OTHER THEMES IN SW COLLECTION
culture and customs
employment and income
THEMES IN NE COLLECTION
culture and customs
introducing the china collections
history in the southwest collection
The pace of change in China over the last 50 years or so has been exceptional, and these accounts refer to some of the major economic and political events. However, China's minority groups tend to live in the more remote regions - often mountainous, border areas - and these narrators are no exception. Sheer distance from administrative centres has meant that some upheavals seem to have had less impact - or at least less immediate effect - on them than on the majority Han population, and on urban dwellers. In addition, government policy, as in the case of family planning quotas, seems to be sometimes more flexible or simply less rigorously imposed.
Several older narrators describe childhoods of extreme poverty. One woman (China 9) almost weeps as she recalls working as a small child for local landowners: "I was not very good at pounding rice... I used a special bench and stood on it so that I could reach up to pound the rice." The food they received as payment was never sufficient, and she was left with a life-long fear of starvation. Like other narrators of her age, she also remembers her locality being "liberated" by the army, under the leadership of the Chinese Communist party, from the control of the Nationalist party (the Guomingdang). This "liberation" could have taken place any time from the late 1940s to the early 1950s, but by 1949 most of China was under Communist control, and the People's Republic of China was established. Later, the army (which she calls "the Han people") gave her husband a salaried job as "head of a militia". This came to an end with the Cultural Revolution, she says, because of some unspecified misdemeanour on his part.
Life looked up again, in her view, when the commune system came to an end. Under collectivisation, she says, "some people worked slothfully" and the grain produced was never enough. Her family were reduced to eating roots, wild plants and even the tough stems of banana trees. But with the introduction of the household responsibility system, "grain is not in short supply… It's all up to you how hard you want to work and how much you want to eat." Introduced in 1978 by Deng Xiaoping, the household responsibility system meant every household was allocated its own piece of land and is free to work it as it chooses. Households keep most of their own harvest but hand over a certain amount as "tax" to the government. "We ordinary people like it more", she states, "but are just afraid that the policy will change in the future." Many of the women have also seized what opportunities have opened up for trading under China's economic reforms.
Interestingly, the Cultural Revolution, a nationwide movement from the mid-1960s to mid-1970s under Mao's chairmanship, seems to have left these communities relatively unscathed. It was designed to destroy the "four olds" - old ideas, customs, cultures and habits - and "build the new China". There were widespread political purges, fights between rival factions, and much of China's cultural and intellectual heritage was destroyed. One Miao woman, unusually well educated and travelled for her community, says "it had some impact" but the example she gives is that families "paid more grain to the state". She also explains that her father, a Christian, escaped censure: "…during the Cultural Revolution, when people criticised and denounced these religious people, they never did that to my dad." It seems he was locally respected, and discreet in his religious practice. But overall, the fact that few minority peoples were educated presumably meant they did not attract the attention of those seeking to rid China of "reactionary intellectuals", and so escaped much of the suffering the Revolution brought in its wake.
quotes about history
"Who still wants to live the life of the past? It was not easy when we had the collectivised commune… some people worked slothfully, and the grain you worked hard for one year [to grow] was not sufficient to eat. Now, it's all up to you how hard you want to work and how much you want to eat. Grain is not in short supply."
"…now we have the [household] responsibility system, we can decide how hard we want to work. It's not like before. There is no landlord exploiting the ordinary people. Now, I think, we work for ourselves."
Yeai, 52/F, Wa, China 9
"We have a fear of experiencing hunger again... We are afraid of living the kind of life we did in the collectivised commune period. At that time, we were often in debt. I'm scared to death even when I think about it now."
Yeai, 52/F, Wa, China 9
"[During the Cultural Revolution], the political atmosphere was not open to religion; my dad always taught us in secret… Although my dad was [Christian], he was never against the policy [of the time]… Besides, he never [tried to] spread the religion… he wouldn't spread [these beliefs] publicly."
Xuefeng, 41/F, doctor, Miao, China 12
"The [household] responsibility system is good. You labour as [much or as little as] you like, and you get richer if you work harder… What you do is yours. Everyone earns more. In the past, a group of people worked on the same piece of land. You dug on the piece of land and I would not labour more than you did. People didn't want to work hard. Like, when we grew the potatoes, we just threw them there and didn't care if they grew well. Now you grow potatoes, and you will get the yield."
Zhonglan, 40/F, women's officer, Yi, China 25