Peking — The legend of the poor, proud scholar is not just a legend in China today.
Premier Zhao Ziyang himself is spearheading a campaign to improve the treatment of intellectuals - people who have had at least some form of post-secondary school education.
But the gap between exhortation and performance remains large. An overseas Chinese who recently visited relatives here after many years of absence returned to America with great admiration for the determination with which his relatives pursued a university education and for the sacrifices they made to achieve it.
The head of the household he visited is a university graduate determined that his three daughters should receive higher education. His family of five - husband, wife, and three daughters - live in two rooms of a single-story house.
The husband makes 70 yuan - today worth about $35 - per month as a translator of documents from German to Chinese at a technical institute. The wife, who works in a state bookstore, also makes 70 yuan per month. In addition, both husband and wife receive annual bonuses of 60 yuan each. Rent costs less than 6 yuan per month, so most of this family's expenses are for food, clothing, and transport.
The oldest daughter graduated last year from an agricultural institute and found a prized job there as a research assistant, for which she receives 56 yuan per month. She is engaged to a classmate who also earns 56 yuan per month. Both young people are saving 20 yuan per month from their salaries.
The second daughter is a sophomore at a foreign languages institute (college) , studying English. When she took her entrance examination on graduating from high school, she failed. In most families, this would mean she would go to work in some factory or store. But her father insisted she should try again. So she continued to study, cramming for the next year's examination. The second time she was successful.
Tuition at the college is free. But the family gives the second daughter 15 yuan per month for the lunches she eats out and for bus fare. So far this daughter has managed to save 50 yuan out of her allowance.
The third daughter also failed her university entrance examinations the first time. She, too, was told to continue studying for the next round. The second round results were sufficient for her to be accepted by an industrial crafts institute in a provincial city 500 miles from Peking. This is a four-year college, and thus the family was able to fulfill its goal of having every member receive higher education. The third daughter is receiving 20 yuan per month from her family to provide for her dormitory and food costs.
In Peking, each family that lives in unheated quarters receives 16 yuan per worker per season. With husband, wife, and oldest daughter working, this family received 48 yuan this winter.
The oldest daughter took 30 yuan of this subsidy to buy herself a pair of warm woolen slacks, with the approval, of course, of the whole family. The second daughter would like to buy a down jacket, which has recently come on the market, because it is both lightweight and fashionable. But she will have to wait until next year.
Meanwhile, she wears a heavy old coat cut and sewn by her father, who took up tailoring 15 years ago as a money-saving hobby. (He even makes his wife's trousers.) The coat consists of a dark cotton exterior lined with a red woolen blanket inside.
For heating and cooking during the cold, dry Peking winter the family uses two coal stoves, one for each room. Using coal briquettes sparingly, the family spends about 10 yuan per month for heating during the four coldest months of the year.
Their situation is not unusual.
In strictly monetary terms, a factory worker's job is most prized in China today, because under the new incentive system, if the factory is doing well, its workers will receive large bonuses. The urban families that are most comfortably off in China today are those that have many working adults.
If my overseas Chinese friend's relatives were all workers, with husband, wife, and three daughters contributing their entire wages to the family income, they might even be able to afford that most prized of possessions - a color television set.
But the head of this household is proud and happy that the family tradition of learning is being carried on by his daughters. And if China's modernization program progresses as it should, in time his family may find itself repaid for the educational sacrifices it has made, not only in mental satisfaction, but also in material rewards.