In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section China's One Child Policy

  • Introduction
  • Historical and Cultural Roots of China’s Population, Family, and Child-Rearing
  • General Works on Population Trends and Policies after 1949
  • Prelude to the One-Child Policy: The 1970s and the “Later, Longer, Fewer” Campaign
  • Overviews of the One-Child Policy
  • How and Why the One-Child Policy Was Launched
  • Changing Policies and Enforcement in the One-Child Era
  • One-Child Policy Enforcement and Human Rights Abuses
  • The Advantages and Disadvantages of Being a Chinese Singleton
  • The Role of the One-Child Policy in China’s Dramatic Fertility Decline
  • Infant Abandonment, Orphanage Care, and Adoption of Abandoned Chinese Children
  • Distortion of Sex Ratios at Birth: Missing Girls and “Bare Sticks”
  • Looming Demographic Challenges: Rapid Population Aging and Young Worker Shortages
  • The Ending of the One-Child Policy in 2015
  • The Demographic, Historical, and Political Legacy of China’s One-Child Policy

Childhood Studies China's One Child Policy
Martin K. Whyte
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 April 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0221


For centuries, China has had the world’s largest population, although it will soon lose that title to India. When Mao Zedong and his colleagues seized national power in 1949, they were not sure how many Chinese there were (the first modern census was not conducted until 1953), and Mao initially argued that having a large and rapidly increasing population was a blessing for China, rather than a curse. However, the challenges of managing such a large and poor country soon changed the official view, and during some intervals in the 1950s and 1960s, China carried out voluntary family planning campaigns to try to reduce the birth rate. However, those campaigns were largely ineffective, with the only notable decline in fertility during those decades produced by the Great Leap Forward–induced mass famine of 1959–1961, not family planning efforts. As of 1970 the projected number of babies the average Chinese mother would have in her lifetime (termed the total fertility rate [TFR]) was still close to six. (China’s cities, where less than 20 percent of the population lived at the time, is an exception to these generalizations, with the 1960s family planning campaign playing some role in reducing the urban TFR in 1970 to 3.2.) Early in the 1970s, when Mao was still in charge (he died in 1976), China made a dramatic shift from voluntary family planning to mandatory birth limits under the slogan, “later (marriage ages), longer (birth intervals), and fewer” (births—no more than two babies for urban families and three for rural families). The “later, longer, fewer” campaign was enforced very strictly, using many of the coercive measures that later became notorious during the one-child campaign, and China’s fertility rate fell dramatically, to less than three per mother by the end of the decade. Despite this success, in 1980 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) launched an even more demanding and coercive campaign that attempted for the next thirty-five years to limit Chinese families to having only one child. The fertility rate actually went up in the early 1980s but then began to decline again, reaching sub-replacement fertility (TFR = 2.1) by the early 1990s. Most experts estimated that China’s TFR fluctuated in the 1.4 to 1.6 range between 2000 and 2015, although some analysts have calculated slightly higher estimates. (The subsequent decline in births, discussed in the final section of this essay, reduced China’s TFR in 2020 to 1.3 according to the census that year, approaching the very low fertility of the richest countries in East Asia.) The CCP in late 2015 decided to end the one-child limit, with Chinese families since January 1, 2016 allowed to have two children (raised to three children in 2021). Debates about the controversial one-child policy have spawned a large literature that examines many issues, including the reasons the CCP launched this campaign, how effective it was in reducing birth rates further, what human rights abuses resulted, how child-rearing and children have been affected, and in what ways Chinese society and the people of China have benefited or have been harmed by the demographic distortions produced by mandatory, state-enforced birth limits.

Historical and Cultural Roots of China’s Population, Family, and Child-Rearing

The backdrop for China’s unprecedented effort to enforce a one-child policy after 1980 is a strong set of family and child-rearing traditions stretching back millennia as well as debates about that country’s population dynamics and trends over the centuries. Baker 1979 presents a good summary of the literature on patterns of Chinese family life and kinship relations prior to 1949. Thornton and Lin 1994 provides an overview of family change patterns in Taiwan that can be compared with the literature on family change in mainland China. Ikels 2004 contains a series of essays focusing on the role of the central Chinese child-rearing value of filial piety in contemporary East Asian societies. Saari 1990 uses historical sources to convey how rising Western influence was challenging traditional child-rearing patterns and family authority relations in China around the turn of the 20th century. Kessen 1975 is a trip report made by a delegation of American child psychologists who visited China in 1973, prior to the start of the one-child policy. Whyte 2003 presents analyses based upon a survey of parent–adult child relations in a middle range Chinese city in 1994. Lau 1996 is a collection of essays on contemporary patterns of child-rearing in the People’s Republic of China and in the Chinese diaspora. Taken together, these studies convey a picture of China’s traditional family patterns having changed in substantial ways prior to the launching of the one-child policy, but with families still displaying distinctive patterns even today compared with their counterparts in Western societies (e.g., with higher likelihood of living with parents after marriage). In terms of historical trends in China’s population size, Ho 1958 is an early account by a historian of patterns of growth of the Chinese population over many centuries prior to the 20th century. Hajnal 1982 presents data and theorizes in support of the conventional view that in premodern times families in northwestern Europe were distinctive compared to families in Asia, particularly by more rationally adjusting their fertility levels to prevailing economic conditions. More recently, Lee and Wang 1999 uses historical demographic records from Qing Dynasty China to challenge the Malthusian view of Chinese families advanced by Hajnal and others.

  • Baker, Hugh. Chinese Family and Kinship. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-349-86123-1

    This is a wide-ranging overview by an experienced anthropological fieldworker of patterns of family life and kinship relations in China prior to 1949 and how they compare and contrast with family patterns in Western societies.

  • Hajnal, John. “Two Kinds of Preindustrial Household Formation System.” Population and Development Review 8 (1982): 449–494.

    DOI: 10.2307/1972376

    In this influential article, Hajnal presents data comparing premodern family patterns in England and other countries in northwestern Europe with their counterparts in Asia, including China, leading him to conclude that in Europe changing economic conditions led families to adjust their marriage rate, age at marriage, and fertility, whereas in Asian societies pronatal values and institutions did not promote such “rational” adjustments, thus encouraging more rapid population growth in the East than in the West.

  • Ho Ping-Ti. Studies on the Population of China, 1368–1958. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.

    In this early study, a distinguished historian assembles such estimates as were available at the time to present an overview of when and why China’s population grew from less than 100 million at the start of the Ming Dynasty to about 600 million by the 1950s. More recent and accurate data have largely superseded this work.

  • Ikels, Charlotte, ed. Filial Piety: Practice and Discourse in Contemporary East Asia. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004.

    A set of essays, mostly by sociologists and anthropologists, detailing their investigations into what role the central Confucian value of filial piety (basically, the cultivation of extraordinary obligation and subordination by children even as adults to their parents and other elders) plays in contemporary East Asian societies, including China.

  • Kessen, William, ed. Childhood in China. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1975.

    In 1973 a delegation of a dozen distinguished American child psychologists visited China and provided this report on their observations in the preschools and primary and secondary schools they visited, although they were unsuccessful in their efforts to meet Chinese child psychologists with whom they could discuss their observations.

  • Lau Sing, ed. Growing Up the Chinese Way: Chinese Child and Adolescent Development. Hong Kong: Chinese University of Hong Kong Press, 1996.

    This collection of essays, mainly by child and social psychologists, presents recent research studies on many different aspects of child-rearing, parent–child relations, and school performance in China. Two of the essays in this volume deal specifically with comparing only children and children reared with siblings, and those essays are cited later in this review (Falbo, et al. 1996; Wu 1996, both cited under the Advantages and Disadvantages of Being a Chinese Singleton).

  • Lee, James, and Wang, Feng. One Quarter of Humanity: Malthusian Mythology and Chinese Realities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674040052

    This prize-winning volume, by a historian and a demographer, analyzes data on Chinese family patterns and demographic behavior in the 19th century, leading to a revisionist view that even in premodern times, contra Hajnal and others, Chinese were as much or more “rational” in adjusting their childbearing to economic conditions than Western families and not more pronatal. The authors also contend that the share of the world’s population that is Chinese today is not any larger than it was 2000 years ago.

  • Saari, Jon. Legacies of Childhood: Growing Up Chinese in a Time of Crisis, 1890–1920. Cambridge, MA: Harvard East Asian Monographs, 1990.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt1tg5mpf

    A historian of China uses documentary and literary sources to examine the tensions and strains as Chinese parents and their children tried to adjust to rapid social change and Western influence at the turn of the 20th century.

  • Thornton, Arland, and Hui-Sheng Lin. Social Change and the Family in Taiwan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

    The authors rely on multiple surveys conducted in Taiwan since the 1960s to present an overview of the patterns of change and continuity in Chinese family patterns on that island.

  • Whyte, Martin K., ed. China’s Revolutions and Intergenerational Relations. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, 2003.

    A collection of essays based upon a survey conducted in the city of Baoding, Hebei Province, in 1994. In that survey a representative sample of older residents and one randomly selected grown child of each older respondent were both interviewed to examine current patterns of relations between older urban Chinese and their adult offspring. Some essays include comparisons with comparable surveys that had been conducted earlier in Taiwan.

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