Accelerated by economic reforms, a large scale migration of younger workers from rural to urban China has taken place since the 1990s. This has separated many adult children from their ageing parents and imposed significant challenges on traditional patterns of familial support for rural older people. These challenges are augmented by the fact that in rural China the elderly have been deprived a state pension and other welfare provisions available to urban residents.
Drawing upon ethnographic data from an UK Economic and Social Research Council funded project, this paper applies the sociological concept of intimacy to examine relationships between adult children and their parents in the context of rural to urban migration. I reveal a qualitative difference in support between relationships built on intimate ties and those bound by duty and obligation. A unilateral emphasis on obligation-based relationships can deprive both the parent and adult child generations of agency and autonomy, which can be disempowering for both. I conclude that the complex relations between intimacy and obligation are the product of local socio-economic circumstances and gender norms.