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.

 

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