Ageing, Migration and Intergenerational Relations in Rural China

Ageing, Migration and Intergenerational Relations in Rural China

Jieyu Liu (SOAS, University of London)


While population ageing is now a common feature of many societies, research has tended to concentrate on western contexts with ageing in developing countries receiving less attention. In China, the challenge of population ageing is an emergent area of concern with significant implications as the country enters a period referred to by some as ‘super ageing’ (Joseph and Phillips 1999). In 2012 the number of people in China who were 60 years old and over had reached 185 million, comprising 13 per cent of the total population. It is estimated that by 2053, this number will exceed 487 million, constituting 35 per cent of the population (China Daily 2012). Among the ageing population, the majority (it is estimated to be two thirds) of older people live in rural areas. In China the position of the older people in rural areas is complicated by the fact that since the 1990s there has been a large-scale migration of younger workers from rural to urban areas (it is estimated that as many as 144 million rural residents are now working in towns and cities) and this has geographically separated many adult children from the ageing parents.

The household registration (Hukou) system introduced in 1958 required every Chinese citizen to register at birth with the local authorities as either an urban or a rural household registration holder of a particular fixed place in order to control population mobility. Since the 1980s, when the economic reforms started, the state’s ban on rural-urban migration has been lifted; however, the long-established systemic segregation between urban and rural Hukou holders has stayed intact and Hukou function as a means of managing access to resources in cities that receive migrants. For example, regardless of their actual place of residence, rural Hukou holders are deprived of various benefits (e.g. access to better jobs, admission to city schools) and welfare provisions (e.g. pension) that are available to urban hukou holders.  This lack of state welfare support, combined with an institutional discrimination against rural Hukou holders, has created particular challenges to rural households in the context of rural-urban migration.

My research examined the impact of adult child migration on ageing and intergenerational relationships in rural Chinese families. It sought to redress the absence of in-depth research on rural families and on experiences of growing older in rural China. The project ran for 16 months and utilised qualitative in-depth biographical and observational research methods. The fieldwork took place in 2011 and involved me living with local families for two months in two different villages. 17 families took part in the project, nine in Village One and eight in Village Two. 60 interviews were conducted in total across at least two (and sometime three) generations in each family and with both male and female family members.

Unlike the western modernization thesis, which anticipates the decline of family ties in the face of migration and urbanization, my study demonstrated the continuing significance of family and kinship in shaping people’ lives in rural households.  For example, villagers often reported how family members introduced jobs to them or how they followed their relatives to a particular migration destination. Not only were people’s migrating livelihoods secured within the family network, the household acted as a safety net for all members. It was a common theme in all interviews that, whenever people ran into difficulties, monetary or non-monetary, it was family members who they turned to for help.

Migration choice was often made in a household context. Frequently, it was found to be a strategy to enhance the collective welfare of the household and positively accepted by the older generation. Despite geographical distance, different family members worked together to pool resources for the collective welfare of the household. In terms of the support for the older generation, migration enabled a division of labour between children who migrated to offer financial support and the children who stayed behind to offer instrumental support.

Traditionally the Chinese value of filial piety emphasized a deference of the needs of children’s generation to the will and welfare of parents and other seniors in the family.  This study indicates a shift from this traditional pattern of filial piety to a model which is based upon reciprocity and interdependence.  Unlike the victimized image of the ‘left-behind’ in Chinese media, the older generation were active support providers in their family. For example, the younger generation’s migration was enabled through the older generation’s support in raising grandchildren and looking after farm work. The older generation took on these tasks as their duty and hope that their support would be reciprocated when they need it in later life.

Whilst interdependence is the dominant feature of relations between older parents and their children, a principle of ‘tiered egalitarianism’ persists in the relationships of reciprocal obligations and duties. That is, parents still prioritize sons’ family needs over daughters’ family needs although between sons the support from parents is provided equally. Any perceived non-compliance with this principle would cause damage to the interdependent networks within the family. Interviewees reported that perceptions of unequal childcare support and property division from parents were an important source of family discords between parents and children and between siblings. These conflicts in the household usually led to the breakdown of the webs of interdependence and reciprocity, with detrimental effects upon old age care for the seniors in the household.  Therefore, the way in which migration affects care and support for older people is shaped by the conditions embedded in the reciprocal relations between older parents and adult children prior to and during migration.

The gendered division of labour resulted in older women carrying the main burden of care and farm work. In particular, their care work was critical in facilitating the bonds between generations. However, when the care is performed in a private sphere, it is often constructed as non-work. Indeed, because of the lack of formal recognition of women’s care work within the domestic sphere, interviewees only referred to this work as ‘women’s errands at home’. This gendered division of labour and the feminized notion of care work contributed to the reproduction of gender inequalities within the household.

Traditionally, the care of parents was primarily the concern of sons. That is to say, because of the patrilocal marriage practice, a daughter moved to her husband’s family to take up her place in his household and look after his family. As a result, daughters were only required to make contributions to their natal families as long as they remained unmarried. However, migration seems to have put daughters who stay-behind in a central role in providing support to their parents. The study found that the burden on stay-behind married daughters has increased as they have become an important source of emotional and instrumental support to their parents as a result of their brothers’ migration.

Associated with the changing role of daughters in old age support is the part a daughter-in-law plays in the household. As noted above, traditionally sons were considered the main providers of support for parents, it was their wives who undertook the daily care work. Today, the daughters-in-law’s filial obligations towards the in-laws still remain but some care responsibilities have been transferred to the daughters. For many village interviewees, washing parents’ dirty clothes and bed sheets had become a taken-for-granted daughter’s job. The decline in support provided by daughter-in-laws may reflect a decline in the power of the mother-in-law, in that traditionally she was the immediate, unchallengeable supervisor of her daughter-in-law’s work and life. This research found that the power of mother-in-law had diminished significantly and this reflects a gradual disappearance of the traditional hierarchical family authority.

Despite the fact that daughters play an increasing role in caring for their parents in the context of migration, the patriarchal practice that only sons inherit the parental home still persists. The persistence of gendered arrangements and tradition such as patriarchal property inheritance affords sons more symbolic status and material benefits.


Jieyu Liu is Senior Lecturer and Deputy Director in the China Institute at SOAS. She has published widely on gender, sexuality and socio-economic development in China. The research on which this article was based was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council 2011-13 (RES-000-22-4031). See, Liu, J. (2014) ‘Ageing, Migration and Familial Support in Rural China’, Geoforum, 51:305-312.