Department of Social Anthropology

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Women and Family in Contemporary Urban China

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By Camilla Aasen Bøe

Supervisor: Professor Olaf H. Smedal

This thesis describes the lived experience of women in their 20s and 30s in Beijing in 2012 with relation to their families.

Family is applied in a broad sense, including both natal and marital families. Through this ethnographic lens I discuss theories of individualisation and the claim that Chinese society is undergoing an individualisation transformation as understood by Ulrich Beck and Yan Yunxiang.

Unmarried women and their age peers, the “80ers”, are seen to demonstrate a rise of the Chinese individual and ongoing changes in the Chinese subject, as they embody historical change. They are children of the reform era who have enjoyed the benefits of rapid economic growth and a broadening scope of alternative biographies, increasing their freedoms of self-expression. Simultaneously, as the first generation of single children they are under immense pressure to perform and fulfil their parents’ expectations under the moral obligations of filial piety, leaving them ambivalent with regard to the prospect of marriage and family life.

Married women and mothers in their 30s are managing everyday family lives where there is a fragile balance between dependents and providers, in both practical and economic terms. This highlights the centrality of relationships of interdependencies and mutual obligations between individuals and between generations in the family that strengthen familial ties also in the context of institutional individualisation.

Dominant discourses on gender continue to emphasise women’s normative dedication to the collective interests of family life and label women’s individual endeavours and career ambitions as selfish and unnatural, in sharp contrast to the way male ambition is evaluated. This is a potent demonstration of the importance of evaluating gender as well as age and other central features of each individual’s subject position in considerations of individualisation, because although institutional individualisation is an overarching condition of contemporary Chinese urban society, the impact of this societal state on each individual differs.

In sum, my findings support the notion that recent changes in Chinese urban society and the family can be seen to display a Chinese mode of individualisation. Within this overarching process of change, female individualisation in contemporary urban China is contested and by no means a simple, unidirectional process.