Life in China: Living the Big Changes

In “Chinese Characters,” authors Angilee Shah and Jeffrey Wasserstrom explore the ordinary stories of the Chinese people and connect China’s past political leaders to its people of today.
Edited By Angilee Shah and Jeffrey Wasserstrom
December 2012
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China has long been a land of reinvention, say Angilee Shah and Jeffrey Wasserstrom in “Chinese Characters,” where revolutions are as collective as they are deeply personal. Find out how China’s past political leaders, including Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong, have affected the cultural and economic landscape of today’s China as well as the stories and lives of its ordinary people.
Cover Courtesy University of California Press


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Though China is currently in the global spotlight, few outside its borders have a feel for the tremendous diversity of the lives being led inside the country. Chinese Characters (University of California Press, 2012) is a collection of compelling stories that challenges oversimplified views of China by shifting the focus away from the question of China’s place in the global order and zeroing in on what is happening on the ground. Learn about how political leaders such as Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong have shifted the country’s cultural and economic landscape for better — and worse — in this excerpt taken from the introduction, “Who Are You This Time?” 

Each time I go back to China, I prepare myself to hear stories of surprising ways that the country has changed since I was last there. I also expect to hear equally surprising reports of personal transformations. It seems inevitable that at least a couple of friends whose lives seemed set to move in one direction will have had something completely unexpected happen to them since I last saw them. During the months since my previous trip to China, a professor who had no interest in business will have become an entrepreneur. A loyal bureaucrat within the Communist Party Youth League will have turned consultant to an international corporation (and now be a bit embarrassed by his earlier commitment to Marxist economics). Someone who considered all forms of religion mere superstition will have become first a fervent Buddhist and then a devout Christian. An earnest graduate student who once said that a visit to Hong Kong was probably the closest that she would ever get to going “abroad” will now regularly be taking trips to Europe.

China has become what the United States famously was a century ago, a land of reinvention. Rags-to-riches stories are as popular there now as they were in America in the days of Horatio Alger—and for similar reasons. I often feel that many of the people I know in China have lived out several lives while I have been making my way through just this one.

Consider the case of a longtime friend whom I shall call Ms. Liu for her privacy’s sake. Before I met her in 1986, her life had already gone through dramatic twists and turns. She grew up in Shanghai, the child of intellectuals, but was sent to the countryside to learn from peasants late in the Cultural Revolution, an experience she still remembers with some fondness. She thought it instilled a respect for hard work and the ability to enjoy simple things that some people born later seem to lack. After returning to Shanghai, she was trained as a Russian-language teacher, only to have that career trajectory derailed by the dominance of English-language study in China. Ms. Liu was reassigned to the waiban (foreign affairs unit) of her university, where her main job was to take care of arrangements for and keep an eye on the activities of foreign teachers and students.

That would be enough reversals of fortune to constitute a life of ups and downs, but in the years since, she has continued on a protean course. By turns, Ms. Liu spent a year in central Europe as a visiting scholar, worked as a nanny in California for about the same amount of time, and lived for a time primarily on what she made as a day-trader on Shanghai’s new stock exchange. She’d once assumed she’d always live in an apartment owned by her work unit, but the last time I saw her, she was the proud owner of a flat on the outskirts of Shanghai. The shifts in her beliefs, ideological and spiritual, also mark changes of the sort that we in the West might expect to see over the course of generations rather than of one life. And her child’s life—like many of her generation, she has just one—has matched hers in its unpredictability. Her daughter studied in New Zealand and then worked in jobs that did not exist in China before the 1990s, often employed in the marketing divisions of international companies that until recently never expected to be making money selling their products in China.

Not all of the life stories that go to make up this book have much in common with Ms. Liu’s or her daughter’s when it comes to the details, but they all involve surprising transformations of individuals and communities. The stories in this book remind us that China is now a place where identities can be taken on and shed with surprising ease, in ways that can be exciting or exhausting, traumatic or confusing, or, in many cases, all of those things at once.

The China revealed by the characters in this volume is a place where lives can suddenly be turned inside out as opportunities are seized or squandered, and change is by turns liberating and unsettling. The writing on contemporary China that appeals to me most is the kind that conveys the complexity of these transformations from the perspectives of those who live them. The essays of the journalists and scholars represented here are the kinds of pieces I love to read—and now can claim to love to help edit as well—for all beg a common question of their characters: “Who will they be next?”

These individuals are nothing if not varied. After spending time in their company, even readers who have never experienced China’s human diversity firsthand should find themselves pausing whenever they come across statements that generalize about how “the Chinese” feel about a given issue…

The First “New” China and Its Political Leaders

In this book, Harriet Evans introduces us to Old Lady Gao, the most senior of our Chinese Characters. In many regards, the country in which she drew her first breath in the early 1920s was a very different place from today’s China. There was no People’s Republic of China then—until the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took control of the mainland in 1949, neither that name nor the acronym PRC existed. Gao was born in the Republic of China (ROC).

The revolutionary uprisings of 1911 had put an end to the long reign of the Qing Dynasty, the Manchu ruling family that had controlled China since the 1640s, and laid the groundwork for Sun Yat-sen to become the first president of the new republic. In the 1920s, and for many decades afterward, China was still an overwhelmingly rural place—whereas today roughly half of the country’s people live in or around cities. The vast majority of Chinese were farmers and very poor before 1949. Today, while China still has a much lower per capita GDP than developed Western countries or Japan (it ranks roughly 100th among nations by this criterion), it is home to more millionaires than any other country, has a rapidly expanding middle class, and has become the world’s biggest market for luxury goods.

Life was rough in China when Gao was born: very few men and many fewer women went to school; children routinely died in infancy; adults felt lucky if they made it past fifty; and women had no formal legal rights in marriage. However, a child born in Shanghai around the year 2000 had a better chance of living to attend elementary school than one born at the same point in time in New York City. It is common today for Chinese people to live into their seventh, eighth, or even ninth decades. When it comes to gender, there are a great many ways that women are still at a disadvantage in China, and the preference for sons over daughters remains strong, but there have been some improvements. When Old Lady Gao was in her twenties, for example, the Communist Party introduced a New Marriage Law that gave wives formal equality with their husbands to seek a divorce. It is no longer a novelty to see university classrooms with as many female as male students in Chinese cities.

The saying “5,000 years of continuous civilization”—a favorite trope of the Chinese official media, and of some nationalist writers and foreigners as well—encourages one to assume that the current map of the subcontinent-sized PRC delineates a set of timeless boundaries. The real story of China’s borders is very different. Prior to the end of the imperial era, different dynasties, and even different emperors within dynastic periods, governed territories of widely diverging sizes. Sometimes the empire included Tibet, sometimes it didn’t. The same goes for territories to the south near today’s Burma, as well as northern areas such as Manchuria and, to its west, Inner Mongolia. The great expanse of land west of Mongolia and north of Tibet is now known as Xinjiang. But the name Xinjiang (the first character means “new,” the second “border” or “frontier”) only came into use during Qing times. During the final decades of the imperial period and the opening decades of the Republican era (1912–49), though officials sometimes issued maps that look like the ones we see today, many key territories were formally or effectively under foreign control. This included, from 1843 on, sections of several major port cities, including Shanghai, and all of Hong Kong. When Old Lady Gao was born, there were many counties and provinces that were solidly under Chinese control, yet were not governed by the men who cycled in and out of the office of the presidency. This was a time of great disunity and weak central governments, sometimes called the Warlord Era in reference to military figures who seized power regionally. These “warlords” were a varied lot, including among them both men who promoted themselves as benevolent Confucian rulers steeped in Chinese traditions and the “Christian General” Feng Yuxiang, who baptized his troops with a fire hose. This political situation began to shift in the mid-1920s, when Sun Yat-sen, the hero of 1911 and leader of the Nationalist Party, or Guomindang (GMD), called for a military drive known as the Northern Expedition to reunify the country and get the derailed revolution back on track.

Sun dreamed up this campaign while operating from a regional base in the southern city of Guangzhou (Canton). Though a firm opponent of some aspects of Marxism—for example, he had no time for the concept of class struggle—Sun admired the Soviet Union and liked two key Leninist notions. One was that imperialism was responsible for much that was wrong with the world. The other was that the best hope for a developing country was to have its destiny guided by a tightly disciplined revolutionary organization. At the urging of Soviet advisers, who were willing to support Sun’s cause if he made concessions to them, he welcomed members of the recently created Chinese Communist Party into the Northern Expedition campaign. Many important Communist leaders, including Mao Zedong, spent their early careers holding posts in both the Communist Party and the Nationalist Party.

The Northern Expedition’s goals, which included toppling regional strongmen and bringing an end to foreign bullying and corruption within the national government, struck a powerful chord with many Chinese. Soon, the joint GMD–CCP military force was surging to a series of major victories against the warlords. A crucial one came in 1927, when a series of general strikes and worker uprisings orchestrated by Communist Party activists helped deliver Shanghai (except for two enclaves where foreigners held power) into the hands of the alliance. By then, however, Sun had died and his brother-in-law and protégé Chiang Kai-shek was head of the Nationalist Party. The brothers-in-law had agreed on many issues, but not on the value of working with the Communist Party. As soon as the Chinese-run districts of Shanghai came under his control, Chiang worked with local gangsters to carry out a vicious purge against his erstwhile comrades-in-arms. This put a bloody end to what came to be known as the “First United Front” (a second would start a decade later), and marked the opening salvo in a stop-and-start war between the Nationalists and the Communists, which would have truces but no full resolution until 1949.

Political Leaders: Chiang Kai-shek’s China

Soon after his 1927 White Terror, which nearly exterminated the fledgling Communist Party, Chiang set up a central administration in Nanjing (whose name means “Southern Capital”) to rival the one in Beijing (“Northern Capital”). Chiang insisted that his Nationalist government was China’s only legitimate one, for it alone was carrying forward the revolutionary spirit of 1911 and honoring the legacy of Sun. The Nanjing Decade, when Chiang governed from that city, would later be derided in PRC textbooks as a time of oppression and mismanagement. In fact, it witnessed a series of state-building efforts and development drives that have a great deal in common with those that have been carried out recently in China.

The Nationalist Party’s efforts to create a strong and prosperous “New China,” a term revived yet again in 1927, were stymied by two things. One was the series of costly and ultimately unsuccessful “extermination campaigns” aimed at ridding the country of all remaining Communists, while downplaying concerns about foreign threats. Chiang took the line that foreigners, including the increasingly aggressive Japanese, were merely a “disease of the skin,” while the “Reds” represented a sickness that struck right at the China’s heart. So it was ironic that the second thing that undermined Chiang’s grand plans of the Nanjing Decade was the full-scale Japanese invasion of North China. The invasions began in 1931 with encroachments into Manchuria and intensified greatly by 1937, as the battle lines moved into the heartland, eventually reaching Nanjing, where the most brutal Japanese military atrocities of the war were committed.

When Japanese troops committed the infamous Nanjing Massacre, or Rape of Nanking (December 1937–February 1938), the Communists were based far to the north, in the mountain stronghold of Yan’an in Shaanxi Province. This was the end point of their epic Long March, the 1934 trek over thousands of miles taken to escape Chiang’s most determined Communist extermination campaign. Faced with the Japanese invasion and under intense pressure from non-allied regional military commanders and even some within his own party, Chiang finally grudgingly agreed to form a Second United Front with the Communists. This alliance between Chiang and Mao’s forces was always plagued by mutual distrust. It was in many ways more of a halting of hostilities than a common fight against the foreign enemy.

In the 1940s, much of China was under the direct control of the Japanese military or their Chinese collaborators. Now routinely demonized as “traitors,” these collaborators were people who decided, sometimes with great reluctance, to collude with rather than militantly oppose the invaders, convinced in many cases that their country would never again be completely free of Japanese control. China was nominally still run by Chiang’s national government, but that government was no longer based in any traditional capital city. Japanese forces drove the Nationalists far inland from Nanjing, and Chiang finally had to set up a temporary wartime base of operations in the city of Chongqing in Sichuan.

In the first part of the decade, the Nationalists were allied not just with the Communists but also with the Americans, who came into the fight against Japan after Pearl Harbor. When Japan surrendered, the Second United Front, not surprisingly, immediately frayed. The rivalry between the Nationalists and Communists was fierce, despite—or perhaps in large part because of—how much they had in common. The Nationalists were just as Leninist in orientation as the Communists, but Chiang broke with Mao on other things. One was the issue of class struggle, which only the Communists thought of as something that drove history forward. Another point of disagreement related to Confucius. Chiang sought to combine Christian values (he converted only in adulthood, but his wife had been born a Christian) with Confucian ones. Mao, by contrast, had come of age during the iconoclastic New Culture Movement, which lasted from 1915 through 1923, and devoted some of his first essays to promoting the idea that reverence for Confucius was reactionary. Confucian ritual and hierarchy had kept China from becoming modern, Mao claimed as a youth and continued to assert later in life. Confucius was to blame for an unjust social system that gave scholars and officials too much power and transformed women into the virtual slaves of all their male relatives.

The Oxford historian Rana Mitter had this conflict in mind when he wrote in his lively and informative book Modern China: A Very Short Introduction (2007) that if the two leaders’ ghosts floated above today’s China, Chiang might be more pleased about what he saw on the ground than Mao. It is true that China is still run by a Communist Party, which would surely vex Chiang’s ghost. It is a Communist Party, however, that has stopped celebrating class struggle—Mao’s ghost would discover, much to his chagrin, that the pursuit of a “harmonious society” is what China’s leaders today talk about most—and that is often willing to treat Confucius with veneration rather than scorn. This was certainly the case at the start of the 2008 Beijing Olympics; the Opening Ceremonies included a quotation from the sage’s work (about the pleasure of friends coming from afar) and a set piece involving over two thousand members of the People’s Liberation Army, which Mao once commanded, acting the part of the ancient philosopher’s disciples.

The Nationalist and Communist armies fought a final battle for control of the Chinese mainland, and Chiang ultimately fled to Taiwan, where he died in 1975. In October 1949, Mao stood atop Tiananmen (The Gate of Heavenly Peace) in Beijing and announced the formation of the newest New China, but Chiang never gave up on the idea that the Nationalists had only staged a strategic retreat. The Nationalists under Chiang treated Taiwan as a temporary staging ground, and its capital city of Taipei as a kind of counterpart to Chongqing during World War II. The Communist Party’s leaders on the mainland, meanwhile, spent that same period insisting that Taiwan should be seen as a renegade province, a part of the PRC that was temporarily out of Beijing’s reach.

Political Leaders: From Mao to Now

There are many ways to tell the story of the newest New China, a country that took shape under Mao’s watch and has continued to evolve under his successors. There is, for example, the officially endorsed version of China’s recent past, a “Glorious Quest” story that stresses continuities over time in the actions of the Communist Party, allowing for some mistakes. Most notably, the Cultural Revolution—a complex series of events that began as an orchestrated mass movement spearheaded by Mao to reassert his control of the country—is treated as a chaotic decade that was very bad for the country. But its focus is on progress toward an unchanging goal of national renewal after a “century of humiliation” (lasting from the Opium Wars of the mid-1800s through the Japanese invasions of the World War II era) and devastating periods of misrule by the Qing, then the warlords, and then a corrupt and despotic Nationalist Party.

In stripped-down form, the main theme in this story is simple: the Communist Party’s leaders, who have demonstrated great wisdom and are motivated by love of the nation, have made strides to better the lot of ordinary people, modernize the country, and return China to its former status as the leading regional power and one of the world’s most important states. In this tale, the late 1940s through the late 1950s was a time of great accomplishments. Land-reform brought about a more equal distribution of rural holdings, and the corrupt and impoverished cities of Chiang Kai-shek’s time were replaced by cities that were better governed and free of beggars and exploited workers. Women were given new rights, while literacy rates and life expectancy rose dramatically. China even helped North Korea prevent the United States from turning the Korean peninsula into a virtual American colony during the Korean War.

In this official version of history, many of these accomplishments were due to Mao’s vision and leadership. Mao is conceded to have made mistakes, especially during the Great Leap Forward, which began in the late 1950s and triggered a famine that continued into the early 1960s, and during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76). He is seen, though, as having done much more good for the nation than harm. Even in the later stages of his life, he developed a theoretical framework that made his country seem like the logical leader of struggles for liberation throughout the developing world. In the 1960s, he made it possible for China to join the circle of nations with atomic weapons, and in the early 1970s, he worked to reestablish ties with the United States and succeeded in having the PRC replace the Republic of China (Taiwan) as holder of the “Chinese” seat on the UN Security Council. In the end, the official line holds, his impact on the country was 70 percent positive and only 30 percent negative. Much of the blame for the mistakes he made in his dotage is laid at the feet of the “Gang of Four,” a group made up of his wife Jiang Qing and three of her allies, who are portrayed as having taken unfair advantage of an old man.

The period following Mao’s death, especially the so-called Reform Era after December 1978, when Deng Xiaopeng became China’s paramount leader, is treated as a second age of great accomplishments. The pursuit of modernization and harmony rather than the promotion of equality became the main focus. In Chinese official rhetoric, the reforms introduced by Deng and his successors are all intended simply to bring to completion Mao’s revolutionary goal of strengthening China. When the Gang of Four were punished for their crimes, they were not charged with being too revolutionary, but rather with being counterrevolutionary; that is, doing things that endangered the country’s movement forward.

Among the many ways of telling the tale of the Mao years and the period after his death, two have gained prominence in the West. One might be called the “Troubling Path Corrected.” It paints Mao and Deng as being as different as night and day. Deng was a pragmatist, whereas Mao was an ideologue. It was Deng’s readiness to experiment with market reforms that allowed China finally to start shedding its longtime status as an impoverished nation. He is credited with steering China onto the right track by implementing reforms that encouraged entrepreneurship both in the countryside, where the decollectivization of agriculture allowed farmers to keep some of the profits from crops grown on private plots, and in joint ventures between Chinese companies and foreign investors in “special economic zones.” The narrative treats Deng as a proponent of moderation, eager to move China into step with global norms, making it more open and less authoritarian. He might have talked about “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” but what he was really doing was moving China toward capitalism—and liberalizing it slowly but steadily in the process.

This scenario lost favor in the West, however, in the aftermath of the Tiananmen struggle of 1989. Student-led protests in Beijing called for an end to corruption and increased personal freedoms. Soon urbanites from many walks of life were gathering en masse in Tiananmen Square in Beijing and the main plazas of scores of other cities. The government responded by imposing martial law, denouncing the demonstrators as “rioters” and “counterrevolutionaries,” and the struggle became in large part a fight for the right to protest. Deng was instrumental in calling in troops to stop this inspiring struggle for change, and he is rightly seen as one of the main architects of the June 4th Massacre, when unarmed citizens were mowed down with automatic weapons on the streets near Tiananmen Square.

A contrasting Western narrative, which gained influence after the 1989 crackdown, stresses continuities between Mao’s China and the PRC of today—but not positive ones of the sort found in China’s official tale. This “Unchanging Dictatorship” scenario depicts the enormous death toll of the Great Leap Forward famine and the persecutions of the Cultural Revolution years as the defining phenomena of the early PRC. Promoters of this version of the past admit that Deng and his successors have done many things differently but argue that it is a mistake to forget some basic things that have never changed. The Party, for example, has never allowed any competing political organization to exist, has never stopped imprisoning those who speak out most forcefully against its rule, and has always been led by men (and they have nearly all been men) who enjoy special privileges.

This is not the place to parse all of the strengths and weaknesses of these story lines, but it is worth noting some things that are most misleading about each. The biggest problem with the official line is surely the way it minimizes and sometimes even denies the occurrence of truly horrific acts. The Great Leap Forward began with Mao’s misguided call for China’s people to focus all of their energy on the unrealistic goal of catching up with the West quickly in fields such as steel production. It was much more than just a misstep or miscalculation. The policy caused widespread starvation and malnutrition; local officials, obsessed with meeting impossible agricultural quotas, promoted foolish farming methods, and villagers, focused on smelting ore in backyard furnaces, stopped tending crops. Exact figures may vary, but there is a consensus now that the number of victims of these policies must have been in the tens of millions. The Cultural Revolution began when young Red Guards fiercely loyal to Mao denounced all officials they deemed insufficiently true to his vision. In the end, warring factions, each of whom claimed to be the only ones to truly understand the Great Leader’s ideal, fought pitched battles for control of cities. The official narrative recognizes the Cultural Revolution as a troubling event, but avoids dealing with it in any detailed fashion. It denies that the June 4th Massacre even occurred. Many of the Communist Party’s oppressive actions in Tibet and Xinjiang are badly distorted or ignored.

The Western tales I have described, though, have their own problems. For example, to give Deng and later leaders all the credit for China’s economic boom glosses over the fact that the Mao years ended with a country whose population was primed for economic success. The economic takeoff that began under Deng reached new heights under his successor Jiang Zemin, who rose to the top spot in the Party hierarchy in the wake of the June 4th Massacre, and Hu Jintao, who became the country’s paramount leader in 2002. There are many reasons why China prospered, but one thing that made this possible was that Mao left China with a large pool of relatively well-educated workers. Literacy rates far outstripped those of many other developing countries. It also helped greatly that these workers, thanks to improvements in public health, were often in relatively good physical shape.

What then of the Unchanging Dictatorship story? This, too, is flawed. There is no question that there are many limits on political freedom in today’s China. Repression is especially severe in areas where there are significant numbers of disaffected residents, such as the Tibetan plateau, and the Party is in many ways the same kind of organization that it has always been. Still, the state has become a much less intrusive force in people’s day-to-day lives, and there are many in China who feel much freer to express themselves in private settings—and certain public ones as well—than they did under Mao.

* * *

The pioneering historian and sociologist Charles Tilly, who did so much to illuminate the birth pangs of industrial modernity in Europe, wrote that the primary goal of social historians is to show how ordinary people “lived the big changes.” China’s politics will, of course, be further examined in the chapters of this book, but the stories focus primarily on social history.

The contributors sensibly steer clear of making predictions about a land that continually makes fools of prognosticators who speculate about what lies ahead. Instead, they simply tell the stories of individual Chinese Characters living through their country’s remarkable rise after centuries of war and want. Taken together, these forays into charting the social history of the present illuminate today’s China and may serve to contextualize the twists and turns the country will surely take in the future.

Excerpted from Jeffrey Wasserstrom’s Introduction to Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land, edited by Angilee Shah and Jeffrey Wasserstrom, published by the University of California Press. © 2012 by The Regents of the University of California. 


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