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.

Author: paulfrijters

Professor of Wellbeing and Economics at the London School of Economics, Centre for Economic Performance

2 thoughts on “Where are the out-of-wedlock Chinese kids?”

  1. There is much less stigma for getting an abortion and a much larger stigma for being an unmarried mother in the PRC than is typical in Western countries. It is also much easier to get married in terms of expected social obligations (just go to an office and register… at least in the past) and a lot of pressure to do so from relatives if you are pregnant (and even if you got an abortion…). And economic pressure too in order to support the child. This means the actual numbers will show lower numbers of unmarried mothers plus the pressure to lie in the same direction.


  2. truthfulness in survey answers is open to question in conserveative or unfree societies.

    1/2% of japanese admit to using dope in surveys. maybe that is an under-estimate.


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