Sunday, April 03, 2011

This is what Jonathan Swift was missing

I was chatting with my Taiwanese friend about Tomb Sweeping Day.  It's this big holiday in Chinese cultures (and so obviously in China, although I'll be working OT...) where you go and pay respects to your ancestors and clean up their gravesites (hence, the moniker Tomb Sweeping Day).  My co-workers joked with me that I needed to go find a tomb to sweep.

Anyway, my friend commented about how they went and swept tombs.  The whole family gathered together, and she saw many relatives she would see maybe only once a year (I guess at Tomb Sweeping Day).  A lot of people.

I commented that I still had a hard time understanding why HK and Taiwanese families tended to be so big in the older generations.  I have friends who have parents who each have 9 siblings.  From my understanding of people I've met in China, mainland Chinese families were like this too until China implemented the one-child policy.  For the sake of brevity, I'll refer to them all as Chinese families and Chinese society.

The thing that boggled my mind was: why did those families make so many babies?  Don't get me wrong, you see big families in so-called western society too, but it seemed that there were just so many more big families in Chinese families.  One HK friend commented to me that a lot of them were farmer families, so their grandparents had lots of kids to make sure they'd have help on the farm.  Hmm, yeah?  I don't know, not absolutely convincing, because I don't get the impression that so many of my friends were from families with agricultural backgrounds.  It's possible, it's not like I've done a scientific survey or anything.  But it seems very implausible.  Of course, that's all only speculation.

Then my friend comments that some of them are adopted.  I'm like, eh?  OK, yeah, an adoption here or there, but how common can it be?  That can't explain why the families are so big.

Turns out it was apparently very common.  For example, my friend has an aunt who was adopted to become a future wife for her uncle.  Thing is, they ended up not loving each other in that way and each found different people to marry.  So the long-term result was quantitatively no different from biologically having another baby.

Here's the deal.  Many of these families were indeed poor.  Now if all my research is correct, there is a tendency for poorer families (especially in regions that are still developing) to have more babies to respond to the risk of infant mortality.  As well, there was poor birth control for cases where parents decided enough was enough.  This created an excess of children.

But not all families were equal and some families had more babies than others.  In combination with that fact, there was (and probably still is, though values are shifting) a preference for boys. So you essentially had a free market for exchanging babies to secure future spouses through the mechanism of adoption.  This was especially important in cases where a family ended up deciding that they could not afford to raise all of their children due to their economic status, but other families could.  Whether or not those marriages actually happened would be another matter, but at least it would be a good backup plan.

Ah.  Bingo.  So that's why Chinese families seemed to have a minimum threshold of a large number of children.  Even if you had a smaller number of kids, you made up for it by adopting to get future spouses.  My friend was very surprised that this was the first time I had ever heard of anything like this.  She thought nothing of it.  So now the big question.  Was this truly common or is my friend living in her own world?  I am curious.  Certainly, I would venture to guess that there's no way it would be common today.

Jonathan Swift wrote his satirical hyperbole A Modest Proposal to denounce the way the poor were treated.  In it, he commented that the excess children could simply be provided for food for the rich.  It was a shock piece meant to stir controversy and move people to action to bring about real change.  It did create a fair amount of shock and controversy and people ended up missing his point.  Perhaps he should have just told everyone that there was an easy solution to society's problems by creating a marriage free market where you could secure spouses for your kids far in advance and eliminate the risk of no descendants.  Perhaps that could have solved the problems without the controversy.

Nah.  Class struggles, pride and prejudice, you know?

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