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China's 'Little Emperors' Lucky, Yet Lonely In Life

A Chinese family coaxes their son to pose in a "little emperor" costume at a park in Beijing last year. China introduced its one-child policy for urban Chinese in 1976, resulting in a generation of sibling-less offspring. (AFP/Getty Images)

Imagine a world where no one has siblings. That's the reality for tens of millions of young urban Chinese, born since the one-child policy was introduced in 1976.

This has led to a cosseted generation of singletons nicknamed the "little emperors."

In her book I Am Not Happy: The Declaration of an '80s Generation Only Child, author Liu Yi summed up their pain and pleasure: "We are the unfortunate ones, because we are only children. Fate destined us with less happiness than children from other generations. We are also the lucky ones -- with attention from so many adults, we skip over childish ignorance and grow up. Simple-minded, we are unable to see the realities of life, and the lack of burdens denies us depth."

Center Of The Universe

A 2005 survey by the Internet portal Sina of about 7,000 respondents between ages 15 and 25 found that 58 percent of one-child respondents admitted being lonely and said they were selfish. But many also revel in being the "sun" around whom the household revolves.

"I really appreciate [being the] one child, especially from the countryside," admits 23-year-old A.J. Song, whose parents are from the Gelao minority in Guizhou province.

"My parents, they give me everything. I'm the center of attention in the family. My mother has seven brothers and sisters; my father has six brothers and sisters. Most of my parents' brothers and sisters have two kids. They are all very jealous about me being the only child," he says.

Other Chinese research finds advantages to being an only child: They tend to score higher on intelligence tests and are better at making friends, according to Chinese studies.

Song agrees, saying he believes only children care more about their friends. He says the extra investment parents make in an only child is significant.

"If I had a sibling, I probably wouldn't be who I am now. Probably I'd still be in my small village, getting married and having kids. If you have more kids in your family, probably they're lacking in education, lacking food, lacking any kind of support, no matter emotional or financial. Basically everybody is going to be average," he says.

Instead, Song -- single and with no children -- lives in Beijing, and he is proud of the fact that a kid from his small village can make it in the city.

External Pressures Strong

Others disagree with the "little emperor" stereotype. Research by Toni Falbo at the University of Texas found that only children in China scored better at verbal tests, but when it came to personality traits showed very few "only-child effects."

Many of the pressures suffered by China's only children come from living in an extremely competitive society, where access to educational resources -- especially the best kindergartens and schools -- is limited.

"Every kid in China has that kind of pressure," says 22-year-old Jing Jing from Ningxia province, who now works in public relations. "[Parents and grandparents] really want their kids to be great."

For her, that meant two hours of homework a night, followed by three hours of piano practice and Chinese painting to set her apart from the herd.

"When other kids are playing, I have to play piano and do all this stupid painting. I was sad and angry," she says, although now she appreciates the pleasures of music.

Compromise An Alien Concept

China's single-child generation is now struggling with relationships and marriage. One in five marriages ends in divorce, double the figure a decade ago, and figures are expected to go up.

Concession is alien to only children, Jing admits. "You never compromise to your parents, and your parents let it go," she says, meaning that Chinese parents traditionally let their demanding only-children get their way.

For many young Chinese, sharing a dorm room with other students at university constitutes the first real experience of sharing and a battleground for those who have never learned the art of compromise.

"We had a really important problem," Jing says. "Someone in my dorm room wanted to play computer games from 8 p.m. to 2 [or] 3 a.m. We talked to her several times, but we didn't really solve the problem."

Many of China's singletons say they yearned for siblings when they were younger. Song begged his parents for a baby, and Jing dreamed of a sister.

"Of course, I want to have a big sister. I'm selfish, and I want to have someone to take care of me. At my age, I only have my friends. Sometimes I can be really jealous. I think, 'We are the same age, why can't I be better than you?' But if I had a sister, she would be my role model," Jing says.

The Next One-Child Generation

Now, members of the one-child generation are having kids themselves and facing the practical calculations of feeding and clothing their offspring.

According to China's prestigious Academy of Sciences, which in 2008 carried out the first survey on the only-child generation's views of love, marriage and education, 61 percent of the singleton generation surveyed -- about 3,000 people born between 1976 and 1986 -- was hoping to have two kids, and 38 percent was hoping to have just one.

But that's not the full story. In China's material society, money is all. Another survey question gives perhaps a truer answer: Despite their hopes, and perhaps facing the material reality of life in modern day China, 65 percent of respondents admit that "one child is enough."

Even Jing, whose dream it was to have an older sister as a protector and role model, admits she's considered the financial ramifications of siblings.

"Some of my friends, their grandparents had a lot of money but after they died their uncles and parents are fighting for that money. As I'm the only child, I don't need to worry about that," she says. "But if I had a sister, maybe I'd fight with her for the money, maybe."

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Transcript

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

We've been talking about siblings this week as many families gather together for their Thanksgiving meals. This morning we're going to visit a place where hardly anyone in an entire generation has siblings - China. Tens of millions of young urban Chinese have born into a one-child world since a policy severely limiting family size was introduced in 1976. In Beijing, NPR's Louisa Lim recently sat down with a couple of China's little emperors.

LOUISA LIM: China's generation of little emperors is a social experiment being played out on a massive scale. Coming of age at a time when China is getting richer, they're cosseted like never before. In a book called I Am Not Happy: The Declaration of an '80s Generation Only Child, Author Liu Yi spelled out their pain and pleasure.

Ms. LIU YI (Author, "I Am Not Happy: The Declaration of an '80s-Generation Only Child"): We are the unfortunate ones because we are only children. Fate destined us with less happiness than other children from other generations. We are also the lucky ones with attention from so many adults, we skip over childish ignorance and grow up fast.

LIM: A 2005 survey found that 58 percent of one-child respondents admitted being lonely and said they were selfish. But other Chinese research finds singletons score higher at intelligence tests and are better at making friends. I sat down with two only-children for a surprisingly frank discussion about what it means to be an only child in China today.

Mr. AJAY SONG: My name's Ajay. I'm 23 years old. And I'm working here in Beijing at the nutrition supplement store.

Ms. JING JING: My name is Jing. I'm 22. I'm working for a PR firm.

Mr. SONG: I really appreciate that to be one child, especially like from the countryside, because like my parents, they kind of like give me everything. I'm kind of like the center of attention in the family. Actually, my mother has like seven brothers and sisters. And my father has six brothers and sisters. Like most of my parents' brothers and sisters, they have two kids. They are all very jealous about me to being only child. So I think that's a good thing.

LIM: There must be a lot of pressure being the only children of two parents, four grandparents. Did you feel that when you were growing up and in school, that all their expectations and hopes were resting on you alone?

Ms. JING: All the time. It's just that like every kid in China has that kind of pressure. So my parents - I should say they're like financially good. And my grandparents, they're like officials from China. So they are also having like really privileged like positions. So they really want their kids to be like great.

We have a kind of like parents gathering. Our teachers always see who ranks first, who ranks second. My parents always told me, can you be the top 10. After I was the top 10, they would say can you be the top five. That's pressure.

LIM: You were both at university. What was it like being in a class of only children or single children?

Mr. SONG: I have to say, most of all, I saw one child in the family, so we were being more care about each other. When you went to the college, that's the time you learn how to share and how to compromise yourself, how to understand other people's needs. We're trying to cope with that, because as people say, little emperor at home. But we have to be like in the dorm with other four or five people. So you need to learn.

LIM: If you had had the choice, would you rather have grown up with a sibling?

Ms. JING: Of course. I want to have a big sister. I shall say I'm selfish. I want to have someone to take care of me.

LIM: What about you? If you had a choice, would you have chosen to have a sibling?

Mr. SONG: If I had a sibling, or brothers or sister in my family, I probably would not be who I am now. Probably I'd still going to be in my small village and getting married and having kids.

LIM: So when you say if you had a brother or a sister you wouldn't be who you are today, is that partly because if you had a brother or a sister your parents wouldn't have been able to invest so much in you and in your education?

Mr. SONG: Basically, yes. It's more about financially, the situation is. Sometimes if you have more kids in your family, maybe they're lacking education, lacking food, or lacking any kind of support, no matter emotionally or financially. Basically everybody is just going to be average.

Ms. JING: Like I know some of my friends, their grandparents had a lot of money. But after they died, their uncles and parents are fighting for this money. As I'm the only child of my family, I don't need to worry about that. Even if they just gave away all their fortune, I wouldn't care. But what if I had a sister? Maybe I will fight with her for the money. Maybe.

LIM: I was talking to Jing Jing and Ajay Song. The first definitive study of love and marriage among the only-child generation found 61 percent are hoping to have two kids themselves. But another question spells out that equation between dreams and pragmatism. Given their economic circumstances, 65 percent say one child is enough.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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