Patrilocal, Matrilocal or Neolocal? Intergenerational Proximity of Married Couples in China

Rob Gruijters, University of Oxford
Tak Wing Chan, Institute of Education, University College London
John Ermisch, University of Oxford

Patrilocality, the tendency of married couples to live with or close to the husband''s parents, is a core tenet of traditional Chinese society. In recent decades, however, this custom has been challenged by large-scale internal migration as well changes in family values and preferences. Against this background, the study analyses the current patterns and determinants of couples'' proximity to both sets of parents. It uses the China Family Panel Study, a recent nationally representative dataset that contains extensive information on Chinese couples and their parents. The findings show that patriarchal norms still exert a strong influence over couples'' residential decisions. Coresidence with the husband''s parents is highly common, particularly for young couples that have recently married. Matrilocality is much rarer, although it becomes more likely when the wife has no brothers. We discuss implications for old age security, gender relations and son preference.

In China''s traditional family system, women are expected move in with their husband''s family after marriage, either sharing a household or living in same village or neighbourhood. Patrilocality fosters lifelong bonds and support relationships between parents and sons, reinforcing the predominance of male over female kinship ties (Greenhalgh, 1985; Whyte, 2003). In doing so, it contributes to the problem of ''son preference'', which has led to a highly imbalanced sex ratio at birth (Lai, 2005). Moreover, the geographic separation from her natal family places women at a social and economic disadvantage relative to their spouses, exacerbating gender inequality within the household (Yu, 2017).

In recent decades, however, a number of structural changes have challenged China''s patriarchal family traditions. First, uneven economic development has led to a surge in internal migration, particularly from rural to urban areas: the total number of internal migrants was recently estimated at 236 million (National Bureau of Statistics of China, 2013). Second, rapid fertility decline reduced the number of sons to rely on in old age, and elevated the status of daughters as potential providers of social and economic support (Fong, 2002; Wu, Ye, & He, 2014). Finally, women''s economic empowerment and cultural change have led to more equal gender relations, and diminished the power of parents over their adult children (Whyte, 2003; Yan, 2003).

Against this background, this study describes current patterns of intergenerational proximity in China, and looks at the factors that affect couples'' proximity to the wife''s and the husband''s parents. In the first stage, we analyse at the determinants of proximity to each set of parents separately, focusing in particular on the role of education, sibling structure and rural/urban differences. In the second stage, we look at the joint proximity to the husband''s and wife''s parents, using a fourfold typology: close the husband''s parents only (patrilocal); close the wife''s parents only (matrilocal); close to both parents (bilocal); and close to neither the husband nor the wife''s parents (neolocal). We use a newly available, nationally representative dataset that provides detailed information on couples as well as their parents.

To our knowledge, this is the first study to provide such a comprehensive overview of intergenerational proximity in the Chinese context. Similar to what has been observed in Western settings (Chan & Ermisch, 2015b; Hank, 2007), we find that most married Chinese live in (relatively) close proximity to their parents. Gender differences are much more pronounced, however. Whereas in Western countries there is generally no strong tendency to live closer to either the husband''s or the wife''s parents (Blaauboer, Mulder, & Zorlu, 2011; Chan & Ermisch, 2015a), in China the man''s parents are clearly in a privileged position. This is a reflection of China''s longstanding patriarchal and patrilineal traditions, epitomized in the teachings of Confucius (Dawson, 2002; Whyte, 2003). Patrilocality is particularly pronounced among rural couples with little education, and when there is a young child (see Table 1).

Why is it that patrilocality remains so strong, particularly in rural areas? First, certain patriarchal customs that bind sons to their place of birth remain largely intact, and may have even strengthened during China''s economic boom. These include the expectation that the husband''s parents will provide, build or finance accommodation for a newly married couple. Indeed, providing suitable accommodation is often considered a precondition for finding a wife (Fan, 2015). Moreover, under Chinese law each rural family is entitled to a plot of land, which cannot be sold and is typically passed on from parents to sons. Further analyses (not shown) suggest that patrilocality is more likely when the husband is a farmer.

A second explanation relates to the balance of power between spouses. In spite of women''s status improvement in recent decades, men continue to hold an advantaged position in couples'' decision-making, partially because of their superior socio-economic position. In most Chinese couples the husband''s income exceeds that of the wife, both because of substantial gender pay gaps and because of the deeply rooted tradition of status hypergamy (Mu & Xie, 2014). Our findings show that patrilocality is more likely in hypergamous couples, for example between urban husbands and rural wives (see Figure 1).

Presented in Session 1140: Life Course