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 subreplacement fertility (TFR = 2.1) by the early 1990s. Most experts estimate that China’s TFR fluctuated in the 1.4 to 1.6 range between 2000 and 2015, although some analysts have calculated higher figures, and others lower. The CCP in late 2015 decided to end the one-child limit, with Chinese families since January 1, 2016 allowed to have two children (but no more, at least as of 2019). 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
- Abduction of Children
- Aboriginal Childhoods
- Addams, Jane
- ADHD, Sociological Perspectives on
- Adolescence and Youth
- Adolescent Consent to Medical Treatment
- Adoption and Fostering
- Adoption and Fostering, History of Cross-Country
- Advertising and Marketing, Psychological Approaches to
- Advertising and Marketing, Sociocultural Approaches to
- Africa, Children and Young People in
- African American Children and Childhood
- After-school Hours and Activities
- Animals, Children and
- Animations, Comic Books, and Manga
- Anthropology of Childhood
- Archaeology of Childhood
- Ariès, Philippe
- Attachment in Children and Adolescents
- Australia, History of Adoption and Fostering in
- Australian Indigenous Contexts and Childhood Experiences
- Autism, Females and
- Autism, Medical Model Perspectives on
- Best Interest of the Child
- Bioarchaeology of Childhood
- Body, Children and the
- Body Image
- Boy Scouts/Girl Guides
- Bronfenbrenner, Urie
- Bruner, Jerome
- Buddhist Views of Childhood
- Byzantine Childhoods
- Child Beauty Pageants
- Child Homelessness
- Child Protection
- Child Public Health
- Child Trafficking and Slavery
- Childcare Manuals
- Childhood and Borders
- Childhood as Discourse
- Children and Film-Making
- Children and Money
- Children and Social Media
- Children and Sustainable Cities
- Children as Language Brokers
- Children as Perpetrators of Crime
- Children in the Industrial Revolution
- Children with Autism in a Brazilian Context
- Children, Young People, and Architecture
- Children's Humor
- Children’s Museums
- Children’s Reading Development and Instruction
- Children's Views of Childhood
- China, Japan, and Korea
- China’s One Child Policy
- Civil Rights Movement and Desegregation
- Classical World, Children in the
- Clothes and Costume, Children’s
- Colonization and Nationalism
- Common World Childhoods
- Competitiveness, Children and
- Congenital Disabilities
- Constructivist Approaches to Childhood
- Consumer Culture, Children and
- Consumption, Child and Teen
- Conversation Analysis and Research with Children
- Critical Approaches to Children’s Work and the Concept of ...
- Critical Perspectives on Boys’ Circumcision
- Discipline and Punishment
- Disney, Walt
- Divorce And Custody
- Domestic Violence
- Drawings, Children’s
- Early Childhood
- Eating disorders and obesity
- Environment, Children and the
- Environmental Education and Children
- Ethics in Research with Children
- Evolutionary Studies of Childhood
- Fairy Tales and Folktales
- Female Genital Cutting
- Feral and "Wild" Children
- Fetuses and Embryos
- Films about Children
- Films for Children
- Foundlings and Abandoned Children
- Freud, Anna
- Freud, Sigmund
- Friends and Peers: Psychological Perspectives
- Froebel, Friedrich
- Gay and Lesbian Parents
- Gender and Childhood
- Geographies, Children's
- Hall, G. Stanley
- Happiness in Children
- Hindu Views of Childhood and Child Rearing
- Hispanic Childhoods (U.S.)
- Historical Approaches to Child Witches
- History of Adoption and Fostering in Canada
- History of Childhood in America
- History of Childhood in Canada
- HIV/AIDS, Growing Up with
- Images of Childhood, Adulthood, and Old Age in Children’s ...
- Infancy and Ethnography
- Infant Mortality in a Global Context
- Innocence and Childhood
- Institutional Care
- Intercultural Learning and Teaching with Children
- Islamic Views of Childhood
- Japan, Childhood in
- Juvenile Detention in the US
- Key, Ellen
- Klein, Melanie
- Labor, Child
- Latin America
- Learning, Language
- Learning to Write
- Legends, Contemporary
- Literary Representations of Childhood
- Literature, Children's
- Love and Care in the Early Years
- Magazines for Teenagers
- Maltreatment, Child
- Marxism and Childhood
- Material Cultures of Western Childhoods
- Mead, Margaret
- Media Culture, Children's
- Medieval and Anglo-Saxon Childhoods
- Middle Childhood
- Middle East
- Multi-culturalism and Education
- Music and Babies
- Native American and Aboriginal Canadian Childhood
- New Reproductive Technologies and Assisted Conception
- Nursery Rhymes
- Organizations, Nongovernmental
- Parental Gender Preferences, The Social Construction of
- Pediatrics, History of
- Peer Culture
- Peter Pan
- Philosophy and Childhood
- Piaget, Jean
- Politics, Children and
- Postcolonial Childhoods
- Poverty, Rights, and Well-being, Child
- Prostitution and Pornography, Child
- Queer Theory and Childhood
- Race and Ethnicity
- Racism, Children and
- Radio, Children, and Young People
- Readers, Children as
- Refugee and Displaced Children
- Rights, Children’s
- Risk and Resilience
- School Shootings
- Sex Education in the United States
- Social and Cultural Capital of Childhood
- Social Movements, Children's
- Social Policy, Children and
- Socialization and Child Rearing
- Sociology of Childhood
- South African Birth to Twenty Project
- South Asia
- Special Education
- Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence
- Spock, Benjamin
- Sports and Organized Games
- Street Children
- Street Children And Brazil
- Sure Start
- Teenage Fathers
- Teenage Pregnancy
- The Bible and Children
- The Harms and Prevention of Drugs and Alcohol on Children
- The Spaces of Childhood
- Theories, Pedagogic
- Transgender Children
- Twins and Multiple Births
- United Kingdom, History of Adoption and Fostering in the
- United States, Schooling in the
- Value of Children
- Views of Childhood, Jewish and Christian
- Violence, Children and
- Visual Representations of Childhood
- Voice, Participation, and Agency
- Vygotsky, Lev and His Cultural-historical Approach to Deve...
- Welfare Law in the United States, Child
- Well-Being, Child
- Western Europe and Scandinavia
- Witchcraft in the Contemporary World, Children and
- Work and Apprenticeship, Children's
- Young Carers
- Young Children and Inclusion
- Young Children’s Imagination
- Young Lives
- Young People, Alcohol, and Urban Life
- Young People and Disadvantaged Environments in Affluent Co...