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Elderly care, family relations and social change in a Chinese village

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posted on 2023-01-19, 09:51 authored by Fang Cao
Submission note: A thesis submitted in total fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy to the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce, La Trobe University, Bundoora.

This study investigates how rapid socio-political-economic change in China since 1949 has affected intergenerational relationships and practices in rural areas, specifically the care provided to elderly parents by their adult children. The study focuses on the lived experiences of rural villagers and their perceptions of the impact of these sociopolitical changes on intergenerational relationships, care of the elderly, family cohesion, and the traditional value of filial piety. The study was conducted in Dougou, a village in Henan province, using ethnographic methods and semi-structured interviews. Social exchange theory, together with Carol Smart’s personal life approach and David Morgan’s family practices approach, were useful in framing the analysis of the data. The study advances understandings of the effects of socio-political change on the care of elderly parents by their adult children, through the following four findings: 1. Filial piety remains the dominant family value in Dougou. However, the practices involved in demonstrating this filial piety have been reconstituted in response to changing economic and social life in rural China. 2. There is evidence for both strong family bonds and growing desires for individuality and autonomy, as voiced by Dougou villagers. 3. Rural elders in China are being increasingly marginalised both socially and economically, reflecting a key negative externality of broad economic and sociopolitical change. The marginality of rural elders appears to be related more to their declining economic resources vis-à-vis other groups in the population, than the diminution of filial piety in Chinese society, as some scholars argue. 4. Intergenerational practices have diversified in today’s rural China, and the negotiation of elderly care is shaped and constrained by adult children’s employment and their family situations, including the challenges brought about by migrant work. Finally, given the context of population ageing, the impoverished circumstances of many rural elders and the prevalence of migrant work amongst their adult children, my study calls attention to the pressing need for national policy and services development for residential and community-based aged care in rural China.


Center or Department

College of Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce. School of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Thesis type

  • Ph. D.

Awarding institution

La Trobe University

Year Awarded


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