One family, four generations watch a nation transform itself
IN HER 91 YEARS living in Taishi, a village a little less than two hours from Beijing, Feng Shuwen’s even gaze has taken in a China in transformation, from the early, ill-fated days of the republic, when women still had bound feet and the Qing dynasty had crumbled only a decade earlier, to the doomed Kuomintang rule of Chiang Kai-shek.
From Taishi she watched the Japanese invaders arrive and eked a living through a terrible war that left bitter scars, until the country fell into civil war before the communist revolution of 1949. China is still a communist country, but the prevailing ethos is a freewheeling mix of socialism and capitalism. Even though many in the village have cars these days, she has never visited the capital.
“I’ve never been to Beijing and I don’t want to go. Why would I go?” she asks, and laughs. Feng wears her hair in a short bob, swept back off her face, and a heavy dark jacket.
We are in the family’s farmhouse, with large windows looking on to a courtyard, 30km from the township of Miyun, to the northeast of Beijing. Taishi has about 2,000 villagers, but it feels like fewer. Here in the dust, with chickens running around, the capital feels a long way away.
This county is home to some of the most spectacular sections of the Great Wall, especially Simatai, which has many well-preserved watchtowers. The family lives in the shadow of the wall near the Watching Beijing Tower, which is at an elevation of 986m and from which you can supposedly see the lights of Beijing, 120km away. And she still hasn’t been to the capital.
Her son Lei Chunyou, who is 62, has just come back from the fields, wearing a striped shirt, People’s Liberation Army trousers and plimsolls. He offers cigarettes, and is disappointed when I decline. “Dont worry about your health; smoking is no problem,” he says. He places one beside me, just in case.
His priority, as he wipes himself down after working in the fields, is that we bring eggs to the city. These are mountain-raised “organic” eggs, he says. Such concepts are not alien, even in rural China, these days.
Like the cigarettes, the eggs are thrust on us. They sell for 100 yuan (€12.60) a box. The level of hospitality is intense.
The family used to have three bits of land, but two went to the local village: in China, all land still belongs in theory to the government, although many choice parcels have been sold to developers, and agriculture still has strongly collective elements.
“We have 19 chickens. Both of us used to farm, and we grow corn,” he says, pointing to the corn drying outside. His wife, Wang Fengying, nods. Also 62, born shortly after liberation in 1949 when the communists came to power, she is very happy with the conditions they have, especially in the past 30 years of opening up and reform, for which they thank Deng Xiaoping and the Communist Party.
“Government policy is good for us farmers. Every month we get a pension,” she says. She gets 250 yuan (€31.40); her husband and mother-in-law each get about 300 yuan (€37.70).
The two farmers bustle around the small room where the family lives. It has a chicken run in the back, and stacks of fuel. There is a painting of the youngest son, Lei Junhong, in Shanghai. There is a daughter too, a dentist in Miyun.
“We thank President Hu Jintao and the Communist Party for these decent pensions, which help us live a good life,” Wang says. “About 30 years ago, when I was 30, it was much harder to live. There were 10 of us living together, and I had a lot of work to do every day.
“There is just no comparison with today – the food we have, the clothes. I used to have one set of clothes that I had to wash every day after work. Now I have clothes to spare.” As if to prove her point, she wears a smart green knitted jacket with a floral pattern, and a cheerful orange polo neck.
Modernity has crept into Taishi, not flooded in. Much of the power for the household comes from a solar panel outside the building, and there is a large television in the corner. Neighbours all seem to have mobile phones. But there is still a sense of surprise at this transformation. Lei tells of how, back in the day, at Spring Festival, or Chinese Lunar New Year, people were given a kilo of rice.
“Meat was so cheap – 70 fen [about 1c] a half-kilo – but we couldn’t afford it except at Chinese New Year. Now we can buy meat,” says Lei. His wife starts laughing. “Now we have to cut down on meat for health reasons,” Wang says. “We are supported by our children too. We know they have to take care of things too. Things are very expensive these days.”
In China children are required to support their parents; it’s a Confucian tradition that has been codified into law.
“I know they have to support us, the children. But I try not to bother them. With all the expenses they have, they have nothing left at the end of the month. We know our children are under great pressure – they have mortgages, they have children of their own to raise,” says Wang.
“For us, day-to-day expenses are covered by the pensions, but if we have to go to the hospital, it’s a bit of pressure.”
This is a common fear in China. While the savings ratio is very high, most people save money because of the absence of a social- welfare net. If you go to hospital you have to pay for treatment – and there is a perception that you have to pay over the odds for that care.
Society has changed too during the 30 years of reform, and getting richer doesn’t always mean getting nicer.
“People have changed. They are not as nice as before. People used to be more willing to help each other,” says Lei.
All of their three children have one child each because of the generally strictly observed one-child policy for population control, which was introduced in the 1970s. They are not among the families that qualify to be an exception.
Their eldest grandchild, a boy, died at the age of seven, and the parents had a second child.
You sense that while they understand the point of the one-child policy, they don’t especially like it, and they feel that people don’t have more children only because of the fine rather than because of any heartfelt conviction.
But the times have changed regarding having girls or boys. Boys were traditionally favoured in the countryside, but these days girls have just as good a chance of finding work in the city, so the baby’s sex is not important. “Anyway, you can only have one, so what does it matter?” says Wang.
At this point Dong Xia, the 40-year-old wife of their eldest son, Lei Junwei, comes in. She is the mother of the boy who died; she now has a 14-year-old son, Lei Yongle, who is due in from school any minute. She works in the community as a women’s representative.
“When I got married, in 1996, the road was a dirt track. Now it’s much cleaner. We didn’t have a public toilet, and it was rough. Now we have toilets in every home. In 2010 we got running water to every family home, with drainage and sewerage,” she says.
“Not every home has a car, but there are a lot more than before. There are restrictions on the number of licence plates issued, so it’s difficult.”
The eggs arrive, brought by a neighbour. Dong points out to me that her nose is big, like a foreigner’s nose, and points at my nose. It’s an observation, but a neutral one.
Feng Shuwen is the nai nai, or paternal grandmother, who is truly in charge in the family. She was born in 1921, although her ID card says she was born on January 18th, 1922.
“I ate already,” she says as she enters, answering the traditional greeting of “Have you eaten?”
Feng says she is 91 years old, as traditionally Chinese people include the time they spent in the womb when calculating their age. Not only has she never been to Beijing; she has only once been to Miyun, the biggest local town.
“Things are a lot better these days. There’s a lot to eat,” says Feng.
She was about 20 when the Japanese came. “All the men hid themselves in the hills, and the women were scared and ran away too. It was a terrible time. They brought big dogs with them.”
Two family members died during the second World War, which in China is known as the Anti-Japanese War and is dated from the time the Japanese invaded China, in 1931, to the surrender of Japan, in 1945.
“The revolution was a good thing for us, because before the revolution we used to have to run away from the fighting. After 1949” – when the People’s Republic was founded – “we didn’t have to worry about war. And now things are even better,” she says.
Lei Yongle, her great-grandson, arrives home from school. He practises his English a little on the foreigner, and agrees to be photographed with his great-grandmother. He has the red scarf of the Young Pioneers youth organisation, and is cheeky but dutiful. Then he runs off, his schoolbag on his back, along with the expectations of three generations.
At the end of the central alleyway running through the village, what was once a dusty thoroughfare is now a major highway. On the other side sits a shopping precinct; bare, seemingly empty, but unavoidable.
Feng Shuwen has spent nine decades not visiting Beijing. Now the new China is coming to her.
Chaotic century A timeline of a Chinese family - and China itself
1911Qing dynasty breathes its dying breath and one year later is no more.
1912Sun Yat-sen founds the Kuomintang (KMT, or Nationalist Party) and forms the provisional government of the Republic of China in Nanjing.
1921Feng Shuwen is born. The Chinese Communist Party is formed; early members include Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. They join the KMT and fight the northern warlords.
1927Communists start to assert themselves, organising a strike against the KMT. Conflict between KMT and communists starts in earnest.
1931Start of the Anti-Japanese War, when Japan invades Manchuria, in northern China.
1934One of the most important events in Chinese communist history takes place, when thousands of communists march almost 10,000km and regroup a guerrilla base in Yan’an, in Shaanxi province.
1936Communists and KMT form an uneasy alliance to fight the Japanese.
1937Sino-Japanese War escalates, alliance between communists and KMT breaks down.
1945The Japanese surrender, leaving China in ruins. Full-scale hostilities between the communists and the KMT resume in 1946.
1949Mao Zedong takes Beijing and declares the foundation of the People’s Republic of China. KMT flee to Taiwan, where they continue the Republic of China. To date, no armistice has been signed.
1950Lei Chunyou, Feng’s son, is born. His wife, Wang Fengying, is born.
1956Mao says, “Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend,” encouraging people to say what they think of the government. Critics are sent to labour camps.
1958-1960The Great Leap Forward, a campaign to modernise China by boosting production through redistribution of land and rapid industrialisation. Two failed harvests and millions of deaths from starvation result.
1966Mao kick-starts the Cultural Revolution, a time of ideological fervour when university students formed gangs of Red Guards that went around removing anything western, capitalist, religious or traditional.
1972Lei Junwei, Lei Chunyou’s son, is born. His wife, Dong Xia, is born.
1976Mao dies and China tries to pick up the pieces. It takes two years before Deng Xiaoping, who was purged during the Cultural Revolution, takes over the leadership.
1978One-child policy of population control introduced, applying initially to firstborn children in 1979.
1980Deng begins the policies of reform that see China open up its economy.
1989Bloody crackdown on democracy demonstrators, centred on Tiananmen Square, in Beijing.
1997Deng dies. Hong Kong returns to China.
1998Lei Yongle, Lei Junwei’s son, is born.
2001China enters the World Trade Organisation and bids successfully for the 2008 Olympic Games.
2003Jiang Zemin hands the leadership to Hu Jintao.
2008Beijing hosts the Olympics, widely seen as China’s great coming-of-age party.