The heavy duty of Chinese grandparents

Original images by Ricarda Mölck, OpenClipart-Vectors and Clker-Free-Vector-Images

This article was originally published in Dutch in 2017.

On a warm summer evening in Chongqing, I took a walk with Ying and his sister Meili through the residential area where Ying’s in-laws had an apartment. Ying and his wife had lived in that apartment for years, along with her parents and two cats. A couple dressed in identical pyjamas approached us. They turned out to be acquaintances of Ying who rented an apartment that he would soon buy. At first, I thought the time had finally come when Ying and his wife would move into their own hideaway, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Ying’s parents are very modest and live in the north of China, in a city with about 2 million inhabitants; small by Chinese standards. They were very different from Ying’s in-laws, who are part of China’s new middle class. Ying’s father-in-law had worked in Africa and although he only speaks Chongqing dialect and no foreign language, you do get the impression that you are dealing with someone who has seen a bit of the world. Like his wife, he is brimming with Chongqing temperament; they are noisy and always trying to be the center of attention. Quite different from Ying’s parents, who are usually calm and keep themselves in the background. In all I saw the two couples were poles apart.

Ying’s wife, whom he met during his days studying in Chongqing, was one of the reasons he had not returned to northern China. While he had an older sister in Meili, his wife was an only child. And that was noticeable. She was demanding, picky and with the same volume in her voice as her parents. In the marriage she was clearly was not just laopo, the wife, but also laoban, the boss.

As society expected of them, Ying and his wife were married before they hit thirty. Three years later, according to the same imposed schedule of society, their first child was on the way. Time to move out, I thought. But the apartment that Ying was buying was not intended for his new family. It was meant for his parents.

Grandparents’ care

You probably heard the stories about the 60 million children left behind in the countryside while their parents went to work in the factories on China’s coastal regions (check out the impressive documentary The Last Train Home). Less well known are statistics about depression among a third of the grandmothers who care for these children and that 40% of these children have problems with the development of cognitive skills.    

You might also be familiar with the stories about grandparents, often at the age of 60 or retired even earlier, who temporarily move in with their children (in-law) to help take care of their grandchildren. Research from 2013 found that 60-70% of children under 2,5 years and 40% of children above 3 years are cared for by their grandparents. In cities like Shanghai, it is as high as 90%. This is often driven by sheer necessity, as both parents have to work full-time and could not get by on one income, while the limited availability and high costs of childcare often make it an unattainable alternative. But even if they could afford it, research has shown that increasing the number of daycare centers does not leads to a significant decrease in help from grandparents. 

Some westerners get a warm feeling about the strong family ties in China. But rarely do we hear how things can go horribly wrong. Traditionally, women become part of their husband’s family after marriage. In days gone by, a newlywed couple took up residence in one of the sides of one a typical Chinese courtyard house. A dowry was paid to the bride’s parents to compensate for the ‘loss’ they suffered and the costs of raising their daughter. There are various stories, even today, about the bad relationship that often developed between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, with the latter often not being treated well by the former.

In the past, when offspring didn’t venture far from home, helping raise grandchildren didn’t put too much pressure on grandparents. China’s relatively low retirement age, 60 years for male workers, 55 years for female cadres and 50 years for female workers, gives them lots of free time. They also got to raise their grandchildren in familiar surroundings.

This story is different. 

Regional cultural differences

As soon as their granddaughter was born, Ying’s parents descended from the relatively cool north to Chongqing, known as one of the “furnaces” of China because of its hot climate. They moved into the apartment their son had bought, which was a stone’s throw from the apartment of Ying’s in-laws. When the sun came up, they dutifully reported to their son’s in-laws’ apartment while Ying and his wife left for work. Ying had his own company and worked six days a week, his wife worked five days a week at a media agency. They needed the weekend to recover, or so they said. Meanwhile, Ying’s parents and in-laws were put to work seven days a week.

Not only was the weather hot, the typical food in Chongqing, once part of Sichuan province, is known for its spiciness all over the world. As a couple in their sixties, Ying’s parents found it hard to adjust their eating habits and what they were served during the evening meal was literally and figuratively difficult to digest. At the same time, Ying’s in-laws complained about the tasteless food served to them by his parents.

Before long friction arose. The one-child policy and scandals such as the milk powder scandal in 2008 have resulted in a general paranoia for all child-related products and services in China. Ying’s mother, who had raised two healthy children in the 1980s, was constantly reprimanded by the others about what she was doing wrong. And frankly, she couldn’t remember all those detailed instructions and the correct sequence of actions that she had been given for changing and washing her grandchild. Sometimes she even got blamed for mistakes that others had made but that she apparently should have prevented. She turned into one of those Chinese grandparents who live in constant fear of accidents that the actual parents, who hardly learn how to raise a child, could blame them for.    


It wasn’t easy for Ying’s father either. When he tried to help in the kitchen, his son’s picky in-laws constantly told him what he was doing wrong. Regional cultural differences increasingly surfaced. Finally, the bomb burst and he left, back to his hometown in the north, on an excuse that he was ill and could only get medical help there. The latter was true, the former not. Ying’s mother was left behind in Chongqing. One small bright spot was that her daughter, Meili, whom she only saw once a year, came to see her in the hot Chongqing summer. Meili was baffled when her clearly annoyed brother told her that their mother had asked for a “day off” to spend time with her daughter. Apparently, his mother-in-law taking care of his daughter by herself for a day wasn’t good enough.

Ultimately, it all came to a huge conflict within the family. Ying promised to find an ayi, a domestic worker, so his mother, who was getting more depressed by the day, could return to the north. But just for a month or two, if it were up to Ying. But the day the ayi would to start work Ying told his mother that the she had failed to arrive because of a sick person in her family. As is so often the case in China, the question was to what extent those involved were telling the truth. Sporadic horror stories about problems with ayis were creating a general mistrust in China that could well have been a reason for the cancellation of her services.       

Meili, insisted that her mother, who was slowly starting to grow a spine, should return to her hometown. After heated discussions, Ying and his wife finally agreed. Ying’s mother headed north. Back home she seemed to enjoy her newfound freedom so much that she did something she’d never done before: she went on an trip to see the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. But as she looked out over those plains, what her son had said as she left Chongqing was haunting the back of her mind. “Should anything ever happen to my daughter, it will be because of your absence. Then you won’t just lose a granddaughter but a son as well.”