Several days ago as I was walking down a main street in Guangzhou city centre, I witnessed a young lady, squatting beside a tree on the pavement, howling with such unbridled anguish into her cell-phone it bordered on lunacy. Her shopping and handbag had been discarded behind her in a kind of Hansel and Gretel trail. At the time I was with a friend, who began to translate what this poor girl was wailing about. He told me her boyfriend wanted out of their relationship, the result of which meant she wanted to “leave this earth”, as she no longer thought it had a place for her anymore. As we passed, she began bashing her head against the tree, screaming “Are you there?!” into the handset.
Such dramatic breakups are common in China, particularly at the younger end of the scale. In the past six months, I’ve heard numerous and disturbing stories of Chinese final goodbyes. Several university students I’ve befriended have detailed how they were threatened with knives on the day they tried to dump their boyfriends. My Chinese teacher told me that after what seemed to have been an amicable split from her boyfriend turned sour when he then decided to beat her up as a parting gift. Finally, my own girlfriend was once blackmailed with suicide from a 30th floor balcony if she were to leave her ex.
Tradition and expectations
Adolescence and even adulthood can be an emotional time regardless of creed or ethnicity. Yet from my experience, Western breakups on the whole lack the all-consuming intensity they have over here. Clogged with scantily clad boys and girls provocatively pouting and posing, social networking sites can paint a picture of Chinese youth that is both easygoing and promiscuous. These images, I am repeatedly told by young men and women around me, represent only a small proportion of the still traditional and conventional population.
Newly formed Western relationships tend not to carry such expectations from the get go. Unless one person actually inquires as to the status of the relationship the whole situation can be rather informal. For me, being “an item” has always been preceded by weeks, sometimes months, of a laissez faire scenario where no one really knows where they stand. The Chinese culture isn’t one that looks favourably upon casual dating and much less so on friends with benefits. If one partner states from the outset that marriage isn’t probable, it’s thought that there’s no future between the courting couple. Once a relationship has begun both parties may begin the process of planning a future and thus a life together and so a surprise early axing may be hard to take.
The usual suspect: the 4-2-1 family tree
Whenever a social phenomenon arises, so to does a theory attempt to better understand it. As a consequence of the introduction of the one child policy in 1976 came the arrival of a generation absent of siblings. Such an unprecedented policy took time to be adhered to, and it wasn’t until the late 80’s and early 90’s that it was in proper effect. Chinese with a birthday in the 90’s have been dubbed “Little Emperors” by sociologists. Indeed, a “90后”, a Chinese person born in the 90’s, is often used pejoratively online: “crazy 90后 girl does…”. When one reads the characteristics of a “Little Emperor”, it doesn’t take a psychologist to predict where conflicts could potentially arise:
“A 2005 survey by the Internet portal Sina of about 7,000 respondents between ages 15 and 25 found that 58 per cent of one-child respondents admitted being lonely and said they were selfish. But many also revel in being the “sun” around whom the household revolves.
Though the Emperors and 90’s children may be spoilt rotten there may be another reason for their behaviour that also has ties to the one-child-policy. Children with no brothers or sisters may be lavished upon by their family, yet all that attention comes at a price. When the child reaches adolescence, he/she is expected to support the older adult relatives – a scenario that’s been coined the 4-2-1 problem. Prior to the introduction of the one-child-policy, support could be divided between siblings. This isn’t the case anymore.
Because of this narrowing family tree, an immense amount of pressure is placed on the single child to grow up, marry, have a boy (hopefully), be successful, and be able to take care of the aging relatives. With so much weight and expectation placed on the shoulders of one child, it’s not hard to understand why some people feel they’ve lost a lot more than a sweetheart after a breakup.