China's 'Little Emperors' Lucky, Yet Lonely In Life A world with no siblings is the reality for tens of millions of young urban Chinese, born since the one-child policy was introduced in 1976. Now, they are dealing with unique challenges when it comes to their own relationships and families.

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

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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.

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