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.

 

Working Conditions for Chinese Factory Workers

For most consumers (the ones I’ve spoken to anyway), where something is made is usually an after thought. The purchase is made and taken home then those who are interested enough will check the label.
So most people really aren’t too bothered where something is made as long as they get the product they want for a price that they are willing to pay. Yet when you ask people how they feel about manufacturing being outsourced to developing countries the response is usually along the lines of ‘it’s terrible, these people work for pennies in appalling conditions’ and that they would never willingly support it. So what are conditions actually like for the average Chinese factory worker?

Let’s start by looking at what laws the Chinese government have in place to protect their workers. The PRC labour laws of 1995 are surprisingly comprehensive. Some of the main areas they cover are; minimum wage, working hours, overtime pay, health and safety, child labour and labour disputes. There is a maximum workweek of 40 hours, minimum wages are decided locally to cover the cost of living, overtime must be paid at a fixed rate, workers must have at least 1 day off per week and wages must be paid on time without deductions (without good reason). Sounds good enough does it not?
In reality these laws are rarely followed. The problem is that whilst the labour laws may be adhered to for the local residents, a huge majority of Chinese factory workers are migrants coming from rural China. These workers can expect to work much more than 40 hours per week, have just 1 or 2 days off per month, be paid just £50-£70 per month and have money taken out of their wages for breaking trivial rules which the factory has set (such as talking whilst working or having too many bathroom breaks). It is also common for the factory to withhold their employees first 2 months wages as a ‘deposit’ which they receive when leaving – making it hard for migrants to move onto a better paid job (which often come up unexpectedly and must be taken almost instantly before the chance disappears) or leave without consent of the factory owner (which is not always given). One of the main problems is that the migrants are generally looked down upon by local residents and government officials and therefore treated as second-class citizens to whom the ‘rules’ do not apply. It is also usually the case that migrant workers don’t actually know their rights under the PRC’s labour laws of 1995.

Why, then, are thousands upon thousands of migrants arriving at these ‘factory cities’ every year? Why does China’s cheap labour force and cheap manufacturing industry continue to thrive? For most migrants the appeal is the independence, the chance of a new way of life – leaving behind their parent’s small farms and quiet rural settings. Most migrants are young and see it as a chance to travel and ‘see the world’ – although this may seem confusing to us as they don’t actually leave China, the average rural dweller in China would rarely leave the small group of villages in which he or she was brought up. With so many young people from all around China arriving at the same places it’s also a great chance to meet new people. So it’s not all bad, there also the accommodation provided by the factories. Most factories will provide a place for their workers to live whilst working at the factory and although this is usually very basic, with up to 10 workers sharing one dorm style room, it gives the workers a secure and steady place to live.

Of course, not all factories are the same, not all factories ignore the rights of their workers. One such factory is the EUPA factory in southeast China. EUPA has a massive complex, housing 17000 workers and pumping out tens of millions of domestic products per year. Factories such as this one; do comply with the maximum working hours per week, pay their workers a fair wage on time and on top of this provide them with many benefits. The workers live there, they eat there (in one of their 5 different themed cafeterias which are subsidised by the company to keep the cost of meals down), their children go to school there – they can even get married on site! There is also opportunity to move up the ranks, if you’re good enough at your job and you work hard you can be promoted to line manager and continue to work your way up. Being promoted comes with the benefits of better pay and more spacious accommodation. One of the main reasons that EUPA can afford to treat its workers so well is the size of it’s operation which in turn means that it has consistent, reliable orders from its customers.

conditions in the majority of Chinese factories are not what many of us in the west would consider acceptable although there are some exceptions to this rule. Yet we also have to take in to account the fact that the majority of the people who are migrating to these factories are choosing to do so in the hope of a better life – lifting themselves and their families out of rural poverty

Yixing Clay Teapots

As a product designer and avid tea drinker I am interested in China’s long history of tea drinking and the paraphernalia that goes along with it. One particular item that interests me is the Yixing teapot, which is made from special zisha clay.

(The eastern province of Jiangsu, where the City of Yixing is located.)

The earliest Yixing teapots date back to around the 14th century but no one is entirely sure when the practice of making teapots from the zisha, or purple, clay found only in the Yixing area of China first originated (there is some evidence of the clay being used from as early as the 900s). At first glance a Yixing teapot may appear to be a pretty standard teapot, usually comprising of rounded body; looped handle on one side and a small spout on the other. But Yixing teapots are unique in that they are made using fired but unglazed zisha clay which has; a very fine texture, is excellent at keeping heat in and has a naturally beautiful colour.

(An antique Yixing clay teapot.)

The other interesting thing about the Yixing teapot is that the longer you use it, the better the tea it makes. This is because the zisha clay is very porous (has lots of microscopic holes in it) and therefore every time tea is brewed in it, it absorbs some of the flavour and oil of that tea. This means that the more tea you make in it, the more flavoursome it becomes – it is said that a Yixing teapot which has been used for many years can brew tasty tea with hot water alone. It is for this reason that the teapot should only be used to brew one kind of tea, so that the flavours absorbed into it do not mix to create an unpleasant tasting tea. It is also said that a Yixing teapot should never be washed with anything other than warm water as using soap would almost certainly ruin the taste of the tea brewed in it. Traditionally Yixing teapots were made not much bigger than fist sized and would be used to brew oolong and pu’er teas.

(Some oolong and purer tea, the sort traditionally brewed in zisha clay pots.)

Zisha clay has a red-purplish colour, which darkens, and becomes more beautiful over time and with use. Each pot would be made by hand on a potter’s wheel by a traditional Chinese craftsman and marked under the lid or on the bottom of the pot.

(An example of a more modern Yixing teapot done in a traditional style.)

For centuries the Chinese have practised the art of tea ceremonies as a way of relaxing, focusing the mind and bonding socially. The ‘rules’ for these ceremonies vary depending on teas, areas in China and the equipment used (amongst other things). However, the ethos of the ceremonies rarely differs from one of respect, peacefulness, humility and equality. To begin the tea filled pot is filled with water until over-flowing, this first brewing is used to wash the tea leaves, the teapot and the cups which will be used. The teapot is then filled again with boiling water, brewed for around 10 seconds (depending on the tea) and poured into each of the participants’ cups. The cups used, much like the Yixing teapot, are miniature in size and are designed to be drunk in 2 or 3 sips whilst also allowing the drinker to smell the tea to enrich the experience. Sometimes an aroma cup is also used, the tea first being poured into the aroma cup, then into the drinking cup – leaving the odour of the tea in the aroma cup for the participant to smell. This process will be repeated many times (usually around 10 or 15) still using the original tea leaves. As the ceremony continues, each pot of tea produced will gain a subtly different flavour to the last, getting stronger towards the middle and weaker towards the end when the brewing time is increased to get the most out of the leaves. Yixing teapots are ideal for this kind of ceremony as each steeping of the leaves produces the perfect amount of tea for a small group. Yixing teapots are also ideal as the equipment used in the ceremony is also very important and zisha clay pots are considered to be amongst the best in China (and the longer you’ve had it, the better!).

(The equipment needed for a Chinese tea ceremony.)

As Yixing pots are considered to be some of the best, their value in todays China has escalated rapidly (owing mainly to the booming Chinese economy). Like so many Chinese antiques in recent years the older and more ornate ones have become especially valuable. Recently a single Yixing teapot, made by master craftsman Gu Jingzhou, fetched more than 12 million Yuan at a Chinese auction (around £1.2 million). But does this escalation in price undermine the whole philosophy behind tea in China? Tea in China is associated with equality and a sense of humbleness so this modern extravagance kind of goes against what tea drinking is really all about. However, there are of course still reasonably priced good Yixing teapots in China that most families can afford and enjoy.

(The Gu Jingzhou zisha teapot that sold for more than 12 million yuan last year in China.)

I feel that the Yixing clay teapot is great example of an ancient Chinese production process that is still used to this day. Yixing teapots are incredibly functional and aesthetically pleasing but they are also a symbol for a simpler more humble way of life, which is something that I think is should be cherished in today’s rapidly growing China.

Chicken Noodle Soup

My attempt at making some authentic Chinese food, a very simple yet tasty chicken noodle soup. Although to be honest i’m not entirely sure how authentic it actually is! I loosely followed the recipe found at http: //www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/1869/chicken-noodle-soup.

Step 1. Get your ingredients:

  • 2 skinless chicken breasts
  • 1.5 Ltr chicken stock
  • 3 or 4 mushrooms
  • 3 or 4 spring onions
  • 1 small tin of sweetcorn
  • some soy sauce
  • some ground ginger
  • 1 or 2 cloves of garlic
  • around 250g of Chinese noodles

Step 2. Add the chicken breasts, finely chopped garlic and ground ginger to the chicken stock. Bring to boil then simmer for 15-20 mins.

Step 3. Remove the chicken breasts from the pot and shred using two forks (you could chop it neatly if you prefer… or have OCD) then put it back in with the stock. Next, add the chopped mushrooms, most of the spring onions, the sweetcorn, two tablespoons of soy sauce and the noodles. Bring back to boil and simmer for another 5 minutes.

Step 4. Ladle into however many bowls you need, sprinkle on some more chopped spring onions and enjoy.
I had mine with some vegetable spring rolls and prawn crackers (neither of which i made i’m ashamed to say) and it was great.

It might not be the most adventurous chinese cooking but all in all its a good quick and easy recipe if you feel like a quick bite to eat!

How is The People’s Republic of China portrayed in our media?

China, more specifically the Communist party of China, is widely condemned by western media and the international community for its stance on human rights. Issues such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion and political freedom are all attacked on a regular basis.
Anyone within China who attacks or criticises the government is accused of disrupting their ‘harmonious society’ and can expect to be arrested and charged with dissent or subversion. One well known example of this is the political activist Liu Xiaobo who was first arrested in 1989 after the government’s brutal crackdown on protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. He was sentenced to 2 years in prison for his involvement in the protests. Later, in 1996, he was again arrested for speaking out against China’s one party state and this time he was sent to a re-education labour camp for 3 years. In 2009 he was again arrested for ‘subverting state power’ and sentenced to 11 years in prison; in 2010 (whilst still imprisoned) he was awarded the Nobel peace prize for his non-violent struggle to promote human rights in China. Despite all of this almost no-one living in China will have heard of him – simply because the state is adept at managing what its people see in the news, it exercises strict controls over what appears on television, in newspapers and what can be accessed on the internet.
Another story which our media often reports on is the ongoing dispute over Tibet, an area which has shifted in and out of Chinese control over centuries. Many Tibetans see the Chinese government as suppressors, subduing their right to freedom of expression and worship. One of the main causes of tension is the fact that China has exiled Tibetan Buddhists spiritual leader – the Dalai Lama. This is also one of the reasons that the Tibet-China relationship is so well reported in the media, since his exile in 1959 the Dalai Lama has travelled the world advocating a non-violent road to independence for Tibet. Despite this there have been, and still are, uprisings which have been violently suppressed by the Chinese government. News stories like these and countless others about poor working conditions, low wages and forced abortions paint a very negative image of China which I wouldn’t say is entirely fair.

China is also routinely labeled as a communist country in the western media and as the ruling party is called ‘The Communist party of China’ this seems fair enough. However, the word ‘communism’ is a loaded word when used in the west, mainly because of old soviet states and the cold war it has attracted very negative connotations in peoples minds, especially in the US. But is it fair to label China as communist, is China really still a communist country?
In its purest form communism is a political ideology where no-one owns anything and therefore there is no class system, everyone is equal and everyone works toward the common good, there is no private land, businesses or property. Of course this system has many problems; not least the lack of motivation to work hard if it does not directly benefit the individual. Modern China is so far from this ideal that it is hard to still consider it communist at all – it may have been something close to this many years ago under Chairman Mao but that system is long gone. In today’s China people can start their own business, put their money into private bank accounts and buy luxury goods. That’s not to mention the huge amounts of foreign investment which go into the country every year. The government still technically controls the distribution and redistribution of land but recent laws have been passed which enhance private property rights and make it harder for the government to intervene. So China has kept some elements of communism but it also has something close to a free market which brings it a step closer to a capitalist ideology. Of course the government still considers itself to be a communist government but is it fair on China that we refer to it as communist even with all of the negative connotations?
All of this makes it hard to precisely label the Chinese political ideology, I think something like social-capitalism would be a bit closer to the truth.

Of course there are also positive news story relating to China in our news. We often hear of their booming economy which is growing at an unprecendented rate and how this is bringing prosperity – lifting millions out of rural poverty and enabling the Chinese government to introduce legislation regarding improved pay and conditions for its workers. China has also started its own space program and is planning to send up its first manned aircraft in the near future.

All in all the way China is portrayed in our media can be quite negative but the more their economy grows the more positive stories i believe we will be seeing. As the country gets richer and richer more money will be used to look after its citizens which of course can only be a good thing.