Women in the practice of family power

LIU Jie1

(1.Department of Sociology, Graduate School of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences)

【Abstract】Family power is a clue to understand family life. Inspired by the practice theory, this paper focuses on the changes of attitudes and behaviors regarding confinement taboos between two generations of women in Shanxi Province. Based on the investigation, we try to understand the structural characteristic, operation mode and internal mechanism in family power. We compare the experience and explanation regarding the custom of not coming back to parents’ home during confinement between older women and younger women, and find that the older women would passively conform to taboo with patriarchal character; while the younger women would appeal to reality and justify the superficial compromise of taboo. The findings show evolution process in family power, namely, from one dimension to multi-dimensions, and from coercion to acceptance of more flexibility. Meanwhile, we could also find the characteristic of multiplicity in contemporary young women’s family life, which is influenced by the structural change.

【Keywords】 family power; practice; women; a married woman’s parents’ home; taboo;


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    [1]. (1) It should be noted that that there is a close relationship between enriching the theory of resources and surpassing the theory of resources. As shown below, firstly, they have commonness. For example, Zheng (2004) holds that the theory of resources and feminist theory materialize power, and they are similar essentially. Secondly, these two theories work together, which means that giving and receiving between spouses are based on the resources that each party brings to the relationship, including material and status (a part of enrichment to the theory of resources, noted by the author, the same as below). However, expectations of husbands and wives are greatly affected by gender regulation (a part of surpassing the theory of resources) (Walsh, 2013). [^Back]

    [2]. (2) Other articles also analyze the inadequacy of domestic scholars’ quantitative treatment of family power (Zuo, 2002; Wang, 2009). [^Back]

    [3]. (3) Definitely, analyses of some scholars such as Zheng Dandan, Wu Fei, Li Xia and Xiao Suowei all ramp up efforts to overcome the inadequacy and put forward enlightening insights. The author holds that there are two parts needing further refinement: the value of practice theory has not been clearly pointed out at the methodological level, and the study of intergenerational change is neglected in discussion. [^Back]

    [4]. (4) Besides, it is an informal strategy for an aggrieved married woman to return to her parents’ home to protest against her husband’s family. From here we can see that there is an intimacy of alienation between parents’ family and the married daughter, even if this approach’s effect is doubtful. Because perhaps the married woman’s parents usually send their daughter back to her husband’s home as soon as possible before the unpleasantness arises, if an unhappy married woman escapes back to her parents’ home (Freedman, 2000: 126). [^Back]

    [5]. (5) As observed by Hsu (2001: 174), people in Xizhou Town believe a woman during confinement cannot go out at will because her “unclean” body may offend the door-god. Li (2018) also finds that if a woman during confinement goes to someone’s house accidentally (including their parents’ home), it is taken as “evil hitting residence” in the late Qing Dynasty. [^Back]

    [6]. (6) This difference is superficial as women only play the role of service whether at husband’s home or parents’ home. [^Back]

    [7]. (7) The functional analysis of the taboo here and below is not equivalent to a cause investigation, and feasible objective description also should not be equated with inevitable subjective prescript. [^Back]

    [8]. (8) Unlike the women of younger generation analyzed below, women of elder generation almost take the custom of not returning to their parents’ home during confinement for granted. Can we think that they’re under family power? The cause of question like this may be related to a rigid understanding of power, namely, a sequential and unequal relationship that strongly suppresses the will of individuals. According to Foucault (1989: 91–94), this paper regards power as a diffuse, positive, continuous, systematic and interactive relationship, among which one party tries to influence and change the another, so as to achieve its own purpose. Elder women who obey the taboo on returning to parents’ home during confinement are obviously under family power in this framework. [^Back]

    [9]. (9) The first reason given by elder women above reflects the role of latent power that occurs among siblings and toward married women, despite that there is no case that brothers directly interfere with sisters’ return (see the detailed analysis of latent power below). [^Back]

    [10]. (10) “Rational” refers to consciously weighing all possible consequences in the round. [^Back]

    [11]. (11) The one-child policy leads to decrease in the number of children, while increasing the importance attached to descendants by parents and elevating the status of emotional elements in intergenerational relations. Therefore, respecting the elders mentioned by young women is not only a confirmation that family power has intergenerational discrepancy in age and family hierarchy, but also an expression of parent-child emotion. [^Back]

    [12]. (12) From a diachronic perspective, patriarchal authority is achieved by harmonious father-son relationship and the extended family ideal, which contains the same characteristic of intergenerational subject to ancestral authority. In addition, the absoluteness of the family power of the elders is reduced because of the balance between father and son in interaction and secure customs that benefit future generations like separation in the same house (Hsu, 2001: 51, 212–213, 224). However, from experience, traditional patriarchal authority and today’s parental authority are not comparable, whether in feasible or desirable level (Wang, 2013), and the distance between the two can refer to the transformation of filial piety under authority to mutual respect (Ye, 2009). Besides, this conjecture also accords with the fact that the form of traditional authority only becomes one of some authorities due to modernization (Giddens, 1998). [^Back]

    [13]. (13) This is not to say that women-centered power has just emerged. In fact, whether in agricultural or industrial society, women on housework duty are endowed with possibility of gaining family power as they have a lot of functional and emotional devotion in housework and parenting (Parsons, 1943; Nie, 2012: 219). However, there is a significant change because modern young women’s subjective consciousness has greatly promoted their sensitivity to family power and the struggle for equal status. [^Back]

    [14]. (14) For example, ZWT, whose parents’ family is against this taboo but husband’s family is for it, is more subject to the power of elders and latent power. The exchange of power is not significant as she does not lack subjective power. For NY, she successfully returns to her parents’ home. It does not mean that she is not influenced by intergenerational power, although the subjective power is obvious and the potential power is hidden. On the contrary, her parents’ agreement is more decisive than the will of the daughter. [^Back]

    [15]. (15) This does not deny the possibility of counterexamples, and the actual reward is only a necessary condition for people’s action. [^Back]


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This Article


CN: 11-3280/C

Vol , No. 04, Pages 83-93+96

July 2019


Article Outline


  • 1 Literature review and research topic: research on family power and practice theory
  • 2 Cannot go back to parents’ home: the elder women under the constraint of taboos
  • 3 Can go back to parents’ home: the rational choice of young women
  • 4 Conclusion and discussion
  • Footnote