Editor's note: For parents everywhere, the death of a child is one of life's greatest misfortunes. Nowhere is this truer than in China, where 30-plus years of the One Child Policy has brought about a new "childless" parents phenomenon ( 失独者家庭，失独群体) – elderly parents who lose their only child (now an adult in their late twenties or early thirties), and are forced to cope with the loss alone, as society does not yet know how to address such an issue. The following article was translated and edited from an article that first appeared in the Guangzhou Daily. The article tells the harrowing stories of several of these "childless" parents, introduces an online support group for these "childless" parents that was established several years ago, and discusses the group members' desire for a special "childless" retirement community, where they can live out the remainder of their years a little more easily.
Last New Year's Eve, Yang Weiguo (杨维国) and his wife Cai Li (蔡丽) barely noticed the start of the snowfall and the drop in temperature. They sat beside their daughter's grave mound in the local cemetery in mourning, oblivious to the outside world. It had already been nearly a year since their 23 year old daughter Yang Fei (杨菲), a graduate student at the Jiangxi University of Finance, died in a car accident near campus. After returning home from the cemetery that night, Cai Li sat down and wrote a record of the day's events, entitled "A different kind of family reunion". Grey hair covers the heads of husband and wife, both already in their mid-fifties. Since the death of their daughter, Yang Weiguo has tried to commit suicide twice, only to be stopped both times by Cai Li.
"Every day he cries out her name in anguish... one time he tried to jump off the roof of our building; another time he tried to slit his own throat with a vegetable knife. Both times, I said to him, "if you kill yourself, how am I supposed to go on living?" Their lives have greatly changed as well. Since Yang Fei's passing, they haven't been back to the old market where they all used to shop together. They no longer take part in family reunions with their extended families. "The sight of other parents together with their adult children is too much. We can no longer bear to eat jiaozi, tangyuan and other foods we once liked." Cai Li sometimes wears their daughter's clothes, which has been the cause of many arguments, but Caili believes that when she wears her clothes, she feels like her daughter is right by her side.
In Jiujiang (Jiangxi Province), Mr Liao raised a beautiful and talented daughter they affectionately called "Xiaoya". After she graduated from Xiamen University, she found a job at a foreign company in Fujian Province, and was promoted to middle management within a year of working there. Last New Year, Mr Liao and his wife purchased an apartment for Xiaoya, hoping that she'd return with her boyfriend, get married and live close to home. Yet, despite their meticulous planning, Mr Liao and his wife were ultimately met with tragedy. A few months later, Xiaoya gave her parents a call during the Tomb Sweeping Festival to say "hi", but later that night, her parents received another phone call, this time from Xiaoya's employer, informing them that their daughter had just been in a car accident that ultimately claimed her life two months later in a hospital bed.
"Childless" parents gather together in Hubei
Such tragedies have existed in China since the One Child Policy was first implemented, and grieving elderly parents have more often than not felt that they had no choice but to keep to themselves, with no other outlets for grieving. However, in recent years, more and more of these "childless" parents have turned to the Internet to share their woes and seek emotional comfort from others in similar situations. During the recent May Day holiday, more than 40 people, who'd lost their only child in their later years and had gotten to known each other online, gathered in Hubei Province. Those in attendance came from as far as Gansu Province. Some lost their child only recently, while for others it has already been more than a decade. Some are poor, while others are quite wealthy. At this gathering, background and status really don't seem to matter.
The appeal of such a gathering is that there's no need for the usual pretences of "acting strong" as they normally would in front of family or friends (especially during holidays). Instead, these parents can get together, and let their feelings pour out, completely uninhibited. Only about one quarter of those in attendance are men. According to many of the women, following the death of their child, their husbands either died of illness (likely a result of deep grief) or left their home and never returned. A reporter for the Guangzhou Daily was also present, recording many of their heart wrenching stories.
The organiser of the gathering, "Qianying" (倩影) over the years had met many parents who'd lost an only child while residing in Wuhan (Hubei Province). Among them, one that stood out to her the most was a high-ranking government official she'd often talk to. "During the days, he'd always wear suits while he went about his job in a dignified manner. At night, after he'd return home, he became a completely different person, clutching the urn containing his child's ashes and mumbling, 'son, your father is hugging you'. He'd been sleeping like that on the floor for the past eight years."
One of the group's oldest couples, who'd travelled there from Zhuhai, said that they'd kept their adult son's death a secret from most of their friends for years. They passed the time just like other retirees, dancing and singing at the neighbourhood recreation centre, but whenever someone inquired about their son, they'd lie, saying "he's in the military, and he's very busy so he can't visit us too often". When asked about their grandchild, they'd say that their son's family was a DINK (double income no kids).
Building a "childless" retirement community?
Three years ago, "Qianying" established the above-mentioned "childless" parents group on the QQ platform. Since then, the group has branched out into three separate groups, and currently has over 1,000 members. According to "Qianying", many of the group's members want to establish a retirement community exclusively for "childless" parents. The obvious benefits of such an arrangement: living together, they'd be able to freely talk about their feelings and help each other. This would be much different from a typical retirement community, where a vast majority of the elderly residents have children, who by law become their parents' legal guardian upon entry.
Simply put, life for "childless" parents in a specialised retirement community would be a little bit easier – they wouldn't be forced to watch as other retirees' children visited, and there would be a lot less procedural "red tape" to work around, especially if they become ill. Another member of the QQ group, "Laoguai" (老怪), also discussed the founding of a "childless" retirement community with the reporter. He expressed his hope that the government would take their peculiar situation into consideration, and even offered that he and others would be more than willing to partially finance the construction of such a project.
How many "childless" households are there?
Just how many "childless" parents are there in China? Currently, it seems that no such detailed statistical data is collected on the matter. However the reporter, after consulting statistical data from the Ministry of Health (MoH) and previously published by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), has arrived at the following (approximate) conclusion:
NBS data shows that in 2011, China's total population was 1.347 billion. A previous sampling shows that in 2009, 15-19 year olds accounted for about 7.17% of the total population, while 20-24 year olds accounted for about 7.52% and 25-29 year olds accounted for about 6.48%. Meanwhile, professor Liu Mingfu of the National Defence University estimates that currently no less than 70% of those in the army have a child, while more than 80% of combat forces have a child. Using this sample group as representative of the entire country, the number of 15-30 year olds is approximately 190 million. In addition, according to other projections published by MoH, the mortality rate for this age group is at least 40/100,000, meaning that the number of 15-30 year olds who die each year is approximately 76,000.
However, according to "Laoguai" who resides in Taicang County which has a population of approximately 717,200, there are at least 115 other households who are dealing with similar "childless" situations. If Taicang County were used as a nationwide sample, then the number of "childless" parents in China is certainly much greater.
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Keywords: Elderly Chinese parents losing only adult child “Childless” parent phenomenon in China Chinese retirement communities
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10 Comments Add your comment
This is one of the saddest articles I have ever read. Even though China needs some sort of population control, the truly terrible effects on the people like this one are why the rest of the world despises China's one-child policy. The suffering that results in the long run overrules the practicality of population control.
May 13, 2012 16:20 Report Abuse
What are you even talking about? The only one who's endorsing population control is aroberts42. Of course losing a child is horrible- especially if it's the parent's only one! The only way to even try to mitigate such a horrendous loss would be not to have any population control whatsoever. Who said anything about not even feeling for the parents? At least make your blathering make some sense.
May 14, 2012 07:35 Report Abuse
I completely agree with ARoberts comment. So terribly terribly sad. I find myself crying here just reading it and how I wish I could reach out to those who are grieving. A truly awful plight without any proper comfort. God love them and bless their lives.
May 14, 2012 08:38 Report Abuse
Pretty sure that's exactly what god ISN'T doing. Funny how you can attribute everything to god but conveniently ignore that when confronted by the magnitude of human suffering.
Aside from that, I completely agree with you. Really harrowing story that makes me wish I could do something, but I can't.
May 14, 2012 14:50 Report Abuse
Not only does the one child policy create a lot of grief. the grief is made worse by the fact that this policy does not work. If you go into rural China you will find many children telling you they have 3 or 4 siblings. You will also find that there are large numbers of pregnant women with at least one child in tow.
Nov 23, 2012 18:01 Report Abuse
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