China: A Land of 20-Somethings with White Hair?

There is an old saying in China dating back well before the upheavals of the 20th century: “You are married until your hair turns white”. Now at a marriageable age, the post 1980s generation, also dubbed the Little Emperors and Empresses, seem to have a different take on things. And their feelings about marriage may just have a deleterious effect on another of China’s most notorious institutions—the one-child policy.

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Dating back deep into China’s cultural history, divorce was a concept rarely thought about, almost never discussed, and shameful to behold. With its roots in a Confucian system in which the solid nuclear family formed the bedrock of society, a divorce would break the family apart, disrupt the foundation of Chinese society, and eventually send the whole structure crumbling to the ground. Getting married and staying married was not just a duty to your family, but a duty to society as a whole.

But even good Confucians are not perfect. As in any culture, serious problems can often arise from an unhappy marriage: neglect, physical abuse, psychological trauma. Particularly since the Cultural Revolution, views on divorce have started to change in order to protect women and accommodate such errant human behavior. The May Fourth Movement of 1950, the People’s Republic of China allowed divorce in extreme conditions, after mediation and counseling had failed. This did make things easier, but they were still hard to attain—until 2003 a divorce was not considered legal without written consent from your work group captain or other community leader. With an uneasy push from human rights and women’s special interest groups, the Party loosened the criteria for divorce, making them easier, cheaper, and faster to attain. For those who are of marriageable—and divorceable—age today, this has been an extremely popular policy. In the last ten years, the divorce rate in China has doubledto include one in every five marriages, or as many as 4500 per day. As quickly as these spoiled grown-ups want to get married, they want to get divorced, in a phenomenon nicknamed “lightning weddings, lightning divorces”.

The one child policy and the generation it created has been much talked about and heavily scrutinized the world over. Scholars in China now say that the policy is outdated, and has led to huge disparities in the population’s sex ratio, and should have been done away with a decade ago. According to the latest census surveys (2011), the sex ratio stands at 1.13 males to 1 female for China’s mainland, while the global average is 1.03-1.07 males to 1 female.

Having grown up as only children, with parents who largely supported the one-child policy (as they had to, rather than face huge fines), these grown up Little Emperors and Empresses have largely accepted the notion that one child is enough. Based on the trends from mainland China’s Total Fertility Rate, women have gone from having 1.85 children each to 1.55 each from 2000 to 2011—not enough to maintain the balance of age distribution across society.

Perhaps the only one-child-policy generation will be the last. With divorces up and births declining, these Little Emperors and Empresses may be so effective at producing less children that the government won’t have to worry about what the demographers and scholars have to say. China is changing, and changing fast, possibly so much so that self-enforcement of slower population growth is a feasible possibility.



  1. When I first read the title, I figured there had been a chemical spill or something…
    As countries develop, the birth rates drop naturally, so I think you’re right, the one-child policy probably won’t be necessary all that much longer. I think they’re actually thinking of doing away with it already.