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Only Hope: Coming of Age Under China’s One-Child Policy

reviewed by Vilma Seeberg - 2006

coverTitle: Only Hope: Coming of Age Under China’s One-Child Policy
Author(s): Vanessa L. Fong
Publisher: Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA
ISBN: 0804749612, Pages: 242, Year: 2004
Search for book at Amazon.com

Only Hope: Coming of Age Under China’s One-Child Policy by Vanessa L. Fong is a read I could hardly put down.  Vanessa Fong has put her finger on a subject of much popular and scholarly interest. How are the only children and their families faring under the Chinese one-child policy? The policy has often been described as a draconian, huge-scale experiment in social engineering mandated by a central government. Dire consequences in population imbalances have been predicted.  Fong takes a close-up look at 31 families and surveys 2,273 students in three schools over 27 months. The depth of her insight and breadth of knowledge elevate this work to a place of importance that far exceeds its title and stated purpose. The work speaks to China scholars, social scientists, modernization scholars, and international educators, but also to a wide swath of the general public. The author writes with ease, the stories of the families and teens are fascinating, and the ideas that frame them illuminate without overpowering.

The book is a very readable account of an ethnographic study originally done for a dissertation,  "examining the effects of near-universal singleton status on the subjectivities, experiences, and aspirations of teenagers … in a large coastal city [Dalien] in northeastern China" (Fong, p. 2). The Chinese press and popular culture coined the term “little emperors” and popularized the myth of the spoiled only child.  Fong sees past this caricature and allows us to meet real teenagers responding to pressures as varied as their own personalities. For Fong the key issue becomes not the children’s singleton status per se, but the fact that they are singletons in a society long used to large families. She explores not the difference between one- and more-child families, but the difference between the current small families and the much larger families of their parents.

The book goes much farther than the stated purpose. The global context is finely interwoven with the families’ lives, explaining complex individual decisions and consequences. The one-child policy provides the counter pole to the stories of the families’ struggles. Her central claim is that the policy was designed "to create a generation of ambitious, well-educated children who would lead their country into the First World, [and it] succeeded, but at a price" (pp. 2-3). To illustrate that point, she skillfully weaves macroeconomics in with the fertility transition taking place as part of a global modernization process (See pp. 13-21 for a concise review of a broad literature on the cultural model of modernization.), and shows how it structures the families’ ambitions.  Fong writes:  “My study of Chinese singletons highlights how the cultural model of modernization associated with the fertility transition is both a cause and an effect of the unrealistically high expectations often said to characterize modern youth worldwide” (p. 3). Particularly fascinating is the wealth of knowledge of traditional Chinese family culture and the generational transition in values revealed in the comments of parents, grandparents, and children.

There are several centrally important issues to understanding the modern transformation of an ancient culture that emerged in the stories. I will highlight only three here.

A fundamental change in Chinese culture is underway, namely a significant increase in the social status of women that impacts a whole web of relationships. The change is related in part to the Communist development model of the past fifty-odd years, which insisted on employment for urban women. Fong found support for this in the population development literature, where it is theorized that bias against daughters decreases as they start earning money (Stafford, 1995, in Taiwan; Kishor, 1993; Rosenweig & Schultz, 1982; Murthi, Guio, Dreze, 1995, all in India). In addition, women have been empowered by the post-reform one-child policy. Fong found that parental approval of singleton daughters was greater because, one, they are their only hope, and two, because daughters are more caring and more reliable than sons.


Female singletons enjoyed unprecedented parental support, both because they had no brothers to compete with, and because they grew up in a socioeconomic system that provided daughters with the means to follow the cultural model of filial duty once reserved for sons (Fong, 2002). (p. 130).  A maternal grandmother told Fong, “Since women were more likely to provide nursing care, ‘a good daughter-in-law is better than a good son, and a good daughter is best of all.’” (p.133). In another instance, a father – daughter dispute ends in his dismissal of her as ”water spilled on the ground” and her tearful rejoinder, “that’s not true! …I’ll be filial even after I’m married, just like Ma is to Grandma!” (p.153).

In the generation of large families, for urban dwellers sometimes two generations ago, daughters at marriage made a final break from their parental family. Fong found that the urban parents did not lose their daughters but gained sons-in-law and grandchildren. Though one-third of fathers said they preferred a son, they invested as much time and caring in their daughters as did mothers (pp. 136-137). Mothers downplayed the significance of a patrilineal ideology and focused rather on “what Margery Wolf called the ‘uterine family’ (1972). “Third Aunt’s daughter protested. “I owe everything to my parents. I’ll always take care of my parents, no matter what it takes” (p. 152).

A second issue I want to highlight particularly for non-Chinese readers represents the other side of the coin of the “little emperor syndrome.” It is the extent to which parents sacrifice to further their child’s future. “Spending money on a child was simultaneously an expression of unconditional love and an investment in parents’ own future” (p.135). The mother of a singleton daughter said, “we only have one child, so who else are we going to spend our money on if not her?” (p. 140). “Parents told me that they were willing to sacrifice their own lives for those of their children” (p. 140). Some of the mothers literally risked their own lives by “skimping on their own food and healthcare, and did exhausting work in factories on the streets in harsh weather” (p. 143). Parents, whether educated or not, spent hours nightly sitting next to their children making certain they would study. They forbade their children to do any housework, deprived themselves of visits to the bathhouse in favor of their children (p. 144).

A third issue is the excessive pressure on academic excellence under heavily competitive circumstances.  Following is a sample of the voices Fong lets speak. “I’ve been too lazy, and wasted too much time,” said a high-scoring girl. “We must remember that a high score on the entrance exam is the only thing that can get us into college. Nothing else will help us get into college, so nothing else matters” (p. 125). A mother lost her factory work and couldn’t give her daughter money to buy snacks during school. The father, however, insisted, “’give her the money! … It’s a small price to pay if it helps her get into college.’ [The daughter] continued to get her snack allowance, while her parents skipped lunch on weekdays in order to save money” (p. 160). A junior high school daughter tried to set the table for dinner, but her mother shoved her away. “Every minute should be spent on your studies…. Don’t waste your time in the kitchen” (p.165).

The stories of the students, parents, and grandparents, whose voices are given ample room, are supported by an impressive array of references to a broad range of scholarly literature, including theoretical and comparative empirical studies.  One of many of Fong’s strengths is her facility to bring in theory and experiences from other parts of the world in such a way that they throw further light on the issue at hand. For example, she explains that the cultural model of modernization motivates people to desire First World affluence and believe that they can attain it by participating in the modern economy. Hence education and diploma ambitions rise to unheard of importance.


Individuals living in a society isolated from the capitalist world system [as China was for a good part of the parents’ generation] could attain … goals [of prestige, pleasure, security, affluence, and good health] by following local cultural models of religion, politics, kinship, and economic production. But once a society is incorporated into the capitalist world system, standards … are redefined and inflated, so that modernization becomes the best, and sometimes the only, means of reaching these goals. (p. 15)

Fong is conversant in stratification and world systems theory, modernization and development theory, population theory, anthropology, educational reform and reproduction theory, Chinese contemporary history and culture, and is adept at showing how the various frameworks intercept in demographic and human consequences. A brief look at only one page of the bibliography illustrates: Articles from Human Biology, Population and Development Review, Harvard Educational Review, Cultural Anthropology, books on modernization in the Middle East, comparative studies of parenting, child care and culture in Africa, motherhood in England, the daily paper of a major city in China, Chinese language works on only-children, the works of Mao Zedong. Her introductory chapter cites among many others Arjun Appadurai, Arturo Gramsci, Pierre Bourdieu, Claudia Strauss and Naomi Quinn, Thomas Friedman, William Goode, Alex Inkeles, Talcott Parsons, and Walt W. Rostow. The bibliography is instructive for any social science course and there is a useful index.

In this Chinese rust-belt city, the globalizing cultural model of modernization for singleton families played itself out like this: “Those fluent in First World languages got the best jobs, and those who returned from study abroad got much better jobs than they would have gotten with comparable Chinese education” (p. 18) and “many singletons were their families’ last best hope for upward mobility” (p.29) and their own precarious old age.

The subject categories hint at the wide readership this book might enjoy but it would be instructive in any course on globalization and modernization offered in the social foundations of education, political science, and other social sciences.


Fong, V.L. (2002). China’s one-child policy and the empowerment of urban daughters. American Anthropologist, 104 (4), 1098-1109.

Kishor, S. (1993). “May God give sons to all”: Gender and child mortality in India. American Sociological Review, 58 (2), 247-265.

Murthi, M., Guio, A.-C., Dreze, J. (1995). Mortality, fertility, and gender bias in India: A district level analysis. Population and development review, 21 (4), 745-782.

Rosenweig, M., & Schultz, T.P. (1982). Market opportunities, genetic endowments, and intra-family resource distribution: Child survival in rural India, American Economic Review, 72, 803-815.

Stafford, C. (1995). The roads of Chinese childhood: Learning and identification in Angang. Cambridge: Cambridge University.

Wolf, M. (1972). Women and the family in rural Taiwan. Stanford: Stanford University.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 1, 2006, p. 79-83
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12012, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 10:58:27 PM

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About the Author
  • Vilma Seeberg
    Kent State University
    E-mail Author
    VILMA SEEBERG is Associate Professor for International/Intercultural Education at Kent State University. She has published on various aspects of Chinese education, including The rhetoric and reality of mass education in Mao's China published by The Edwin Mellen Press in 2000, the second of two books on basic education in China. Her most recent manuscript “Tibetan girls’ education: Challenging prevailing theory” will be published in a forthcoming book titled China’s educational inequality: Schooling in a market economy. Her intellectual interests include social theory, Chinese studies, girls’ education, and development education. Her work draws from the fields of comparative education, China studies, sociology, anthropology, and political science. She serves on boards of the Comparative and International Education Society and the American Association of University Women.
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