Breaking with centuries of precedent, village families are embracing a singleton daughter.
In late 2015, China announced the end of its controversial one-child policy, a law that was on the books for thirty-five years, during which time most Chinese families were limited to having only a single child. One of the most consequential aspects of this decades-old policy was the preference it created among Chinese households for sons—a bias with both socioeconomic and cultural underpinnings and drastic demographic consequences. Today in China, men outnumber women by over thirty million—but this stunning statistic obscures a significant and rarely acknowledged shift in Chinese society.
In the mid-1980s, China relaxed its one-child limit to allow rural couples in most regions to have a second child, if their first child was a girl. The policy was designed to give families another chance to have a son. And yet surprisingly, in recent years, many couples have voluntarily forgone this opportunity and have willingly accepted a singleton daughter. Was the preference for sons over daughters waning? And if so, why? Between 2002 and 2012, I conducted long-term ethnographic research in a rural community in Northeast China to understand this emerging reproductive pattern.
In the mid-1980s, China relaxed its one-child limit to allow couples to have a second child if their first child was a girl. And yet surprisingly many couples have voluntarily forgone this opportunity.
To understand the significance of China’s evolving reproductive patterns and policies over the course of the last half century, it’s crucial to first take note of how preference for sons and discrimination against daughters are emblematic social practices in the patriarchal Chinese tradition. In pre-1949 Chinese society, some poverty-stricken families had to end the life of a female infant to reserve limited family resources for male heirs. Women who were spared this misfortune in their infancy were considered outsiders by their natal family once married, as expressed by the Chinese saying “married daughter, splashed water.”
The plight of girls was exacerbated when China launched its controversial birth-planning policy in 1979-80, limiting the majority of the population to having only one child. In hopes of having a son, some sonless families abandoned a female infant so that they would be allowed to have another child. When ultrasonography became available during pregnancy check-ups, some families aborted a female fetus, leading to a male biased sex ratio at birth in China. Such gender-biased practices have drawn deep sympathy for China’s “missing girls” and strong condemnation against the birth-planning policy in the international community.
While living with two host families in the village for over a year during multiple field trips, I talked to young villagers about their reproductive choices, their life goals and expectations for their children, and their views on elder care and family continuity through sons. As their stories were unfolding, I found that the decisions that these parents were making revealed drastic transformations within the Chinese family and the factors that village families are considering today have engendered greater appreciation and even a preference for a singleton daughter.
This generation of parents grew up under China’s market reforms, which began in the early 1980s. These families have taken advantage of the income-earning and consumption opportunities brought by the market economy, pursuing a new ideal of happiness defined by material consumption and enjoyment of leisure time. No longer adhering to the traditional ideal of a big family, these villagers prefer to have a small family, even only one child, in order to have enough financial resources and time to achieve their ideal of happiness.
At the same time, these parents also have high expectations for their children’s success in adult life. They believe that raising one successful child, who can secure a job in the city by completing higher education, is more important than raising multiple unsuccessful children, who repeat their own fate of becoming peasants and making a living through harsh menial labor. With the rising costs of a child’s daily consumption and education, many families have chosen to focus limited family resources on only one child to secure the best possible upbringing for that child.
Along with a preference for only one child, the longstanding tradition that considered sons indispensable to a family has been undermined among young villagers. Daughters have increasingly proven themselves to be more filial than sons, as daughters have maintained closer ties with their parents after marriage and have become an invaluable source of emotional support and nursing care whereas sons and daughters-in-law have shown a greater tendency to neglect or even abandon their family obligations. Daughters’ close bonds with their natal parents have greatly encouraged young couples to embrace a singleton daughter, valuing and supporting her in an unprecedented manner in exchange for support in their old age.
Meanwhile, the patrilineal tradition of the groom’s family shouldering the lion’s share of wedding financing persists in China. With the ever-increasing financial requirements for a wedding—a result of rising consumption costs and young women’s escalating demand for bride wealth—the obligation to finance a son’s wedding has trapped many families in severe debt. Thus, a son, rather than being regarded as a source of security in old age, has instead become a financial burden for his parents. Unwilling to take on such a heavy burden, some young villagers whose firstborn children are daughters have decided not to have a second child.
The longstanding tradition that considered sons indispensable to a family has been undermined among young villagers.
While families without a son were once stigmatized, their family line considered to be “finished,” the worst curse in the patrilineal Chinese tradition, such a prejudice has been greatly reduced. Due to declining emphasis on lineage culture, young couples are not pressured to have a son to continue the lineage and to participate in lineage activities. Ambiguity around the belief in an afterlife and the attendant motivations for ancestral rituals has further removed the necessity to have a son to practice ancestor worship.
Overall, the marker of social status in Chinese society is moving away from having sons toward the pursuit of financial prosperity. Young villagers are more intent today on devoting their time to maximizing family income instead of raising a son, all of which has contributed to young villagers’ embrace of singleton daughters. That Chinese families are still often opting for only children, even if that child is female, should not be construed as a passive response to the state’s draconian policies regarding population control. Rather, this reproductive pattern is a grassroots choice among young villagers in their pursuit of raising a successful child, enjoying an intimate parent-daughter bond, and modeling a newer, modern conception of the Chinese family.