Chinese Family Feuds: Tradition Eroding From Within

Chinese Family Feuds: Tradition Eroding From Within
Apr 17, 2012 By Jessica A. Larson-Wang, eCh ,

Chinese New Year is usually a time of family unity – of gathering around the dinner table for a home cooked feast, of toasting the new year, of red envelopes, of fireworks. But for one family in Hunan, Chinese New Year's eve ended in tragedy when a man showed up to his cousin's dinner table with explosives strapped to his body. The man detonated a homemade bomb, killing himself and four others, including his cousin and his cousin's parents. What could have caused this man to turn what is usually one of the happiest times of the year into a tragedy? A family feud involving a land dispute.

Strong family ties, equally strong family feuds

The Chinese are known for the strength of their family ties. The ancient ideal was “five generations under one roof” 五代同堂 (and if you couldn't make it to five, four would do too  ? 四世同堂) and families often lived together in large compounds. Adult children did not move away from the family home, instead they stayed on and took over the care of their parents when they became too old to care for themselves. This ideal carried on to some degree into the present day, and although Chinese families are smaller than they used to be, they are generally just as tight-knit.

That is, until something happens to tear them apart. Perhaps it is the fact that Chinese families are normally so close that makes their feuds all the more bitter. Chinese families have the ability to wage some epic battles, as evidenced by the massive family dispute over Hong Kong gaming tycoon Stanley Ho's fortune. Another battle, several years ago, was similarly high profile – a father-son dispute between business magnate Li Ka-Shing and his son Richard. Richard denounced his father publicly after Li senior interfered in the sale of Richard's Cable TV and telecom company.

While both of these cases took place in Hong Kong, and, due to the participants and the large amounts of money involved, are particularly “epic,” middle class mainland families are by no means immune to the devastation that wealth and success can bring to a clan that lets money come between them. Chinese families of modest means often come to blows over the division of its joint property (分家), which is sometimes done when a family member leaves the family registry and sets up his own household, and is sometimes also done to skirt property laws that restrict property ownership to one unit per household. When a family is divided there is often dissention regarding who gets what, especially in the countryside when some members of the family might have gone to the cities to work, leaving the remaining family members feeling like they have more rights to the land or property in question.

Feuding over love and marriage  

Perhaps the only issue that is just as likely as land and property to cause dissention in a Chinese family is love. Chinese parents usually have a degree of say in who their children choose to date and marry, and when their wishes are ignored the fallout can be catastrophic. In February a couple who wished to marry but were denied permission by their families attempted suicide by lying down on the train tracks near their hometown. Luckily, the train was able to stop before it ran over the pair and they fled the scene.

Many parents successfully put an end to relationships they deem unsuitable, but if the couple goes through with the marriage anyhow, the family relationship can become less than harmonious. Many Chinese parents will pull out all of the stops, using emotional and financial manipulation in order to get their children to cease and desist with an unsuitable partner, often to the detriment of the parent child relationship.

Children of the 80s and 90s have grown up in a more modern era where one's hukou status or monthly salary might not be as important as whether or not that person is a kind and loving partner. Parents, who have experienced perhaps more ups and downs in life, as well as some true tragedy, tend to be more pragmatic. Still, while few parents want to see their child marry someone they deem unsuitable, fewer still can predict the outcome of taking a hard line regarding their child's spouse. Sometimes victory comes at a cost.

Has modernization “upped the stakes”?

Family feuds, of course, are not limited to China. Many Western stars, like Jennifer Aniston or the singer Adele have troubled relationships with their parents, and family estrangement is no new concept in countries like America and the UK. China does not necessarily have any more feuding now than it did in days gone by, but certainly now, with increased wealth and prosperity, the stakes are higher.

With the rise of privately owned family businesses there is certain to be a rise in conflict. More and more Chinese own property, or multiple properties, and with legal waters often murky (courthouses cannot always be counted on to settle disputes fairly), Chinese families should take precautions to make sure that they protect themselves, and protect their families, from the battles that can tear families apart.

One way to do this is to make sure that, even when going into business with family, everything is done through official channels and that proper contracts are drawn up and adhered to. Elderly family members should leave clear cut wills rather than just leaving things up to the court. Farming families who have members moving to the cities to look for work should discuss beforehand what will happen to the family land, and get any agreements in writing.

And, as for love, both parents and children should keep their heads and not make any rash declarations or engage in emotional blackmail which, while it might result in short term success, can damage relationships in the long run. The traditionally strong family ties that typify Chinese society can endure through the modern era as long as people do not lose sight of what is truly important.

Related links
Smile on Your Brother: Marrying into a Chinese Family
Foreigner Vs Chinese Tradition: Relationship Roles in a Chinese Family
Tiger Mothers and Chinese Parenting: Is Strict Discipline Really Superior?

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Keywords: family feuds China influence of money on China China traditional social roles Chinese families


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