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Unstoppable Transformations: Rural to Urban Migration and the Chinese Patriarchy

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How has migration changed the patriarchal family in post-Socialist China? Official figures suggest that there were 220 million rural-to-urban migrants in China in 2010. Drawing on census and community survey data, ethnography and in-depth interviews with 240 rural-to-urban migrants in South China, this paper examines the effect of rural-to-urban migration on family and gender relationships with a specific focus on changes in men and masculinities. The findings show that migration has considerably transformed the patriarchal Chinese family. Young and single migrant men are thrust into the tension between the persistent influence of rural parents in their grown children’s marriage decisions and the increasing cultural legitimacy for individuals in urban centers to pursue love, romance, and sexual autonomy. Married migrant men have found it increasingly difficult to maintain the traditional dominance and privilege of the husband in the realms of marital decision making and domestic division of labor. Migrant fathers transformed their traditional discipline styles because of their guilt toward their left-behind children. Migrant men also need to renegotiate their traditional obligation as filial sons from afar. The effects of mass internal migration on family lives reveal another side to the stories of China’s sweeping economic reform, modernization and grand social transformations.

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