Ask the Yangxifu: Chinese Boyfriend a “Little Emperor?”

Little Emperor
Dating a Little Emperor? An American woman wonders what's up with her self-absorbed Chinese boyfriend.

The Emperor’s Girlfriend asks:

I’m an American who has lived in China for several years and has recently started dating a Chinese man (about 4 months ago).  I entered into the relationship somewhat hesitantly but hopefully, determined to “sniff out the air” before really committing to a relationship.  Since the beginning a few things have kind of bothered me but I have only recently been able to put my finger on it.  I’m dating one of China’s “Little Emporer’s” all grown up (28 and not an only child but near enough…his sister is 10 years younger…and even he admits he’s the family favorite).

No, he’s not a spoiled-rotten, tantrum-throwing ego-maniac. There’s no way I would put up with that.  But, there’s a certain self-centric way of looking at things: from a near-sulkiness when a plan doesn’t go the way he expected (it dissapates quickly but not before I’ve caught a glimpse in his tone or his face) to a love of praise and often an expection that praise should come even for the smallest thing.  There are other, more specific examples but I see a man who struggles to put the needs/thoughts of others before his own.

He’s not without merits: he can be very kind (just don’t thwart and a plan or an assumption of a plan or witness Mr. Sulky), he’s very devoted and close to his family (a fact which I find extremely admirable and freaks me out at the same time) and many others. But he does have trouble sympathizing with others, has a confidence that strays at times into arrogance, and I wonder if the generosity I see him show is only motivated by the fact that it gains the admiration of others.

I’ve studied and read about the socialological implications of the One-Child policy and the effects of Birth Order on personality and relationships (I’m a quinnessential middle child), but seeing the results of a child, now man, who has clearly been doted upon, up close and personal has me reeling a bit and has caused us to bump heads more than once.

I’m curious to hear your opinion on this.


China may have its share of “Little Emperors,” but not because of the one-child policy.

In “Growing up the Chinese way: Chinese child and adolescent development,” David Y. H. Wu examined whether the idea of China’s “spoiled single children” was, in fact, the truth. In 1984, using a pool of 468 families in the Shanghai area, he compared child-rearing practices among parents of only children and parents of children. His conclusion?:

Only children in China are not more spoiled, more indulged, or reared significantly differently from children with siblings.

Wu also confronted another popular belief — that only children have less desirable personalities than those with siblings — by looking through the literature (specifically Falbo and Poston; Poston and Yu, 1985). This is a quote he cited from Falbo and Poston:

The results of these two surveys suggest that only children are developing normal personalities and that they possess no less virtue according to Chinese standards, than those with sibs.

So, if the one-child policy isn’t the problem, what is? As Wu states,

I began to realize that the problem lies not with single children, but with their parents and grandparents….

That’s right. It’s not how many children you have, or even the single-child phenomenon, but how the parents choose to raise their children.

In China, parenting traditionally went like this — you spoil and protect them up until six (when they enter school), and then you’re strict with them up through adolescence. Many parents still follow this pattern with their children. But some, such as your boyfriend’s parents, decide to keep spoiling the child — creating potential problems for personality and behavior down the road.

But interestingly, people have worried about spoiling in China for some time, as Wu notes:

We are reminded that concern about spoiling in China did not suddenly emerge with the single-child family. Long before the 1949 revolution, Chinese child-rearing texts warned of the dangers of “drowning [a child] in love” (niai 溺爱) (Solomon, 1971, p. 65; W, 1981, p. 154).

As for birth order, it’s a mixed bag when it comes to explaining personality: “Claims about birth order effects on personality have received only mixed support in scientific research.” Even the studies Wu references don’t provide conclusive evidence for or against. Parenting — and the related attachment theories — do a much better job of explaining and predicting behavior the world over, even in China.

So, look to parenting, instead, as the strongest explanation — that laoba and laoma (and, for that matter, yeye, nainai, waipo and waigong) probably just kept on doting on him long after age six.

Why might his parents have done this? I’ll share a few ideas.

He’s their only son. As we all know, most Chinese prefer sons over daughters (that Confucian tradition that says sons are the ones obligated to care for parents). That preference might lead some parents to spoil their boy a little more, throughout his childhood. And given that you mentioned he’s “the favorite,” this explains that.

Some parents and grandparents might spoil because that’s how they were raised. Or because they didn’t want the boy to “eat bitter” (chiku, 吃苦) like they did during the Cultural Revolution.

But ultimately, your Chinese boyfriend isn’t an example of some proven “Little Emperor” trend, where a one-child China conclusively leads to self-centered young men.

There are still many wonderful, well-adjusted Chinese men who don’t have the kind of arrogance, narcissism and lack of empathy you report (including many of my Chinese male readers). And that means, if you get tired of him, you don’t have be the emperor’s girlfriend — because, chances are, there’s someone better in China waiting for you.


Do you have a question about life, dating, marriage and family in China (or in Chinese culture)? Every Friday, I answer questions on my blog. Send me your question today.

4 Replies to “Ask the Yangxifu: Chinese Boyfriend a “Little Emperor?””

  1. I wasn’t raised in China but I am part of that little emperor generation as well as many of friends and acquaintances who did grew up there, with similar conditions. I am confident to say that yes, there are plenty of good men of my group to choose from if this particular man isn’t for you.

    I was thinking of something but maybe Jocelyn can confirm it for me. Another group of men that are open to foreign relationships are the younger sea turtles. If they haven’t been “hitched” yet. A few guys I know are like that, and there really is a certain tint of confidence that is unique to them that I don’t notice it in overseas born Chinese or those who never left China. It’s just my opinion and personal experiences though.

  2. I was raised in a small town in China so we were not spoiled as those grew up in Shanghai. At least we were surrounded by lots of cousins and childhood friends. We followed the traditional way of education, with tons of rules for kids in rural areas of China. Sometimes I feel that northern Chinese are like Sicilians. Lots of rules and they follow the “Don” of the family. There are always some family-based organized crimes. Southern Chinese (Shanghai area) guys are kind of mild, peaceful and feminine, just like their traditional opera 黄梅戏. Southern chinese men are more sensitive to their moms and small families, while the northerns tend to follow the big families. If you are dating southern chinese men, you will deal with their moms and dads. If you date northerns, you probably have to deal with tons of their relatives, with their traditional rules.

    Most young Chinese guys are kind of “mama’s boys”. There was an American TV show called “mama’s boys” on NBC last year. I found those American guys are so similiar to Chinese guys. I hate to say that some of them have not broken away from their moms’ breasts. You gonna make them moms happy first to get admitted into family, and them teach them. If they are still young, they can be trained. lol. Southern chinese men are relatively easy to be trained, northerns are too stubben. Shanghai women are known to be really good at training their men, turning young guys into good husbands. You may need find some shanghai women friends to learn from them.

  3. What a fascinating Q&A Your response so in depth Jocelyn and the answers of the other commentators no less interesting. While your platform is focused on Chinese relationships, I’d say many of the points covered will fly for Western men (and women) as well. Narcissism mirrors the same, wherever one encounters the phenomenon.

  4. A suggestion to emporor’s gf – talk to your boyfriend sincerely and subjectively about these issues. Maybe record what he says and play it back to him and let him judge how he sounds like. You are not his mother of course, but you can definitely show him your point of view and open the door for change.

    I grew up as an only child – my parents had tried to raise me to be responsible, but even still – being an only child means that you grow up with all the toys, all the care, attention, affection etc. I was the center of attention, receiving all the best. And it wasn’t until high school and started working that I realized “Hey, I’m not the center of the universe. Maybe I should care about others and how the think/feel.”

    Whereas, my friends who grew up with siblings grow up in a very social environment where being mindful of others comes as second nature. For me I have to make a conscious effort in deciding how my actions would influence others.

    When people ask me questions about myself, I always have to think about how to tactfully redirect the conversation toward being about the other person, instead of talking about mememe. :p

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