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The gods and goddesses of the new China

By Cireena Simcox - posted Monday, 18 June 2007

In the wake of an affirmative answer earlier this year as to whether China will continue with the so-called “one Child Policy”, Western concern seems focused mainly upon the gender imbalance which has resulted since this policy was first implemented between 1981-83.

Only the Boston Herald of January 24, 2007 gave any hint that there were more far-reaching concerns than the ratio of 130 males to 100 females which has resulted in some provinces: - it quoted Zhang Weiqing, of the National Population and Family Planning Commission: “China’s only boys and girls are certainly not as scary as some people say, like those who call them Little Emperors or Little Titans who can’t tolerate authority.” (Even the fact that Zhang unconsciously employed two male metaphors rather than the usual “little princes and princesses” was not remarked upon by the Herald).

Of course Zhang is correct: there is nothing at all “scary” about the first generation to come to adulthood under China’s strict population control regulations. But there is a worrying trend discernable in these 20-somethings who will soon be the ruling class of the new China. Just as there is a worrying aspect to the current school-based youngsters and the small but growing second generation to be born under these regulations. It’s an aspect that transcends gender lines.


Going through life myself without siblings, I have been treated to much ad hoc speculation from both informed and uninformed sources as to the eventual characteristics which emerge in the “single child”. The prognosis is usually harmful for those deprived of the rough and tumble of sibling rivalry, the sharing of both emotions and possessions or the continuing relationships and responsibilities with family after parents have died.

Very rarely is the heightened burden of parental expectation ever considered.

But with these Chinese youth the strain of these expectations can be seen to have had, in many cases, deleterious effects which seem to have been overlooked by many.

Very few of my 3rd and 4th year students at this large University three hours from Shanghai have ever had contact with a Westerner. They are surprised by the fact that I have no siblings as they assume this is an exclusively Chinese dynamic. But this perhaps is the reason they are more open with me about their feelings than is usual with Chinese people.

However, the stress under which they were living became apparent long before they ever trusted me enough to speak about it.

Culturally, family honour or "face", has always been an imperative of Chinese society. It was one of the reasons big families have always been desirable.


Sons have traditionally been needed to carry on family businesses. One son could stay at home to work with his father, while another could be sent to carry the business into other regions. Another, for example, would assiduously study commerce and strategies, or open subsidiaries. If, as sometimes happened, one son was found to have no business interest he could still develop his own skills and increase the "face" of the family and the business.

Girls were useful to unite various dynasties, to increase ties and to bring "face" through successful marriages.

With various modifications this system was used throughout all of Chinese society down to the peasant class, where strong healthy sons and fertile daughters could often be the difference between subsistence living and a chance to become small-holders.

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About the Author

Cireena Simcox has been a journalist and columnist for the last 20 years and has written a book titled Finding Margaret Cavendish. She is also an actor and playwright .

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