A One-Child Daughter of China

Related story: China’s Generation Without Women

In 1979, China began one of the most audacious social experiments in human history. It prohibited its 1.1 billion people from bearing more than one child. In the ensuing 30 years, according to the government, 300 million people – a nation the size of the United States or the European Union – were not born.

I am a daughter of the one-child experiment. I was born in 1978, a year before the policy came into effect, to a former Red Guard mother who wrote propaganda for the government and a mechanical engineer father who retired young from a state-owned company, and too late to have a sibling. Because they were members of the Communist Party, breaking the rules by having a second child was unthinkable. My mother had been a Red Guard in high school; her fervent devotion even earned a trip to Beijing to meet Mao Zedong, an amazing honor for her generation. She ultimately rose to be in charge of the one-child policy in Dandong, our home town. Anyone who wanted a child had to report to my mother, who took records and monitored them.

In the West and most of Asia, single children without brothers and sisters are often looked upon as deprived, since they have no siblings to play with. In China, we are a whole country of single children. Was I spoiled? In a word, yes, although I didn’t get everything I wanted as some kids did. I wanted a piano, and never got one until I was an adult.

We have been called a generation of little emperors, and that could be true. There are so few of us girls that there weren’t many little empresses. According to the 2000 census, there were 117 boys born in China for every 100 of us. Vast numbers of girl babies have been killed, thrown down empty wells, or aborted once amniocentesis became popular. A friend who works in a hospital tells me that they have plenty of girl-baby cadavers to practice anatomy lessons on.

Dandong, where I was born, is in Liaoning Province on the border between China and North Korea near where the Yalu River flows into Korea Bay. While it is a place of bitterly cold winters, my life was very lovely when I was a young. I hung out with girls, mainly those with the same hobbies and interests – shopping, video games, drawing, going to discos. I remember wanting an older brother to beat up my enemies and to meet his friends who were older than me, but that was out of the question. Ultimately, I grew up to major in English literature and linguistics at Liaoning Normal University in Dalian.

Although my mother thought it was an honor to become a Red Guard, as every youth apparently did at the time, she had to go back and redo three years of high school because no education records were left after the Cultural Revolution. I am not sure what opportunities were lost – my father retired at 44 from the state owned company where he worked because he simply lost interest in work.

The one-child policy occasionally intruded. I recall my parents talking about wanting a son, not to my face, but I overheard it. I was jealous, so I tried to behave myself, hoping not have to compete with another child for their love. But when my mom had me, she was in charge of the one-child program, so she had to set an example.

Despite the fact that today the male-female equation is skewed so badly in favor of boys, we never thought about it. There were lots of boys around and we simply thought it was normal that boys liked to be around girls. And certainly boys were treated better. Some of my girlfriends had brothers in spite of the one-child policy, and they complained that the boys got a better deal from their parents.

Today, if you live in the big cities, by and large you’re not really aware of the way the population is tilted toward males. The problems are in rural areas, where there are constant stories of girls being kidnapped and forced into marriage with men they have never met. These are not problems I have ever been faced with. I am lucky. They are mostly very, very poor people who face such ordeals.

The role of women in China has undergone amazing change over the last several decades. Women were largely looked upon as mere property until the Communists came to power in 1949, when they launched a crusade to wipe out human trafficking, prostitution and drug addiction. During the Maoist period, prostitution was almost wiped out, but of course over the past two decades it's back. Communism is just a memory and human trafficking has resurfaced, with women and children the victims. Plenty of studies confirm this.

So where does that leave me and my sisters in China today? The one-child policy was cruel, and it has caused some unexpected consequences, particularly in relation to girls. But considering the situation 30 years ago, I think it had to be done. China couldn’t absorb another 300 million people. It would have been better if there had been some better solution, but it is hard to see what else would have been possible.

In the end, my parents always said they were lucky to have me and that makes me feel that I was lucky to be an only child. And eventually, the supply-and-demand situation will kick in, and girls will be more valuable in society. Unfortunately, that is not likely anytime soon. But I look forward to the day it happens.