Science + Technology

Amid Economic Opportunity, Adolescent Boys in Urban China Begin to Reconsider Centuries-Old Obligations to Family


Asnew economic reforms and opportunities unfold in China's cities, researchers atthe UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute and Shandong Teachers University find thaturban adolescent boys may be rethinking the importance of adhering tocenturies-old family obligations.

Publishedin the January/February edition of the peer-reviewed journal Child Development,results of a survey of urban and rural adolescents show that teen boys in urbanChina expressed a weaker sense of obligation to support, assist and respecttheir family than other Chinese teens.

Whiletraditional family bonds remain strong among all Chinese adolescents comparedto those found in studies of American teens, the new findings suggest thepowerful role of economics in shaping society and raise concerns about the careof China's seniors in coming decades.

Thisstudy is the first to examine the beliefs of a generation in China on the cuspof adulthood, as opposed to adults caring for aging parents. Adolescence is anideal developmental stage at which to examine the potential impact of socialchange on family relationships and values, particularly the tradition of familyobligation.

"Asthe first group of young people in recent history who expects to live theirfull adult lives in a market economy, contemporary Chinese adolescents andtheir attitudes regarding their family obligations are important indicators ofthe potential long-term impact of social change on Chinese traditions regardingthe family," said Dr. Andrew J. Fuligni, the paper's co-author and seniorresearch scientist at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute's Center for Cultureand Health.

"AsChina moves to a market economy, the predictions of some observers that thecurrent generation of adolescents would abandon traditional values of familyobligation seem unfounded," Fuligni said. "However, the tendency for urbanmales to have a lower sense of obligation suggests that these youths may be theleading edge of a long-term trend away from adherence to such traditions. Wewill need to conduct additional studies in the coming years in order todetermine whether such a trend actually exists and whether it will continue inthe future."

Fuligni'sco-author is Wenxin Zhang of Shandong Teachers University, People's Republic ofChina. The research was supported by the William T. Grant Foundation.

Atthe end of the 20th century, China aggressively began to shift from a socialistsystem to a capitalist, free-market economy. The opportunity for the attainmentof wealth and property through individual initiative in free-market economieshas weakened traditions of family duty and obligation in other societies in thepast.

InChina, the sense of obligation to family traditionally has encompassed a beliefin the need to repay parents for their efforts in raising children, awillingness to make sacrifices for the sake of the family and a respect for theauthority of the family.

"Amovement away from these traditions could have enormous implications related tothe care of China's aging population in coming decades," said Fuligni, anassociate professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA's DavidGeffen School of Medicine. "This is an issue of great concern among manyChinese citizens and policy-makers."

Fornow, the Chinese government has limited economic reforms to selected urbancenters, opening an opportunity for an urban-rural comparison of the impact ofeconomic change on various facets of society.

Inthe spring of 1999, approximately 700 high school students in a large city anda rural area in China completed questionnaires that assessed their sense ofobligation to support, assist and respect the family.

Theresults suggest that societal changes fueled by economic changes are weakeningthe sense of family obligation in urban boys, compared with that of ruraladolescents and girls. Urban males were less likely to cite the importance ofspending time with parents and helping around the house. They also were lesslikely to say that as adults they should support their parents economically, orto take parental wishes into account when making life decisions.

Inaddition, a stronger sense of family obligation among the adolescents surveyedcorrelated with more positive family relationships and a higher level ofacademic motivation.

TheUCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute is an interdisciplinary research and educationinstitute devoted to the understanding of complex human behavior, including thegenetic, biological, behavioral and sociocultural underpinnings of normalbehavior, and the causes and consequences of neuropsychiatric disorders.

Theinstitute's Center for Health and Culture is an interdisciplinary researchcenter composed of anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists and otherbiobehavioral social scientists whose research focuses on the impact of socialand cultural factors on mental health, human development, and mentalretardation and developmental disabilities.


        UCLANeuropsychiatric Institute:

        DavidGeffen School of Medicine at UCLA:

        UCLACenter for Culture and Health:

        WilliamT. Grant Foundation:



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