WA China Watch Digest Special!

Interview: Steve Harrell on China’s fast transformation of patriarchal families and society

Steve Harrell at Niuniuba Township middle school in Sichuan, with Dr. Aga, Teacher Ma, Oct. 2016.By Wen Liu   Nov. 11, 2017

Everyone has watched China with its many changes in many ways over the last few decades. Everyone, however, hasn't done so through an anthropologist's eye, as Steve Harrell has. Before his retirement this year, Prof. Harrell taught at the University of Washington for many years and also spent a lot of time doing research, and even helping school children, in Sichuan, Washington’s sister province. His work, however, is still not done. In fact, he told me last month about a recently published book he and a colleague had put together of works by their fellow China scholars: “Transforming Patriarchy - Chinese Families in the Twenty-First Century.” So, how has the patriarchal China transformed? Well, Prof. Harrell shares here with us about that transformation, in terms of women, family, marriage, etc., and offers some China-America comparison along the way.

WCWD: As an editor of the recently published book “Transforming Patriarchy - Chinese Families in the Twenty-First Century,” could you tell us a little what the book is about?

Steve Harrell: In the early 2000s, I began noticing that Chinese family, gender, and marriage were changing really fast. People were routinely living together before marriage; many parents didn’t care whether they had a boy or a girl, or even wanted a girl; parents’ power over their children was diminishing, and so on. I decided that we needed to question the idea of China as a patriarchal society. It was still a male-dominated society, to be sure, but not patriarchal, in the sense of being ruled by older male heads of families. So I talked to my friend Gonçalo Santos, an anthropologist in Hong Kong who has similar interests, and we put together a conference of anthropologists and sociologists who had done research related to the topic. The conference was held in Halle, Germany, and it was successful enough that we decided to edit the papers into a book, and we wrote a long introduction. The main idea is that while China is still far from gender equality, the axes of power between males and females, and between older and younger generations, don’t work the way they used to. The chapters include descriptions of rural families, urban families, and a special section on new things, which include sperm banks, doing-the-month centers, and filial piety insurance. We hope the book will prompt discussion of the issues we raise.

Transforming Patriarchy, UW Press, screenshot.WCWD: As many things in China that have happened rapidly in the last three decades and more, has this transformation quickened along with the fast economic growth and steadily rising living standards?

Steve Harrell: Absolutely. For example, I visited a village in the far south of Sichuan for a couple of weeks in 1988, and we attended a wedding there; it was an arranged marriage, even though arranged marriages were technically illegal. When we went back in 2006, people told us that of course everyone met their own spouses and lived together before they got married: if they didn’t, then how could they possibly know whether they would get along or not?

WCWD: In your many years of anthropology studies of China, especially in Sichuan, you must have witnessed directly many changes in the Chinese society. Could you give us another example or two of those changes?

Steve Harrell: Aside from the changes in marriage and the family, I think the biggest things are the rise of consumerism and the rise of communications technology and new media. When I worked in Panzhihua, in southern Sichuan, in 1988, I couldn’t even call home because there was no international operator there. People in many villages had no electricity, and most of them certainly had never seen a white person. Now I communicate regularly with village people by WeChat, and they send me pictures of their weddings, stickers, and silly videos. When I first started going to Sichuan regularly, in the 1980s, even privileged professors and officials lived in small, unheated concrete-walled and concrete-floored apartments, and if they wanted to be hospitable, the wife would take at least one, sometimes two days off, muster all her connections, and put together a home-cooked dinner around a folding table with chairs borrowed from the neighbors. Now, they take you to a restaurant and get a private room with two or three qipao-clad young migrant women pouring your liquor and changing your dishes between every other course.

WCWD: So with this transformation, would you say that the Chinese society is more like the American one and more modern now, in regard to families, women, marriage, gender, and even gays and lesbians?

Steve Harrell: Yes and no. LGBT issues are a good example. A few decades ago, the regime denied that homosexuality could exist in a socialist society. Now, the term that used to be used for comrade, tongzhi, mainly refers to LGBT people. But there are differences. On the one hand, even though gays and lesbians can’t officially get married in China, they do have weddings, sometimes big lavish ones. But on the other hand, they still get pressure from their parents to have children; many parents don’t care so much that their child is gay or lesbian, but they still want grandchildren. Others don’t come out to their parents. This leads to some awkward negotiations reminiscent of Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet, even though that took place in Taiwan. Our book has a really nice article, by Norwegian queer scholar Elisabeth Engebretsen, about the “fake marriages” that a lesbian and a gay man sometimes go through to please their parents and retain social respectability; one of the interesting things is that if they do live together, often the “husband” takes on the male role, and the “wife” does most of the housework. In general, though, we concluded that in moving from a truly patriarchal society to a merely male-dominated one, China has become more like the U.S. More like, but not just like.

WCWD: However, as you know, American women still take their husbands’ names upon marriage, as in Melania Trump, while Chinese women keep their own names, as in Peng Liyuan, China’s first lady. How do you see this difference in practice, superficial or significant in each case?

Steve Harrell: I think it's trivial. Chinese women have never taken their husbands’ names as part of their personal names, except among a few educated elites in the Republican era and in late 20th century Taiwan, when they sometimes put their husband’s surnames in front of their own surnames and given names, but the great majority of the population never did anything like that. It was an attempt to be “modern,” or “more Western,” and the Communists never embraced it. Still, if you look at a Chinese tombstone for a married woman, it will say something like “Mother Li of the Wang clan,” Li Mu Wang Shi, indicating that she was a Wang, but that she gained her social status by being the mother of a Li or three. I once interviewed a woman who said her name was Wang Gao Shi, or, roughly, Mrs. Wang of the Gao clan; she had forgotten her original given name. I don’t know what percentage of American women take their husbands’ surnames, but I certainly know a lot who don’t. I think the main difference is that in the U.S., a woman keeping her own surname, like my daughter does, is a mild political statement, but in China, it’s just the way things are.

Steve Harrell with ethnic Yi students of Niuniuba Township middle school.WCWD: On the one hand, as your book tells, there is this great, modern transformation of the Chinese society, especially for women. One the other, as we know, some old practices have also returned, like men keeping mistresses, or ernai, second woman. How do you explain this mix, of forward and backward?

Steve Harrell: I’m not sure “modern” and “backward” are the ways to look at this. Wealthy men in Europe and America also have second partners (not just affairs); look at Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton, and particularly the late French President François Mitterrand, who had two whole separate families the whole time he was in office. Of course, this was more difficult during the socialist period, but not impossible: we know that Chairman Mao had several regular mistresses and was pretty much estranged from Jiang Qing. Aside from the Chairman’s own hypocrisy, though, the Communists during that time had the idea that a kind of strict monogamy was “modern,” but in fact there is no evidence that “modern” societies work that way. I would even argue that the idea of ernai is a modern one, because the ernai have no official status, unlike the concubines of Imperial China, who had some legal rights and were even recorded in their partners’ genealogies. So I see this as a modern phenomenon, not the return of a traditional one.

WCWD: The recent wave in the U.S. of women coming out against sexual harassment by men in power seems to say that women still have a long way to go, even here. Where would you say the Chinese women, and/or the Chinese society, are in this respect?

Steve Harrell: Way behind.

(For more information on major events in Washington state-China relations, go to WA China Chronicle.)