There’s a lot of babies in this chapter. I myself am not overly fond of newborns (I’m told my opinion will change when my friends or I start having children. I’ll wait to believe it.) but it seems that China, between 1949 and 1979, was. If you’ve ever wondered what was happening to China’s population when the one-child-policy was bought in, here’s the breakdown according to Li:
From 1949 – the end of the civil war and beginning of the new People’s Republic of China under Chairman Mao – until the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 the population grew by 19.2 percent, meaning it went from 583 million to 694 million. Or, as I like to think of it, going from about 22 Australias to 26 Australias. (This is a very unhelpful conversion I am aware.) The Great Famine from 1959 – 61 is estimated (by the government, other researchers have higher numbers) to have been the cause of 15 million death; despite this, the population grew. One may well assume that it would have the opposite effect – the less children the less mouths to feed – but in Li’s opinion what “drove this growth was a combination of Chinese tradition and deliberate political policy. Traditionally, the Chinese favoured big families. The more workers a family had, the more food it could produce.”
What is not said in this particular book, is that Chinese families favoured sons. Not that this is a particular Chinese characteristic: it’s a repeating theme across cultures, across continents, across ages. Sons in China helped to grow the family; daughters, on the other hand, when they married belonged to their husband’s family. It was their mother-in-law and father-in-law that they now were responsible for in their older age. It was their household that they worked for. The more sons you had, not only the more breadwinners you had, but also the more daughters-in-law you brought into under your service, ideally resulting in a more prosperous family. Li’s grandparents married at age 13, with their first son at 15. This was common in Chinese villages, where most of China’s population resided during the 1950s and 60s.
The political drive for the higher birth rate, Li says, came from Chairman Mao’s belief
“that the key reason [China] had been able to thwart the Japanese invasion during World War II was sheer numbers… Mao strongly encouraged Chinese families to have more babies, over the objections of some famous Chinese economists and scholars. This direction was greatly influenced by similar policies in the Soviet Union, where having more children was also strongly encouraged. Women with lots of kids were crowned as ‘Hero Mothers’ in both the USSR and China.”
From 1966 to 1979 (the year the One-Child Policy became implemented) the population soared from 964 million to 1.008 billion.
So, why is this particular generation important to Australia today? While they had few opportunities to travel overseas in their youth, they were the generation instrumental in paying for their children to have those options. Nowadays, they can be found overseas maintaining the Chinese tradition of caring for grandchildren while the parents both work. They’ve come to retire as well, to be close to their children and to be taken care of in turn. The value system they learnt growing up through the Famine and the Cultural Revolution has shaped the mindset of this generation: grow food, work harder and make more money to improve your life.
Photo taken in Haikou, Hainan, January 2015. Not a photographer – just going through the photos I have and finding a new purpose for them.