Yours or mine? China couples at loggerheads over Chinese New Year reunion dinners

 A couple look at Chinese New Year lanterns decorating Yuyuan Garden in downtown Shanghai January 28, 2014.  As the Chinese New Year comes around, a difficult question arises for couples: which set of parents to join for the all-important r
 A couple look at Chinese New Year lanterns decorating Yuyuan Garden in downtown Shanghai January 28, 2014.  As the Chinese New Year comes around, a difficult question arises for couples: which set of parents to join for the all-important reunion dinner on the eve?The question is all the more fraught for Chinese couples from single-child families. Nearly three in 10 Chinese couples have fought over whose parents to spend New Year’s eve with, a recent survey revealed. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

As the Chinese New Year comes around, a difficult question arises for married couples in China: which set of parents to join for the all-important reunion dinner on the eve?

The question is all the more fraught for couples from single-child families.

Nearly three in 10 Chinese couples have fought over whose parents to spend New Year’s eve with, a recent survey revealed.

In some extreme cases, the bickering has ended the marriage, reported The Beijing News on Jan 24, citing a poll of 100 couples each in six major cities, including Beijing and Shanghai.

“As an only child, if I don’t return home during the Chinese New Year, my parents would be overcome with loneliness,” said a respondent, 32, known only by her surname Li. “I insisted on celebrating the festival with my family in the first year of our marriage, but my ex-husband refused. In the end, we just returned to our hometowns separately.”

Ms Li, a native of north-eastern Liaoning province, tied the knot in Beijing in 2011. But her marriage fell apart within two years, as the discord with her husband, from southern Guangxi province, about 3,000km away from Liaoning, soon got out of hand.

“The tiff over the reunion dinner was not the direct cause of our divorce, but that deepened my understanding of the distinction between dating and marriage. We were not as well-matched as expected,” she told The Beijing News.

Couples fighting over which parents to spend the Chinese New Year with “is directly connected with the increasing prevalence of a simplified family structure, that is, only-child families,” said Professor Li Jianxin with the Department of Sociology at Peking University, on his microblog. “It’s another fallout of implementing the one-child policy.”

China’s controversial family planning policy, launched in 1979 nationwide, was intended to rein in population growth by limiting most urban couples to no more than one child.

Of the couples surveyed, at least one spouse was an only child. Of the 100 pairs in Beijing, 28 crossed swords over whose parents they should celebrate the festival with.

These respondents, aged between 27 and 52, worked in China’s capital, with their parents living in their hometowns, which could be as far away as more than 2,000 km.

Tianjin city, a two-hour drive away from Beijing, saw 33 warring couples in relation to the issue, the highest number among the six cities, according to the survey.

The lowest number of 22 was recorded in Guangzhou. For Shanghai, Wuhan and Chengdu, the figures were between 27 and 29.

“It’s a traditional practice to have reunion dinner with parents,” said Sociology Professor Yu Beihong from Fuzhou University. “Now the number of only children leaving hometowns and working in big cities keeps growing… They’re all intent on reuniting with their own parents during the New Year, which inevitably gives rise to squabbles.”

China’s prosperous cities are often a magnet for migrant workers, who numbered 236 million in 2012, the Family Planning Commission said in a report last September.

More than half of these migrants were born after 1980, with an average age of 28, according to the report.

In a separate online poll conducted by the popular news portal Sina on Jan 24, one in two of the 3,430 respondents acknowledged that they were caught up in the same Chinese New Year dilemma of picking a set of parents to dine with.

Still, the authorities rave about the one-child policy. They claim that more than 400 million people would have been added to China’s current population of 1.39 billion were it not for the policy.

But analysts believe the merits of the policy are overblown to justify its ruthless enforcement, which often included forced abortion, among other human rights violations.

In light of an ageing society and shrinking workforce, Beijing eased the draconian policy on Nov 15, 2013, allowing couples to have two children if either spouse is an only child.

Previously, urban couples were allowed to have two children only if both were only children. Rural and ethnic minority couples can have more than one child under certain circumstances.

On solutions to the Chinese New Year dilemma, Sociology Professor Xia Xueluan from Peking University suggested that the couples visit both families on different days over the long holidays despite the long distance.

“There is no better solution than mutual consultation and understanding,” he told the Beijing News. “Distance could be taken into account while choosing a partner. But that’s not the only aspect we should be concerned about. Love comes first.”

jihongou@sph.com.sg