Perspectives on Chinese Fathers

This week, The Gazette taps into the mind of Assistant Professor of Psychology, Xuan Li, whose recent Faculty Lunch Speaker Series talk delved into the changing roles of fathers since the end of the Qing dynasty. The following exchange grew out of that presentation.


What is your main line of research?

I am interested in the role of fathers in child development in the Chinese context. Studies are scarce; in-depth analyses of public perceptions of Chinese men's role as parents barely exist. From a primarily psychological perspective, I look at characteristics of parenting and social interaction and how they have an impact on not only parents but the whole family system and in turn influence child development. I am also interested in general issues pertaining to human development, family research, and gender studies.

How do fathers impact the family climate?

Developmental psychologists look at the quality and quantity of parent-child interactions, the most straightforward and intuitive way, but there’s a bit more to it than that. How the father interacts with other adults in the same family context also matters. For example, in a one child nuclear family, this would refer to the father’s interaction and relationship with his partner, and how social interaction is modeled between them. A father also has the ability to create the platform and context for his child to develop. He can act as a resource for money as well as social and cultural capital, influencing a child’s outside connections whether it means providing them the opportunity to attend a good school or being surrounded by friendly playmates.

What qualities make a good father?

Different societies, cultures and historical times have varying standards for what constitutes a ‘good parent.’ A question to consider would be what styles of interaction are desirable? Is a strict disciplinarian preferred or a warm interactionist and playmate? How should parents divide their roles and work in the family, like housework? Is it desirable for parents to display a lot of love and affection between each other or that they stay in more fixed social roles, interacting on the basis of formality to emphasize responsibilities and etiquette?

How has Chinese history shaped the role and identity of the father?

Different levels of inequality and social, cultural, economic and political resources all lend a hand in shaping the family context. The construct of fatherhood in Chinese societies has a complex and fluctuating history. The prototypical 'traditional' father of agrarian pre-modern China combines personal virtues and family ethics of Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. What you’ll notice among fathers if you think back to the Qing Dynasty, is the wén-wŭ (the warrior and the scholar) typologies of ideal Chinese manhood. Loyally serving the imperial state, the father goes off to work while the wife stays at home to care for the children. Different historic periods make way for changes of how fathers think of themselves as a member of society, as a man and as parent--from the Chinese Revolution of 1911, to the anti-imperialist May Fourth Movement that re-evaluated Confucian ethics and ideals of family life.

The 1949 Chinese Revolution as a socialist transformation also promoted again a completely different set of family values, with further denouncement of Confucian family ideologies during the Communist movements in the 1950–1970s. Land reform (1948–1951) and industrialization during early socialist campaigns shattered the economic foundation of the patriarchal kinship system, and socialist mores reconstructed public attitudes towards fatherhood. Parental roles as breadwinners, educators and family authority were rendered unnecessary in this new context, and fatherhood became so incompatible with their public responsibilities that they were often removed from family life.

What are your findings about fatherhood in contemporary Chinese media?

Building on existing scholarship on Chinese masculinities and fathers, as well as studies using the reality show as a source of social values, I look at the shifting attitudes towards fathers and fatherhood against the backdrop of ongoing social changes in China. I explore key themes of fatherhood in contemporary Chinese society by analyzing a popular reality show, Dad, where are we going? (Bàba qùnă’r), aired by Hunan Television since 2013. The show became phenomenally popular nationwide almost immediately after its premiere and quickly rose to be one of the most watched TV programmes in China in 2013.

Although shock and confusion during the transition to parenthood were also expressed, the show acknowledges men's 'innate' desire to bear offspring and devotion to childrearing (i.e. 'paternal instinct'), the wish for increased paternal involvement in childcare, and the preference for a liberal, emotionally warm fathering style over the critical, authoritarian stance (although more so for girls than for boys)--these are central components of contemporary urban Chinese fatherhood, as reflected in the reality show.

These changes point to profound shifts in fathering norms in contemporary China—shifts which are likely to stem from China's socioeconomic and cultural transformations throughout the twentieth century. In the globalized, market-oriented, singleton-dominated China, the parent-child relationship departs from a patriarchal institution that favours power and dominance of older generations and moves towards increasing child-centredness.