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.

Peter Ford/ The Christian Science Monitor
Guan Shulan suffered immense hardship for the first 50 years of her life, but says she is now grateful to have lived long enough to enjoy modest prosperity in the care of her children.
Peter Ford/ The Christian Science Monitor
Chen Wen watches daughter Xie Wenxin do her weekend homework. A member of China's new middle class, Mrs. Chen is part of the first generation of Chinese to know freedom from want.
Peter Ford/ The Christian Science Monitor
Dong Lanyuan, born to poverty-stricken parents but whose children have gone on to office jobs, saw her own career prospects wrecked by the Cultural Revolution. She says she is not bitter about the decade she was forced to work on a farm, but still regrets her lack of opportunity.

Sitting on the sofa amid the middle-class creature comforts typical of modern city life in China, Guan Shulan is effusive about how fortunate she is. Surrounded by six daughters and a son to look after her, the great-grandmother is the coddled matriarch of Chinese dreams.

"I am lucky to have lived so long," she says contentedly.

As China celebrates the 60th anniversary of its Communist revolution Thursday, and as Ms. Guan looks back on her life, her family saga reflects the story of China's extraordinary modernization over the past several decades.

It is a saga of lives ravaged by political upheavals, but one that has left Guan and her descendants largely unmoved by politics. Instead they are simply grateful – like many Chinese – that at last they have escaped turmoil and want, and can enjoy a tolerably prosperous life.

Life was not always like this. Guan was born 85 years ago just a couple of blocks from her son's apartment where ornamental fish swim in a bubbling tank and a DVD player sits atop the TV. But the squalid slum where she grew up was another country.

Her rickshaw-pulling father and washerwoman mother were so poor that they gave three of their children away at birth. Unable to feed their daughter, they sold Guan to a neighbor as a child bride when she was 5 years old for three silver coins.

Guan cries and dabs her eyes as she recalls how her parents reclaimed her from her new family, where she had been beaten, but were too poor to send her to school. "I remember all that very clearly," Guan says.

Fast forward 70 years, and the contrast with Guan's great-granddaughter, 8-year-old Xie Wenxin, could scarcely be more astonishing. The little girl has only just lost her baby teeth but already she speaks English (hesitantly, perhaps) and has chosen "Wendy" as her English name. Her parents think it would be a good idea one day to send her to a university abroad.

Looking for liberation

When great-grandma Guan should have been at school, she was working alongside other girls in a sweatshop making thread. She had to wait until 1950, when the new revolutionary government launched an adult literacy campaign, for a chance to learn to read and write.

Not that it did her much good, she laughs. "I learned how to write the characters for my name, for [Chinese leaders] Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and 'liberation' " before she had to give up classes to look after her children, she remembers. "I've forgotten all of them now except my name."

She hasn't, however, forgotten Oct. 1, 1949, the day that Chairman Mao stood on the balcony of Tiananmen Gate outside Beijing's Forbidden City to proclaim that "China has stood up" and to declare the foundation of the People's Republic.

"I was at home taking care of the kids," she says. "I thought, 'Other people have been liberated, why not me?' "

Generation by generation, though, Guan's children and grandchildren climbed higher up the educational ladder, and as they climbed they gathered the material fruit that came of their learning.

The iPhone that 33-year-old granddaughter Chen Wen brandishes as she oversees Wenxin's homework is evidence of that, an illustration of the almost 20-fold increase in real incomes that Chinese urban families have enjoyed since 1949, according to figures from the National Bureau of Statistics.

No teachers, but an education in patriotism

The progress was not unchecked by trauma, though. Guan's daughter Dong Lanyuan attended elementary school (her family was still poor, but by the time she turned 6 in 1957 the government was giving grants to poor pupils), but she had completed only a few months of junior high when the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966.

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.

"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."

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