China’s one-child policy, first implemented in 1980, has long been criticised as an impediment to growth and the harbinger of social problems. In addition to a skewed gender ratio – with men far outnumbering women – China’s only-child generation is also characterised as pampered and unaccustomed to hardship.
If China’s latest hit show is anything to go by, many thirty-something products of the policy are still dealing with the growing pains of adulthood.
Xiaoer Nanyang (which roughly translates as ‘babies are difficult to raise’) is a drama about the post-1980s generation in Shanghai. Debuting in January on Hunan Satellite TV, it follows various characters, all of whom seem to be struggling with the challenge of growing up.
First, there is Jiang Xin, an airline employee who is pleasant but unambitious. His career-minded wife Jian Ning excels at work but is hopeless when it comes to looking after their newborn child. Meanwhile, Jiang’s best friend Wu Di spends all his money collecting cameras but struggles to make ends meet.
The show strikes a chord with viewers because it taps into the collective psyche of China’s post-1980s generation, says Tencent Entertainment. While on the surface the characters tease one another and bicker, it also deals with more serious problems. Social critics have long argued that China’s only-children are self-centred and give up too easily in the face of challenges and the TV series seems to suggest so too. Jiang and Jian say they are ready to start their own family but in many aspects of their lives they prove incapable of surviving on their own, relying on their parents for help.
Directed by screenwriter Cao Dun, the series has some great lines. In one episode, Jiang Xin tells Wu Di: “People always say marriage is the grave of love. To be honest, I don’t believe that. But I don’t believe marriage is the paradise of love, either. But after you have kids, what is marriage? At its best, marriage is life. At its worst, marriage is a direct way to hell.”
There are financial implications, too. In the traditional Chinese family, children, especially sons, look after their parents. But with many offspring still relying on their parents for financial support, the show suggests Jiang’s mother and father are going to need their state pensions to get by.
That points to the huge pressures facing the country’s underfunded pension system, say social commentators. Last year, reforms to China’s pensions were announced after a report by the Bank of China suggested an Rmb18.3 trillion ($2.9 trillion) deficit in social security funding this year. Without reform, the gap will widen to Rmb68.2 trillion by 2033.
Perhaps Xiaoer Nanyang will bolster the case for the demographers who argue the Chinese government should abandon its family-planning policy. And even if it doesn’t, the success of the show has already inspired a crop of other TV series about the topic. According to the Beijing Times, Child Slave, produced by Huayi Brothers, and Little Daddy also dwell on the challenges young Chinese face as they grow up to become parents.
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