China's 60th anniversary: from Mao's ideology to iPhones
Four generations of women recall China’s decades-long swerve from revolution and trauma to pragmatism and creature comforts.
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Schools and universities across the country closed. Fourteen years old, Ms. Dong was swept up in demonstration after demonstration, hung out with friends playing cards in teacherless schoolrooms, or was made to watch "criticism sessions," at which counterrevolutionaries were beaten and humiliated in public.Skip to next paragraph
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"I was terrified," she remembers. "If you didn't follow the Red Guards maybe one day they would criticize you. People then believed that education was useless; if you studied or read you would be called a seed of capitalism."
Three wasted years in Beijing and a decade of obligatory farm labor in the southwestern province of Yunnan later, Dong attended special classes for young people who had been "sent down" for reeducation by the peasantry. She never went beyond the high school diploma that allowed her to find work as an accountant, though, because she lacked self-confidence.
Her own daughter, Chen Wen, went to high school in 1989 and later to teacher-training college, but she decided to stop teaching after a few years in order to look after her baby daughter. "It was better for her than having a nanny," she explains.
That choice of whether to work or to care for children was not something her grandmother could have imagined 50 years earlier. "We were so poor because we had a lot of children," she says now. "I had seven, and I was always exhausted." That drained her motivation. "When I was a young woman I had no ambition because my life was full of kids," she says.
A generation later, when Guan's daughter Dong was a young woman in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, three years of enforced idleness in the capital meant she was fired up with zeal about her assignment to a rubber plantation in Yunnan.
Not only would she have a chance to earn some money, she thought, but she would be able "to contribute to the nation's rubber industry … which was very underdeveloped. In those days a lot of people thought like that."
From national duty to personal fulfillment
Ten years of manual labor later, when Dong returned home, such idealism had faded. "The slogans and propaganda worked up until the end of the Cultural Revolution" in 1976, she says now. "But when we came home we were nearly 30, we had families to support, Beijing was developing" with free-market reforms, "and people focused more on practical matters.
"We worked hard, not for the country but for our families," she adds.
Her daughter, Chen Wen, belongs to a generation that has inherited that pragmatism. She laughs out loud when she is asked how she would react to an order to work in the countryside. "I definitely wouldn't go.
"My mother could not choose her life when she was young," Chen points out. "Everybody then had to answer the government's call. They were obliged to obey the party's orders. My generation can make choices based on our own real needs."
And there are signs in the way Chen is bringing up her own daughter that such practicality may give way in future to more personal fulfillment.
"My parents made me study so that I would get a steady job and build a career," she says. "But my husband and I are bringing Wenxin up to enjoy her hobbies. She likes painting; maybe she will grow up to be an artist. That would be fine."
Now that her daughter is attending private boarding school, being groomed for entrance exams for an elite junior high school, Chen has gone back to work as a middle manager in an oil company. Her husband works in the human resources department of a state-owned enterprise.
They enjoy the trappings of modern middle-class life in Beijing that many young couples now expect – an apartment they own, a company car, regular holiday trips, and, of course, for many, the iPhone.
Chen's mother, Dong Lanyuan, does not begrudge her daughter her new pleasures and chuckles over her little luxuries like weekly pedicures. But she wonders if today's generation values the sort of hard work and commitment she had to display during her time on the farm.
"We learned to endure hardship," she says. "Young people lack that spirit. But then, there is no hardship for them to endure nowadays, anyway."