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Scholars confront asymmetry in intergenerational relations

CHEN WUQING | 2020-01-22 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)
On intergenerational relations in Chinese society, renowned anthropologist and sociologist Fei Xiaotong proposed that China features a feedback model in which parents support their children when they are young and the children grow up and support their parents in old age. Photo: FILE


In recent years, many empirical surveys have shown that estrangement, tension and conflict have increased in intergenerational relations, or relations between aging parents and adult children, in urban and rural areas of China. Such phenomena covered by the media as “gnawing on the old,” “disputing supporting the aged,” and “quarreling over property inheritance” have attracted attention from all walks of life. 
Accordingly, studies of the intergenerational relationship and its changes have become a hot field in the humanities and social sciences. This article aims to discuss three major theories in the area, in an attempt to explore where the theory on intergenerational relations is heading. 
Intergenerational exchange theory 
In the 1980s, renowned anthropologist and sociologist Fei Xiaotong proposed a feedback model for the intergenerational relationship, stating that intergenerational relations display a relay model in the West, in which no support of aging parents is required. By contrast, China features a feedback model in which parents support their children when they are young and the children grow up and support their parents in old age. From then on, the feedback model theory became a point of departure for studies on the intergenerational relationship in Chinese society. 
Although Fei didn’t directly equate the feedback model to exchange relations, many scholars took Fei’s theory as a base point and began to interpret intergenerational relations as exchange relations. Related views can be dubbed “intergenerational exchange theory.” 
Advocates of the theory consider intergenerational exchanges to be either the nurturing of children and the supporting of aging parents or the resource flow, mutual help and reciprocity between adults and their parents. Some hold that the current intergenerational relationship in China is undergoing a shift from roughly balanced exchange relations to imbalanced ones. 
For example, Guo Yuhua, a professor of sociology at Tsinghua University, pointed out that the intergenerational relationship in traditional Chinese society is characterized by not only visible financial and material exchanges, but also invisible exchanges that are ritual, affective, cultural and symbolic. 
In general, intergenerational exchanges of this kind follow the fair logic that giving and receiving should be equal or balanced. The imbalance in the current stage is largely due to radical changes in the force maintaining the relationship and the basis for its existence, such as alterations of resource allocation, transfer of power relations, the disappearance of moral pressure from public opinion and the decline of folk beliefs. 
Globally reputed cultural anthropologist Yunxiang Yan, who is currently a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that the intergenerational relationship in rural China follows a new logic of reciprocity. To the junior generation, intergenerational reciprocity can only be sustained by continuous exchanges. If parents are not kind to their children or fail to perform their duties, the children will have reasons to reduce their responsibilities for the senior generation. 
The intergenerational exchange theory indicates that subjects of the relationship have their own interests. Its analysis of the sustaining force, basis for existence and related changes in parents’ or children’s dedication has helped deepen the understanding of the operational logic of the intergenerational relationship. 
However, can we identify dedication in intergenerational relations with giving and receiving in ordinary exchange relations? The former is different from the latter in at least four ways: related subjects have no independent, complete and just motive for exchange; the two parties will never communicate over their respective appeals; dedication of the two sides is uneven, and dedication usually functions for other factors than kinship, responsibility and power. Thus whether it is appropriate to understand the intergenerational relationship from the perspective of exchange deserves deeper discussion. 
Weakening family bond theory 
The weakening family bond theory is a popular view on intergenerational or familial relations. The Chinese have valued familial relations since ancient times. While parents care for their children wholeheartedly, children also go all out to provide for their aging parents. Parent-child relations are the most typical and profound kinship in Chinese society. 
The theory argues that the main reason for tension and conflict in current intergenerational relations is the weakening bonds between parents and children. In particular, young men are increasingly disrespectful and indifferent to their aging parents. One of the reasons for weakening family bonds is that some people care only about their own interests, lacking moral responsibility and not knowing how to cherish the relationship. 
This view has been frequently seen in media reports and studies on the issue of supporting the elderly in recent years. Many renowned scholars share the same opinion. Meng Peiyuan, a professor of philosophy at Peking University, is one of few scholars who has published a monograph on the concept and topic of kinship. At the beginning of the 21st century, he noted that familial relations were successively impacted by the “Cultural Revolution” (1966–76) and current low culture. Some young men, without the guidance of correct values, have failed to find their real spiritual home and lost their self-esteem. 
While pointing out that social reforms have led to a decline in filial piety culture, Yan maintained that the process has been accompanied by the rise of individualism, a combined result of the national socialist transformation of local moral worlds in the collective age and the impact of commodity production and consumerism after de-collectivization. The essential feature of individualism is that individuals emphasize their own rights and ignore their duties for the public or others, hence becoming “uncivil” individuals. 
Admittedly, the intergenerational relationship cannot steer clear of the role of family bonds, especially that of the values behind family bonds. However, it might be too simple to attribute problems regarding intergenerational relations to weakening family bonds and to blame weakening family bonds on a lack of responsibility and the pursuit of individual interests. 
In fact, the theory cannot account for affective asymmetry in familial relations. Why do Chinese parents love their children far more than children love their parents? Why do the Chinese care far more about their children than their parents? 
The source of family bonds is complicated, involving natural and moral feelings, as well as the maintenance of individual values. Therefore, people tend to behave differently regarding kinship in different contexts. Valuing kinship is not necessarily done out of a sense of responsibility, and disregarding kinship is not necessarily about pursuing individual interests. 
Parental responsibility theory 
As mentioned above, Chinese parents always love their children more than the opposite, and the Chinese always care more about their children than their parents. The affective asymmetry has become more prominent in current intergenerational relations than before in both urban and rural areas. To explain this phenomenon, quite a few scholars have underlined the role of parental responsibility. 
For example, sociologists Yang Shanhua and He Changmei proposed the concept “ethic of responsibility,” saying that Chinese parents conscientiously assume an ethic of responsibility for their children. Typically, they stress their responsibility and duty for their offspring while dedicating themselves to their descendants, adult children and grandchildren alike, unconditionally. They are inclined to tolerate their children for their inadequate show of filial piety, while trying to rely on themselves as much as possible in financial support, care in daily life and emotional consolation, in a bid to lighten the children’s burden. To sum up, aging parents’ dedication based on the ethic of responsibility far exceeds the “feedback” they receive from children. 
In 2019, Yang associated the ethic of responsibility with the “family-centered” culture in China, noting that the collective values of families and clans, as well as the value of “bringing glory to their ancestors” underscored by the family-centered culture, underpin parental responsibilities for children. 
He Xuefeng, a professor of sociology at Wuhan University, said that parents give much more to their children than the reverse primarily for four purposes: the enjoyment from familial relations, saving “face” in society, providing for their old age, and carrying on the family line. Among others, providing for their old age and carrying on the family line far outweigh getting enjoyment from familial relations and saving face in society. Moreover, carrying on the family line is more fundamental than providing for their old age. 
The parental responsibility theory is insightful to some extent because it pinpoints the possible support of values of ancestor worship such as “carrying on the family line” and “bringing glory to ancestors” behind parental responsibilities. However, the traditional Chinese culture should likewise have imposed a whole set of filial responsibilities on the next generation of children as well, so why are parental responsibilities stronger, deeper and more stable than those of their children? If children’s responsibilities have changed tremendously over time, the responsibilities of parents should change as well. 
Actually, since China entered modern society, ancestor worship and filial piety have both been evolving, yet to varying degrees. In other words, parental responsibilities merely play one role in the affective asymmetry. 
The above discussions on the intergenerational exchange theory, the weakening family bond theory and the parental responsibility theory have shown that Chinese scholars have carried out a series of explorations on the intergenerational relationship and its changes in Chinese society. Some views are insightful, but still weak and shallow in some ways. Nonetheless, as long as scholars ground themselves on the actual development of intergenerational relations in Chinese society, grasp the influence of cultural traditions and modern people’s expectations for independence and equality, dig deep into the role of inherent driving forces behind the intergenerational relationship and its interaction with economic growth and social systems, then theories on the intergenerational relationship and its changes in Chinese society will have excellent potential for improvement. 
Chen Wuqing is an associate professor from the Institute of Sociology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. 
​edited by CHEN MIRONG