Call for Papers: Workshop Is Chinese Patriarchy Over? The Decline and Transformation of a System of Social Support

Halle/Saale, Germany 27 – 29 Jun 2013
Deadline: 1st Sep 2012

Organizers: Stevan Harrell (University of Washington). Gonçalo Santos (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology). Venue: Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle/Saale.
For thousands of years, Chinese societies approached the dilemmas of social support through a system we call

Chinese patriarchy. This system served all social classes with claims to property or the income from property. In the Chinese patriarchal system, property belonged to patrilineal family corporations, and the income from property was distributed among the members of mostly patrilocal households composed of the members of those patrilineal corporations and their attached dependents.

Control of property and income in such corporations meant that older males (patriarchs), as trustees of the property-holding corporations, had control over the productive and reproductive labor of females and junior members of the households. This system was reinforced by formal and customary law, as well as by cultural elements from Confucian philosophy to folktales and forms of expressive culture. It led to specific cultural and behavioral features, including filial obedience of younger to older generations, male dominance in domestic power and in ideology, high fertility, son preference, and arranged, usually patrilocal marriage.

Even in the heyday of Chinese patriarchy, however, the system weakened around the edges, at times and in places where it was possible to sustain livelihoods through income deriving from sources other than patrimony, for example where wage labor was available, particularly for women. This suggests that the Chinese patriarchal system was significantly grounded in patrimonial property.

Patriarchy also had its social and psychological costs, especially for women and younger generations, and, a fortiori, for young women. Although many cultural forms reinforced and naturalized the morality of the patriarchal system, other cultural forms recognized its personal and psychological costs.
In the early twentieth century, Chinese intellectuals and politicians who had discovered either European liberal ideas of individual rights and/or Marxist ideas of class oppression and the promise of its overthrow attacked the patriarchal system and attempted to abolish it through education, propaganda, legislation, and, ultimately, through the abolition of the patrimonial property foundations of the patriarchal system. However, features of the patriarchal system proved tenacious even in the face of revolution, economic modernization, and ideas of individual freedom. Filial piety, male dominance, arranged marriage, and son preference remained features of Chinese societies into the last part of the 20th century. We suggest that this is less a matter of cultural lag than a matter of the ability of these features of the patriarchal system to provide social support for individuals even under changed social and political conditions.

In recent decades, however, patrimonial property has declined steeply as a source of livelihood, and with it many features of the patriarchal system have weakened or disappeared. Filial piety remains a cultural ideal, but has weakened from a survival imperative to a merely moral one. Male dominance continues, but in different and attenuated form, and is no longer most strongly exercised by patriarchs. Marriages are rarely purely arranged, and even patrilocal residence has become only a nominal form in most areas. Fertility has declined drastically, and although some of this decline is attributable to state coercion, much social research reveals that ideal fertility is much lower than it was a generation ago. Son preference, while remaining strong in some areas, has practically disappeared from others. And other groups, including the state and corporations, provide the economic and social support that was once guaranteed by the patriarchal system, allowing people to escape the psychological costs of that system because they no longer need its security benefits.

The ‘transition’ away from patriarchy is proceeding at different rates under different political regimes, in different regions, in cities and villages, in the cores and peripheries of regional systems. And it is not clear what forms will eventually emerge to replace patriarchy, what will be the norms for marriage, sexuality, family economy, gender relations, fertility, or gender preference. As poorly as we understand this transformation, however, we consider it to be one of the most important social changes going on in our world, affecting labor, capital, migration, social services, and psychological health, not only in Chinese societies but in the societies with which they increasingly interact.
The papers will be organized into a series of topics. In each case, scholars will be asked to write on the ways that changes in the specific phenomena they are writing about do or do not reflect changes away from the patriarchal configuration, and to speculate on the implications of their data for the future system of social support in Chinese families. The selection of specific topics for the conference will ultimately depend on the availability of speakers, but we have already selected key thematic guidelines:


  • Fertility decline and son preference. The reasons for choosing singlehood, childless marriage, or very low fertility; the lives and careers of men and particularly women who choose childlessness or a single life; spatial patterns and temporal trends in son preference.


  • Changing norms of sexuality and marriage. Changes in attitudes and behaviors toward premarital sexuality and toward marriage choice, and reasons for the rapidity of this radical change.


  • Work and the autonomy of women and youth. The relationship between the ability of women and young people to earn incomes and the degree of autonomy they have achieved in other aspects of life.


  • Filial piety and the care of the elderly. Changing configurations of marital and elderly residence, the reasons for fertility decline beyond the level required by state family-planning programs; the degree to which daughters have become as important or more important for urban families as the burden of filial piety shifts from economic support to daily care giving.


  • Technology and material culture. The impact of technological changes on family and especially on gender relations. Can science and technology liberate women – from the tyranny of biological reproduction, the drudgery of housework, etc – or are the new technologies reinforcing sexual divisions in society?


  • Children, education, and careers. New strategies of child-rearing as well as the life-course consequences of low fertility both for the parents and for the children in single-child families.

Abstracts (200 words) should be submitted to the organizers by September 1st 2012 at the latest.

Contact: Gonçalo Santos, email:
Stevan Harrell, email:


Download PDF

Leave a Comment