China's Only Children Face Great Expectations Since 1980, when China implemented a one-child policy, traditionally large families have turned into inverted pyramids with multiple grandparents for every child. They lavish the child with attention — and expect great things.

China's Only Children Face Great Expectations

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR news, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED in Chengdu, China. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

We came here before the quake to get a sense of ordinary everyday life in this rapidly growing southwestern Chinese city. Well, this story is about something that is very typical of young people in China, in particular young people in the Chinese cities.

We'll start with a terrific kid, an effervescent 17-year-old high school junior named Luo Meng Zhu. The English name she goes by in school is Becky, but more casually she uses a translation of one character in her name - Bamboo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: The weekend before the earthquake, Bamboo was home in Chengdu where her father drives a cab. She attends a public high school - that's a boarding school; that's common here. A couple of days after I met her, Bamboo says she was shaken awake from a nap during government class. She assured me that for someone specializing in science, as she is, government isn't very important.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: In any case, the buildings were shaking, the desks and chairs were shaking, she said, but there were no casualties. A couple of days earlier, when we met in Chengdu, an earthquake was the farthest thing from anyone's mind. She was showing me the photo album that she had made of herself when she turned 16.

Ms. LUO MENG ZHU: This is Barbie shoots.

SIEGEL: Yes, this is your art shoot or your fashion shoot or you'd say your Barbie shoot. You went to a photographer?

Ms. LUO MENG: Yes, I went to a photographer. I went to a - art shoot shop, the stores to take it.

SIEGEL: And the result is a bound volume of photos of you as - you're a model. I mean, you look 10 years older than you are in these pictures.

Ms. LUO MENG: Oh, well, it depends on you. You can take - you can talk to the photographer to say, oh, I want to be model. I want to be - and also I want to be out of style and you can do what you want.

SIEGEL: There's a posters of her from this Barbie shoot hanging on her parent's living room wall. She's leaning over a narrow chest of drawer, her tongue licking at her teeth. If you must, the picture's at our Web site.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: These so-called art shoots are common among teenage girls in Chinese cities. And if it sounds a little too seductive to be altogether wholesome, bear in mind that the dolled-up Bamboo is very much a Barbie, a little girl's coquettish take on feminine sexuality. Above all, the photo shoot was something that Bamboo really wanted. And it seems that what Bamboo wants, Bamboo generally gets.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LUO MENG: Yeah.

SIEGEL: Bamboo is also a smart, serious kid. Like other Chinese high school students, she typically rises at 6:30, hits the books in study hall at 7:30, and doesn't knock off until 9:30 at night. She claims to feel no pressure. But next year she will take the all-important Chinese university entrance exams.

Ms. LUO MENG: It's hard and it's very important for you. My teachers say it's - this term is for - this is okay (unintelligible) depend on if you can go to university.

SIEGEL: In addition to the evidently soporific government class that she's in, she's also in her third year of physics and she's taking math and chemistry and...

Ms. LUO MENG: We have biology.

SIEGEL: So you're taking chemistry, biology, physics and mathematics?

Ms. LUO MENG: Yeah.

SIEGEL: Chinese and English?

Ms. LUO MENG: And P.E.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LUO MENG: Twice a week.

SIEGEL: Here's one thing that Bamboo has in common with the majority of city kids in Chengdu or any Chinese city: She is an only child. Since 1980 China has had a one-child policy. Unless you're a member of a national minority or unless you and your spouse, you're both only children, or barring some other special exception, if you have a second kid you pay a stiff fine. The result is that traditionally large families have turned into inverted pyramids with multiple grandparents for every treasured little one, a child on whom much attention is lavished and of whom great things are expected

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: This is the Long Yun Gu Zheng Training Academy. It's a private music school where girls learn to play the Guzheng. It's a Chinese horizontal harp. The school is run by Ms. Long, herself a fine soloist, who has even toured in the U.S. I asked her how many of the students are only children.

Ms. YUN GU ZHENG LONG (Long Yun Gu Zheng Training Academy): (Through translator) All of the students in this school are only children. We have 300 students, a little over 300.

SIEGEL: The one-child policy, she says, makes sense to her, and to most Chinese.

Ms. LONG: (Through translator) Because there are too many Chinese, and the government requires it, many people accept that as the right policy. If you want to guarantee the quality of children, then you shouldn't have too many births.

SIEGEL: Ms. Long says the pressure that only children can feel might be too much for some students, but it might actually make others work harder.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: In the practice room, three girls age six, six and a half, and 10 play in unison with a metronome keeping time. Each is perched on her three-legged stool in front of her instrument. The six-and-a-half-year-old in the front chair is so little her feet don't reach the ground. As the children take their lessons, the parents or grandparents who brought them wait. A few told us their kids practice at least an hour a day. I asked Ye Ping about the phenomenon of so many only children. She's an accountant who is waiting for her 10-year-old daughter. She said, yes, these kids live under a great deal of pressure.

Ms. PING YE (Accountant): (Through translator) Children here don't have a very happy childhood.

SIEGEL: What would be a better word to describe their childhood?

Ms. YE: (Through translator) Hard work.

SIEGEL: All that hard work, she says, is at school. At home only children tend to get a free ride.

Ms. YE: (Through translator) Mainly because they're the only one their parents will do most of the chores for them, so comparing their generation to ours, their living skills are very weak.

SIEGEL: Song Dao De is a 66-year-old retiree who happily admits to doting full time on his 12-year-old granddaughter. She's his only grandchild. He says many more people now can provide their kids with a good education and they feel they have to so that their children can compete.

Mr. DE SONG DAO (Retiree): (Through translator) The big difference between China and other countries is that there are so many of us, so the pressures on the children are so much greater. I've been to Singapore and they don't have as many people. Pressure on their students is not as great as here. In China, the pressure to study is great. So we parents and grandparents are all running around in circles for our kids.

SIEGEL: Back in 1980, the stated goal of this policy was to keep China's population at no more than one billion 200 million by the turn of the 21st century. By their own count, they missed by almost 100 million. The policy has produced, among other things, the first huge cohort of Chinese kids to grow up in very small families. Here's a group of eight young adults in Chengdu who sat down to talk with me about life in today's China a few days before the earthquake.

For my benefit, we used the English names that they have chosen. Blaire Lee(ph), Cecilia Yang(ph) and Sophie Tong(ph) are college students. Carrie Wang(ph) and Jeremy Chan(ph) are teachers. Rainbow Ju(ph) works for an environmental NGO. He's Chinese name is Gu Cu(ph) and an English teacher gave him the name Rainbow, which stuck. Vi Jong(ph) went to college in Virginia. He now runs a martial arts academy. And Kuwey Lee(ph) is getting her masters in Environmental Sciences. She belongs to one Chinese 55 minority nationalities; the seven others are all Hun(ph), China's ethnic majority.

How many of you are only children? One, two, three, Carrie, only child?

Ms. CARRIE WANG: I'm the only child.

SIEGEL: Only child. Blaire, only child?

Ms. BLAIRE LEE: Only child.

SIEGEL: Sophie?

Ms. SOPHIE TONG: Only child.

SIEGEL: Only child. Jeremy?

Ms. JEREMY CHAN: I'm the only child.

SIEGEL: Vi, only child?

Mr. VI JONG: Only one.

SIEGEL: Rainbow? Only child. Okay.

Ms. KUWEY LEE: I have a younger brother--

SIEGEL: You have a younger brother? And this has to do with the fact that you're from a minority nationality?

Ms. LEE: Yes.

SIEGEL: The rest of you have grown up without having a sibling; couple of you have a half sister or step sister. Do you think it changes the way you lived that so many Chinese of your generation are only children? Do you think it has?

Unidentified Man #1: Definitely wish we had. When we were young I don't think we have any understanding why this policy there is, but it's like, why can't I have a brother or sister?

SIEGEL: Jeremy, the same thing?

Ms. CHAN: Very lonely. The reason that I'm teaching is because I want to compensate for the childhood that I didn't have.

SIEGEL: Other thoughts on being an only child or growing up among so many other people who were only one in a family? Carrie?

Ms. WANG: I think for an only child in family, just like I and my husband, we're both the only child in our families, and it's a great burden for us now because (unintelligible) parents. In the past perhaps there are seven or - not so many - three or four children in one family, and then they can share responsibility for their...

SIEGEL: That used to be a normal Chinese family, to have that many siblings.

Ms. WANG: Yeah. And now, that means we too have to care about the four old, you know, old people.


Ms. WANG: May be in the future old people, and now they are (unintelligible)

SIEGEL: So yeah. If the families get smaller from one generation to the next, you're outnumbered by your elders. You - they're more of them than there are of you. Did anybody enjoy being an only child? Was it good for any of you? Rainbow? The experience of being an only son? Only child?

Mr. JU: I think it's good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: We have one vote in favor of being an only child.

Mr. JU: I'm born - I was born 1970s. So that time the food supplies is very limited. So one child is really benefit. When you have two boys and one home in '70s or '80s, that would be kind of nightmare.

SIEGEL: So by a voice vote, those of you who either have children - in Vi's case - or think about having children, would you want to have more than one child? Yes or no.

Unidentified Woman #1: Yes.

Unidentified Man #1: Yes, definitely.

Unidentified Man #2: Yes.

Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah.

SIEGEL: Even Rainbow? Even you would want to have...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JU: Well, if I have one, I definitely want another. But two is the maximum. Yeah, I don't want to have more than two.

SIEGEL: Clailee, Cecilia, Kari, Blair, Sophie, Jeremy, Vi and Rainbow, thank you all very much for talking with us today.

Unidentified Group: Thank you.

SIEGEL: We'll hear more from this group on other topics later in the week. A post-earthquake note about only children: schools collapsed, and children died in alarming numbers in the quake. So many schools fell down that school construction has emerged as a major issue here. Clearly, children are not expendable, no matter how many you have, and nothing could be sadder than burying a child, no matter who many surviving siblings there might be. But in this country, for this generation, each child who died is mourned by parents and grandparents who have focused their love, attention and ambition on that child in a way that no prior generation in China has ever done.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.