How China’s Grieving Parents Are Creating A New Web Culture

China’s one-child policy has created tens of thousands of parents who have lost their only child. A growing population of “shidu” parents meet one another online to find solace and demand better state welfare.

“When friends ask about my son, I say he’s studying abroad and change the subject,” a man nicknamed Ordinary Guy wrote on a Chinese forum for grieving parents. “Nowadays I avoid everyone I used to know. I decline my friends’ children’s wedding invites, and I come to websites like this to find others who understand my suffering.”

“When I buried [my daughter] Di-er,” a woman said to China’s Phoenix TV, “I buried my motherhood along with her.”

Among Chinese parents too old to have more children, there’s a special grief to losing an only son or daughter. They’re called shidu — “those who’ve lost their only” — and the Chinese media hesitates less and less to call them victims of 1979’s one-child policy, which was designed to stall a population explosion, but whose cultural consequences are just now becoming clear. Sina News reports that 760,000 families lose their only child every year.

Compounding heartache is the fact that the state mandates a retirement age of 60 for men and 55 for women. In China’s gargantuan social system, single children are often their parents’ lone source of companionship and economic support.

Only when 80 bereft parents marched to Beijing’s Family Planning Commission in 2012 did this group begin to receive national attention in China — and with it, official haste in increasing their pensions and prioritizing them on adoption wait lists. Chinese reports of graduate student Lu Lingzi’s death at the Boston Marathon bombings (as well as other Chinese student casualties in recent weeks) focus heavily on their only-child status. Shidu grief also colors the public outrage over the shoddy school constructions that left hundreds of children dead in the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake. When an only child dies in China, millions of other families sympathize.

Features on shidu parents paint them as a lost generation — suffering poverty and Cultural Revolution in the ’60s, reeducation labor camps in the ’70s, one-child policy in the ’80s, forced retirement in the ’90s, only to eke out their old age in loneliness.

After her only daughter died of meningitis in 2007, “Yellow Leaf” found a chat room for grieving parents on China’s Skype-like QQ Messenger, where she met another bereft couple and eventually joined them at a Jiangsu Province Buddhist monastery, and where her husband now practices acupuncture for free.

She told Phoenix TV reporters how she was compelled to abort her second child: “If you didn’t agree to [the Party’s] orders, you’d lose your job. It’s that simple. Let’s not talk about feeding children after being fired — you wouldn’t even be able to feed yourself. Everyone sang the praise of the one-child policy back then and I was convinced too. Our generation was especially loyal to the Party.”

Cover illustration from the July 2017 issue of Nandu Weekly.

Social websites have proven to be a boon to this previously invisible class. Yahoo China has an advice section solely for parents recovering from an only child’s loss. Others gather in online communities, like Home for the Shidu and Bereft in China, where parents share news on shidu rights, open QQ chat rooms, and organize social gatherings across China. Universities arrange volunteer trips to shidu retirement homes as well, though many elders are understandably wary of well-intentioned outsiders.

Perhaps most remarkable is the Sanxiang Parents’ Plan, a site recently started by young volunteers who’d heard of a shidu mother’s adoption difficulties and wanted set up a volunteer “adoption” network for shidu parents in Hunan. Though the volunteer page only went live on March 20, young people in the area are already reaching out.

“I read your story through tears,” wrote one online commenter. “I would be really glad to call you Uncle Guo and Aunt Guo.”

Among those who connected with shidu parents was Huan Jun, a 25-year-old Changsha bus driver who lost his own mother to heart disease. His profile said simply that he worked four days a week and that he’d gladly spend the remaining three days with any grieving parents who wouldn’t shun his company. Soon he was contacted by a local couple.

Everyone was nervous on the first visit, Huan Jun said. Then he began to describe how his own mother cooked his favorite meals every day for the week before she succumbed to her disease, “as if afraid my brother and I wouldn’t have anything more to eat.” The old couple reached out to hold his hand. He promised to cook them dinner on his next visit.

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