To be a little emperor

I had one thing in common with almost every Chinese-born person I met this summer in Beijing: I am an only child. “You are Chinese!” they would joke, smiling welcomingly as I had suddenly gained membership to their private club. It is true that a majority of Chinese people born in the past few decades share the experience of being an only child. In spite of the recent change to a two-child policy, the new paradigm built around only children is not disappearing anytime soon.

The fact is, the one-child policy has changed more than just demographics: it has transformed China’s culture. Thirty-five years of living under these laws has made a desired standard out of what was once an unwanted limitation. Many couples no longer want the financial strain of additional children, even as the government hopes that families will get back on the baby bandwagon and restore youthfulness to its labor force.

In China, only children get a bad rap. They are known as “xiao huangdi” — “little emperors.” Far from complimentary, the term highlights the fact that they are doted on and spoiled by their parents. It turns out that the negative language is not entirely without precedent. TIME magazine discusses a study in which adults born before the implementation of the policy were compared with adults born right after. Through a series of targeted games, it revealed that the only children held a series of negative characteristics that made them poorer applicants for jobs.

Interestingly, according to some studies, only American children do not exhibit the same traits. In fact, these studies show that sibling-less kids in the United States are often predisposed to greater social and academic success than their peers. Jeffrey Kluger, author of “The Sibling Effect” (2011), attributes this to the fact that they “grow up in a culture with a whole mix of family types, who learn that whatever pampering they get from their parents is not what all kids get.” The excess of only children in China, then, and not their lack of siblings alone, is responsible for producing a unique brand of individual.

Others, like journalist Mei Fong, do not believe that Chinese only children are as spoiled as they are made out to be. In an interview with the New Yorker, she emphasizes the pervasive nature of the one-child policy, which seeps into every individual’s life choices, “like who you marry, what kind of job you have, [and] how…you grow old comfortably.” She believes that the “little emperor” generation carries a burden: both of being their parents’ only prospect and of being their only caretaker.

Living as an only child in China carries different weight than it did for me as an only child who grew up in New York City. Our personal experiences may have been similar: a strong ambivalence about single-child status, fluctuating between the adamant belief that siblings are overrated and an equally intense sense of loneliness. But being an only child in China goes far beyond that. It means bearing the burden of representing an entire generation. Children born of the one-child policy live under a magnifying glass — not only that of their own families, but also of their entire nation. I cannot claim to be part of that club.


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