Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Little Emperor

I’ve had occasion to tell this story a few times on my trip, so
perhaps it is of general interest. I promise it ties back to China!

When Daphne was born, she was the first baby on either Rosie’s or my
side of the family, and as such, she was admired by all the adults in
her life (myself included) with an intensity somewhere between
adoration and worship. At family gatherings, she would sit in the
middle of the fawning adults, sucking on a teething ring and soaking
in the attention with relish. She thought that she was the center of
the universe, and why not? All the external evidence in her life
suggested that this was the case. Look, I’ve known some really nice,
well adjusted "only children," but I’ve met a pretty high percentage
of them that never deviated from the core set of beliefs that were
being inadvertently learned by Daphne at that stage.

Of course, you know the rest of the story. Rosie and I put a stop to
her little gravy train by quickly producing James. As for most newly
sibling-ed children, it was a bumpy transition for Daphne, as she
discovered that her universe suddenly had at least two gravitational
centers. And soon afterward that the other gravitational center
seemed to like poking her, getting his way, grabbing her stuff.

This is what I was thinking about today as I toured the “Forbidden
City.” It is seriously impressive in both its scope and detail, both
of which you can get a sense of from this picture overlooking the
palace complex (friends Jenifer and Alison also pictured).

There are so many palatial dwellings that an emperor set aside one of
them specifically for, and I kid you not, “Doing Nothing.”

So back to my kids – imagine that instead of providing a sibling to
shatter Daphne’s natural perception of entitlement, we provided her
with unlimited resources, a couple square miles of buildings and staff
to attend to her, and told her that, in fact, she was a god.

Isn’t that basically what happened with a bunch of Chinese emperors?
Extensive, MBA level research (OK, one or two Google searches) turned
up that kids as young as two were crowned the lord of all they could
see. Do you see any potential mental health issues there?

Hey, I understand that when these very young emperors ascended to the
throne it was a move on their relatives’ part to maintain power, but
still, you see my point, right?

One of the topics that has been coming up in both our class and
informal discussions regarding possible futures of China is the
one-child policy. Apparently, due to a combination of incessantly
doting parents and relatives and limited exposure to the severe
poverty from which the previous generation emerged, many of the latest
generation of Chinese youth expect to be taken care of, and well. I
talked to a Chinese mother today who said that she “Can never say no
to her daughter,” and though it was said with a hint of a joke, the
message was clear – their roles were set a long time ago and weren’t
going to change now, even if that meant the mother was still showing
up to clean and cook on a regular basis for what should have been an
independent woman in her late 20s.

In other areas of Chinese life, factory workers are becoming much less
satisfied, and expect to be treated more deferentially by their
bosses, in stark contrast to the previous generation who were merely
grateful to be employed. This trend seems to be a contributing factor
in the rapidly increasing wage demands and perhaps even the wave of
suicides seen in some Chinese based facilities over the past several
months. When you think about it, it’s one of the grandest social
experiments ever created: We’re about to find out what havoc,
creativity, and individuality an entire generation of relatively
affluent "only children" can unleash on the world.

Oh and by the way, the kids that fit the description above have a
nickname in China: “Little Emperors.”

One more thing – has “forbidden” ever been a bigger misnomer in the
history of massive tourist attractions? How about the "Formerly
Forbidden City" instead?

Love from Beijing,


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

For being such a reluctant blogger, you are quite insightful!

-Rachel Anne