One Set of Shoulders: China’s Hidden Revolution

Baby swimming contest.jpg

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Chinese parents urging their babies on during a swimming contest, Beijing, September 20, 2009

During a recent month-long stay in China, my wife and I toured the southwestern province of Guangxi with a jovial guide from Guilin. James (his professional name) was very knowledgeable, but a little too eager to give us our money’s worth. For five days he talked non-stop. But one night, in a remote mountain village set atop terraced rice paddies, he fell silent. As we were sitting down to dinner he got a call and asked to be excused; when he returned half an hour later the smile was gone and his eyes wouldn’t meet ours. At first grateful for the silence, we became worried when he remained withdrawn the next day. With a little prodding, he eventually told us what the call was about. It involved his son, his only child.

China instituted its one-child policy in the late 1970s, just as Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms were beginning. There are different rules for urban and rural families (multiple children are permitted in some rural areas), regional variations in enforcement, and plenty of loopholes. But the policy has successfully reduced China’s overall birthrate to less than two children per woman, and to much lower levels in the major cities (though the population keeps growing because of leaps in longevity). There is little prospect of China becoming a one-child nation, but the traditional Chinese family—an extended web of relatives with a hierarchy of moral obligations—is no longer the norm. More and more children are growing up without cousins, aunts, or uncles, only parents and grandparents, whom they alone will have to support in later years. In a civilization where family bonds have always trumped those of friendship and citizenship, one can’t help wondering whether, years from now, the one-child policy will not be considered as revolutionary as the economic reforms we are more familiar with.

It’s a topic everyone we met talked about. During our visit there was another episode in a string of brutal mass murders of schoolchildren committed by footloose men, most with mental problems, some unemployed or bankrupt. Even the official press speculates about the role resentment against children might have played in the killings, resentment fed by the pampering only-children now receive from anxious parents. Several of the killers, who say they’ve been left behind and forgotten, apparently expressed these sentiments. And parents of these children certainly do seem anxious—understandably so, now that their family’s legacy rests upon one set of shoulders. Pressure on young people to pass their exams has become even more intense, and the papers are full of stories about cheating schemes and bribes given to obtain passing scores. Grandparents, I was told, see less and less of their busy grandchildren. In the past, they were the primary sources of day-care, which was facilitated by the shared courtyards in traditional Chinese hutong. Now many of the elderly in cities are being moved to apartment towers where they live alone and where public space is scarce. One sometimes sees them grouped on traffic meridians or under freeway underpasses, talking to friends, doing tai chi, flying kites.

James grew up in a traditional family and still shares one meal a day with his mother. But he is determined that his son have opportunities he missed out on. Coming of age during the Cultural Revolution, he couldn’t attend college and ended up never leaving Guilin, his home town. Now he visits the U.S. with other Chinese tourists, and takes pictures of himself in front of our universities—Harvard, Yale, Columbia, MIT, Stanford. His “greatest hope and dream” he said, while showing us his photo album, is for his son to get a PhD at one of these schools. The boy now studies engineering at a technical university in Beijing, a city he enjoys; he comes home infrequently and has asked his parents not to visit him there. This has taken James by surprise. He seems not to have reckoned with the possibility that if his son does succeed in the new China, he will probably do it alone, far from home and family, in the company of friends and lovers, not cousins or grandparents.

A lover, it turned out, was what the crisis was all about. It was James’s son who had called, distraught about losing his first girlfriend to a rival and declaring that he was dropping out of school. Apparently, nothing his mother and father said could dissuade him. James’s fear was not just that the boy might follow through on his plan and leave the university, but that he actually might harm himself, the girl, or the rival. In recent years there have been dramatic stories of suicides and double-murders committed by spurned young lovers.


James can’t understand why the boy doesn’t just work harder; study, he tells him, love is for later. It worries him that the popular culture now promotes dating and youthful romantic love, something he feels Chinese young people aren’t psychologically prepared for, especially the breakups. The more he spoke, the more anguished he sounded about losing his son in other ways, too. Even as a youngster the boy would stay in his room glued to his computer avoiding human contact, rarely going out with his few friends. Other Chinese parents I spoke with said similar things about their children, complaining about their remoteness, their social isolation, and their obsession with technology. They seem an alien race of free-floating individuals.

For many Westerners, this is a familiar picture. We have not only accustomed ourselves to the atomizing forces of capitalism and modern culture, we idolize them. They only make us freer (we think), and anything that increases our freedom is good (we think), given that freedom is the highest good (our unquestioned questionable assumption). Q.E.D. But China isn’t there yet. People I spoke with my age or older still think in traditional ways about family and society, even as economic growth and the one-child policy promote individualism, selfishness, and narcissism. They are disturbed by the prospect of atomized individuals facing a powerful state and largely un-regulated market forces without mediating social institutions. Western nations have somewhat adapted to the cultural contradictions of capitalism because they are politically and socially democratic. China hasn’t, and isn’t.

After a few days James’s son was persuaded to remain in school and his father was going to reward him with a new bike. He still would not listen to his parents, but a call from his grandmother apparently brought him to his senses. I wondered how long that kind of respect for ancestors will last in China. I think James was wondering too.

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