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For China’s shidu family, it's all gloom and doom

When a parent dies, you lose your past; when a child dies, you lose your future.

Screenshot of Glass Heart(玻璃心), a documentary directed by Liao Qili (廖琦立) on Chinese shidu families. 

On May 12, mother’s day, several Chinese media including Guangzhou Daily, Xinmin Evening News(新民晚报), Shanghai Evening Post(新闻晚报), gmw.cn, Xinhua Daily Telegraph and China Daily all carried articles on shudu families(失独家庭), which refers to couples who have lost their only child, discussing how these bereaved mother would cope with the mother’s day.

The difficulties of aging, medical care and emotional support faced by the Chinese shidu families are becoming a serious social problem. Among themselves, these bereaved parents call each other ”people with the same fate”(同命人).

So far, there are no accurate statistics on the number of shidu families in China. But their number is growing rapidly. The following figures give us a general idea.

According to the "China Health Statistics Yearbook 2010” issued by the Ministry of Health, 40 out of 100,000 people would die between the age of 15 and 30. It is estimated that about 76,000 single children in that age group die every year, which means 76,000 more shidu families every year.

There are probablly 15 million families that have lost their only child, said Yang Zhizhu(杨支柱), an associate professor at China Youth University for Political Science. His figure is based on the calculation by Yi fuxian(易富贤), a demographer at University of Wisconsin and the author of "Empty-Nest Country: China's Family Planning Goes Astray (大国空巢)".

“Those childless bereaved parents face a grim situation. An overwhelming majority of the Chinese are atheist. They live for their children and derive the same meaning of their lives from their children,” said Mu Guangzong (穆光宗), professor of the Institute of Population Research, Peking University.

Screenshot of Glass Heart(玻璃心), a documentary directed by Liao Qili (廖琦立) on Chinese shidu families. 

More than financial assistance is needed

According to the provisions of Article 27of "Chinese family planning regulations” introduced in December 2001, local governments should provide necessary assistance to the families whose only child is disabled or dead as the result of an accident and the parents do not bear or adopt another child.

But it did not specify exactly the standards and implementation of the "necessary assistance".

On June 5, 2013, over a hundred shidu parents from different provinces came to the National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFP) in Beijing to apply for compensation from the government, following an online discussion among themselves.

Their application read,“As we continue our lives into middle age and old age, our only-chid has left us. As we are growing old day by day, who will take care of us and bury us after our death? We have lost our child, and we have lost the inheritance of our life, the support of our life and our spiritual sustenance …” Over a thousand shidu parents signed their names on it.

At the same time, the hotels they stayed in Beijing and the officials of family planning commission in their hometown received different orders. The former were not allowed to accommodate these guests any longer, and the latter were asked to rush to the country’s capital and take their people back.

Most of these people have gone through the economically tough years of the 1950s, the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and, the 1970s when the educated urban youth were sent to the countryside and mountainous areas, the implementation of one-child policy in the 1980s, and mass layoffs of the 1990s to promote China’s economic reform.

“We have lived like worthy citizens. We have done everything the government wanted us to do. Now we have become the target of maintaining social stability,” a mother said to a reporter at the site.

Screenshot of Glass Heart(玻璃心), a documentary directed by Liao Qili (廖琦立) on Chinese shidu families. 

In fact, childless bereaved parents have much more difficulty with their daily lives, especially on holidays and special events.

“Can you imagine that my husband and I spent the Spring Festival in a bath center,” said a shidu mother, “Others celebrated the festival, we tried to escape from it like a disaster. ”

“Normal people cannot truly understand us.” Almost every shidu parent  shares this view, which creates a special bonding between them.

Some shidu parents get together trying to make friends through setting up QQ groups, an instant messaging service in China.

A mother said the mothers in the group would take turns to look after the ones in the group who fell ill and were unable to take care of themselves. They once had to carry a member of the group who died into the mountains and bury him there. “It was so sad and dreary,” she bemoaned.

“Standing in front of my daughter’s tomb, I wished it was her standing, and me lying there. How perfect the world would have been then. But the fate just won’t let it be like that, ”she said.

“Children who lost their parents can grow up, but the shidu parents cannot get over it,”said Yu Dan, professor at the Beijing Normal University.

The structure of most of the Chinese families is 4-2-1, in an inverted pyramid. Mu Guangzong wrote in a paper titled "One-Child Families Are Risk Families" that, the structure has four parents at the top, a husband and a wife, both the first generation under the one child policy, in the middle, and, at the bottom the couple’s only child, the second generation.

“This family structure is vulnerable,” Mu pointed out.

Mu said that even if China relaxed controls on the qualified families to have a second child, it will hardly change the fact that the country is not prepared to address the aging problem of the one-child families.


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