In China, the New Year holiday poses a special problem for one particular group: young, urban married couples who grew up as only children.

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BEIJING — This week begins China’s annual mass pilgrimage, as hundreds of millions of people pack the trains and highways to return to their hometowns for the Chinese New Year holiday known as the Spring Festival.

But for one particular group — urban, young married couples who grew up as only children — the yearly ritual also can mean tough decisions, sometimes-painful arguments, and a modern-day test for one of China’s most enduring centuries-old traditions.

These young couples are part of the generation of only children born during the 34 years of China’s “one-child policy.” Following the typical pattern, they migrated to the larger cities from the provinces to go to college. They stayed for work and married.

Now they must decide which set of parents to visit. It’s a decision fraught with emotion, especially for China’s growing elderly population, often couples living alone and far from their children, who have historically been caregivers in a country with little social-safety net.

“Both of us want to go back to our home to celebrate Chinese New Year,” said Lin Youlan, 30, a government worker who married Li Haibin, 33, four years ago. “We always fight about this problem.”

She is from Chongqing in southwest China; he is from Shandong, on China’s east coast. They live in Beijing, and they are both only children.

Li said as the only son, he is under intense family pressure to visit his parents, who are not in good health. “In Shandong province, men must celebrate the Spring Festival with their own families. And the wives should spend the Lunar New Year at their husbands’ homes,” he said. “I worry how others will look at my parents if I don’t go back home every year.”

In ancient times, the Lunar New Year’s Eve and the first day of the New Year — which this year fall on Jan. 22 and Jan. 23 — were spent at the home of the husband’s parents; the second day of the new year was spent with the parents of the wife. But that was when couples largely married from the same village or town, or a relatively short distance away.

Now China’s 1.3 billion people are mobile and rapidly urbanizing. The government said this week that the country’s urban population had surpassed those living in rural areas, compared with just a quarter of the population living in cities in 1990.

That shift, coupled with the one-child policy and other societal changes, has left tens of millions of elderly people living alone, often with little in the way of government aid. China also has few nursing homes and no tradition of professional caretakers to look after the elderly.

China has 178 million people older than 60, according to government census figures. Li Liguo, minister of social affairs, said the number of over-60s will jump to 216 million, or 16.7 percent of the population, by 2015.

While the older population is growing, China’s current birthrate of about 1.54 children per woman is considered far below the normal replacement rate, which is 2 children per woman. (The rate in the United States, by comparison, is 2.06).

The problem comes vividly into focus now, with the annual Chinese New Year trek home, a time of year when, psychologists say, many “empty-nest” parents grow lonely and depressed.

Some Chinese couples try to resolve the annual conflict by visiting both sets of parents.

Chen Juan, 29, and her husband, Huang Feilong, 31, met in Beijing through an online-dating site. They were both from Hunan province, from cities about three hours drive apart. They married in 2008 and have spent four Chinese New Years together: three at his parents’ home, and only one with her family. “We fight about this almost every year,” Chen said.

This year, for the first time, they are dividing the weeklong holiday in half, the first and most important days with his family and the remainder with hers.

Chinese economists and academics have recently engaged in a vigorous public debate over whether it is time to scrap the one-child policy, with some pointing to the empty-nester problem as a reason to relax the policy.

So far, the central government has shown no signs of altering the policy.

The policy only covers about 35 percent of Chinese, mostly those in urban areas, with a series of exemptions for many others. Farmers are allowed to have more children, for example, and members of ethnic minority groups are excluded from the policy.

The law was implemented in 1978, as a way to control overpopulation and the strain on scarce resources. Authorities estimate the policy prevented 400 million births.

Washington Post researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.