China Table of Contents
Urban families differ from their rural counterparts primarily in being composed largely of wage earners who look to their work units for the housing, old-age security, and opportunities for a better life that in the countryside are still the responsibility of the family. With the exception of those employed in the recently revived urban service sector (restaurants, tailoring, or repair shops) who sometimes operate family businesses, urban families do not combine family and enterprise in the manner of peasant families. Urban families usually have multiple wage earners, but children do not bring in extra income or wages as readily as in the countryside. Urban families are generally smaller than their rural counterparts, and, in a reversal of traditional patterns, it is the highest level managers and cadres who have the smallest families. Late marriages and one or two children are characteristic of urban managerial and professional groups. As in the past, elite family forms are being promoted as the model for everyone.
Three-generation families are not uncommon in cities, and a healthy grandparent is probably the ideal solution to the childcare and housework problems of most families. About as many young children are cared for by a grandparent as are enrolled in a workunit nursery or kindergarten, institutions that are far from universal. Decisions on where a newly married couple is to live often depend on the availability of housing. Couples most often establish their own household, frequently move in with the husband's parents, or, much less often, may move in with the wife's parents. Both the state and the society expect children to look after their aged parents. In addition, a retired worker from a state enterprise will have a pension and often a relatively desirable apartment as well. Under these circumstances elderly people are assets to a family. Those urban families employing unregistered maids from the countryside are most likely those without healthy grandparents.
Families play less of a role in marriage choices in cities than in the countryside, at least in part because the family itself is not the unit promising long-term security and benefits to its members. By the late 1970s, perhaps half of all urban marriages were the result of introductions by workmates, relatives, or parents. The marriage age in cities has been later than that in the countryside, which reflects greater compliance with state rules and guidelines as well as social and economic factors common to many other countries. People in cities and those with secondary and postsecondary education or professional jobs tend to marry later than farmers. In China it is felt that marriage is appropriate only for those who have jobs and thus are in a position to be full members of society. Peasant youth, who have an automatic claim on a share of the collective fields and the family house, qualify, but college students or urban youths who are "waiting for assignment" to a lifetime job do not. In any case, work-unit approval is necessary for marriage.
Urban weddings are usually smaller and more subdued than their rural counterparts, which reflects the diminished role of the families in the process. More guests will be workmates or friends of the bride and groom than distant kin or associates of the parents. The wedding ceremony focuses on the bride and groom as a couple rather than on their status as members of families. Similarly, a brief honeymoon trip rather than a three-day celebration in which the entire village plays a part is an increasingly common practice. Long engagements are common in cities, sometimes because the couple is waiting for housing to become available.
Data as of July 1987