The impacts of modernity on family structure and function : a study among Beijing, Hong Kong and Yunnan families

  • Ting CAO

Student thesis: PhD Thesis (Lingnan)


For a generation in many sociological literatures, China has provided the example of traditional family with good intra-familial relationship, filial piety and extended family support which is unusually stable and substantially unchanged. However, with the emergence of modernity, in the forms of industrialization and urbanization; capitalization and public policy transformation, the family structure has undergone changes where nuclear and asymmetrical types have emerged. At the same time, family support for the elderly is affected by the changes in family formation, family dynamics, as well as people’s values and their way of life. Do the theories concerning the relationship between modernity and family change that have been proposed and developed by western scholars, apply to Chinese societies also? Are there any differences between Western and Chinese culture in forming family organizations during modernity?

For answering these questions, this study explores the impact of modernity on family structure and changing functions in terms of family support for elderly in China. The aim is to understand why and how family change in its structure and functions within modernity. To fit the purpose and nature of this study, the exploratory strategy is used. By adopting historical review in the first stage, families in six historical stages (legendary and heroic age; Neolithic age; Xia, Shang and Western Zhou dynasty; Spring and Autumn, Warring States, Qin and the Western Han dynasty; from Eastern Han to early and middle period of Qing; and Late period of Qing until more recent years) are examined to show the “macro-transformations” and “micro-adaptive adjustments” that had happened to Chinese families in history.

Then, adopting the methodological concept of invariance, multiple-case (M-C) studies in three areas in China are conducted to illustrate the Chinese families in different level of modernization, namely the agrarian pre-modern (Yunnan), the transforming-mix modern (Beijing), and the capitalist modernized (Hong Kong). Based on the survey data and from analysis of semi-structured interview with 62 respondents about their own family experiences and 8 experts about their viewpoint and explanations, there is evidence showing that corresponding structure and family support for elderly changes are aiding modernization under diverse socio-economic characteristics (i.e. under developed, developing and developed localities).

To explain this phenomenon under study, a geo-adaptation model is developed from both macro and micro perspective to give insight on how modernity affects the ways of family support for elderly members. It has concluded that the development of modernity, as one of the vital reasons, contribute to changes in family structure globally (i.e. from stem and extended to nuclear and diverse form), but the care function for the aged, is not destined to deteriorate. To some extent, the Chinese tradition of filial piety and the family policy could strengthen social cohesion by maintaining the core functions once provided by the stem and extended family.
Date of Award2012
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Department of Sociology and Social Policy
SupervisorKeng Mun LEE (Supervisor) & Cheung-ming Alfred CHAN (Supervisor)

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