Ping Pong Diplomacy

This week marks the anniversary of one of the most surprising, unusual and ultimately significant moments in the history of China’s foreign relations: 乒乓外交 (pīngpāng wàijiāo), usually known in English as “ping-pong diplomacy”, the landmark trip by the US table tennis team to China in 1971 that eventually led to a visit by US President Richard Nixon to China and the gradual tempering of relations between the two countries.

(Read more about this story at ChinesePod.)

Changing China throughout the 20th century

One of the best ways of understanding how modern China works is by looking to it’s past. China’s recent history is very interesting; it has experienced some of the fastest political, social, cultural and economic changes in modern history. This means that what part of the 20th century you were born in can have a big effect on the way you see the world. So what influenced these generations and what are some of the defining features and characteristics of them?

The oldest generation still living in China today (individuals born from about 1925 to the mid 1940s) will be able to remember China’s civil war and the 14 year long occupation of China by the ‘Empire of Japan’ which ended in 1945. They will also remember the formation of the new, communist, ‘People’s Republic of China’ in 1949 headed by chairman Mao. For people growing up in this period, it was time of conflict and uncertainty. Mao’s vision of a modern, industrialised, communist China resulted in private land, farms and more traditional ways of life being destroyed in favour of a large network of small-scale rural industries. This led to agricultural production plummeting and gave rise to mass food shortages across China. This meant that many of this generation got used to both gruelling manual labour and dire poverty being facts of life. Many of this generation held traditional Chinese Confucian values, which were instilled in them by their parents (who would still remember the fall of the Qing dynasty) but also learned that to get ahead, or sometimes even just to survive, you had to associate with the right people.

Mao at the ceremony of the founding of The People's Republic of China

The next generation (people born from the late 1940s to the early 1960s) were the generation of the Cultural Revolution in China. Living conditions were still very poor for most people and under Mao’s socialism any traditional or foreign influence on culture was supressed. Schools were eradicated, churches and temples were destroyed and many intellectuals were sent to labour camps or communes to be ‘re-educated’. Without education or any real prospects, the people of this generation (the teenagers) were one of the main forces behind ‘the cult of Mao’. Many grew up believing that unthinking loyalty toward the state would be rewarded, questioning this authority was completely unacceptable. They believed that education was unnecessary and that anything foreign or old fashioned was redundant. Following Mao’s death in 1976 ‘the cult of Mao’ began to disappear, leaving many of this generation confused, angry and uneducated. This generation is sometimes known as ‘the lost generation’ due to the fact they have little real education and therefore find it hard to cope in the modern China where jobs are won, not assigned.

Chairman Mao's death in 1976 marked a new era for China

The generation after the generation of the Cultural Revolution are often referred to as ‘generation X’ (roughly born between 1965 and the 1980). This generation grew up after Mao’s death when economic and social reforms were being implemented. China opened up to the world (to an extent); private ownership was legalised, education improved and literacy rates soared. By the early 80s living standards, life expectancies and overall food production were all on the rise. This generation also experienced greater personal freedoms and both an influx of foreign culture and a revival of traditional Chinese culture. Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism all experienced revivals. The government set up SEZs (special economic zones) where foreign investment was allowed and this began China’s unprecedented economic growth. With the abundance of cheap labour China started becoming one of the worlds manufacturing hubs. This also meant that many of this generation moved from rural areas into the large cities to get a job and save money. The majority would then return to their rural lives to settle down and have children. Although there were vast improvements poverty was still pretty widespread, especially in rural areas. And despite China’s social and economic progress, it was still a totalitarian regime without any real political freedom for it citizens and 1989 it was internationally condemned for it’s brutal crackdown of protestors in Tiananmen Square.

Famous image from the Tiananmem Square protests in 1989

The current generation (born between 1980 and the late 1990s) are sometimes known within China as ‘little emperors’. This generation are a result of China’s attempt to control population growth, a one-child policy was introduced in 1979 and as a result this generation are often brought up as the sole focus of two parents and four loving grandparents. They tend to have higher self-esteem and expect more from life but also understand that they will have to work hard to achieve this. This makes them ideally placed to continue China’s economic rise. China has also expanded it’s SEZs and throughout the 90s and 00s millions of young people moved from rural China to the major cities in search of work. Although now, according some surveys, as little as 4% migrate with the intention of returning home to settle down. Throughout this period China has also become much more open and less repressive – no longer a totalitarian state. Private property protection rights; legislation on working conditions and foreign investment on a much bigger scale have all been introduced. The government has even tried to even out some of the disadvantages of economic growth, such as the regional unemployment, pollution and distribution of wealth between urban and rural areas. These policies have now cemented China’s place as a world economic power. Due to this and the fact that China is now investing heavily in the sciences, technology and space exploration (not to mention the successful hosting of the 2008 Olympics), this generation is experiencing a swell of national pride – China is becoming a great power once again.

The iconic Bird's Nest stadium built for the 2008 Beijing Olympics

Although it is hard to define the ideas, beliefs and influences on any generation without making generalisations, especially in a country as large as China – I hope that this article highlights the extreme and rapid changes that have taken place in China over the past 60 years.

 

Generational Traditions in China

Tradition, this word means something different to everyone, but the same general traditions are upheld in a culture. To us in the UK, tradition could be the local parade, Christmas celebrations or even as close knit as family traditions that have been happening for generations. Traditions stretch across a culture, and as they are intimately linked to each other. Tradition affects culture, and as new generations pick up traditions things change. Some traditions being forgotten or changed into something different.

This blog post will look into the traditions of China, and how some of the generations celebrate tradition, change or have even stopped them all together. When deciding on what aspect of life I wanted to focus on for this report most of the generational differences would of been seen as bad, or sad. I wanted to show a nicer side to the generational differences, where tradition is upheld and still seen with respect.

Chinese new year is the first tradition that comes to mind when thinking about China,  as a child I thought it was odd as it did not happen on the same day as our own new year. The Chinese new year is never on a set date but between the 21st January and the 20th February this is due to the Chinese running on a lunar calendar rather than a fixed one like the west.

In China the tradition of new year is celebrated with the exchange of money in red envelopes, exchanging gifts with the family, firework displays and much more. This tradition has been happening in China for generations, a time to gather with the family. Generations have celebrated the new year in different ways, as each generation is raised it seems that the customs of a Chinese new year are dwindling. Not that far in the past Chinese new year was hugely celebrated, the older generations in China would still remember them to this day, grand fireworks displays, 15 days of celebration to bring in the new year. During new years lantern processions would take place in the streets, as people welcome another year. The modern Chinese new year consists of a 7 day holiday from work, of which all socializing is mainly done through the internet or use of mobile phones and even ordering in food from a restaurant instead of cooking themselves. The family still gathers though and younger people travel in from there place of work to spend this special time with family.

The Chinese new year festivity’s have changed through generational jumps, still being revered by the elderly but the younger generation not embracing all of the older customs, not enough time, having a work place to go back to. This generational gap of technology and longer working days/working away from home shortens the festivity’s and some of the older customs. Here we see things such as the lantern processions dying, cooking the day before new year is also a dying tradition, as there is more money it is easier and more relaxing to let a restaurant cater for the big day. This being said the Chinese new year is still celebrated and embraced by all generations even if the tradition is slowly getting smaller in size.

Traditional Chinese medicine is also a generational tradition, the Chinese believe in their medicine and the role it plays. To the west this could be seen as alternative  medicine but in China it is used in some of the health care delivered. As generations pass the knowledge and willingness to use traditional medicine changes, the practice is still in use and taught. A survey was carried out by the Prince of Wales hospital in Hong Kong on the attitude of 91 students who study medicine towards traditional Chinese medicine. The survey showed that 40% were positive, 59% neutral and only 1% was negative. This shows that the youth of china are picking up the tradition from the older generation, where the use of traditional medicine may be changing in china, the generational gap is a lot smaller than to be expected.

China, known for many traditions, has born 1 tradition that won the west over, took over the big screen and bought about a new era of movie hero’s.  Kung Fu has been part of Chinese culture for thousands of years, but as the modern era approaches China this may be a tradition that is due to die off or fade into the background. While watching a documentary for a previous report i made note of the attitude of a kung fu master and his students. The film crew focused on his top student, along with his attitude towards learning kung fu, the message was clear; he did not want to learn kung fu, he would rather go to the city, get a job and lead a rich life in the new China. The master was also interviewed about this, and he seemed sad that the art was dying out, but wishes his student a good life, as long as the master had passed on the lessons he only hoped they would be continued as such a tradition had been alive for so long. This shows a decline in the quest for knowledge, rather the yearning for a life outside of the school where a job can be gained. This is kind of sad in a way, the traditions of old masters may be dying out, people who put their  lives into the advancement of kung fu and only wish to pass on this knowledge. Who knows we may see a day that kung fu is only taught the way it is here, in weekly lessons or even just become a memory.

There is a lot to talk about on this subject of tradition, as China is rich in its cultural heritage but i hope i have portrayed some of the better sides to the generations as traditions are passed on, old customs live on in the hope that people remember where they came from and more importantly why the customs exist in the first place. Things change as time goes by, each generation will drop parts of traditions due to time or even not believing in them anymore.

One Child Policy in China- Past, Present and Future

“Even if China’s population multiplies many times, she is fully capable of finding a solution; the solution is production. Of all things in the world, people are the most precious.”

Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Communist Party of China, made this statement in 1949 soon after the People’s Republic of China was formed. During this time, China experienced a massive increase in population, which at the time was considered a positive direction for China to go in. The mentality of people during this time was that population growth meant economic growth. After centuries of generations suffering from political unrest and epidemics, high population rates were not considered damaging to the Chinese people. This generation wanted to create new lives in a positive time in Chinese history.

It wasn’t until 1955 that the government introduced a birth control campaign that supported abortion in an effort to control the population growth. After a series of natural disasters and poor government planning a reported 20-30 million people in China starved to death between 1958 and 1961. The need to regulate the population started to become a serious issue.

It was in 1978 that Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping established the one child policy that limited the number of children people could have to only one. If a family did not comply with this law and produced a second child, there would be substantial fines. At a 2007 press conferences with Chinese officials, Zhang Weiqing was eager to exemplify the success of the one child policy, “Because China has worked hard over the last 30 years, we have 400 million fewer people.” This policy has created an enormous debate on whether it is hindering the basic human rights of Chinese citizens. Zhang Hui, mother of one little girl, believes that one child is enough and she would want one no matter the government regulations and fines. “I’m too busy at work to have any more,” stated Beijing native Zhao Hui. She also went on to say she is not alone in thinking this way. Many of her friends feel the same. A 2008 Pew Research poll three-in-four Chinese people (76%) approve of the policy. Professor Wang Feng, of the University of California, Irvine, confessed that because of the one child policy the Chinese citizen’s attitudes have evolved since the policy was instated in 1978.  “A lot of people simply don’t want that many children. People have accepted the policy,” said Wang. Over the years, the Chinese people have adapted to the childbearing regulations. For past generations, when it was typical to have many children in family, this policy would have seemed unrealistic.

For many in China there has been an acceptance of the one child policy but in some cases people are against it. Mother of two, Liu Shuling, escaped the traumas of a forced abortion when she decided to pay fines, amounting to four times her annual income, in order to have a second child. Liu Shuling and her husband were pleased to have a second son even if it was at the risk of loosing all financial stability. Liu Shuling’s husband admitted in an interview that a son was really what they wanted in order to help them when they reached an older age. Liu Shuling added, “To have a girl doesn’t work.”

Liu Shuling

Because of the one child policy, sex discrimination has become a huge repercussion. Most people prefer sons to daughters and will go to drastic lengths to have their one and only child be a boy. Abortion, neglect, abandonment, and even infanticide have become consequence of the one child policy. Everyday in China, 20,000 babies are born, but for every 100 girls there are 120 boys. The future generation of China will have to deal with the vast number of single men unable to find brides. There is also a fear that with such a high number of single men in China’s future society, there will a drastic increase in crime and violence. Jo Ming, a school principal with a belief that there needs to be a cultural balance between men and women, states in reference to the one child policy, “Once born, we are all equal, and we are all human beings. We need to respect each other. I think, even though some older people don’t agree, it should be eliminated.” The mentality that females are not as preferable as males is not a new attitude in China but only one that has worsened with the one child policy.

The one child policy was created to regulate the population and avoid poverty; however, there are still 600 million people living in China who earn less then $2 a day. Multiple generations will feel the effects of the policy. Because of the one child regulations, generational dynamics within a family have altered. In past generations, the parents were able to rely on their children in old age. For the present and future, a single child must take care of his or her parents and four grandparents. The one child policy has effected generations differently but all people in China are interconnected. A solution made during one generation seems to inevitably make way for an entirely new problem for the next generation. The one child policy was meant be a temporary solution and only last a generation. In 2010, after 30 years of the policy being enacted, the government shows no sign of stopping the regulations.