As Thanksgiving and the winter holidays draw near, we often imagine Norman Rockwell-esque gatherings. Elaborate and delicious meals, the sounds of convivial conversation, the feeling of warmth that comes from time spent with family. I think for most of us, it is these things that come to mind, even if we haven’t personally experienced these things in our own lives. We imagine a time in the past when things were better, and from that false memory, complain about the present.
I’ve noticed that among my Chinese friends, the topic of discussion has been more frequently focused on China’s current woes. The other day, one co-worker was disgusted by the deaths of over 20 children in a school bus crash, and the other one talked in hushed tones about how the gov’t only wants to enrich itself. A new issue arises every day, and the feeling becomes that China’s current situation is worse than ever. Their statements suggest there was a time when things were “better”.
We can even see this effect in even farther looks back, a recent Op-ed in the NYT claims that China’s Confucian dynasties ruled with benevolence. Throughout China’s history though, the average person was often seen as having little worth to the state, and life expectancy did not increase beyond 35 between 0-1800. As Sam Crane points out in a recent post on The Useless Tree, Legalism, not Confucianism defines China’s past imperial powers; and that since the first emperor, dynasties have been primarily concerned with expanding state power and territory, and silencing dissent.
China has never been a better place to live. Compared to 221BC or 1949AD, I would argue that almost every aspect of life has been improved. Women have a much better standing in society, basic education and literacy are nearly universal, the standard of living has improved in every corner of the country, and information is more widely available. This is not to say that there is no work left to be done, and is in many ways more a reflection of how difficult life was in the past.
And yet, I still meet people who look back fondly. One friend described the fun of singing Red Songs with her classmates during the Cultural Revolution, and even sang me a few verses, beaming with joy. When the song concluded, she told me how the Red Guards had locked her father in his own classroom for days. As a result of her parents’ concern for her safety, she was adopted by her uncle. Yet somehow, when she was refused the “opportunity” to be sent to the countryside for education through labor, she was incredibly upset. It is an extreme understatement to say that most Chinese over 40 years old have a difficult relationship with their own histories.
Part of what is underlying this rosy recollection, is what came after the Cultural Revolution – the fall of Maoist ideology and China’s opening up. These changes brought real opportunities to the masses for the first time in generations. There was a sense that people could suddenly become rich, and that anyone with enough pluck could quickly climb the social ladder (in line with the idea of a Confucian meritocracy of the past).
Over the last thirty years though, the walls have gone back up around the social ladder, and movement feels restricted again. My co-worker ranted the other day about how guanxi (relationships) is a necessity just to live a decent life, and moaned her lack of connections. She said, “If I lose my job here at the hospital, I couldn’t even see a decent doctor.” Another friend from Chengdu summed it up in a recent email:
“I feel worried for China’s economy. Not just for real estate, but the whole picture. What upsets me is not the loss of property, but losing the potential of making money.”
And so as we embellish our own memories of the past, as do our Chinese friends much to the Party’s Chagrin. The Party tries to herald it’s progress and China’s bright present, but they are finding that it is very difficult to compete with a past that never fully existed. If the Party hopes to maintain it’s grip on power, it can finally acknowledge the mistakes of the past, which it could distance itself from, to emphasize their progress; or it can continue to pursue its path of Legalism with a benevolent facade.