BEIJING — In their studies of the modern Chinese family, Zeng Yi and his team of demographers at Beijing University ran into a glitch in the statistics when they came to China's prosperous southern Guangdong province.
Elsewhere in China, they found, the shape and structure of families had changed radically after 45 years of Communist rule. Everywhere it was the same story: Family size was much smaller; fewer generations lived in the same household, and the divorce rate was up.
Everywhere but Guangdong, China's richest and most worldly province, up the Pearl River from the British trading port of Hong Kong.
"In general," said Zeng, director of the Institute of Population Research and one of China's top demographers, "we found that higher income also meant smaller family size. However, Guangdong had China's highest economic standard but also the highest percentage of three-generation households."
Finally, a researcher named Guan Xiufen at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences came up with a possible explanation. Because of its proximity to Hong Kong and connections with Cantonese-speaking communities around the world, Guangdong is the biggest recipient of money from Chinese living overseas.
Looking into money transactions, the researcher found they were very often conditional: Wealthy overseas Chinese sent sums of money to their Guangdong relatives on the condition that they provide care and housing for the elder generations.
Using this evidence, the demographers in Beijing came to a startling conclusion: The traditional Chinese family--in which the most important relationships are father-son, husband-wife and elder brother-younger brother--was being re-imported to China from abroad. "In Hong Kong and Taiwan they still have a very strong extended family compared to other industrialized countries," explained Zeng.
For nearly half a century the world's most populous country has undergone one of the most concentrated assaults on traditional family structure and allegiances ever seen.
The late Chinese leader Mao Tse-tung, although himself a member of a strong Hunanese family clan, realized that political reform was was not possible unless people placed the interests of the state above those of the family, which up to that point had been by far the most powerful institution in China.
Even today in rural Chinese wedding ceremonies, peasant couples bow to a portrait of Chairman Mao rather than bow to their ancestors as was the tradition for more than 2,000 years.
Communist leaders were instructed to "draw a clear line" between themselves and their families. During the Cultural Revolution, youths were encouraged to love Chairman Mao more than their parents and were sent to the countryside to learn from the peasants. Parents were attacked by their own children in struggle sessions. Collective day-care centers became the norm.
In the 1980s, the Chinese family received another jolt when the government instituted its strenuous "one-child policy." Although widely evaded, especially in rural regions, the one-child system has cut limbs off the extended family tree. With economic liberalization, however, family links have been revived somewhat. The prominence of the so-called Red Princes--sons and daughters of top officials--proves that blood is still thicker than water in China.
But the Chinese family, at least on the mainland, is not the powerful social force it once was.
Traditionally, commented demographer Zeng, families in China were measured by how many generations lived under the same roof. "There is an old Chinese saying," he said, "that goes 'Five Generations in same family is best.' "
Today, Zeng said, research shows family size has been "reduced tremendously" from an average of five to six people per household before the 1949 Communist rise to power to fewer than four in 1990.
Other traditional values have also been tested. For example, Zeng said that between 1982 and 1990, the divorce rate in China increased by 42%.
Because of the economic reforms of the past 16 years, in which peasants were allowed once again to hold land, there has been some re-emergence of traditional family structure in the countryside where, to some extent, "family businesses" are being re-established.
But in the cities, Zeng said, traditional Chinese family life is still under enormous strain. "More and more young people prefer independence. Even some old people prefer to live alone with some privacy and independence," he said. "In the cities, economic development has produced mobility."
"In the 1950s and '60s," said a 60-year-old retired magazine editor during a recent bittersweet discussion of China's changing family structure, "2,000 years of Chinese tradition were opposed, discarded. The Communists did not want families."
As his son and wife listened and occasionally interjected, the magazine editor, a highly educated man who joined the Communist Party in his youth, described how his own life spanned the historic changes in Chinese family structure.