Younger Chinese feeling disconnected from family

Search phrase “cutting off family ties” is trending amid economic woes, parental pressures and general sense of disillusionment.
By Kai Di for RFA Mandarin
2024.02.19
Younger Chinese feeling disconnected from family People rest on a train from Beijing to Shijiazhuang on Feb. 6, 2024.
(Pedro Pardo/AFP)

A nostalgic hit song from a 1990s China state TV extravaganza titled "Go back home to visit often" portrays an idealized world where several generations of family get together to eat and talk about their lives, offering each other support and advice in times of difficulty.

But the reality these days for many of China’s young people is quite different. Economic woes, a competitive culture and parental pressure to tick off traditional milestones like a partner, a career, marriage, a mortgage and children are making the youth feel disconnected from their families.

The search phrase 'cutting off family ties' was trending on the social media platform Weibo over the Lunar New Year holiday, which is traditionally a time for family reunions and visits to extended relatives.

On Feb. 13, the fourth day of the Year of the Dragon, the topic “rural families quietly cut ties," was trending on Weibo, garnering more than 100 million views on that platform alone.

"I'm a college graduate who majored in Japanese," said a Gen Xer who gave only the surname Wang, who used to live half an hour's drive from extended family in the northern province of Hebei. "I've worked in international trade and English and Japanese translation, and I want to rest on the holidays."

"A lot of my relatives didn't even graduate from high school, junior high or even elementary school," he said. "We're not on the same wavelength at all, and it's hard to find stuff to talk about."

‘Lying flat’

This general malaise among the youth, dubbed "lying flat," has concerned the ruling Communist Party, which has targeted online content linked to the idea and played down dire youth unemployment figures, insisting that young people show a more positive attitude.

State-backed media outlet The Paper said that while some commentators say younger people are just too lazy to stay in touch with extended family, others say they find the prospect of more pressure to achieve social expectations in today's flagging economy highly unappealing, so they choose not to visit, or just let relationships lapse.

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People have a family reunion dinner in Huangtian village in Yongchun county in China’s Fujian province, Feb. 9, 2024. A lot of my relatives and I are “not on the same wavelength at all, and it's hard to find stuff to talk about," says one Gen Xer. (Zeng Demeng/Xinhua via Getty Images)

The results of an online survey conducted last May by the Chinese magazine Sanlian Life Weekly is still going viral on social media over the holiday period.

"Cutting ties with relatives has become the norm for millennials and Gen Z," claims the article. "Young people don't value the kinship ties that their parents spend time, energy, and financial resources on maintaining, nor the comparisons between relatives and the unavoidable conflicts."

The article cited a survey showing that some 50,000 social media users in a poll of 116,000 respondents said traveling to visit family was "not worth it," while a further 52,000 said it was normal not to be close with relatives one doesn't get along with.

Only 4,000 said they felt they should visit with family more often. The article didn't supply a margin of error.

Linghu Changbing, a Gen Zer who relocated to the United States last year, hails from a rural county near Zunyi city in the southwestern province of Guizhou. Like many of his peers, Linghu is an only child and spent years as a migrant worker living far from home. 

He remembers visits back home as an endless round of family visits with his father.

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A family poses in front of a dragon at the Longtan Lake temple fair on the fifth day of the Lunar New Year in Beijing on Feb. 14, 2024. (Greg Baker/AFP)

"Contact with my relatives is entirely dependent on my dad," he said. "He's the one with a direct relationship with them."

"If he wants to go visit relatives ... then I go along too. If he doesn't go, then neither do I," he said. "I don't take the initiative to contact them."

More chore than pleasure

Millennial Zhao Qingxiang, who lives in a big city in northeastern China, said she typically goes back for a visit at Lunar New Year, but regards it as more of a chore than a pleasure.

"For example, one time when I went home, my parents informed me that I would be having New Year's Eve dinner with my cousin this year, and that my second aunt would also be there," Zhao said. "When I heard that my second aunt was coming, I was very scared." 

Zhao's second aunt is "bad-tempered" and loves to preach Christianity to her relatives, whether they like it or not, she said.

"Normally you wouldn't want to have anything to do with that kind of person," Zhao said. "But then, come Lunar New Year, you are forced to see her and make your New Year greetings."

Zhao also cited feelings of ambivalence about seeing her own mother, who berates her for not being community minded enough, and bad feeling caused by the actions of relatives that lingers for years.

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A couple lies on the floor as they ride a train from Beijing to Shijiazhuang on Feb. 6, 2024. (Pedro Pardo/AFP)

Last year, Chen Youhua, a professor at Nanjing University's School of Sociology and the school's doctoral candidate Zong Hao published a paper blaming the economy and changing social values for the change in younger people's attitudes.

They said growing urbanization and migration, diversity of values, relationships and money, as well as a desire to reduce life pressures and social costs and rely more on a digital lifestyle were all contributing factors to the trend.

Some people were showing maturity by cutting off unwanted family contacts, saying they had likely achieved a "balance between intimacy and independence."

According to Wang, it's worse than that, however.

"The main root cause is that people's moral standards have generally declined, and people pay more attention to their own interests and to their immediate environments," he said. 

"Also, Chinese people don't like to lose face, and they like to compare, so there is a sense of a status gap between poorer relatives and richer relatives," Wang said, adding that loneliness is also on the rise. "From the perspective of social emotions and happiness, this is a step backwards."

Yi Fuxian, a senior researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies demographic issues, said the "atomization" of families will also make it harder for the government to boost flagging birth rates.

"When the concept of family is broken, fertility culture is also broken, and fertility rates fall, because [Chinese] fertility culture is based on traditional family structures," Yi told RFA Mandarin, blaming decades of the "one-child" family planning policy for reducing family sizes.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster

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