Thirty Years of Solitude — A Closer Look at the One-Child Policy in the Film ‘So Long, My Son’

Spoiler alert

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?

The Chinese translation of the song is called “Long live friendship”, which echos the Chinese name of Berlin film festival award winning film “So Long, My Son”. This Scottish folk song brings with it the rising of liberalism, which is often discussed in the works of the sixth generation of Chinese directors. As in “Mountains May Depart” by Zhangke Jia, the song “Go West” by British band Pet Shop Boys represents people’s longing for the west back in the 1980s.

The film “So Long, My Son” tells the story of a traditional Chinese family, with a time span of 30 years starting from 1980s. It was a turbulent time, mingled with individual tragedies brought by nationwide policies including family planning and massive layoffs in state-owned enterprises.

An era of rising liberalism

At a small party in a state-owned factory dormitory, a cassette with western folk music like “auld lang syne” is brought home by Xinjian, an avant-garde character, who is the first batch of the generation to dress in wide-lapel shirts and bell-bottom jeans. Cassette tapes were one of the few sources of entertainment back then, breathing an air of freedom into the dull lives of the factory workers.

avant-garde character Xinjian (source: official poster)

The forbidden is always what’s most thrilling. Restless souls seek to break free regardless of the times.

A dark-light dance, as its name implies, is a dance party held in a dark room, where any form of imaginable indecency is made possible. Xinjian was caught attending such parties and was sentenced to two years in prison for hooliganism. Those activities, with sexual implications, were seen as destructive and immoral at the time.

It’s quite interesting when you look at the west during the same historical time period, how “decadent” young people pursued their desires to their hearts content, in something that seemed like a parallel universe. In Bohemian Rhapsody, the four boys were dressed up in bell-bottom pants and sunglasses. They smell like emancipation, rock-n-roll and the desire for more caused by the material abundance previous generations didn’t have.

the four boys in Bohemian Rhapsody (source: douban)

Massive layoff the irreversible trends of the time

What comes along with the strong collision between collectivism and individualism are the massive layoffs in state-owned enterprises, which were more prominent in northeastern China.

In the once so prosperous industrial zones of China, some communities were built around factories. With most residents working in the same factory, their lives, social circles and children’s upbringing were all closely intertwined. “A slight move in one part may affect the whole situation.” Take my family for example, during the 90s, my mother, her brother and his wife all worked in the same state-owned cable factory until the massive layoffs in the late 90s.

After 40 years of planned economy, the transition to market economy requires the elimination of overcapacity and restructuring of industrial resources and state assets. Reform comes along with sacrifice and pain.

The younger generations couldn’t imagine what it would be like if one fourth of the population lost their jobs in a densely populated city. Many couples were both laid off, which was devastating for the family.

In “So Long, My son”, the factory rallied up all the workers for a conference. The director sat on a grand stage, under the spotlight. He expressed his concerns for the fellow employees and delivered the bad news in a mild tone, explaining that the layoff is proceeded for the good of the nation, a policy of collectivism destined to be carried out.

the conference for layoffs (source:

When the heroine’s name is called in the roll of layoff workers, she curled her lips and disappeared into the crowd.

There are usually two ways to pursue a better living after the layoff, go south, or go abroad.

In the film, the couple resolutely chose the first path. Having lost their only child, they didn’t hesitate to embark on a journey to the south. They started their own business in a small fishing town in Fujian province, and every evening they watched the sunset by the sea.

the couple moved to a southern fishing town after losing their only son (source: 新京报)

In the late 80s, Guangdong (Canton) was the dream destination for most people looking to make good money, there is a saying that goes like this; “Make a fortune, come to Canton”. However the couple didn’t choose to reside in prosperous places like Guangzhou or Shenzhen, they were there for a reason, to forget their past traumas, the drowning of their only son.

For decades, they no longer know what it’s like to feel cold in the hot fishing town. Having difficulty in understanding the local dialect, they lead a rather tranquil and lonely life. Just like the heroine said, “The time has stopped for us here, the rest is just slowly growing old.”

the Southern fishing town the couple moved to (source:

The protagonist’s mistress (his friend’s sister), however, took the second path. As a symbol of a new woman in that era, she studied TOEFL and moved to America after giving birth to the protagonist’s child and left the child for him and his wife to raise.

the protagonist’s mistress in the film (source: sohu)

However, some feel like moving to the west is not exactly a solution, it’s more of an escape from reality. In “Mountains May Depart”, set in a foreseeable 2025, the offspring of the first-generation of Chinese immigrants in Australia have grown up, wealthy, but certainly not carefree. They couldn’t help but feel lonely and isolated in that giant alienated world. As time goes on, the predicament that new immigrants are facing will be more prominent.

One-child policy — a history of sophistication

Ever since the late 80s, family planning turned from optional to mandatory. Families that give birth to more children than regulated would receive a severe penalty in their workplaces or pay fines. Back in the day, in rural areas, members of the family planning commission would bring demolition teams to move away the family’s possessions, or even bring down the house if they don’t have money to pay the fines. Sometimes a child is given to distant relatives after birth in order to escape fierce penalties.

Birth control, which on a macro level benefited the nation, caused disturbance to individuals. In “So Long, My son”, the policy, to some extent, became the source of all tragedies. When the heroine is pregnant with the second child, her friend Haiyan, an officer at the local family planning commission forced her to abortion, and she just thought she was doing the right thing. She couldn’t possibly imagine what would happen to the family in the years to come.

On the hospital bed, Haiyan confessed her guilty feelings that had been tormenting her for decades, “we are rich now, you can get pregnant.” Two grey hair old ladies solved their old grudges and made peace with themselves before falling into eternal sleep.

Time is an irreversible trend, the past thirty years is what makes China what it is today.

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