Monday, November 02, 2015

Of China's One-Child Policy

Kinda kept up with London-based Xinran's (full name Xue Xinran, 薛欣然) column in The Guardian a decade ago, then randomly read some of her books compiled from those columns. Some I like, many not so.

Before I attended Xinran's talk at Singapore Writers Festival 2015 on 'The First Generation of Adults of China's One-Child Policy', I read her latest book which has been inspired by that 1979 policy, 'Buy Me The Sky'translated by Esther Tyldesley and David Dobson. While this isn't exactly a methodical record of anthropological research, it's undeniable that the stories are plausible tales of circumstance one would have heard as we delve further into the psyche and social analysis of how only children born between 1979-1984 think and behave.  (Comments and reviews here, here, here and here.)

China's one-child policy was practiced since 1979, but not enshrined in law till December 2001 and put into effect in September 2002 under its 'Population and Family Planning Law'. To me, it's pretty fascinating. There was the Cultural Revolution which completely changed China's value systems and re-wired its people and society. It's now a time of communism versus capitalism, the migration to the cities and what's left in the rural villages, of two generations' mindsets, mores and behaviors. As of 30 October 2015, China announced that it would officially end its one-child policy to allow all couples to have two children. What then, of the next generation? That's another question to be answered two to three decades down the road. The author prefaced the book with these lines,

An age of loneliness created a generation of lonely people, Solitary, they keep lonesome watch over their own selves in a sea of plenty,
Building tunnels and bridges between lonely islands and the mainland,
This is what today's only sons and daughters are doing.

These only children (of Han Chinese mainly in towns and cities) have been called 'little emperors' who've been utterly spoilt. When the author ranted to her friend about children wanting the stars and the moon, and adult taking them seriously, the friend related her own story of how her four-and-a-half-year-old grandson kicked up such a fuss for days about wanting the moon, they had to trick him with a Japanese round paper lampshade for a light, telling him that's the moon's child sent to play with him.

"In order to keep him happy, all the family invited the moon-children to visit, and we ended up buying loads of lanterns. When some visitors from my hometown came over, they thought we were in mourning with all these white lanterns around! There's nothing you can do about it, Xinran. These single-sprout children are more precious than gold." 

Split into different chapters, the book is organized according to the authors 'interviews' with the various adults she met, or already knew, or kept in touch with. Terming them "single sprouts", she gave them names of Lily, Moon, Shiny, Flying Fish, Firewood and Glittering, etc. Their stories are related, then pursued as part of a larger picture within the society. Each chapter about them ends with the same question posed, "How do you view the Yao Jiaxin incident? Why is Chinese society debating him (a post-80s man) so fiercely?" Their answers varied, and it was interesting to see each individual's reaction. (Wikipedia explains the 2011 trial and execution of Yao Jiaxin, and the ensuing debate of the death penalty in China.)

The author is a former journalist and radio presenter. The book comes across as a tad critical of this generation of only children. It questions if morality and conscience have been eroded in this generation that has more material wealth than pre-1979. It reads like a newspaper commentary or op-ed. The afterword doesn't try to reach conclusions. There're no answers. The author shares her own experiences and more stories. She mentioned the Chinese word 'jiong' (囧), which simply means 'bright/light through the window', but now, it's an emoticon and used to describe everything from being embarrassed to depressed and melancholic. Truly full of win.

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