Multi-generational Chinese family in park.
Multi-generational Chinese family in park.

Westerners often romanticize Chinese and Asian cultures, imagining them to be nobler and more spiritually accomplished than their own societies. But with Chinese people forming such an important world cultural group, it is essential to understand the reality of their traditions and beliefs, which may not always fit other people's fantasies. For example, emphasis on the family is a key aspect of Chinese culture, but family values can be much different than Western ones.

Filial Piety

A central concept in Chinese family values is the idea of "filial piety," or respecting parents and grandparents. Children are traditionally expected to be obedient to their father and mother for their whole lives, even allowing parents to decide which college they attend or what career they choose. In ancient China, being disobedient to your parents was considered a crime, but today many young people are rejecting traditions they see as too conservative.

Family Interdependence

Connected to filial piety is a belief in the interdependence of family members. Though practices have been gradually changing since the 20th century, sons traditionally lived with their parents for their whole lives. Contrary to the expectation in most Western families, Chinese parents typically raise their children not to be independent, but to be integrated into the family. This way, families can depend on each other rather than relying on outside help. This includes an expectation that sons will support and care for their parents in old age. Family interdependence extends even beyond the living world: In the traditional religion still practiced by many Chinese people today, ancestors are believed to aid and protect their descendants in return for worship and offerings.

Educational Success

Ancient Chinese society assigned social status by occupation rather than wealth, with the highest status reserved for scholars. People achieved this status by passing tests. The spirit of this system survives in the strong emphasis that many Chinese families place on educational achievement. Parents often play an active role in their children's education, pushing them to achieve more while also helping them to do it. They typically believe value lies in earning high grades, getting into high-ranking schools and receiving high degrees, not in pursuing personal interests, with success or failure reflecting upon the whole family.

Marriage Traditions

The arranged marriages common in the past have been replaced by love-based marriage for most modern Chinese people. Both divorces and living together before marriage have also become common. However, some traditional conceptions of marriage still remain. For example, a son is expected to remain in his parents' family even after marrying, while a daughter is expected to join the family of her husband. In China, women are also often expected to marry men of higher social status than their own, usually someone either more educated or older.

Gender Roles

Chinese society and family structures are known for being patriarchal -- that is, based on the power of men over women. Men are traditionally considered the heads of their households, and ancestry is traced only along male lines. Because sons are expected to support their parents for their whole lives, while daughters are to be married off to other families, Chinese parents have traditionally valued boys much more highly than girls. Today women in China get almost as much education as men do, but they are still disadvantaged by lower working wages, as well as the expectation that it is their duty -- and not the man's -- to do the housework and childcare in their homes.