DADDY Is­sues

With “won­der dads” be­com­ing the new face of Chi­nese fam­i­lies, many fear ex­tra pres­sures on al­ready frag­ile fa­thers

The World of Chinese - - Cover Story -

There was no doubt that 21-year-old “Katie” (pseu­do­nym) was the ap­ple of her fa­ther’s eye. No one else would dream of touch­ing the provin­cial party sec­re­tary—let alone play­ing with the leader’s “ears that catch the wind,” as Katie teas­ingly de­scribed them.

Their ten­der­hearted ex­changes in a restau­rant el­e­va­tor in Katie’s home­town chal­lenged old-fash­ioned val­ues as much as they em­braced fa­mil­ial ones—when the doors opened, to the public eye, both jumped back into their for­mal roles. For cen­turies, Con­fu­cian and later Manchu mores dic­tated par­ent-child re­la­tion­ships. The quin­tes­sen­tial Chi­nese fa­ther was the benev­o­lent pa­tri­arch, provider, and head of the house­hold; aus­tere dis­ci­plinar­ian ten­den­cies en­sured that “strict fa­ther and benev­o­lent mother” (严父慈母) was the largely ac­cepted fam­ily model.

While far from ex­tinct, this rigid role has sev­eral new chal­lengers in to­day’s more plu­ral­ist en­vi­ron­ment. For many mod­ern fa­thers, it is not enough to merely bring home the ba­con. They also need to be emo­tion­ally—and lit­er­ally—avail­able: the type of fa­ther who gets a “#1 Dad” cof­fee mug for Fa­ther’s Day (and de­serves it).

But this ex­panded ideal is of­ten ac­com­pa­nied by in­creased obli­ga­tions, fi­nan­cial and oth­er­wise, mean­ing these new dads are not just “bet­ter,” but of­ten­times more in­se­cure. Bei­jinger Mr. Mao fears that he falls short of be­ing the per­fect fa­ther to his 4-yearold son. The ideal dad should “pro­vide his chil­dren with the most re­sources he can, as well as in­vest as much time and en­ergy as he can into the chil­dren and the home,” the 38-year-old fa­ther told TWOC.

Mao is not alone in his think­ing: A fa­ther­hood study con­ducted by PR firm J. Wal­ter Thomp­son In­tel­li­gence (JWT) found that 60 per­cent of Chi­nese fa­thers did not feel they had enough time to spend with their chil­dren, while 95 per­cent had dif­fi­cul­ties bal­anc­ing ca­reers with home life. Hop­ing to bol­ster val­ues that en­cour­age cou­ples to have a sec­ond child, sev­eral provin­cial gov­ern­ments have of­fered ben­e­fits to new fa­thers: In 2017, Jiangsu fol­lowed the foot­steps of Gansu, He­nan, and Yun­nan prov­inces by es­tab­lish­ing a 30-day pa­ter­nity leave.

Buck­ing fa­mil­iar trends, the JWT study also re­vealed that a sig­nif­i­cant per­cent­age (48) of fa­thers be­lieved that help­ing with home­work was their pri­mary re­spon­si­bil­ity, just ahead of en­ter­tain­ing and play­ing with their chil­dren (though only 16 per­cent thought they should take on di­a­per du­ties).

Com­pa­nies have taken no­tice of mid­dle-class daddy is­sues and are bent on turn­ing them into a con­sumerist trend. In 2016, Bayer started a cam­paign for Ele­vit pre­na­tal vi­ta­mins in China, in which fa­thers heard their un­borns’ heart­beats for the first time; the ad quickly be­came one of the top trend­ing top­ics on Weibo. In July, BMW re­leased “Won­der Dads,” a 15-minute video fea­tur­ing movie stars Mark Zhao and Song Jia, in which a young boy imag­ines his re­li­able, lower-level ex­ec­u­tive Shang­hai fa­ther as a su­per­hero (driv­ing a BMW X3, nat­u­rally).

But it was Hu­nan Tele­vi­sion’s 2013 re­al­ity hit, “Where Are We Go­ing, Dad?”《爸爸去哪儿( ?》), that cat­a­pulted mod­ern fa­thers into the

main­stream. Fea­tur­ing celebrity dads tak­ing their preschool-aged chil­dren on coun­try­side ad­ven­tures, the pro­gram quickly be­came one of China’s most pop­u­lar shows, with 75 mil­lion view­ers per episode, and sup­port from China Daily for pro­mot­ing a “re­turn to fam­ily val­ues.”

While fa­ther­hood has been in flux for over a cen­tury, it was dur­ing the re­form era that the con­cept be­gan to change dra­mat­i­cally, ac­cord­ing to Xuan Li, As­sis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Psy­chol­ogy at the Shang­hai branch of New York Uni­ver­sity.

In post-1980s China, the 拼爹( p~ndi8) phe­nom­e­non—mean­ing “com­pete us­ing fa­ther,” the prac­tice of lever­ag­ing a par­ent’s sta­tus to im­prove one’s own—pro­lif­er­ated. Many priv­i­leged young­sters launched lu­cra­tive ca­reers not on their own mer­its, but rather the rep­u­ta­tion, con­nec­tions, and cap­i­tal of their fa­thers. This cre­ated im­mense pres­sure for Chi­nese men, in par­tic­u­lar, to en­sure op­por­tu­ni­ties for not only them­selves, but also their off­spring in China’s in­creas­ingly cut­throat cap­i­tal­ist econ­omy.

Ad­di­tion­ally, as so­cial­ist in­flu­ences waned, women found them­selves in­creas­ingly forced out of the work­place and back into home. While still the largest in the world, China’s fe­male work­force is steadily de­clin­ing— from 73 per­cent in 1990 to 61 per­cent in 2017. Sub­se­quently, to­day’s fa­thers “feel more pres­sured in the rat race to pro­vide fi­nan­cial, so­cial, and cul­tural cap­i­tal for their chil­dren,” Xuan told TWOC, which was not the case when women were co-bread­win­ners.

Re­form led to not only eco­nomic, but also cul­tural changes. Western me­dia pro­vided new ex­am­ples of how fa­thers could en­gage with their chil­dren. Mao says that his par­ent­ing style is quite dif­fer­ent from that of his fa­ther: “For peo­ple born in the 1970s and 1980s, we have felt strong in­flu­ence from Western cul­ture. Now, on top of be­ing a tra­di­tional fa­ther, we should also be friends with our chil­dren.”

Xuan agrees that Western me­dia has in­tro­duced new mod­els for par­ent-child en­gage­ment which fo­cus on “greater warmth, af­fec­tion, and equal­ity be­tween par­ent and child.” In her re­search, she also states that the im­pact of the one-child pol­icy, which ac­com­pa­nied the eco­nomic re­forms, can­not be ig­nored. As par­ents fo­cused on the well-be­ing of their only child, some be­gan to crit­i­cize tra­di­tional par­ent­ing mod­els, in­clud­ing Con­fu­cian aus­ter­ity, in fa­vor of emo­tional con­nec­tions with their chil­dren.

Oth­ers, though, have bunkered down deeper into Con­fu­cian tra­di­tion, earn­ing the ti­tle of “tiger” or “wolf fa­thers.” Chi­nese me­dia have show­cased ex­am­ples such as Zhang Yu, a Sichuan fa­ther who forced his 6-year-old son to con­duct in­tense train­ing ex­er­cises every day, as well as down two bot­tles of beer, and Nan­jing’s He Liesh­eng, who trained his 9-year-old son to climb Mount Fuji and sin­gle­hand­edly fly an air­plane. Mean­while, 7-year-old pi­ano prodigy Chen Anke’s suc­cess is of­ten at­trib­uted to her fa­ther’s “tiger” ten­den­cies.

On the other hand, China has a sub­stan­tial male pop­u­la­tion with­out the fi­nan­cial and so­cial re­sources, let alone time, to achieve the elu­sive “won­der dad” sta­tus. Xuan’s re­search notes that a “fa­ther’s ed­u­ca­tion level is a sig­nif­i­cant de­ter­mi­nant of [his] ex­pres­sion of warmth and af­fec­tion.” In a coun­try­side lit­tered with tens of mil­lions of “left-be­hind chil­dren,” whose par­ents mi­grated to work full-time in ur­ban cen­ters, new fa­ther­hood mod­els cre­ate an­other set of unattain­able val­ues that ex­ac­er­bate the ur­ban-ru­ral di­vides in wealth and cul­ture.

In the mean­time, mid­dle-class Chi­nese fa­thers are play­ing a game of con­stant catch-up to meet ev­er­in­creas­ing stan­dards de­picted by an of­ten­times-un­re­al­is­tic me­dia. In Au­gust, Mercedes de­buted its lat­est ad­ver­tise­ment de­pict­ing a fa­ther rush­ing home from work to give his young son a toy bear. It was a cam­paign played re­lent­lessly in el­e­va­tors in of­fice build­ings across China’s busi­ness districts, to an au­di­ence of stressed white-col­lar work­ers un­likely to have en­joyed such mag­i­cally ma­te­ri­al­ist child­hoods them­selves—yet still ex­pected to pro­vide one. - EMILY CON­RAD

Draw­ing from re­cent re­portage, sur­veys, polls, and our own ob­ser­va­tions, The World of Chi­nese presents some of the most de­sir­able types of Chi­nese man— plus a few stereo­types women would like to do with­out.

The Over­achiever 学霸He might not be the most hand­some or charis­matic guy, but he is su­per smart. Who knows? Maybe he might end up the next head of Baidu, like Robin Li! (But hope­fully not the next Richard Liu, the Jd.com chief re­cently ar­rested for sex­ual as­sault).

A gen­er­a­tion ago, the over­achiev­ers would have prob­a­bly ended up on a farm or fac­tory line, but now he tests so well in the gaokao that he earned a place at one of China's top uni­ver­si­ties, the alma maters of sev­eral mem­bers of the Polit­buro.

Af­ter grad­u­a­tion, he ei­ther went straight into a high-pay­ing job in the IT or fi­nan­cial sec­tor, or is still pur­su­ing his mas­ter's or PHD. Con­fu­cian ethics run deep and ed­u­ca­tion is still a mea­sure of a man's worth, so he will in­stantly win the ap­proval of prospec­tive par­ents-in-law.

Eco­nomic Man经济适用男Named af­ter the govern­ment's af­ford­able hous­ing pro­gram, the “Eco­nomic and Ap­pli­ca­ble Man” con­cept is a sim­ple one: Just as not ev­ery­one can af­ford their ideal apart­ment, not ev­ery­one can end up with the man of their dreams. There­fore, a sin­gle woman should strive to be prac­ti­cal when it comes to find­ing a hus­band—at least, ac­cord­ing to the 2010 book Mar­ryan Af­ford­able­man.

The “Eco­nomic Man” is an av­er­agelook­ing guy with a gen­tle per­son­al­ity and tra­di­tional val­ues. He has a sta­ble job and gives all his salary to his wife. He never smokes, drinks, or gam­bles, nor has any “dan­ger­ous” fe­male friends. He takes care of the fam­ily and is fil­ial to his in-laws. He may not make any­one's heart race, but at least you know you will have a sta­ble life with Mr. Eco­nomic.

Warm Man 暖男Be­ing with a “warm man” is com­pa­ra­ble to en­joy­ing a warm spring day. A warm man cares deeply and de­vot­edly. He lis­tens to women and seems to un­der­stand. But make sure he's not a “cen­tral air con­di­tioner,” which means he's nice to ev­ery­one, not just you. A warm man cooks for you and does the house­work; he gives you a foot mas­sage af­ter a long day; he packs an ex­tra sweater in your purse be­cause it's cold out­side; he's like your fa­vorite un­paid butler. Warm men aren't al­ways the rich­est or the most hand­some, but they put you first.

Civil Ser­vant 公务员It is a truth uni­ver­sally ac­knowl­edged that a sin­gle man hold­ing a govern­ment po­si­tion must be in want of a wife. An “iron­rice bowl” job is still a plus in the mar­riage mar­ket, es­pe­cially in smaller cities. For some par­ents, an el­i­gi­ble civil ser­vant is the ideal match for their daugh­ters: He be­longs in the sys­tem and will prob­a­bly never lose his job. Sure, his in­come is av­er­age, but who knows how many hid­den “perks” he re­ceives?

If find­ing a part­ner is all about care­ful screen­ing, the civil ser­vant is not a bad choice—af­ter all, over two mil­lion peo­ple took the civil ser­vant exam last year and only one­six­teenth passed.

A Fa­ther’s Day event in Hangzhou en­cour­aged dads to pose with their chil­dren in Su­per­man cos­tumes

A fa­ther tries to teach his son ge­og­ra­phy at a book­store in Xi'an

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