Essay | Lesedauer 29 Minuten | Autorin Tanja Wirnitzer | Lektorin Julie Marx | Übersetzer Buke Wang

Starchildren – a cross-cultural look at the value of life from the very beginning 

The character Kao-tai in the bestselling novel “Letters Back to Ancient China” by the German author Herbert Rosendorfer is not the only one fascinated by time machines. I, a German woman, count myself lucky to have been able to time travel within China and within my lifetime. As a teenager, I observed how rice was harvested without the help of electricity on a tour of China in 2002, and was thrust into an entirely different era in Shanghai two days later. As an intern in Shenyang in 2013, life in China reminded me of accounts of the German economic miracle my parents’ generation witnessed. Living in 2022 in China, I now have the feeling of living in the future compared to Germany. I have not used any cash here for almost a year, for instance, which would be inconceivable in Germany.

When we visited the grave for the first time, it was summer. We were wondering if our daughter should be buried in the family grave or in this mass grave for starchildren. Buried is the wrong term, only children with a weight of more than 500 grams must be buried as per German regulations, and she weighed only 250 grams. But I suppose we can count ourselves ‘lucky’ that we were allowed the choice of burying her, since before 2013, she would not have been seen as a human being by the German government and burying her would not have been an option available to us.

The character Kao-tai in the bestselling novel “Letters Back to Ancient China” by the German author Herbert Rosendorfer is not the only one fascinated by time machines. I, a German woman, count myself lucky to have been able to time travel within China and within my lifetime. As a teenager, I observed how rice was harvested without the help of electricity on a tour of China in 2002, and was thrust into an entirely different era in Shanghai two days later. As an intern in Shenyang in 2013, life in China reminded me of accounts of the German economic miracle my parents’ generation witnessed. Living in 2022 in China, I now have the feeling of living in the future compared to Germany. I have not used any cash here for almost a year, for instance, which would be inconceivable in Germany.  


As inconceivable as it is for me that I am a mother now. I am a mother of three children. Many people find it difficult to talk about two of my children, because we had to say goodbye to them while I was still pregnant. As difficult as most Germans find it to address the topic of my children with me, the older generation in China, on the other hand, do not. On the contrary, they honor those children who lost their lives before they were born. This way of dealing with death during pregnancy has aroused my interest. I am grateful to be able to look beyond my linear, rigid, monochronic, Western understanding of time and life and see those things through a different lens when talking to this older Chinese generation. Their circular, polychronic understanding of time and life comes closer to what my time machine would let me experience, and also to the cycle of nature, where life turns to death and then to more life. I am happy about taking this journey and would like to share my impressions of it with you.  


China and Germany – both countries make use of cemeteries. But who gets buried there varies, depending on the generation. Intuitively, one would think that any dead body would be buried there – where does the variance come from then? The question we should ask instead is: Who does not merit a burial?  


After visiting my mother on Mother’s Day, my daughter, husband, and I always visit two different cemeteries. My mother-in-law is buried in the family grave in a Forest Cemetery. After going there, we visit the mass grave where our children lie buried. We said goodbye to our daughter in 2018 and one year later to our son. We had to say goodbye to two of our children during pregnancy. In Germany, one term for such babies is Sternenkinder, i.e. starchildren. 


No matter what time of day I arrive at my children’s gravesite, as soon as I pass the cemetery walls, peace settles in my heart. In Germany, the arrangement of graves in cemeteries follows the pattern set by trees and hedges. The gravestones, plants on the graves, and decoration vary greatly from section to section in the same cemetery as well as within the section sometimes from grave to grave. Chinese cemeteries I have visited, on the other hand, have orderly rows of similar-looking graves. 


Both of my starchildren’s funerals were in the fall. The treetops of the silver linden trees were still dotted with rust-colored and ochre leaves. A few dry leaves lined the ground and crunched under the soles of my feet on the way to the gravesite. As much as I enjoy the autumn trees, I am delighted when the small tree right next to the grave has finally lost all its leaves and is bare in winter. Because then, the many strings, cords, leather straps, and locks that decorate the tree – just like lights on a Christmas tree or Buddhist prayer flags – become visible. Not only the small tree, but also the grave is colorful in winter. It reminds me of gravesites in rural China, the ones you stumble upon when hiking in the woods, those graves nestled in valleys or beside trees, always overflowing with colorful plastic flowers. The starchildren’s graves in Germany boast fresh flowers no matter the season. And a myriad of stones and objects in various forms with engraved names, dates, and symbols, both secular and religious. The oldest inscription is from 2013, and toys, pinwheels, balloons, and candles are scattered about on the grave. A starchild’s grave is like a page of “Where’s Waldo”: it is teeming with countless colorful situations. Just like the children’s area of malls where, the longer you look, the more you find to smile about. 


When we visited the grave for the first time, it was summer. We were wondering if our daughter should be buried in the family grave or in this mass grave for starchildren. Buried is the wrong term, only children with a weight of more than 500 grams must be buried as per German regulations, and she weighed only 250 grams. But I suppose we can count ourselves ‘lucky’ that we were allowed the choice of burying her, since before 2013, she would not have been seen as a human being by the German government and burying her would not have been an option available to us. 


I was put off by the term mass grave. To me, it is a word reminiscent of war, and evokes pictures of dead bodies piled high like trash. Luckily, I listened to my husband rather than my apprehensive mind and paid the starchildren grave a visit. As I sat on the stone bench in front of the grave, my concept of a mass graves was forgotten. The decision was made sitting in the oasis that is the cemetery. The green of the trees was so alive. Even the small tree next to the starchildren’s grave. The funeral decorations flickered through the leafy bushes like colorful streamers – almost like the red ribbons hanging in the trees at Chinese temples. The ancient tree trunks gave the feeling that nothing would ever be forgotten because they outlast everything. The monument to the side of the grave gave a majestic feeling and elevated the buried children to something special. And there were graves of nurses and nuns, arranged in neat rows like sentinels around the starchildren’s grave, as if protecting the starchildren from those who would deny them their very existence. The caretakers laid to rest here showed passion for their profession, which includes accompanying parents as they say goodbye to their children. This was the right place for our daughter. This certainty gave me a hint of a smile even though I had to say goodbye to my daughter far too soon. Before my experience of losing a child during pregnancy, I had no idea such a thing could happen. Pregnancy was a normal process for me, and I had never asked myself the right questions. I also simply knew nothing about it. How could I? People keep quiet about it and only mention the topic very cautiously. Sadly, death in the womb is not a rare event. Every 90 minutes a human being dies shortly before, during or soon after birth. These events can cause dramatic mental health problems in the parents even years later. That’s why I believe in the importance of raising awareness about this topic.  


These thoughts led me to a more objective question. As a teacher for business, public law, and ethics, I am interested in what we can learn from each other and how we can make a profit from it. That is a wide field, way too wide. As a mother, I am interested in the topic of parenthood. Children unite nations and generations. Still too wide a topic. This deductive access leads to fields in the middle of nowhere or a mental road block. That is why I took the other way around and went back to the very beginning. The origin of any child is sex. But sex does not necessarily cause parenthood. Which begs the question: what is the beginning of parenthood, the beginning of a child? When does human life, when does a new generation start?  


The classical approach would be to say human life begins at birth – when a small human fills their lungs with air for the first time. Seeing this as the beginning of life would be a grave misconception, however. We live long before we breathe air. Because, before we fill our lungs with air, we breathe amniotic fluid to live. There is no conclusive answer yet to when human life begins. Science, philosophy, and religion as well as the rule of law do not agree on this within any society or generation. Buddhism and Christianity – as the predominant faiths in China and Germany – for instance, recognize human life from conception. Some religions assume that the soul takes hold from the 40th day and only then can one speak of life. Philosophers maintain that life requires consciousness and being able to feel pain. These criteria cannot be measured yet. I would like to address all people, regardless of faith or origin. Biology does not dare judge whether the smallest human cell cluster is already human life. With conception, a cell cluster comes into being. A cell is the smallest unit of organisms. Organisms are living beings. From an egg cell and a sperm cell, a living human being develops. Heartbeat, brain function, fully matured organs or survivability are other points in time that come up when researching this question. The list of how to determine when life begins can become endless. Science calls the beginning of life a gradual process. The question about when one becomes a parent is again a dead end. That is why I ask no more when human life starts, but approach the problem from the opposite end: How does human life end? With death. One could therefore deduce that if we honor a being with a burial, it shows we consider said being to have lived before. This assumes how we treat others after their life has ended shows how we appreciate life or what value we place on life.  


To get the answer of how somebody is treated, we can observe what name we give them. Since there is a big difference in meaning whether I call my daughter by her pet name, a nickname, or her full name. In German, there is a big difference between addressing someone formally or informally. But for me, no language can specify the relation, character, and value placed on a person more than Chinese. So, how we call a human being that died during pregnancy and of course how we act with them shows the value placed on them and therefore on life in general. 


Both in China and in Germany, starchildren are not discussed much today. Therefore, the vocabulary is not fixed. One German term, “Sternenkinder” (literally starchildren) is quite poetic. This word creation is based on the idea that these children “are in heaven” (= symbolically the stars) “even before they were allowed to see the light of day”. Heaven is of course a religious term meaning the children are in paradise with God after death. This way of thinking is not used in China. Here, it is more common to talk about karma and rebirth. Besides these different religious or cultural associations, my Chinese interview partners were of the opinion that the Chinese language simply isn’t that romantic. They are using the professional medical term 胚胎停止发育, which means more or less the embryo has stopped living. It is not so much a designation as a description. The same goes for English. I could not find a commonly used term besides the medical ones. The reason I do not want to use those is that they grade the loss of human life depending on certain criteria: timing, cause and state. By timing, I mean for example before or after three months of pregnancy; by cause of death I mean was it the parents’ choice or did the embryo die a natural death, and by state I mean for instance above or below 500 grams birth weight. The English term stillbirth is used for fetal death at or after 20 or 28 weeks of pregnancy, depending on the source. Before that arbitrary date, the term miscarriage is used. Noting these different terms and their connotations, to me, shows how much society values or appreciates those children. For parents, there is an additional emotional perspective: parting, mourning, and living with this death. We are talking about welcoming and losing life, not about ordering and delivering objects or services. Therefore, medical terms are not useful here. For this essay, there is no need for specification. For answering the question about how we deal with death in the womb, we need to give those who died a name. It is a loss of life we talk about, after all, regardless of when the death occurred. 


For me, the term starchildren is what works best in daily life. Because it does not differentiate timing, cause, and condition and this term could be explained to anyone, regardless of faith, origin and in this case even generations – starting from prehistoric times. For this, we need to look beyond the Christian explanation of this term. There are two other explanations which can be equally valid. First, we are all stardust. This is less fantastical than it sounds. One second after the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago, the first cosmic building blocks already existed. These hydrogen and helium gas clouds formed the first stars. At the end of its lifetime, a star becomes a supernova and explodes. From the remains of the explosion, new celestial bodies and all objects in the universe are formed. If one follows this metamorphosis further, one will eventually land at human life. At a child in the womb. If we have to say goodbye to life, we become stardust again. Not a single atom in the universe is ever lost. From what was, what is and what will be, new matter arises in the eternal cycle of life, death and new life. Second– whether Chinese people or German people and no matter what generation: We share the same view of the stars with all people who have ever lived and will live. So – how do we handle dealing with starchildren in China and in Germany? 


The problem one faces when answering the question of how we treat our starchildren is: The interrogative “how” implies that starchildren exist. Many people have different opinions about this topic. Some do not mention them, they do not want to bury them, they do not even approve of them. If those people are forced to talk about this topic, they do not accept starchildren as human life by calling them cell piles -likening them to clinical waste. For me, the answer to the question of whether starchildren exist is unequivocally yes. Even if some call them a cell pile and don’t regard them as people yet. Every life – at the end or at the very beginning – is ultimately a cell pile. Regardless of opinions, though, losing a child (or a “cell pile”) before birth has real life repercussions – for the parents’ mental health, among others.  


How can one approach older generations with such a personal, albeit everyday topic? Especially because it is basically a taboo subject and very little is said about it? Comparing the subject of starchildren across countries and generations requires more than a dry analysis of facts and figures, since it deals with emotions. While measuring and weighing emotions is hard, actions resulting from emotions are easily quantified. And, since actions largely depend on economic and governmental systems, I try to find an objective approach by considering the sociopolitical current events in the different generations in China and Germany. To do this, I looked at the sociopolitical situation of each generation to classify their desires and their treatment of starchildren. 

Death in general and the topic of starchildren in particular are part of daily life. Actions in daily life not only depend on possibilities, but also on ambitions and feelings of the respective generations. To discover the generations’ ambitions in either country, I have looked at their desires. And a look at popular music of the era helps access the generations‘ emotions. 


To get a better feeling for each generation, I needed to look at their daily life: Music is the only source which doesn’t change over time. A song is a song is a song. Besides interpretation of course, but feeling is unique like a fingerprint. I will never know if for example mourning feels the same to others as to myself, even for those closest to me. But even if I cannot measure and compare emotions, I can hear the same sounds as my Chinese friends’ grandparents and my grandparents. Therefore, I listened to popular music my interview partners listened to in their youth. I singled out the artists whose background and music gelled the most with the topic at hand and whose songs touched me the deepest to represent the various generations. The artists I chose were Guo Lanying and Marlene Dietrich, Teng Li-Chun (Terese Teng) and Elvis Presley, as well as Jay Chou and Lady Gaga.  


Interviewing members of all those generations in both China and Germany and discussing what music they listened to in their youth was my way of turning this into a collaborative project across generations, and across cultures. 


Let us step into our time machine and start our journey with the grandparents’ generation. The main concern for people from the 1920s to the 1950s was war – be it in China or in Germany. I call the Chinese grandparents’ generation the Lan Ying generation, named for the famous opera singer of their youth with very patriotic songs. The national way of thinking characterizes both countries in this generation very well. The German pendant to the Lan Ying generation would be the Dietrich generation. Marlene Dietrich was a German-American actress and singer. The culture of the United States was quite important for post-World War II Germany, which is why I call this the Dietrich generation. The Lan Ying generation dealt with both war and destruction, and also hunger because of natural disasters that befell China in the 1950s. Their daily life was characterized by deprivation, and speaking of their desires seems almost comical, since what was closest to their hearts was survival. They longed for peace, safety, and a calm and content life without strife and hardships for their children. 


The Lan Ying generation had many children and they celebrated pregnancy as soon as they knew about it. Why? Each child was vital to support the family. Also, Traditional Chinese Medicine would regulate a pregnant woman’s life from the very beginning. When asking a member of this generation about their age, one cannot be certain of the answer, because age was calculated from the beginning of the pregnancy, not from birth. Maybe the most important reason why they do not mind talking about starchildren is that to them, death is a normal part of life. Whether during the war or after, medicine was rudimentary, and access to doctors and drugs was limited. Which is why death was a topic of conversation – it was as natural as life. This generation had special graves for starchildren. In these graves, all starchildren of the family were buried together. Before the 1980s, the Chinese government did not regulate funerals. Villages would build communities and share their cemeteries for starchildren and hold joint ceremonies for them. It was a matter of course to mourn a starchildren. For me, as a mother of 2 starchildren, this sounds like “the good old times”. People still knew about the value of life and were willing to discuss topics such as this.  


Despite the similarities of their backgrounds, the Dietrich generation dealt with the topic of starchildren very differently. The only match to the Lan Ying generation in their treatment of starchildren was that they, too, spoke about them. After the third month of pregnancy. Because – to the present day – most Germans keep their pregnancy secret until the end of the first trimester. And even after passing the 3-month hurdle, expectant mothers’ habits would not change. Pregnancy was not deemed an ‘illness’, so Germans with their systematic and pragmatic approach to life felt no need to indulge in any special treatment for the mothers-to-be. My grandmother had also had a starchild: after giving birth naturally, the child had the umbilical cord wrapped around their neck. Her family members did not address this topic with her. The only person who spoke to her about it was her doctor. He said: “Do not cry, do not grieve. It interferes with future pregnancies. Just keep trying. It will work out.” She and I would have liked to live in the Lan Ying generation, i.e. in the China of the 1920s to 1950s. There, people appreciated life as valuable from the very beginning. 


The generation after Lan Ying is what I call the Teng generation. Therese Teng was a singer and linguistic genius, performing in six languages. The urbanization process in China was in full swing at the time. The Teng generation was still focused on managing basic needs: peace, contentment, survival, and warmth. With memories of war still fresh in their minds, they wished for a life for their children filled with contentment. The celebration of life from the very beginning, the burial of starchildren and to give them space in life by talking about them was still considered normal. 


At the same time, Germany was separated in two countries. My research only considers West Germany, with Elvis Presley as its perfect symbol. An American musician whose pelvic thrusts and rhythms stand, at first glance, for levity. Once you look a bit closer, though, he turns out to be all tinsel and glitter. The U.S. massively supported Germany, and Germany in turn took a leaf out of the States’ book. The German Elvis generation is shaped by rebuilding the country, by progress, and by prosperity. The topic of starchildren becomes unmentionable. Only fetuses of more than 24 weeks of age or a birth weight of 500g and above merited a burial. It would take many mothers of this generation years and intensive therapy to realize that a tubal pregnancy caused their depression, or that the reason their marriage disintegrated were several miscarriages that no one addressed. Keeping things quiet led many mothers and fathers to wrestle with their sense of guilt alone. The desires of this generation were progress and prosperity, death simply did not fit with these priorities.  


Now, finally, we have arrived at the present day. I believe that Jay Chou represents the current Chinese situation well. This generation boasts a technological development that is second to none, and education and progress shape the country. The Chou generation asks for prosperity, wealth, and reputation or status. At the same time, this generation suffers from oversaturated industries and harsh competition. Reputation is defined by public recognition for achievements. Parents in this generation raised their children to become the proverbial phoenixes or dragons. Burials were no longer private affairs, but arranged by the government. Starchildren’s graves disappeared, and the topic is rarely mentioned anymore – if at all. The way the Chinese Chou generation treats the topic of starchildren is reminiscent of the German Elvis generation. 


Present-day Germany, on the other hand, is moving towards treating the topic of starchildren in the same way the Chinese Lan Ying generation did. 2013 brought a new way of treating starchildren in Germany: parents were henceforth able to register the birth of their starchildren formally with the authorities, which gave their child’s existence legitimacy. Starchildren were honored, and graves for them appeared in various cemeteries. But in spite of these advances for the starchildren’s cause, this generation might best be represented by controversial singer Lady Gaga. Why Lady Gaga? Because she stands for extremes, which is the perfect symbol for this generation. Never before have Germans enjoyed as much wealth, health, and global community, while at the same time fighting through explosive debates and public protests about political systems, resource allocation, and ethics. And the treatment of the topic of starchildren in the Gaga generation is equally contrastive. While even the German government uses the term starchildren, large parts of society rarely allude to this topic. Many are reluctant or even fearful to speak about death. 


What I had to learn through the painful farewell of two of my children was something the Chinese grandparents’ generation knew all along: By fearing or avoiding death, we give it power over us. The best weapon against the taboo of death is to respect it and give it space. Let us all do this by celebrating life together from the very beginning. 


Although the previous generations experienced much more death and suffering, they all valued life by treating starchildren respectfully in death. Probably precisely because death was so normal, burying unborn babies was also normal for the previous generations. With German senior citizens, it is much easier to talk about starchildren. They are okay to address the topic but do so without excess emotion. They share their experiences and listen without breaking into tears or belittling the topic. They speak soberly, clearly, and pragmatically about the starchildren, lacking the emotional connection to them the Lan Ying and Teng generations in China had. Those generations celebrated life from the very beginning and expressed this by burying their starchildren, mourning them, and living with their death. I suspect the reason for this probably lies in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Traditional Chinese Medicine concerns itself less with healing disease. Instead, it tries to prevent disease by empowering health, which shows a deep appreciation for life.  


The initial question I asked myself was: who gets buried in cemeteries and who does not? Before 2013, starchildren of less than 500g did not receive a burial in Germany. While burying starchildren is only now becoming more and more normal there, such treatment for unborn children was commonplace in China until well into the 1980s, but has become rarer and rarer nowadays. So, the treatment of starchildren in present-day Germany closely resembles that of past Chinese generations. 


Looking into the past is worthwhile because it surprises, refreshes, and gives energy. And, by observing the past – and present – we can learn from one another. Every generation is affected by the question of mortality, of course. Therefore, we can all benefit from a cross-generational discussion of how we deal with mortality, and, for the purpose of this essay, with starchildren. 



My time travel has taught me that the treatment of starchildren follows the maxim that future, progress, and prosperity do not automatically lead to ethical improvements. The more progressive we think we are, the more we try to control nature. But nature shows us time and again that we have no hope of influencing it, in spite of our knowledge and technological advances – especially when it comes to death. When looking at how society treats its starchildren, I cannot help but notice that the more secure and settled a society is, the more it tries to tune out death. Avoiding dealing with death does not change the facts, though. It merely adjusts one’s perspective. Therefore, I would like to look at starchildren through the eyes of the Chinese past and celebrate life every day from the very beginning – even a life that is mere hours, days, or weeks old. 


Tanja Kleinheinz (author) and Julie Marx (editor), (China/Shenyang), and