Where are the out-of-wedlock Chinese kids?

I have a dataset of about 20,000 Chinese adults, a random sample of the population in 2008-2010 from all over China. Guess how many per 1000 adult women in that dataset say they have had children without being married?

If you posed the question in Australia or the US, you should expect something in the region of 200 or more positive responses, depending on such things as how you classify the ‘de facto’ relations. If you posed it in times where it was a great scandal to be an unmarried mother (the 1950s) you would have gotten a few dozen (a guess based on this article). Going back the 19th century you would probably have found hundreds again, because I think the stigma peaked in the early to mid twentieth century (when marriage rates were highest).

In my Chinese data it is just one in a thousand women who are never-married mothers. Let me repeat: just one in thousand can be said to have become a mother without (eventually) marrying.

It gets weirder: over 99% of the married women over 60 in the rural countryside say they have had a child, even though a fair percentage only started having children in their late 20s, early 30s.

If you think through what this means, you learn an awful lot about Chinese culture, as well as the difficulties of doing social science research there.

Why? Because both these ‘facts’ seem so unlikely. Once you postpone having kids till around 30, there is around a 5% chance of simply not being able to get kids, so it would seem fantastical that 99% of women over 60 really gave birth to kids of their own sometime in their past. On top of that, surely sexual accidents and pregnancies-through-rape also occur in China. I don’t care how prim and proper the Chinese pretend they are or what the opportunities for abortion were, China has a large prison population when it comes to other vices (gambling, murder, alcoholism, theft, corruption, etc.), so it is just too hard to believe that on the issue of sex and marriage they are truly holier-than-thou. It seems more likely that other things must be going on.

What other things? Well, think about it. For one, the social stigma on being an unmarried mother must be absolutely intense, to a degree unknown in the West. The need to pretend to outsiders to be doing ‘the right thing’ must furthermore be the same across the 15 provinces and hundreds of villages we have data on, and must have been constant for the 50 years that we implicitly have since we collect life histories: the need for furious pretences must truly be a national trait with no exceptions.

Then think about what actually must have happened if a girl did fall pregnant, particularly in the 80s and 90s.

One solution will have been to force the boys who got the girls pregnant to marry them. Shot-gun weddings are then probably quite normal in China. Yet, there must also be cases where the man was already married, was unknown, or was a rapist, so shot-gun weddings can’t be the whole thing.

Then think about what must have happened to those kids not aborted. If they are not with their (still) unmarried mothers, it must be the case that someone else is ‘officially’ raising them, for instance at orphanages. It is also very likely the case that other family members are looking after the kid, probably pretending even to the kid that it is theirs (to save it from the stigma). This is probably how it is possible that near 100% of women aged 60 say they have had a child: those who couldn’t have children got ‘given’ children by the more fertile members of the family. So there are probably also quite a few people who have a mistaken belief about who their biological parents are, which will be a problem for anyone doing genetic studies there! It also tells you about the strength of family relations in China: the shame of one must be the shame of all for all these kids to be hidden from view.

Then think about what this means for doing social science in China: the example shows the extreme importance of keeping up appearances there, including appearances to strangers coming round with survey questions.

This basically tells you that you should expect a lot of evasion on anything that is socially sensitive in China, of which there is rather a lot, unfortunately. Nearly all non-standard opinions and choices in the political, religious, legal, and sexual realm will get tainted responses in surveys. One can completely forget about doing general surveys on things like substance abuse in China! Covert data gathering and anecdotal evidence from visitors is probably more reliable.

Now, of course, I asked my Chinese colleagues and co-authors about these things to check whether these guesses were true. Once they got over the initial reaction in which I was depicted as the arrogant Westerners who was ignorant of just how pure and good all the Chinese are, some eventually came up with stories of how in the communities they knew all the above possibilities indeed occurred.

It will be interesting to see how long it takes for more public honesty to emerge in China on such things. There must be a large latent demand on the side of the biological mothers who at some point in life ‘gave up’ their children to talk about this and to openly acknowledge their children.

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7 Responses to Where are the out-of-wedlock Chinese kids?

  1. David Walker says:

    I hope you’re publishing this, because it seems to me you have a really sweet methodology for demonstrating the difference between stated and revealed preferences for a big chunk of the world’s population.

    • Paul Frijters says:

      nah, this sort of thing is unpublishable, deemed too subjective. You probably wouldn’t get permission of the authorities to have in-depth interviews to tease out what is going on using the normal survey methodologies. Western ethics committees would probably slap it down otherwise, simply because it involves too much emotions that one is raking up. So I am not even going to try, simply too unlikely to be worth it. At best, I might use it as a footnote in a book.

  2. murph the surf. says:

    Quite a few kids are the product of men with multiple partners.
    They aren’t considered out of wedlock children. My own father in law had 2 families – one either side of the political and geographical borders.Little was conceded about the first family by the second (my side ) until at his death suddenly a concern about greedy children from the other family was raised.
    At another extreme Stanley Ho ( ex owner of Macau) has many kids from many wives and they are all one big fighting mass but are all family.
    Tales of the little sister who gets pregnant and has the child raised by mum are numerous to the point of being unremarkable and these kids would never be considered as being born out of wedlock- the family/ group identity far exceeds the individual’s importance.
    Perhaps it is time to accept that learning chinese would open the pathway to a greater appreciation of the social and sociological in this culture.It may take years , it might be difficult but it would allow a much greater understanding of the phenomena revealed in bald numbers.

    • Paul Frijters says:


      you are just making my point. Polygamy in China is illegal and has been for the whole period. So these second wives are either married to someone else or are otherwise not openly claiming their own kids.

      Re language: if you want to call me an ignorant westerner who has no hope of appreciating the beauty and idiosyncracies of the Chinese culture and should therefore not dare to air opinions or thoughts about China, just say so! If you must know, I started learning Chinese quite a few years ago so I do agree language skills help….

      • conrad says:

        HK only has 7 million people, but if its representative of anything, it pretty much shows that a lot of rich men are having children in mainland China without others knowing a lot about it. As evidence, you might ask why HK and Macau have the lowest birth rates on Earth, and then part of the answer might be, perhaps they really don’t if you include the mainland mistresses. Now multiply that by Shanghai, Beijing, and all the other cities with rich men and women desperate to eke out a living somehow (or perhaps anyhow would be closer to reality).

  3. JJ says:

    Hi Paul
    You are tangentially on the edge of a very sensitive and vexed issue indeed. We in fact know very very little about the real story of children in China.

    I come at this from a particular background. Some of the parents in Australia who have adopted from China (of which I am one) are gradually realising that a lot that we were told about how things are in China is completely false.

    These two websites provide some summaries of what I suspect will gradually emerge over the next few years – that children’s backgrounds in China are radically different from what we thought.

    In summary, my first question would be about the quality of the data you have.

    • Paul frijters says:

      Hi jj,

      Well, the data is publicly available,look at Rumici.anu.edu.au
      Substantively though, I of course have no idea how kids get into orphanages in China (not in my data and we did not ask whether they had given up any kids). It’s the combination of near 100% elderly women having kids and all mothers having been married that makes the within-family transfer seem the front runner in terms of what must happen to a lot of kids from single unmarried women, but I don’t really know and it’s hard together real information off people involved. Because its so sensitive, one should doubt that many in China would know the true percentages either, but I may be wrong there and some academic article exists that figured it all out.

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