The old family is dead

How culturally-dictated familial relations have restricted a population’s ability to express emotion

Corporal punishment in schools that is legitimised by state policies; cultural inflexions hoisting all caretaking responsibilities onto the eldest son; and an entire generation of male breadwinners, patriarchs and managers, empowered by the providence of their status and the virtue of their intellects.

This is the social backdrop of the archetypal post-Cultural Revolution Chinese man, who grew up in an age where education transformed from Maoist political propaganda to one of four ‘Modernisations’,under the economically-geared careerism of Deng Xiaoping.  The icy masculinity that this era spawned, with values distant from the liberating qualities of our own world, remains a lingering presence in the families of the modern Chinese-Australian diaspora.

The Chinese man of the 1970s is, in all likelihood, a father now. My father has never been a particularly affectionate man. Not because of some malicious underlying agenda, but because his father certainly wasn’t,as his father before that wasn’t, on the warm side either. They collectively hailed from generations and cultural contexts where men carried with them a certain internalised elitism, a shying away from affection, and a maintenance of an unadulterated and hegemonic masculinity.

But my father’s generation, gifted with the added privilege of education,  detached themselves even further from emotional and physical touch.This was partly because the nurturing quality of physical affection is conceived as traditionally effeminate, and also because emotional coldness reinforces a certain patrimonial, managerial assertiveness in family and,by extension, state affairs.

But in pluralistic societies like our own, it is easy to forget that not all cultures hold the post-material values that advance the fluid reconfiguration of the family unit and traditional gender roles. Needless to say 1970s China was not an especially diverse place. Buried deep within the traditional Chinese ethos of my father’s era was Confucianism. As a social philosophy made into reality, it embedded homogeneity and filial piety.

The same philosophy, which defined deeply performative roles for the father and children, ascribed to Chinese women ‘Three Obediences’: to serve the father as daughter, to subordinate to the husband as wife; and to submit to the son as mother. Ironically, the very same ideals, which intended to foster mutual respect through physical and emotional distance, are anachronisms that excessively formalise family relationships.These lingering barriers to a liberalised family unit come despite the increasing pluralisation of Chinese family structures on the mainland following the relaxation of the One Child Policy in 2013.

The traditional Chinese wedding involves ‘zuoyi’ – a traditional form of bowing or kowtowing in which the bride and groom bow to the Heavens, to their parents and typically only then, to each other. The order of bowing is important. It entrenches the bride and groom as mere agents of social expectations, unaffected by the simplicity of organic love.

There is no perfect expression of intimacy. But cultural attitudes which neglect a whole dimension of affection ultimately normalise  familial disharmony, where children and parents are shunned for externalising feelings.

It’s unsurprising that gradually discarding an entire medium of intimacy to preserve outward appearances of male masculinity and female submission isn’t quite conducive to familial closeness. As modern Chinese youth relinquish the chains of marriage for social status or ‘social hypergamy’, and settle on love instead, the continued shift from masculinity can only generate greater goodwill in the family. These thoughts came to me early. I remember sitting with a friend at his house in year three when it struck me how different my own parents were from his mother and father, embracing and holding hands. It was only upon growing up that I’ve seen glimpses of the same intimacy in my own parents, albeit outwardly more restrained. But my parents are still my parents after all and although they love differently, love is still love.