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Childhood and adulthood are difficult for people of the One Child Policy

Many ‘little emperors’ are now in their 40s and are the only people who can look after their parents

The short, wiry old man who plays the erhu, a two-stringed fiddle, on my street most evenings had competition this week from a young woman singing and playing the guitar a couple of dozen metres away. Across the road, past the flower-sellers and makeshift stands offering pineapple slices and baked sweet potato, a young man was holding out a long stick with a tortoise suspended from the end of it, presumably for sale.

The spring weather has brought out the crowds for an evening stroll: young couples, groups of friends, bunches of boozy men in suits. Outside the Workers’ Stadium, the handful of women practising aerobic dancing has multiplied to a couple of dozen, their soundtrack of popular old Chinese songs punctuated by the crack of bullwhips from a group of men nearby.

The men were playing the ancient game of da tuoluo, using the two-metre whips to keep spinning tops in motion on the ground for as long as possible. Like the strains of the erhu above the hum of traffic, the smack of the bullwhip is part of the soundscape of Beijing that has come back to life since the lifting of coronavirus restrictions at the end of last year.

The Mexican restaurant behind the shopping mall was full and I arrived to find my companions, Wei and Yan, ordering a beer and a margherita at the bar while they waited for a table. Both about 40, they studied at Ivy League colleges in the United States before coming back to China shortly before the pandemic.


Yan was heading to New York the following week to marry her boyfriend, also Chinese, whom she met last year and had seen only intermittently since. She was confident that he was the right choice but they still had to decide whether to spend the next few years in China or the United States.

Wei was also considering whether to go back to the US for a few years but both he and Yan knew that, sooner or later, they would have to come back to China. Like almost everyone their age, they are only children and their ageing parents have nobody else to take care of them.

Yan and Wei were part of the first generation born under the One Child Policy in the early 1980s, children sometimes described as Little Emperors because of the attention showered on them. But childhood was difficult for many of them, not least because their parents had recently come through the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution.

Wei’s father, who as a student was sent to work in the countryside far from home, never praised him as a child and when he came first in a regional examination with a score of 97 per cent asked what happened to the other three. Now Wei spends every other weekend with his parents, who have no social life outside the home and depend on him both financially and emotionally.

Remote and awkward

Another friend in her early 40s told me her parents had always encouraged her to forget about them when making plans, reassuring her that they would be able to take care of themselves. Her father had been remote and awkward for most of her life but he had softened in recent years after her mother started suffering from dementia.

She learned a while ago that when he was a teenager during the Cultural Revolution, her father had returned home one day to hear that his mother and father had taken their own lives.

“I’m your mother now,” his older brother told him.

Hui came back from Australia a few years ago to take care of his mother, who had fallen ill after his father’s death. When we first met a few months ago, he joked that she made a miraculous recovery as soon as he arrived home but every time he talked about leaving again, she would suffer a relapse.

He moved in with his mother and his life contracted as he got a part-time job instead of pursuing his career, but he was cheerful about it because he was so evidently devoted to her. He messaged me a few weeks ago to say she had gone into hospital and he was worried about her health.

This week, he told me she had died. I asked him when it happened.

“April 12th, at noon,” he said.

“I miss her so much. I want to spend more time with her.”