Settlement in Nanjing among Chinese Rural Migrant Families: The Role of Changing and Persistent Family Norms

Blog post by Shuangshuang Tang, Jing Zhou, Oana Druta and Xin Li

28 Nov 2022, 3:31 p.m.
Shuangshuang Tang, Jing Zhou, Oana Druta and Xin Li

Family support often plays a crucial role in helping migrant workers settle in destinations and realise upward mobility, and China is no exception. Family norms, especially norms governing gender roles and intergenerational relations across migrants’ life-cycle stages and household events, are often adopted by migrants to offset their disadvantaged positions in settlement decision-making. In China, family norms are embedded in Confucian ideology, a hierarchical and patriarchal approach by which rulers guide subjects, fathers guide sons, and husbands guide wives. A Chinese family is thus regarded as a community with shared values, common interests, and collective honour and status. Each family member takes up family obligations and subordinates their personal needs and interests to benefit the entire family. In recent years, rapid urbanisation and industrialisation have made urban society in China increasingly individualistic and market-oriented. With the old parents remaining conservative, adult children tend to be pragmatic and individualistic. Meanwhile, wives become active in the family decision-making processes. Nowadays, family norms of rural-to-urban migrant families guided by both Confucian ideology and individualism in China may influence the decisions on permanent settlement among migrant workers, providing a particular lens to international readers.

After a massive rural-to-urban migration over the past four decades, the intention to settle in megacities is on the rise among the younger generation of rural-to-urban migrant workers in China. In reality, they can mainly achieve permanent settlement through housing purchases in China, as homeownership provides non-local citizens an important pathway to access urban citizenship. Nevertheless, the discriminatory institutions (the hukou system), the inferior status in the labour market, and soaring housing prices in megacities discourage them from settling down in this way, requiring extensive family support and even the sacrifice of other family members. This struggle for urban settlement sometimes conflicts with expectations around existing moral obligations, puts increased pressure on family relations, and engenders intergenerational inequalities. Thus, family norms, especially gender norms and intergenerational relationships, significantly shape the younger generation of rural-to-urban migrant workers’ decisions about and approach to permanent urban settlement. Based on face-to-face interviews in a megacity in China (Nanjing), we seek to examine how the changing and persistent family norms affect decisions on permanent urban settlement among the younger generation of rural-to-urban migrant workers in China.

In the article, we find that: (1) changes and persistence in family norms regarding achieving permanent urban settlement of the younger generation of rural-to-urban migrant workers are closely associated with transitions in the structural context of China. Due to the influence of modern Western cultures and economic contributions within families, wives tend to have more bargaining power in the settlement decision-making; whereas the older generation continues to sacrifice themselves for the family’s honour of and accept the new watered-down forms of filial obligation that have emerged under individualism. (2) despite increasing individualism, decisions on permanent urban settlement among the younger generation of rural-to-urban migrant workers in China follow a child-centred logic due to the large rural-urban development gap, the associated prejudice towards migrants, and the harsh institutional and economic environment. Thus, difficulties encountered during urban settlement have transferred from the younger generation to their parents through parental sacrifice embedded in Chinese Confucian ideology. Achieving upward mobility of the family in the future unites the younger and the older generations in their efforts.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.


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