Chinese: Maternal grandmothers, outside women

Ancient family traditions embedded in Chinese characters. (Or, beginning Chinese meets intermediate demography.)

When a married couple moves into the husband’s family home, it’s an extended family. When that’s the expected arrangement, social scientists call it a patrilocal system (OED defines patrilocal as the “custom of marriage by which the married couple settles in the husband’s home or community.”)

Image used with permission of National Academy of Sciences, PNAS.

Patrilocal customs are very old. This 2008 DNA analysis of 4,600-year-old bones from Germany showed patrilocal living arrangements — as well as exogamy (“the custom by which a man is bound to take a wife outside his own clan or group”). Exogamy is good for genetic diversity, but patrilocality is bad for women’s status: as outsiders in their new homes, they are alone and disconnected from their own families.

Patrilocal China

The patrilocal system in China is one of the foundations of its unique form of patriarchy, embedded in the religious tradition of family ancestor worship — and in the language.

This came up because I was learning the Chinese word for grandmother, which, like other family relationship words, differs according to the lineage in question (maternal grandmother, paternal grandmother, etc.). A common traditional term for maternal grandmother is wài pó, 外婆:

Those two characters separately mean outsider and woman. You can see this yourself: Put them next to each other in Google translate and the English translation is “maternal grandmother.” If you put a space between them the translation is “foreign woman.” The first one alone is “outsider.” (The bottom half of the right-hand term, 女 [nǚ], means woman, and the top half means something else, but in this case just tells you the pronunciation.) For comparison, the common term for paternal grandmother is nǎinai (奶奶), which is the word for “milk” twice.

In an earlier post I learned that the word for good is woman+son (好), and the word for man is field+strength (田+力=男). Someone who knows more about languages can tell me whether Chinese reveals more about the cultural contexts of its word origins than do other languages. Seems like it to me.

Anyway, the patrilocal family tradition in China survived the country’s zig-zag historical progression from feudal to socialist to capitalist. Now, in the one-child-policy era, however, the tradition has become especially harmful to women. That’s because the lack of an adequate state pension system has increased the need for poor families to produce a son — a son whose (patrilocal) marriage will bring a caretaking daughter-in-law into the family — and decreased the return on investment for raising a daughter, who probably will leave to care for her husband’s parents.

One consequence, amply documented in Mara Hvistendahl’s book Unnatural Selection, has been tens of millions of sex-selective abortions, resulting in a sex ratio so skewed that, ironically/tragically, many men will be unable to find wives in the coming years — making it that much harder to have a secure old age for their poor parents.

2 thoughts on “Chinese: Maternal grandmothers, outside women

    1. Yes, I think that’s true. In that article I link about under “one-child policy era,” my friends Wang Feng and Cai Yong wrote:

      “Even before its inception, the one child policy was questioned for its necessity and its enormous social costs. At the time of the policy’s announcement, China had already achieved a remarkable fertility reduction, halving the number of children per woman from 5.8 in 1970 to 2.7 in 1979 … China’s one child policy may have hastened a fertility decline that was already well in progress, but it is not the main force accounting for China’s low fertility today … Young couples in China nowadays restrict their childbearing out of economic concerns, as couples elsewhere do. For nearly two decades, China’s fertility level has been under the replacement level of 2.1 children per couple, with a fertility level that is widely believed to be around 1.5 in recent years.” (

      These economic concerns are exacerbated by the high costs of education, which are largely born by parents, and the lack of social support for health care and pensions.


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