Commentary RESEARCH

How Chinese family resilience develops amid adversity


2023-12-26 12:00

Chinese Social Sciences Today

After many years of development, research on Western family resilience has gradually become a major theoretical trend in sociological studies, gaining traction abroad and at home, but there are still unresolved issues hindering its theoretical explanation and practical effectiveness. In Chinese families, the acceptance and process of overcoming adversity are considered ordinary variations in life, somewhat incorporating a resilient cultural force into each family’s growth. In addressing family adversity, research on Chinese family resilience merges material and mental challenges, aiming to establish a comprehensive map of resilience. Specific methods that address family issues include purposeful and contemplative local approaches such as “blurring boundaries” and “simulated kinship,” which use imagination, compromise, and inclusivity to integrate common cultural experiences. 

Differences between China and the West in constructing family resilience theories often lie in Chinese society’s core social structure, which presents a three-tier model of “individual—family—society.” In this model, the family is foundational for individuals, and family culture has a penetrating force throughout society. Building on this model, this article proposes a theoretical paradigm which “places the family at the core.” The theoretical construction of Chinese family resilience not only requires using the “concept of family” as the cultural root of belief systems which people use to understand, analyze, and cope with adversity, but also employs the “family” as a concept which helps people comprehend and clarify the internal mechanisms and rules of ethical relationships, seeding resilience. Ultimately, with the goal of growing as a family, sociologists can formulate corresponding action strategies built on the “structure-function” of a family’s ethical relationships, thus underlining the specific practice of resilience.

Family-centered belief systems

Chinese family culture embodies resilient beliefs and experiences in resilience, passing on family stories that showcase exemplary strength. Through the retrospective gaze of collective memory, transcendent power is simultaneously gained in time and space, overcoming adversity in the name of either destiny or as part of a collective mission. Within the Chinese context, individuals collectively empathize with the family, inscribing resilient beliefs to both personal and familial destinies. For the Chinese, the concept of “family at the core” represents the foundation of survival, surpassing an individual’s fragility in the face of adversity over a long span of historical and cultural shaping, eventually forming a subjective awareness of methods for dealing with adversity.

The first method is family growth and the legacy of resilience. Experiences of adversity within families are ancestral memories that need to be passed down from generation to generation. In Chinese families, recounting negative experiences is a common way for elders to share wisdom with the younger generation. These stories carry life experiences which have been reframed by families who have overcome adversity, underlining the common belief that “bitterness precedes sweetness.” Experiences of adversity often follow the path of travelling spirally upwards, buttressed by the power of continuous belief in individual and familial strength. For generations, countless Chinese families face life’s uncertainties, bridging familial gaps in adversity through memory, allowing family members to deeply understand the consequences of structural adversity and survival experiences. Thus, families continuously inherit resilience through the rituals, stories, and deeper meanings drawn from daily life.

Another approach which helps build resilience are deep family insights on the topic of adversity. Family memories and narratives about adversity are not merely about contrasting bitter moments with sweet successes from the past and present, it is more important for family members to untangle the nuances of adversity. This builds the family’s cohesive power to either prevent or overcome adversity in the future. As traditional and modern family cultures fuse in China, many individuals seek physical and mental shelter in vertical connections and the accumulated experiences of resilience in horizontal connections, thereby gaining confidence that they will survive adversity. These actions and stories provide sources of insight into the clues leading to hardship and pathways for resilience, constantly evolving these stories into strategic approaches through family members’ iterative recollections and revisitations of the adverse experiences.

A third method for overcoming adversity has to do with philosophical interpretations of “destiny” and corresponding resilient responses. Chinese families navigate adversity according to three distinct action paths according to traditional Chinese culture. First, there is the Confucian cultural philosophy of “accepting fate and remaining steadfast in values and efforts until adversity has passed.” Second, there’s the Buddhist cultural guide of “following fate and moving with the flow,” which attempts to adjust actions in accordance to changing circumstances. Last, there’s the Taoist wisdom of “forgetting fate and merging with the rubble,” or leaning into adversity. These belief systems unveil the complexity of familial approaches to adversity. Amid the tests and trials of adversity, the unique consciousness of resilience and distinct cultural practices within different Chinese families is revealed. These methods nurture both individual growth and family development.

Ethical relationships and familial dynamics

The belief systems that shape Chinese family resilience are generated from situational experiences guided by each family’s ethical choices and the ways different familial relationships respond to adversity. From extended families to nuclear families, from the “father-son axis” to the “husband-wife axis,” and from “centralized family functions” to “networked family functions,” the ethical relationship dynamics within Chinese families have undergone profound changes. Research on Chinese family resilience thus needs to further clarify the dynamic changes in various support systems from an “ethics-based” relational perspective.

Modern-day “male-female dynamics” emphasize complementary cooperation between women and men in families within the context of a refined social division of labor. With clear divides between different forms of labor in the “husband-wife-axis,” Chinese families have fostered loyalty and emotional bonds between spouses when facing adversity.

Modern families have experienced massive intergenerational shifts, among them the precise division of societal labor, and this has transformed intellectual connections, cultural nurturing processes, and modes for parents and children to inherit stories and offer support. Amid adversity, “sharing joy but not sorrow,” perseverance in solitude, and the limitless dedication of parents to children reflect a cultural echo of the strength of intergenerational relationships in difficult situations. This intergenerational support marks a powerful ethical responsibility among different generations of Chinese families.

Today, support systems among relatives are instrumental and kinship support networks have become a primary resource which assists families coping with pressure, especially for vulnerable families in large kinship networks. Economic and caretaking support from relatives have become an indispensable supplement to social security, even serving as a “life raft” which can mitigate risk and dissolve family crises. In the meantime, society’s structural transformation away from kinship networks and towards family centralization or nuclear-family micro-structuring is weakening this support system. The weakened network is primarily manifested in emotional separation from blood relatives due to spatial and temporal distances.

Sustaining trust and relying on friends is a common choice for Chinese families facing uncertainty, driven by traditional cultural genes. In modern society, the stock and potential of one’s skills and values determine the breadth and depth of their circle of friends, who might come to the rescue for families in distress.In contemporary society, when families encounter crises which pull them from their normal life, they can acquire basic survival resources through poverty alleviation policies and the Chinese social security system. They can also seek opportunities to reintegrate into normal life through the strong market. As political ethics and family ethics intertwine, the state’s policy has shifted direction from “de-familialization” to “re-familialization,” not only avoiding the burden of steering toward an omnipotent government but also constructing institutional and structural mechanisms to expand spaces which families can use to take initiative, obtain rights, and increase their interests during difficult times.

Cycle of resilience

This article places ethical relationships based on the “five bonds” (wu lun) into a modern process for transforming adversity into resilience. The “five bonds” are also known as the five human relationships, several of which were referenced above, such as the bond between father and son, between monarch and minister, between husband and wife, between siblings, and between friends. By uplifting the five bonds to the practical platform of sociology, researchers can study the process of creating family resilience. These relationships delineate a cyclical resilience process, which calls for further analysis to understand its mechanisms for development.

The cycle of resilience begins with an impact and retraction phase. In this stage, reducing trauma by retracting and coalescing the family along a core axis are key practices. The retraction phase is an inevitable first step in the path which resilient families follow from chaos to clarity, from vulnerability to strength, and from despair to hope when faced with adversity. Confronted with family adversity, family members need to retract from the encounter. Temporarily drawing in the “tendrils” that link a family system to the external world can prevent the extension of harm when the family interacts with the outside world, reverting those in crisis to their internal support system. At this stage, the family’s resilient relationships between spouses, parents, siblings, and children play a decisive role, while the support offered by friends and the government play an auxiliary role.

Next in the cycle is a smooth phase, where the family returns to normalcy and gradually rebuilds relationships. In the smooth phase, family members need to reframe the adversity from a position of advantage, accepting the constraints of difficult moments as helpful to the family’s development instead of an event which erodes good fortune. Adversity may also present an opportunity for family growth. In the end, families capable of enduring adversity will have more resilient family roots. During this phase, through daily communication between spouses, siblings, and elder generations, the reasons which led to hardship are analyzed and the tension of adversity is faced directly, while simultaneously giving the family hope. Family members, upon following a “differential association process,” gradually rebuild relationships from close to distant, while attempting to seek non-utilitarian assistance from friends. At the same time, family members can also turn to the continuous institutional support provided by government systems.

Finally, there is an expansion phase wherein each family reassesses the adversity they faced and selectively decides whether to reengage with risk. Supported by family resilience, as time passes, the adversity any family has faced loses its intensity, marking the beginning of that family’s expansion phase.

In the expansion phase, families return to introspection, analyzing the traumatic experiences of their personal hardship. They then reevaluate the internal and external family resources, and through cost reduction and resource maximization, strive to find feasible operational strategies within their support systems to balance firmness and gentleness. This phase signifies the family’s transcendence over adversity, the refinement of its temperament, and the start of the next level of advancement.

Tao Yu is an associate professor from the School of Sociology at Northeast Normal University.

(The original Chinese was published in Expanding Horizons, Issue 4, 2023.)


2023-12-28 05:08
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