Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Beyond Resources and Patriarchy: Marital Construction of Family Decision-Making Power in Post-Mao Urban China*

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Family Studies

Beyond Resources and Patriarchy: Marital Construction of Family Decision-Making Power in Post-Mao Urban China*

Article excerpt

In the studies of family decision-making power, a common observation has been the persistence of male dominance (Zvonkovic, et al., 1996). Resource theory assigns the blame to the unequal values of exchange resources that the husband and wife bring to the relationship (Blood and Wolfe, 1960; Oropesa, 1997; Xu and Lai 2002). A patriarchal perspective, on the other hand, asserts that patriarchal norms undercut women's power and reinforce male dominance in domestic as well as public spheres regardless women's resources (Blumberg, 1991; Ferree, 1990; Komter, 1989; Perry-Jenkins, 1994; Pyke, 1994). Both theories see household responsibilities, traditionally assigned to women, as an impediment rather than a source of power, either because of women's inability to generate valued resources or due to hegemonic influence of patriarchal culture originated from the gendered division of labor (Blumberg and Coleman, 1989; Blumstein and Schwartz, 1991).

The above scholarly wisdom, however, cannot fully explain a Chinese phenomenon: Chinese couples in the cities tend to jointly make family decisions despite the unequal spousal economic statuses and a wide spread of patriarchal values (Feng, et al., 1995). In a typical urban family of a couple with one child, the husband's income is substantially higher than his working wife's, the wife does more housework and constantly manages routine activities (Zuo, 2003; Zuo and Bian, 2001), but according to large Chinese surveys the wife surprisingly is the primary contributor to major family decisions (Feng et al., 1995; Shen and Yang, 1995). Why, we might ask, do husbands' greater economic resources and traditional patriarchal norms fail to translate into family decision making power in urban China? What make wives, who seem burdened by housework, the greater decision makers in the family?

Our in-depth interviews with 43 Chinese couples support the following storyline. Although Maoist experiments of gender equalization failed to transform women's domestic role (Stacy, 1983; Wolf, 1985), women's participation in the labor force and income leveling programs (Whyte and Parish, 1984) nonetheless made the historical shift in marital relations in the family: from wives' financial dependence on their husbands to the mutual financial dependence of working husbands and wives. Such mutual dependence, though attenuated given rising incomes among some men and women in recent years, has sustained the collectivized family organization in which husbands and wives aim for relational harmony rather than equity-based exchanges of resources that characterize the individualized family. Consequently, doing housework is in the interest and welfare of collectivized couples and thus becomes a source of power on decision making within the family. We will elaborate this storyline before presenting our interview data.


In analyzing financial management in American families, Treas (1991,1993) distinguishes two family organizations: the individualized versus the collectivized. Individualized families recognize the financial and other contributions from each spouse as individual resources, and permit managing family resources in "separate purses." Collectivized families, by contrast, tend to subordinate individuals to the collective needs, and organize family members' financial contributions in a "common pot." According to Treas, in an individualized family, spouses' interests are identified in their own rights for there is no apparent collective interest beyond partners' companionate bonding; but in a collectivized union, the spouses' interests are taken as a whole and are dwarfed by the emphasis on obligations to meet others' needs in the union (also see Clark, et al., 1998).

Marital relations in these two family organizations are, we argue, guided by qualitatively different modes of marital exchange. The essence of marital exchange in individualized families is that of self-interest and transactional equity. …

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