traditional' families--two-parent, husband/wife families with children, in which the husband works outside the home in the paid labor force and the wife works inside the home as an unpaid family worker--is also a source of general agreement.

Marriage remains the most common means of family formation in the US. (Cherlin 1992) Marriage rates are higher in the US than in almost every other advanced industrialized country. The institution of marriage has changed dramatically, however, especially during the last three decades, and is still changing: marriages now tend to be briefer and encompass a smaller portion of adults' lives; age at first marriage has increased; first-marriage rates have declined and now plateaued; divorce rates have increased and plateaued at a high level. Remarriage rates have varied: rising when divorce rates rose dramatically in the late 1960s, then declining in parallel with first-marriage rates. More people are forgoing marriage entirely, and far more are cohabiting before marriage and between marriages, if not yet instead of marriage (at least not in significant numbers). Some of these developments began as far back as the nineteenth century while others are more recent.

Although marriage remains the dominant experience for most adults, and the number of marriages that occurred during the 1980s was at an all-time high, marriages have a far shorter average lifespan in the 1990s than they did in the 1960s. (Cherlin 1992) Despite adults' increased longevity and in part because adults are getting married later, marriage encompasses a smaller part of an individual's lifetime than previously. The age of first marriage has fluctuated over the last two centuries. It increased significantly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, then declined during the first half of the twentieth century, only to rise again beginning with the 1960s. Median age at first marriage reached a low of 22.5 years for men and 20.1 years for women in 1956, remaining roughly at that level until 1970. (Cherlin 1992) Over the last two decades, median age at first marriage has increased by more than three years for both men and women, remaining level since the late 1980s.

In recent years, women have had the highest age at first marriage (23.9) since data were first collected on this topic in 1890 ( Norton and Miller, 1992). For men, the median age at first marriage in 1990 (26.1) was the same as in 1890. An expanding economy and high employment rates may have encouraged many young couples in the 1950s to marry early, but clearly a contracting economy and changes in social attitudes contributed to a sharp rise in median age of first marriage since then, as did the general trend toward extending education (Sweet and Bumpass, 1987).

While Americans may be delaying entry into marriage, until now almost all adults eventually got married at least once. However, this pattern may be changing too. The highest probability of marriage occurs for young adults in their twenties. Sweet and Bumpass (1987) point out that although marriage rates have also declined for older persons, most of the decline in marriage rates is accounted for by the decline in marriage among 18-24-year-olds. In 1990, 63% of women aged 20-24 had never married, compared to 28% in 1960; for men the comparative rates were 79% in 1990 vs. 53% in 1960.

Racial patterns in marriage have also changed, with growing differences between white and black women. Before World War II, marriage rates were similar for both groups of women, and blacks tended to marry at earlier ages than whites. Today that pattern is reversed: Norton and Miller (1992) point out that by 1990 the percentage of white women aged 30-34 who were married had fallen from 94% in 1975 to 86%, while the percentage of married black women had fallen from 87% to 61 %. Assuming stability in the marriage rates for both groups over the age of 40, current projections are that less than three out of four black women will eventually marry, compared with about nine out of ten white.

Cohabitation (unmarried partners living together) became an accepted pattern during the 1970s and 1980s, in particular as a prelude to marriage, albeit nowhere near as common as in many European countries. Cohabitation was rare among couples born before 1940 and was largely confined to those with limited education. Cherlin (1992) points out that, beginning with those born in 1940, cohabitation began to increase among young adults regardless of their level of education. However, despite a sharp rise in cohabitation among college graduates in the 1970s, rates of cohabitation were higher among the less-educated throughout the 1970s.

According to data from the National Survey of Families and Households, only 11% of persons who married between 1965 and 1974 cohabited before marriage, while 32% of those married between 1975 and 1979 did so, as did 44% of those who married between 1980 and 1984. (Cherlin 1992) Cherlin (1992) and Bumpass and Raley (1995) estimate that more than half of those marrying in the 1990s will have cohabited before marriage. Given this pattern, young adults are as likely to be living with another adult of the opposite sex in the 1990s as they were in 1970; however, now they are likely to be cohabiting rather than legally married. Between 1970 and 1985 the rise in cohabitation compensated for 59% of the decline in marriage among men and 76% of the decline for women (Cherlin, 1992). Cohabitation is even more prevalent among the previously-married than among the never-married.

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Children have always been viewed as central to American families, although in the last thirty years their significance has clearly declined. Indeed, the greatest change in American households has been the decline in the presence of children, from 48.6% of American households in 1960 and 45.3% in 1970 to 38.4% in 1980 and 34.6% in 1990 (Cherlin 1992). Some of this diminishing importance of children in US households is due to the growth in one-person households and households of elderly couples, but much is due as well to changes within those households that historically have included children.

Fewer families include children now, as compared to the 1960s, because childbearing has been delayed, fertility rates have declined, and families are having fewer children; there are fewer married-couple families because divorce has increased, more births are occurring outside of marriage, and a disproportionately large number of births is occurring to unmarried adolescent females.

A census report on historical trends and perspectives on American fertility begins by stating that 'the sustained decline in the birth rate from the earliest period in our nation's history to the Great Depression of the 1930s is the dominant characteristic of the course of fertility in the United States. . . . the crude birth rate . . . may have been about 50 in 1800 as compared with the current rate of about 15' (Cherlin 1992). Thus, fertility in the United States was probably higher than in any Western European country at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Although the birth rate had fallen to approximately 45 by the 1850s, it was still considerably higher than in most contemporary European nations. It was not until the late 1800s that the birth rate for the white population in the United States fell to levels comparable with those recorded in Western Europe (Cherlin 1992).

The trend toward smaller families and households began in the nineteenth century, was interrupted during the baby boom, and has accelerated since the mid1960s. In 1960 the average number of persons in a household was 3.3, and average family size was 3.7 persons; in 1990 the comparable figures were 2.6 persons per household and 3.2 per family. Most households are still family households, but this household type has steadily decreased as a portion of all households, from 87% in 1960 to 70% in 1990. (Cherlin 1992)

Changes have occurred within family households as well. Family households with children have declined as a portion of all households from 48.6% in 1960 to 34.6% in 1990. Married-couple family households with children have declined dramatically, from 44.2% of all households in 1960 to 26.3% in 1990, and from 52% of all families with children in 1960 to 37% in 1990. Numbers of children per family have also declined. Among families with children, those with three or more children decreased from 36% to 20%, while those with one child grew from 32% to 42%, and those with two children from 31.5% to 38%. Until the late 1970s, the average number of own children under 18 was about the same for both one- and two-parent families; since then, married couples have been somewhat more likely to have more children. The two-child family has been the norm for the past thirty years and had begun to evolve even earlier. (Cherlin 1992)

The kinship system and family relations are quite different in China. As one of the twentieth century's most revolutionary states, China was not an exception to the pattern of active state intervention in the family. Family reform was on the agenda of intellectuals after the 1911 revolution, and the Nationalist Party, or Guomindang (GMD), which was in power in China between 1928 and 1949, legislated a family code in 1931 that called for women's equality, easier access to divorce, more equitable property rights for women, and the abolishment of concubinage and bigamy. (Croll 1991) Due to growing anomie and withdrawal among the student population, the GMD's embrace of more traditional cultural values in the New Life Movement, and political and military distractions such as the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and growing Communist strength, however, the code's impact was limited to urban areas, but even there the impact was marginal. Divorce rates were almost as low as during the Imperial period, when it was virtually impossible for a woman to seek out a divorce of her own accord. In rural areas the law had virtually no impact, and divorce was also extremely rare. (Croll 1991)

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), for its part, promoted its own version of a family law based in part upon Marx and Engels' notion that the family was an oppressive institution at odds with individual freedom and happiness, enslaving women in particular. Engels and Marx viewed the family in the evolutionary terms commonly used in the late nineteenth century: “primitive” families shared communal property without splitting off into husband-and-wife units; sexual promiscuity was common. As society became more “civilized” and property was privatized, monogamy became the accepted norm. With monogamy and men's control over private property, Engels argued, came the sexual oppression of women by men. Emancipation could come only by destroying the basis of monogamous, repressive relationships—private property. (Croll 1991)

The Chinese Communists, however, did not advocate the destruction of the institution of the family, but instead followed the Republican Code and called only for the end of what were deemed “feudal” or “traditional” marriages (based upon extensive intervention of parents and communities in their children's marriage affairs, the exchange of money or gifts in marriage, concubinage, bigamy, and taking in “child brides” who would later wed a son) and their replacement with more “modern” ones based on the principles of monogamy, love, free choice in marriage partners, easier access to divorce, and extensive courtship between two individuals. In these laws we can see a clear modernizing impulse, one that was common to other late-developing states in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (Croll 1991) As in China, social reformers in Thailand and Turkey also believed that becoming a “civilized” nation required laws establishing monogamy as the legal requirement for marriage and rules permitting people to leave unsatisfactory relationships; only in such relationships could “love” flourish and women become productive members of society. (Croll 1991)

Many of these ideas became embedded in the CCP's first legal effort to change family relations. Its 1931 “Marriage Regulations” promulgated in the party's embattled “soviet” in the rural province of Jiangxi, a totalistic condemnation of the “feudal” Chinese family: “The principle of freedom of marriage between a man and a woman is established, and the entire feudal system of marriage arranged by persons other than the parties themselves, forced upon the parties, and contracted by purchase and sale is abolished.” (Croll 1991) The definition of a feudal relationship was broad, including not only marriages arranged by parents and based on material exchanges, but also those involving concubines, blood relations within the fifth generation, bigamy, and polygamy.

The granting of an expansive right to divorce was a powerful weapon in destroying such marriages.

According to the 1931 “Marriage Regulations” and the subsequent 1934 “Marriage Law, ” divorce would have “immediate effect … whenever both the man and the woman agree to the divorce, ” or when “one party, either the man or the woman, is determined to claim a divorce. ” (Croll 1991) The freedom to divorce, however, was juxtaposed with strict limitations on how new relationships were to be formed. People suffering from venereal disease, leprosy, tuberculosis, and “suchlike dangerous contagious diseases” were not permitted to marry unless they received special permission from a physician. To date, very little is known about how these laws were implemented and how people reacted to them, although there is some evidence suggesting that implementation tended to be radical and many rural women were quick to take advantage of the law to seek divorce and pursue love affairs. However, since the CCP in 1934 was isolated and increasingly threatened with political extinction by Nationalist forces, social reforms that distracted from the main task of recruiting young men into militias and the army were not given high priority during those years.

It was only when the Communists took over state power in 1949 that they had the opportunity to implement their new vision of family structure and relationships nationwide. In 1950 the CCP promulgated a revised version of the Marriage Law that had been used in Jiangxi Soviet and the northern border regions. This law—one of the first legislated by the new state— initiated one of the largest-scale and most radical experiments in the history of social reform programs. Like its 1934 predecessor, Article 1 of the 1950 Marriage Law called for the “abolishment” of the “feudal marriage system,” a system that was said to be based on “arbitrary” and “compulsory” arrangements. (Croll 1991)

In Article 4, the law also established the minimum “legal” age for marriage at twenty for men and eighteen for women. (Croll 1991) Relations between husband and wife, and parents and children, were also subject to legislation. Husband and wife, according to Article 7, were “duty bound to love, respect, assist, and look after each other, to live in harmony, to engage in productive work, to care for the children, and to strive jointly for the welfare of the family and for the building up of the new society. ” (Croll 1991) Parents, for their part, were responsible for raising and educating their children, while children “have the duty to support and assist their parents.” (Croll 1991)

By promoting the idea of marriage as a contract between two individuals and attacking any sort of parental or community arrangements made on behalf of young couples, the Marriage Law invoked important principles of the Western liberal tradition—namely, that “freedom” (here in the case of marriage) is rooted in individualism, and that “free” choice is more likely to bring about personal happiness than a constrained one. These ideas were imported into China by intellectuals during the two decades prior to the May 4th Movement, and represented a dramatic departure from past marriage practices, even those prevailing in many intellectuals' own families.


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