Family has a long history. With China's small-scale peasant economy and traditional cultural background for centuries, family has been the most basic unit of polity, economy, and socio-cultural life. Interests and rights of the individual are always placed below those of family; individual autonomy is often included in family autonomy. All this can be called familism. There are deeper and determining economic reasons for familism. The economy of the family is controlled by the head of the family or clan so that the individual usually has no independent economic measures to support his or her autonomous rights.
Informed consent originated in the Western culture. The theoretical premise of informed consent is respect for the patient's autonomy. The patient's autonomy is closely related with individualism in the West. After informed consent is spread from the West to China, due to the influence of traditional Chinese culture, the Chinese perception, understanding, and practice of are different from those of the West. The difference mainly lies in Chinese familism. To focus on the autonomy of the family reflects the influence of traditional familism upon informed consent. As a result, there exits a tension between the patient's autonomy based on individualism and familism in Chinese culture.
Informed consent is not a culture issue, but it is closely related with cultural tradition. It is impossible to get away with cultural norms in the practice of informed consent. To different practicing methods of informed consent in different cultural contexts, the spirit of cultural tolerance is needed. In China, with the principle of cultural tolerance as a practical guidance, we should establish a set of procedure and ways of practicing informed consent with Chinese characteristics. Fundamentally, informed consent is to balance the unbalanced power between doctors and patients. According to the principle of cultural tolerance, the difference in the practice of informed consent at different cultural contexts should be tolerated so long as the basic purpose of informed consent is not violated. There exists a variety of cultural ideas among contemporary Chinese. The individual patient and his or her family are essential part of informed consent, with both having their rationality. Thus, we shouldn't reject absolutely some methods. From the angle of historical development, it is worthwhile noticing the transformation from family determination to individual autonomy. National and cultural differences are integrating in the age of globalization. Since laws, ethics, and customs in different countries and cultures are mutually exchanging, we should promote to make the practice of informed consent to become similar.