Identical Twins and Individuality

Posted in Culture Clash, Society at 2:45 am by Benjamin Ross

When Chinese people hear I come from a family with three sons, they are often somewhat envious. When they find out my younger brothers are identical twins, the envy grows even more. In a country where child birth is limited by the Family Planning Policy, having twins is the equivalent of winning the national jackpot. For many families, having a second child can lead to heavy fines and possibly the loss of employment (in the case of government workers). The birth of twins is the legal way to beat the system, and does not bring with it any penalties.

Twins in China are easy to spot because they are invariably dressed alike by their parents. In the US, this also occurs, but if far less common. When my brothers and I were growing up, my parents would often buy similar outfits for my them, but would always make sure to get them in different colors or different patterns, so that they were never dressed exactly alike. The idea was that dressing them alike would discourage others from treating them as individuals and also create tension as they fought to distinguish themselves from one another.

Chinese identical twins
In China, identical twins are often regarded as “exactly the same” and dressed accordingly.

Last week, I spent 2 days in Wuyi Shan with my friend Frank visiting his friend Jiu Jie. Jiu Jie is a woman in her early forties who has twin daughters (pictured, right) who are 10 years old. Every time we saw them, they were dressed in identical white dresses with black dots.

While she was schlepping Frank and I around town in her Volvo, I brought up the topic dressing identical twins alike with Jiu Jie.

“I noticed that most identical twins in China are dressed the same.” I mentioned to her.

“Yes, that’s right. Is it not that way in the United States?” she replied.

“Sometimes it is, but usually they are dressed differently,” I told her, and then explained the reasons listed above, using my brothers as examples.

“In China, we think identical twins are exactly the same. Since they are exactly the same then they should also be dressed exactly the same. Right? Once they grow up, maybe around high school, they can start choosing their own clothes, and if they want to dress differently, then they can do so.”

Although I was not surprised at her response, hearing a parent say that her two children were “exactly the same” did not sit well in my stomach. However, child rearing is a subjective art, and is bound to vary across cultures. Examples such as these often make me wonder to what degree theories of psychology and parenting are dependent upon the societies from which they develop. Is it possible to create universal theories of child psychology? Are there any ‘rules’ which are consistent across all cultures. I would posit that dressing twins alike in the West would be detrimental to their development in a society which stresses individualism. Yet in China, where individuality is not as stressed, I’m not 100% convinced that dressing twins alike would have all of the same negative effects.


  1. toomanytribbles China said,

    August 4, 2007 at 9:07 am

    you’re relatively young — previous generations dressed identical twins the same in the united states also. the idea that they should be dressed differently to promote individuality is a fairly recent one. when i was growing up, i remember almost all the identical twins i knew dressed the same. in other words, this difference in culture is not deep-rooted and is not consistent through time, even in the same society.

  2. Woaizhongguo China said,

    August 4, 2007 at 9:27 am

    Yeah, in the UK I often see twins dresses the same and frankly don’t think it makes any difference in the long term. All babies, not just siblings, are dressed in a similar way when they’re small anyway and I’m sure it won’t affect their individual fashion sense (or lack of it) when they grow up.

  3. canrun China said,

    August 4, 2007 at 11:00 am

    There are two sets of teenage twins (!!) studying at my school right now and they wear totally different kinds of clothes. I guess they kinda grow out of it at some point. Though, the fact that nearly EVERY little eight year-old girl in China wears her hair so that it looks like two large antennae sticking out is a bit unsettling…

  4. maxiewawa China said,

    August 4, 2007 at 11:13 am

    I always feel that when you go shopping, there’s one item that you like more than all the others. If there are t shirts in five different colours, there will be one that you prefer a little more than the others. You will never like two different items equally, above all the others.

    If someone were shopping for twins, this might be a reason for getting two of exactly the same. You will always like one colour/style of clothing more than the other. If you decide to dress your twins differently, you must make ANOTHER decision after deciding on which piece of clothing you like the most. Then you have to decide which twin gets the ‘better’ clothes (in your opinion) and which gets the second best clothes.

    If I were shopping for twins, I’d choose the clothes that I liked the best, and get two of them, instead of then choosing which clothes I liked, then which clothes I liked second best, then having to decide which twin got what.

    This doesn’t touch on the ‘both twins are the same’ though, it just assumes that both twins fit the same clothes.

  5. francis China said,

    August 5, 2007 at 9:34 pm

    As i see it, the most important reason for dressing twins alike is that it would be simple and comvenient for parents to dress them and secondly they would never fight or quarrel for the better one. I personaly believe it has nothing to do with the sense of individualism or collectiveness.

  6. Another Laowai China said,

    August 8, 2007 at 12:41 am

    Try imagine what happens when one of the twins does better on an exam than another. It doesn’t fit very well into their they are the same philosophy. I used to teach some identical twins and there was always trouble with the parents and the school because one of the kids was a genius and the other was a bit below average. They spoiled the smarter twin and left the other one alone they also blamed the school about the kids being different levels

  7. zap China said,

    August 9, 2007 at 10:39 pm

    that happens everywhere, laowai

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