social change in the northeast collection
social change in the southwest collection
In the last 50 years China had undergone profound social, cultural and economic change. Some of the narrators recall the period of collectivisation introduced by the Communist party in the 1950s, when the country was divided into settlement areas or communes. People worked collectively and all produce was pooled and shared out according to the number of household members as well as the work points earned. The commune system changed some gender roles as men and women worked alongside each other often doing the same tasks - though they did not get equal work points. It seems that these were hard times: "My husband was the production team leader. The Chinese cabbages planted in my yard were always stolen by the others. We didn't have anything to eat. We ate squash instead of vegetables. We ate cobs of corn and other leaves of Chinese vegetables, and also vines of sweet potatoes. We mixed them with flour. Our life was really very hard…" (China 36).
Collectivisation gave way to the household responsibility system, which was introduced in 1978 by Deng Xiaoping. Every household was allocated its own piece of land. Households keep most of their own harvest but hand over a certain amount as "tax" to the government. It was a radical change. People were not only able to work for themselves, and choose how to use on the land but could take up whatever opportunities were available for earning additional income. Narrators express relief at being more in control of their own lives: "Of course it is [better] today. It doesn't matter when you go [to work] early or late. [Under the commune system] one work point would be deducted if you arrived a little bit late. Two work points would be deducted if you were even later. Now working depends on yourself. It is flexible" (China 36).
Migration (mainly male), improved village facilities (a road, electricity and water supplies etc) and increased marketing opportunities have undoubtedly changed people's lives. Although rural women have a heavy workload as a result of male migration, there are now more opportunities for women in terms of access to education, and possibilities for income generation.
One interview (China 39) contains an interesting dialogue between a woman and her mother-in-law on some of the differences between their lives. While the mother-in-law claims the younger woman was lucky to escape the drudgery of the commune system, the younger woman points out that the Cultural Revolution was a particularly difficult time for young people like her: "we experienced the 10-year chaos, the Cultural Revolution, when people did not take schooling seriously." The aim of this nationwide movement from mid-1960s to mid-1970s, under Mao's chairmanship, the aim was to destroy the "four olds" - old ideas, customs, cultures and habits - and "build the new China". It was a period of widespread political purges, fighting between rival factions, educational chaos and much suffering, particularly for those identified as "reactionary intellectuals" by the Red Guards.
The younger woman also argues that life today has its own particular stresses, namely that greater access to cash has led to competitiveness between households, and pressure to buy the latest consumer items. Her mother-in-law agrees: "In the past, to have enough food was okay and all the families were the same. But now there are big gaps between families."
Another element of increased choice is in relationships, with young people increasingly free to choose their own partners rather than submitting to arranged marriages. Interestingly, one woman says that while there is more individualism, because it has been accompanied by greater prosperity people have become kinder and more helpful to each other: "There is mutual concern among villagers. If a family is in difficulty, others will come to help; if someone becomes ill, people will come to visit to express their concerns. Maybe it is because people are living a better life now…"(China 30).
Another change that most people agree about is the importance of education today. Hard work alone is not enough, say several narrators, "to make money" - now people need to use their brains. Migration is another force for social change, exposing people to different experiences and influences. Mostly this is approved of - for both sexes: "We do not think there is anything improper [in young women going outside]. These mountains shut us off and there may not be much room for further development. It is good that the young people go out to see the world, finish their schooling and gain experience and knowledge" (Junrong, China 39).
While several narrators are consciously investing long-term in the community by planting trees and planning a fruit-processing factory, some young people are already choosing to leave the village. Several women say that girls are increasingly marrying out of the area, making it difficult for local men to find wives. Others emphasise their desire for a better life for their children, and accept that this may mean they will use their education to move elsewhere: "[The future?] Make [our children] study hard so that they can leave this poor mountain area. We were born here and were raised up here. And we have to stay here. We often tell our children, 'See what a hard life we are living. You should not have the same life like us.'" (China 38).
quotes about social change
"My parents [made the decision for me to marry, but] my second son found his girlfriend by himself. And so did my older son."
Sumei, F/62, China 36
"In the past we would feel quite satisfied if we could have enough food. But now things are different. To tell the truth, we feel the pressure greatly…Suppose you have already had a black-and-white TV set, you are thinking of having a coloured one… every family is trying to improve the living standard, right? …If your home is decent and comfortable while mine is shabby and poor, how can I stay untouched?"
Junrong, F/36, China 39
"The competition we now have is different from that in the past. In the past if you had earned more work points… I could catch up with you simply by working harder. But now hard work without using your brain will not bring you more money."
Junrong, F/36, China 39
"[Economic] reform came to the country… it brought us a lot of benefits. Many people went to towns and cities to make money. My daily work was much lighter than before. I wanted to work as a children's nanny in big cities."
Fengxian, F/?, China 40