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The Chinese Family in the Communist Revolution

January 29, 2010

C. K. Yang. The Chinese Family in the Communist Revolution. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. and Harvard University Press, 1959.

Brent Haas (2004)

Approaching with a sociological lens of economic determinism and structural functionalism, C.K. Yang’s The Chinese Family in the Communist Revolution is one of the earliest studies of this integral social institution from 1911 to the late 1950’s. The author centers his discussion on the 1930 Nationalist Law of Kinship Relations and the 1950 Communist Marriage Law, with supplemental sources coming in the form of CCP newspaper reports with a heavy emphasis on legal cases relating to familial tensions. In short, the reader should not hope for the wealth of personal experience from field research which added richness to the analysis and writing of the companion volume, The Chinese Village in Early Communist Transition.

Yang’s thesis argues that destabilizing socio-economic factors associated with industrialization and “modernization” converged with the organizational thrust of Communist reform to shake, if not raze, the foundation of the traditional Chinese family. His argument is strongest when discussing the role of social factors in the disintegration of the family as an institution, such as wartime human displacement and reassignment of economic responsibilities outside the family unit. New concepts also play a vital role in his thesis, most notably those of women’s rights, anti-traditionalism, and elevation of youth during the May Fourth Movement, though in this area Yang simplistically assumes the impact of the West.

Suggesting a prescience of current scholarly trends of re-evaluating the contributions of the Guomindang, Yang notably argues that the above processes commenced under Republican rule but only successfully spread within the educated, urban elite. It was thus left to the CCP to fulfill these reforms through top-down organization, propaganda, and mass campaigns. For Yang, then, the completion of the “family revolution” was not a spontaneous, popular effort. Presaging the case of Lieberthal’s Tianjin, Communist legal changes and conscious social revolution played a decisive role in the battle against the “traditional” family and associated hierarchies.

It is precisely Yang’s approach to the “traditional” family which makes this work problematic. While his efforts at setting the scene for the changes to family structure are most appreciated, the work suffers from an essentialized, and frustratingly undocumented, description of the “traditional” family. He seems to assume the universality of this social institution for every Chinese and paints his description of it in starkly archetypal terms, as if only setting up a foil for his argument on the changes to the family. Perhaps it was characteristic of sociology during the 1950s, yet the historian’s wariness of sweeping generalizations without documentation is frequently triggered by his statements. Furthermore, uncritical presentation of official Party statistics and overemphasis on loaded Western, liberal terms such as liberty and rights leaves something to be desired.

Such faults were noted by contemporary reviewers, who were very mixed in their assessments of this work (Freedman Pacific Affairs 33.3; Levy JAS 20.1). Yet no one denies its contribution to the early stages of studying the Chinese family during the Communist Revolution. At the very least, his boldly-stated theories force readers to better understand their own views on the topic.

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