In the United States, when parents get on in years they often live alone or their children have them cared for in old people's homes. In China, it is still considered the duty of children to look after their parents. This is one heritage from the past that the Chinese would like to keep in their new communist society, according to Deputy Mayor Lei Jieqiong of Peking.
"We encourage the three-generation family," said Mrs. Lei in a recent interview, "and we make provision for it when we allocate housing." In urban China, the nuclear family (parents and children but not grandparents) is not yet the rule, as it is in the urban West. But the trend here is in that direction.
With husband and wife both usually working, taking care of children is becoming an acute problem. More nurseries and kindergartens is one answer. Mrs. Lei, an American-trained sociologist, is looking for another kind of answer: one that depends on maintaininf the cohesiveness of the three-generation family as a means of preventing loneliness among the old and deliquency among the young.
In Peking and other big cities where housing is chronically short, it is the elderly that are cared for first, ac cording to Mrs. Lei. That means workers living with their parents get priority in housing. At Peking University, retired professors may continue to live in the housing they occupied during their working years.
If the three-generation family is a tradition the Chinese want to keep, arranged marriages are a holdover from the past that the new society definitely wants to abandon. Yet the custom persists, Mrs. Lei said, particularly in rural areas.
There is a lot of heartache and resentment among young people who are not allowed to choose their own marriage partners, and an equal amount of heartache and resentment on the part of parents defied by their children. The law is on the side of free choice, but old customs die hard, Mrs. Lei said.
"Before, parents of the bride used to ask for money from the groom. Now, they ask for furniture, clothes, a radio, even a television set."
Mrs. Lei has to deal with such things every day in her job as deputy mayor in charge of civic affairs, minority affairs, and religious affairs.
She is the only woman and the only noncommunist among Peking's 12 deputy mayors. Her father was a scholar, her grandfather a contract laborer who was shipped to california during the gold rush.
Mrs. Lei grew up in Canton and was a student in the Kwangtung Girls Normal School during the May Fourth Movement of 1919 -- a student protest against the Japanese imperialism that swept the nation and became a landmark in Chinese modern history.
"All of us wanted to know how to save China," she said, recalling those days. "I felt my contribution would be through the social sciences. So I went to the United States to study sociology."
She spent six years there, earning an MA from the University of Southern California. Her subsequent history is the history of many Chinese intellectuals who lived through the tumultuous events of the 1930s and '40s.
She taught at Yenching University until 1937, when the Japanese invaded China and occupied Peking as well as most of the north and central parts of the country. She went to Kiangsi in the unoccupied area, where she met and was deeply influenced by the late Premier Chou En-lai.
Subsequently she taught at universities in Shanghai, which remained an international enclave until Pearl Harbor. The war against the Japanese was scarcely over when a new war broke out between the communists and the nationalists
Mrs. Lei, long since identified as a progressive and anti-Chiang Kai-shek, helped to found the Association for the Promotion of Democracy, one of eight minor parties the communists have permitted to continue since they took over the country in 1949. Mrs. Lei led an active career in teaching and scholarship until the Cultural Revolution began in 1966.
Her subject was the breakdown of the Chinese extended family -- the many-tentacled social structure that has aunts and uncles, cousins and cousins-in-law all living under one roof.
The Chinese value system owes much to Confucius. Since the communist came to power there has been endless controversy on Confucius' role in Chinese history -- to what extent he may have represented progressive forces, to what extent he was a reactionary.
"One thing is certain," laughs Mrs. Lei, "whatever Confucius was, he was certainly not a capitalist and neither was he a communist."
Like so many of her fellow-intellectuals, Mrs. Lei was a victim of the 10 -year madness known as the Cultural Revolution and the rule of the "ganf of four" (1966-76).
First she was denounced at public meetings as unpatriotic because she had taught at Yenching, an American missionary institution. then she was sent off to do labor in the countryside for two years.
"The job itself was not too heavy," she recalls. "It was mainly wheat-harvesting in anhui. At least I was not in jail."
Rehabilation came in 1976, the year her husband, Prof. Yen Ching-yao, passed on. Professor Yen took his PhD in crimonology at the University of Chicago. (Most Chinese woem retain their maiden names after marriage.)
Mrs. Lei became a member of Peking's legislature, and last December was elected a deputy mayor. She would love to revisit the United States, she says, where she has many friends.