Children of China

Today (June 1st) is international Children’s Day in most countries around the world, a day set to commemorate the children who died in the Lidice Massacre of 1942 during WWII. China began celebrating this day for its children in 1949. On this day, children all over China will be pampered with toys, sweets and taken out for treats. They have always been a vital part of Chinese society, although in the last hundred years or so, attitudes towards them have vastly changed.

In traditional Chinese society, ancestral lineage is paramount, and one’s offspring are the means of passing on one’s lineage. One of the primary duties of children is to carry and protect the family name, magnify its glory by uniting with another great lineage, and passing it on to offspring who can then take up the mantel. Children were instruments to the ultimate goal. 子孙满堂, to have a household full of children and grandchildren, was the traditional ideal for happiness.

After urbanisation, and policies put in place for population control in Modern China, having a household full of offspring is no longer an option for most families in cities. Considering the cost of raising a child in modern China, very few parents would want a dozen children.

Now, in China’s boom years, when structural and social developments occur too quickly to allow mental adjustment, the single children of China have become the primary focus of love, money and hopes for so many parents.  Allowing each family only one priceless little treasure, or in some very rare cases now, maybe two, there is something akin to the Victorian change in attitude towards children, from chattels to cute miniature people to be coddled and displayed.

Due to China’s traditional patriarchy, carried into the modern People’s Republic by its crossover generations, the Single Child Policy, designed as a tool of population control, has led to mass female infanticide, particularly in rural areas, where girls were seen as no useful labour, unable to carry the family name, and a financial burden when dowries are factored in.  Charities were set up to facilitate abandoned baby girls in being adopted overseas, though that has in itself caused further problems. In addition the adopted children losing connection with their heritage, and the underlying culture going unchallenged,  there is now a gender imbalance, with a large number of young men unable to find suitable spouses amongst a diminished number of young women. In fact terror stories of rural men kidnapping young girls in the city and dragging them off for forced marriages have been a staple of fear used by many Chinese parents to keep their daughters to strict curfews and codes of conduct.

In larger cities where gender attitudes are more equal, daughters are pampered and sheltered just as much as their male counterparts. Some elements of this are well documented. These “little emperors” are given the best of everything their parents can afford, as well as the care and attention of the entire circle of parents, grandparents and relatives. Some of my British born Chinese friends have been warned off of taking a partner from the Mainland, as they would have grown accustomed to being the centre of the universe, and to be honest, from some of my generation I occasionally bump into at family events, it’s certainly not an unfounded fear.

On the other hand though, what is expected of these little treasures? What is their new role in this escalated family relationship? Well, being top of the class, mastering a worthy hobby like painting, reaching grade 10 in an instrument (all children from “respectable” Chinese families must play at least one) before they grow out of their puberty. That’s before getting into top universities, securing good jobs, and eventually financially supporting both parents, and all four grandparents.  When every child aims for this goal, or more often is aimed AT that goal, it means a hell of a lot of pressure.

The gifts and treats are used as bribes to steer children away from their natural talents towards accepted, financially more rewarding paths, and questioning, or obstinacy is often met with emotional blackmail, and chides of family disloyalty – something so deeply ingrained in this society, as a wicked act, that it often acts as a very effective choke chain. It’s not deliberate abuse, as the parents believe they are acting in the child’s best interest, but what sort of adults are emerging from these formative years?

The first generation to of single children, the “post-80″ generation, have now grown up, and studies, as well as anecdotal evidence, have already reflected the issues they face; difficulty with sharing, conflict within couples consisting of two “little emperors/esses”, trouble in compromising, and the unwillingness of some to have children of their own.

It is some consolation to know that reforms are being put in place to address, though rather slowly, these issues. Couples in some regions of China are being allowed more than one child, and some family circumstances are now acceptable as dispensation from the One Child Policy. Charities like Mother’s Bridge of Love are helping adoptees connect with their biological Chinese mothers. While the government is looking at updating child protection laws, state organisations such as the Zhengzhou Children Protection Centre are working with NGOs like Morning Tears founded by Koen Sevenants, and Ai Tong Yuan founded by Kou Wei, to provide sanctuary and care for children who have slipped through the system, sometimes for no other reason than that their parents are in prison. Let’s think of them today and wish them a very happy Children’s Day!


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