Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?
June 4, 2008 9:51 PM   Subscribe

It occured to me the other day that one result of China's one-child policy is that most people since 1979 have probably grown up without brothers, sisters or cousins and more recently without aunts or uncles. Is that accurate? Have other social roles become more prominent in order to fill these gaps?

I'm already familiar with the "Little Emperor Syndrome."
posted by Jeff Howard to Human Relations (11 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Since you're already familiar with the "Little Emperor Syndrome," I won't link to the various studies of the social and cultural implications related to that... But, another social change that has occured as a result of the one-child policy is the rise in prominence of nursing homes (adult care facilities) in China, which was almost unheard of a generation ago. Chinese people used to live (and die) in the homes of their children and grandchildren, but their solo children don't have room (or time, or resources) to care for their elderly parents like the previous generation did.
posted by amyms at 10:11 PM on June 4, 2008

Another unfortunate outcome as you are likely aware is that there are many more men then women in that age group as it was much more desired to have a boy if you are only allowed one child. Apparently now women have such choice for their man that it is just crazy. This i heard first hand from a friend of mine traveling thru the country. Also, another point which I dont know many details about is that apparently this same phenomenon has led to proportionally many more gay men.
posted by figTree at 10:20 PM on June 4, 2008

My father's girlfriend is Chinese and recently returned home to see her father before he died. She stayed until after his funeral and when she came back, she was telling me about her brothers and sisters -- she said that if you are a cousin with the same last name (ie. children of two brothers), then you are called brothers and sisters, not cousins and you have a closer relationship with them. However if you have different last names, you're still cousins and are not necessarily as close. She is 37, though.
posted by tracicle at 10:28 PM on June 4, 2008

I've met a fair amount of young and middle-aged people in China who had siblings, though its less common than in the US, obviously. Enforcement of the policy can vary depending on location; wealthy people who can afford the fines will sometimes go ahead and have more kids anyway, whereas rural people and ethnic minorities are usually allowed to have two (or more) children. I did notice that Chinese TV families have multiple kids although it may not reflect reality for the average household (I'm thinking about the shows 家有儿女 or 我爱我家, which are similar to "Full House" or "Family Matters" )

The one-child policy has probably had an effect on the gender ratio, but I think its effect is often exaggerated. According to the CIA World Factbook's page on sex ratio by country, in China, among those aged 15-65 there was a 1.06 male-female ratio and a 1.13 male-female ratio among those under 15. Most Western countries, in comparison, have a ratio closer to (or even slightly less than) 1. However, it's worth mentioning that India has very similar male-female ratios to China, despite lacking anything analogous to the one-child policy.

It's common among Chinese guys to call their male friends 兄弟(xiong-di) which means literally "brothers", although this usage probably predates the one-child policy. It's also not unusual for friends to refer to each other as "big/little brother", "big/little sister" depending on the age difference, though this again is probably more related to Confucian culture than the one-child policy.
posted by pravit at 11:02 PM on June 4, 2008

There's already a very strong "extended-family" sociology already in place in Chinese society.

For example, my father's younger uncles are closer to him in age than he is to his younger brothers. Of course, he ended up closer to his uncles than his younger brothers. Cousins can sometimes be as close as direct siblings, especially if the parents live close to each other or if one of the parents is stay-at-home and the other 3 (or whatever) have full-time jobs.

There's also already a very deep seated informal "adoption" (cai) system where people can be embraced into your family, or you into theirs, further supporting a non-direct-blood-related family system. More social than legal, though.

Outside of the nouveau middle class - parents with more money than time - the willful-and-clueless single-child syndrome known in the West probably isn't going to be a huger problem than it could be in China.
posted by porpoise at 11:23 PM on June 4, 2008

One thing I found very interesting when I visited China is how close teenagers seem to be with their workmates. They seemed to joke around and interact with them much like one would a sibling, this I find different to other countries. I suppose it is logical that one would develop these relationships with colleagues, school friends, or the children of your mother's friends.
posted by wingless_angel at 1:19 AM on June 5, 2008

I have a friend from Beijing who explained to me that having multiple kids in China is often approached as a status / wealth symbol. You can pay additional tax fees to have additional kids, and so having more than one is showing other people that you can afford it. I'm not sure how long that's been in place but she has a brother who's 20 years old so I'd guess at least that long. Kind of puts a skew on the situation - those with siblings are going to be coming from families that could afford them.
posted by allkindsoftime at 5:55 AM on June 5, 2008

Most of the teenagers/young adults I spoke with in China had siblings, many because they qualified as a minority. One teenage girl told me that even though her mom was Korean and she could legally have more than one child she didn't out of respect for the government's wishes (that's how she put it). I think you'll find the policy more or less evident in different parts of China. I traveled in the far West where there are more minorities so it wasn't as big of a deal.

When I took Mandarin lessons (in the U.S.) my teacher told me that some words are becoming extinct (well, not known or used) because of the policy. The word for sister or brother isn't that simple. There are different words if you are an older sister, younger brother, etc. I think the same holds true for aunt and uncle.

I also heard reports in very rural areas of "wife stealing." Because there are so few woman in some areas, and most who are born leave to the bigger city for jobs men sometimes kidnapped women from their homes and took them as their wife. I don't think this is common, but does happen in the "backwoods."
posted by Bunglegirl at 4:17 PM on June 5, 2008

When I took Mandarin lessons (in the U.S.) my teacher told me that some words are becoming extinct (well, not known or used) because of the policy.

I would be really interested in hearing what these words are. The various terms for older/younger brother and sister are still very much in use to refer to friends, show respect to people (e.g. 大哥), etc.
posted by pravit at 7:58 PM on June 5, 2008

I don't remember the words but they translated into "second younger sister" etc. I believe. My teacher was born in China but hasn't been living there for 10-15 years so that it as you will.
posted by Bunglegirl at 3:58 PM on June 6, 2008

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