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Impact of Little Emperors: All for China, or Free for All?

Apr 23, 2012 By Thomas Hale , Comments (8)     Add your comment Newsletter

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Impact of Little Emperors: All for China, or Free for All?

The xiǎo huángdì, or 'Little Emperor', phenomenon is one of those aspects of Chinese culture that attracts the most fervent commentary, both at home and abroad. Ever since the inception of the one-child policy over three decades ago, the landscape of Chinese childhood has changed beyond recognition. Chinese families have tended to become top-heavy, with legions of grandparents, aunts and uncles devoted to the welfare of the solitary, triumphant member of a newer generation. Whilst the enforcement of the policy may now be on the wane, the psychological effects it has caused continue to ripple beneath the surface of Chinese society. These children, whilst enjoying attention and privileges that their forebears could not imagine, also carry the weighty responsibility of transforming their generation's advantages into success, and thereby forging a brighter, stronger China.

A mix of filial piety, one-child policy and economic change

Traditionally, Chinese culture emphasises the importance of caring for one's parents as they reach old age. The teachings of Confucius consistently make this point, suggesting that the very moral fabric of society is dependent upon an unconditional respect for one's elders and one's masters. Bowing down to one's elders when young, to the Confucian mind, serves as a kind of insurance policy for old-age. Yet with only one child, many Chinese parents will feel a certain vulnerability; to put it bluntly, their insurance policies aren't quite so strong. As some commentators have suggested, perhaps this is why 'wolf fathers' and 'tiger mothers' heap so much pressure on the success of their child. Their welfare in old age is closely linked to the future wealth of their offspring. Beyond this, parents who felt that they missed out during the Cultural Revolution have, in the past, tried to compensate for this with their children's futures. Known as 'compensation syndrome', this may well have influenced the dynamics of parenthood in China ever since it began.

Things are, as ever, much more complicated than this. China's one-child policy comes alongside economic changes that have made childhood a very different experience. Typically, it is third-world countries that cling more closely to the institution of the family: in such countries families often live under one roof, old people living alone is unheard of and parents continue to exercise enormous influence in the life-choices, such as marriage, of even their adult children. In contrast, throughout the twentieth-century the developed world has delineated the family unit. Now, in Western Europe, Japan and the US, many old people live alone. Adolescence has become a period where the authority of the parents, through music, fashion, literature and art, is provocatively and triumphantly challenged. This Catcher-in-the-Rye mentality is closely tied to the material prosperity of the twentieth-century; when there is no food, who wastes time thinking about Freudian tension between parents and child? When food and shelter are not an issue, it's much easier to take Philip Larkin's lead and find fault with your elders.

China is caught in the middle, and now displays a peculiar mix of both the third-world's family structure and the developed-world's repudiation of the family unit. The policy was in part implemented in order to allow China to drive into the developed-world; its architects new full well the correlation between economic wealth of a nation and number of children per family. Certainly, China (at least, its eastern provinces) has successfully manoeuvred the transition from third-world nation to prosperous economic powerhouse. The one-child policy has a large role to play here: with only one child, families typically have had more money to save, and eventually saved money has been translated into more consumer potential. It is estimated that in many Chinese households half of all income is spent on the child. There is now an argument to be made that, with a wealthier population, having more children will increase domestic spending further, which is precisely what China wants (and is precisely why the one-child policy may be short-lived).

Will China’s “Little Emperors” lead to social change?

As it stands, however, its most important effect is that a huge number of Chinese children have grown up alone. The one-child policy famously divided China: rural communities were often allowed to flout the policy if a family's first child was female. The present situation, then, is that wealthy urban centres tend to be dominated, indeed overflowing, with only children, whereas (mainly central and Western) rural environments have been less effected. This may explain why, in rural Sichuan province, parents exercise great control over their children, or why arranged marriages are still commonplace in Xinjiang.

The Little-Emperor phenomenon, then, is much more urban than rural. The lifestyles of Chinese children in these areas are now remarkably similar to lifestyles in Western Europe and the US. Education means that working at a young age is scarcely possible. Day-to-day life is mediated by computer games. Attitudes towards parents have changed as a result. The kind of adolescent rebellion that the developed world knows so well has accompanied these changes. The very title, 'Little-Emperor', betrays a certain self-importance that these children carry around with them. In part this is due to the sheer weight of adoration showered upon these children, which, in the absence of siblings, is focused on a single target. More importantly, perhaps, the Little-Emperors are beginning to represent a kind of Westernized mentality; the 'taking for granted' that children of privilege are always accused of is beginning to creep into the Chinese psyche.

There is more to the Little-Emperors than merely the replication of Western trends. Chinese children are especially susceptible to the problem of loneliness, which so often accompanies the experience of growing up alone. Perhaps this problem is deflected somewhat through the Herculean hours of Chinese education: if you're at school so much, you're alone less of the time. And indeed, perhaps Chinese children do not mind spending gargantuan portions of their early lives at school precisely because they are only-children: school means company beyond anything else. In this respect, the one-child policy cleverly justifies an otherwise excessive educational system. The educational pressures parents place on their children, motivated in part by their own futures, are easier to exert when the threat of a lonely, childless home is the alternative to that extra English-class.

The first little-emperors of 1979, when the one-child policy was introduced, will, in the next few decades, grow into the ruling generation of China. One suspects that after the event, previously hidden effects of the one-child policy will come to light. As for now, any attempt to discuss something as complex as Chinese childhood leaves us resembling the proverbial blind man trying to identify an elephant with his hands alone. The whole is simply too vast to grasp. One of the most interesting off-shoots of the Little-Emperor phenomenon, however, is its potential for changing attitudes to authority. Whilst China is yet to produce its own James Dean, one suspects that growing numbers of materially-prosperous Chinese children may well start finding their own rebellions to champion, causeless or otherwise.

Related links
A Need for Change? China’s Aging Population and the One Child Policy
More Kids, More Careers: Relax the One-child Policy?
Attitudes to Contraception: Chinese vs. American Women

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Keywords: One Child Policy little emperors pressures of Chinese children children and social change China

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