Life in China: Living the Big Changes
(Page 3 of 9)
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.
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