Photo Ops: China’s One-Child Families — They’re for Real (For Now)

In Shanghai's Old Town, a proudly smiling grandmother holds up her grandson. Photo by BF Newhall

One of the many doting grandmothers we spotted in China. Photos by BF Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

China’s one-child families may soon be a thing of the past. But for now, they are very real. Jon and I saw them everywhere during our trip to China in September.

The news from Beijing on Friday was, in part, that China is about to modify its drastic — but highly effective — one-child policy. Urban couples may now have a second baby if one of the parents is an only child.

Instituted in 1979 with the stated goal of solving economic, environmental, social and political problems, China’s one-child policy prevented somewhere between 100 and 400 million births

A woman in Shanghai aims her camera at her baby son. Photo by BF Newhall

His mother took pictures . . .

A baby in Shanghai smiles and looks towards his mother who is taking a photo of him. Photo by BF Newhall

. . . and so did I.

between 1979 and 2011 — the figures vary, depending on who’s counting. Whatever the actual count might be, the policy seemed very much in force as we visited China’s big cities in September:  Adults with more than one child in tow were a rare sight.

Currently, Chinese national policy permits urban couples only one child, while exempting rural families, ethnic minorities and couples with no siblings. Twins and children with disabilities can also generate an exemption. The policy has led to gender inequality, with male  offspring preferred over female, and a male-female ratio possibly as high as 120 young men to 100 young women in parts of China.

During our China trip, Jon and I heard again and again from our Chinese guides that life is expensive for the growing young urban middle class. Having a second child is not always

In Shanghai a mother and father look at their daughter in what could be a one-child family. Photo by BF Newhall

A family outing in Shanghai’s Old Town . . .

An Asian family that seems to be one-child gets its picture taken on the Great Wall of China. Photo by BF Newhall

. . . and on the Great Wall of China.

possible financially. The cost of living in cities is high, and paying for a child’s education takes a toll on the family budget.

We also learned that, where both parents are working, grandparents play an important care-taking role. Often they move in with the young couple or are provided a condo in the same building as their son or daughter — and grandchild.

A couple walks hand-in-hand with their toddler in the streets of Shanghai. Photo by BF Newhall

Photos by BF Newhall

Note: I’m pretty sure that most of the people I photographed were Chinese and were related to one another, but I had no way to verify my impressions.

Because the one-child families of China are in the news right now, I’m posting today, on a Monday, instead of my usual Thursday post.

For a story about what once happened in our two-kid American family, go to “When Kids Don’t Fight — Enough.”  Read all about my thing for toys at “My Dirty Little Secret — I Can’t Say No to Toys.”

A man takes a photo of a small child sitting on a sculpture dragon in Shanghai's Yuyuan Bazaar. Photo by BF Newhall

Everywhere we went we saw dads . . .

In Shanghai a man holds his preschool age daughter in his arms. Photo by bf newhall

. . . looking after small children.

A teenaged boy climbs the Great Wall of China with a man who seems to be his father. Photo by BF Newhall

Some kids climbed the Great Wall  . . .

a man carrying a baby in a chest pack checks his cell phone on the Great Wall of China. PHoto by BF Newhall

. . . with dad, and some got a ride.

Twin boys in Shanghai dressed in identical shorts and blue shirts with apparent mother. Photo by BF Newhall

We saw some exceptions — a pair of twins . . .

At the Great Wall of China an older woman tourist entertains two small children. Photo by BF Newhall

. . . and what looks like two grandkids.

Grandparents in outdoor shop tend their grandchild in China. Photo by BF Newhal

The one child is often left with grandparents so both parents can work. Photos by BF Newhall

A Chinese toddler's pink sneakers and powder blue ruffled socks in Shanghai. Photo by BF Newhall

Photos by BF Newhall



  1. Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

    Interesting op ed piece in today’s New York Times by Wang Feng, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, and a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai. He’s got lots of facts and figures on how the policy has be working/not working. Here’s the link:

  2. Katherine Philipp says:

    Loved your photos, Barbara! I also took many pictures of children – especially at the zoo!

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      Hmmm. I missed the kids at the zoo. Came home with a bunch of slightly out of focus pictures of . . . panda bears!

  3. Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

    My high school buddy, Jache, writes:
    The origin of the one-child policy originates socially and politically in a mistaken notion that stems from Malthus and his antecedents. While I am not an expert on this, my memory is that Malthus held that the trends of population growth were in reciprocal proportion to the growth of the food supply. So in a primarily agricultural society as China was in at the time this rule was issued, the measure was intended to stave off famine and hunger.
    In “Capital,” from which the authors of this rule diverge, Marx showed the error of this formula by concrete examples from, for example, India and the United States—why did the one experience famine and the other not?
    Exactly what thinking is leading the Chinese government to change at this time and why the limits on the change I will have to study. Thanks for reminding me!

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      Jache —
      The one-child policy is a fascinating topic. I remember when Jon and I were trying to adopt a baby when the policy was first put in place. I wanted to race right over to the Chinese consulate in San Francisco and ask for one of those unwanted girl babies. A few years later, such adoptions began.

      Twentieth century Chinese history is fascinating in general. Until 1912 or so it was still being ruled under the ancient dynastic system, resisting Western influence and technology. Now it’s having to figure out how to catch up and still keep those billions of people fed and politically content.

      Since our trip to China, I find myself reading everything that comes my way. I’d love to find a good general interest book on Chinese history. Suggestions, anyone?

      • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

        Jache adds —
        We can feed multitudes more than we do. Africa is very sparsely populated, yet it has famine. Why?
        In a world so full of grain and the potential to produce so much more of it for humans and food animals alike, there’s no reason — except our present social and political organization — for some of us to go to bed hungry.

  4. interesting photographs. thank you


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