The long shadow over China’s only children

As Xinran’s Buy Me the Sky reveals, China’s one-child policy has resulted in a grotesquely distorted population tortured by guilt

13 June 2015

9:00 AM

13 June 2015

9:00 AM

Buy Me the Sky: The Remarkable Truth of China’s One-child Generations Xinran

Rider, pp.320, £20, ISBN: 9781846044717

This book starts with a Chinese boy so privileged and pampered that, at 21, he can’t open his own suitcase, let alone unpack it. It closes at the opposite end of the social scale with a small girl squatting on a plank over a village cesspit, watching the maggots seething and squirming far below as they struggle to climb the sides of the pit towards the light.

The cesspit was the only place where a child of five could find refuge from back-breaking labour in the fields. ‘Granny said girls who don’t work get no food,’ she tells Xinran, who meets her two decades later as a student working for her doctorate in Europe. She says that the cesspit maggots, endlessly crawling up and nearly always falling back, remained for her ever afterwards an indomitable image of perseverance, courage and hope.

Both boy and girl are only children. Both belong to the tidal wave of students spilling out of China around the turn of the millennium, the first few generations of only children, all of them much cherished and relatively affluent, a phenomenon without precedent in their own country or anywhere else. They belong to the future but they come dragging with them long black shadows from the past. In a continent in flux, where everything around them changes almost daily with alarming finality and at inconceivable speed, they find few viable signposts or guidelines.

Statistics tell a sombre story. In just over 40 years since the one-child policy was implemented, the birth rate has gone down in China by 400 million. By 2020-25 there will be 30 million more men than women. Unwanted — female or otherwise inferior — babies are still strangled or drowned at birth by their own mothers, according to ancestral custom, an unchanging rule-of-thumb from a village world where for thousands of years infanticide has been standard practice, ‘just another woman’s task, and part of good housekeeping skills’.

The gulf between the present and the past is hard, if not impossible, to bridge. A younger generation embodying the traditional hopes and dreams of parents and grandparents has been narrowed down in each case to a single infant, born to fulfil impossible expectations. Only children bear the burden of responsibility not only for themselves and for their elders, but for all the brothers and sisters who had no life so that they might live. Unspoken, unexplored and undigested experience weighs heavy on them. ‘We are different from other people…,’ one of them explains to Xinran, ‘we who were born and grew up alone.’

Realistically speaking, the practicalities of their new role have yet to be worked out. Many only children know nothing beyond how to study, eat and sleep. Infants who never learned to play or, if they did, only by themselves alone in secret, lack even rudimentary social skills. They have no older models, no points of comparison, and extremely limited means of dealing with other people. One girl reports that her parents were so afraid of kidnappers — a tangible bugbear standing in for all the other nameless forms of potential contamination by the outside world — that she dared not leave the house except in term-time.

Another girl had never stepped inside a kitchen. Only children are infinitely precious and utterly dependent. More often than not they leave home with none of the tools of basic survival, not knowing how to cook or clean or wash their clothes. ‘How could we?’ asks one boy, describing the consuming fear implanted by protective parents: ‘They’re afraid of us touching the hob or even using knives!’

One of these delicate and sheltered beings was Yao Jiaxan, famous as ‘Yao Eight Knives’, a brilliant young pianist, reared so carefully that he had never so much as touched a knife, not even to peel fruit, until one day in October 2010 he drove his car into a passer-by and was so afraid she might contact the police that he killed her with eight stabs from a fruit knife. The case caused nationwide controversy in China. Parents and children were appalled. Most called for Yao’s execution — which was carried out on 7 June 2011. Others argued against it on the grounds that his highly cultivated gifts made him far more valuable than an uneducated peasant who happened to be passing. All saw him as ‘the very image of a tortured mind’, callous emblem of a generation reared without humanity to consider nothing and nobody but themselves.

Similar if less drastic responses lie behind the reluctance of growing numbers of Chinese only children to become parents themselves, because they see an intrusive new life as a threat to — rather than a completion of — their own happiness.

These are the kind of choices that confront us all in a world increasingly ruled by forces that set little or no store by individual lives or values. Xinran tells the stories of a dozen or so young people finding resourceful and ingenious solutions to a universal dilemma presented perhaps more sharply, and sooner, in China than elsewhere. Buy Me the Sky carries a parable, even a warning for the western reader, embedded in an absorbing, often startling, always persuasive exploration of contemporary China.

In an earlier version of this article, the reviewer incorrectly stated that China has ’30 times more men than women’. The piece has been amended.  

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Show comments
  • Yorkieeye

    I wonder if our judges would find Chinese infanticide acceptable in Britain, for cultural reasons of course?

    • Ivan Ewan

      I guess we could find some space in the diary planner to start routinely apologising for the Opium Wars, so yeah, probably.

      • De9

        Would you be happy if the national newspapers, magazines etc stopped talking about the outside world? Why even bring the Opium Wars up with an article that doesn’t even talk about it?
        No one gives a damn about apologizing for the Opium Wars. Don’t bring it up.

  • SalmondFishing

    Catholics still do guilt better. It’s deeply ingrained into their belief system, not some policy one could adopt and discard within an instant.

    • aspeckofboggart

      The only guilt the Chinese Catholics, that I know, do is mine. And vice versa.

    • Verbatim

      Read the article again; it has nothing to do with guilt and everything to do with over-indulgence in a more affluent China. Things have been the same here in the western world for decades, no matter how many children we have.

  • BoneChina

    The following is pure fiction:

    The population now includes 30 times more men than women. Unwanted — female or otherwise inferior — babies are still strangled or drowned at birth by their own mothers, according to ancestral custom, an unchanging rule-of-thumb from a village world where for thousands of years infanticide has been standard practice, ‘just another woman’s task, and part of good housekeeping skills’.”

    For instant proof of the inaccuracy of the first sentence, you could do worse than Wikipedia:

    • Asmund Yngvar

      “Inaccuracy” is an understatement. It is pure, unadulterated bunkum.

    • aspeckofboggart

      Boys are still prefered. When the first child’s a girl, couples might try for a second. How many families have an older son and a younger daughter, and how many 2 daughters (ie, are couples always so lucky to have a boy as a second child)? I recall reading that wiki links have become none too reliable. Mainland Chinese are still very weird compared to the diaspora.

    • post_x_it

      Must be an unintentional mistake, surely? I can’t imagine the author really wanted to say that 97% of the population are men.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    When talking to the kids of Chinese parents on vacation from China, you quickly learn not to ask, “Do you have and brothers and sisters?”

  • zorro41

    I lived in China for a number of years, and cannot reconcile the above article with the situation on the ground.
    The assertion of 30 times ect is hopelessly wrong, as a previous writer has noted.
    In China one child, one family applied to urban areas, in the rural area families were allowed more children, plus there were many ingenious ways devised to get around the restrictions. Passing an additional child onto another unmarried sister ect., change of family name, paying corrupt officials.
    All the children I met were happy normal, and played in the careless manner you expect. Nowadays, the restrictions have been relaxed, for example single family children marrying in urban areas are allowed two children.
    Better to be on the ground to get a real taste of life rather than from a book.

    • aspeckofboggart

      The Chinese worker who did some work in my flat in Singapore has a girl as his first child. His missus was allowed one more try for a boy. He got the boy he wanted. I didn’t ask him what he’d do had it been another girl. Favouritism toward boys is still rampant. The imbalance is not going to go away so soon.

    • DellerboyNZ

      One of my female Chinese students found out (as a late teenager) that her mother was actually her aunt.
      Her birth mother refused to discuss it when raised with her and my student – now in her early thirties, has still not come to terms with the rejection.

  • DellerboyNZ

    Important to point out that the one-child policy applies only to Han Chinese. Manchus and other minority groups have as many children as they want.
    A compounding factor after the first generation of only children was the lack of cousins. Those near-brothers and sisters which make up our extended families.
    Now that the restriction has been removed, there has not been a rush of 2nd or 3rd children. It will come back I’m sure but it does show the policy was not resisted or punitive in the way it is portrayed in the West – apart from the infanticide of course!

    • Perseus Slade

      I think that ethnic minority couples are allowed only two children.
      Oh, and the system is very punitive.

      • DellerboyNZ

        A Manchu student of mine in NE China (Dongbei) is one of three daughters.

        • Perseus Slade

          A Han Chinese mayor I know has five daughters.
          Kept on trying, is well-connected.

  • Verbatim

    Here we go again; ladies and gentlemen..roll up, roll up for your daily dose of “Here’s Another Victim”. Meanwhile, the real ‘little Emperors” – the sons of Muslims – are never discussed because of pc censorship.

    Ever get the feeling there are just TOO many news sites and comment outlets? I’m covering my ears because I just want the shrill noise in a wall of comment to shut up!! Either that, or have something intelligent to say.


  • Lo Bin Sun

    This is just plain rubbish.

    Take Joe, my printer from Xiamen. He has a young son, registered under the hukou household system. He has five other children, two at university and the others in high school.

    In official statistics, that son is the one who is registered. So when you go through the stats, he, like so many other males, is the one who comes up.

    His five sisters don’t.

    Take Karen, a librarian who talks of her 14 aunts. “My poor dad,” she laments. “He has to pay for all of them.”

    (By the way, the aunts aren’t all from the same mother. Surprisingly, what is seldom examined by Westerners is how men can have two, three or more wives in a country that now has ’30 times more men than women’. The figures don’t add up.)

    Fact is, Ms Spurling, there are no records of the ‘unregistereds’, that’s why they are ‘unregistered’. And the vast majority of these ‘unregistereds’ are women. Take a look at those working in the production lines of factories here in Shenzhen, or the rows and rows of da mas doing their exercises in city parks throughout China.

    Reliance on the Western script for China is easy. Coming here to see what actually occurs in this vast, diverse country would be a considerable challenge

    Oh, and something for all to ponder: Joe’s son carries one helluva load through life. If I were Chinese, I think I’d rather be born female.

    • Perseus Slade

      Only the rich and well-connected can avoid the one-child-policy authorities. Once they are on to a case they never let go, fearful of losing their privileges and greedy for their bonuses. And if you are not hukou-registered you are just an unperson with no papers, destined for a twilight life.

      That said, maybe it has been positive in checking the birthrate nationwide. Cropland devastation and pollution are eating away at the sustainability of the Chinese way of life.

      And all those little emperors tend to be selfish and resourceless, anxious, distrustful and lonely, with some sort of burning inner anger. What will they grow up to be?

      By the way, I never counted but the “30 times more men” figure is surely wrong. Many Chinese couples prefer to have girls now.

  • Bonkim

    China is a different world but they have solved their population problem – only wish the rest of the earth knew how to stop the exploding population bomb that will annihilate mankind in the not too distant future. Don’t compare Chinese social norms with the West.

  • Philsopinion

    I work with Chinese students everyday. I don’t know what on earth the author of either this article or that book was thinking of or who has been spinning tales to them but there is so much bunkum in this review that one wonders whether one can trust studies about other foreign subjects about which one knows nothing.