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Cover Feature -- Beijing Generations

(2008-04-25 00:41:49)



Since 1949 each generation growing up in Beijing has had an experience unique unto itself-- Generational differences in Beijing are striking. Each generation growing up in Beijing since 1949 has had an experience unique unto itself—from the excitement of New China to the frenzy of the Cultural Revolution and then to the pragmatic Eighties and beyond. For outsiders the drama of it all is bigger than life, and as we live in Beijing it is hard to imagine our neighbors participating in so much history. I attempt to get at what it all might have felt like by looking at what it was like to be a kid.

Here, then, are the childhood memories of is the childhood of six different Beijingers born after 1949, in their own words. Although I hoped each would represent an aspect of their generation, I did not seek out representative Beijingers—the only requirements were diversity of age and a rather loose “grew up in Beijing.” Of course some things about a Beijing childhood won’t change—the anticipation of Spring Festival, the rush of ice-skating on a frozen lake, or the pride of being raised in the capital. But changes in the material conditions of childhood-- from cramped communal courtyards to impersonal apartment blocks, from wotou (a course cornbread) to KFC, from Flowers of My Fatherland to Transformers—belie deeper changes in the way Beijingers think about neighbors, family, and relationships. Neighbors, who in grey-brick pingfang are as close as family, no longer talk when they move into high-rise buildings. The mechanical solidarity of the Iron Rice Bowl gives way at once to better material conditions and more complex and difficult social relationships. Rigidly-defined morality becomes more ‘open,’ if no less difficult to negotiate.

But enough ligerleng, here are their stories!



Yuan Daye. I was two years old in the winter of 1948. My hometown, Shenyang, had just been liberated by the Communists after a siege that left thousands dead and many eating only tree bark. My father never told me how he managed to secure a place for my mother and me on a plane to Beijing. It landed where the Revolutionary History Museum now is—that is where the airport was then and that is the first I saw of Beijing, though of course I don’t remember it. My father arrived a few weeks later.

We were assigned to this very house I still live in. When I was young this house was really something. There was a reflecting screen with carved flowers, and a big goldfish pot behind it, and a covered walkway that you’d walk down before reached our rooms. There were pomegranate trees, and poplars, and jujubes—all of which we cut down when we began building out into the courtyard. Did you know there were toilets in the courtyards originally? Yes, we had a toilet in the western side of the courtyard, but we stopped using it during the Cultural Revolution when they built the public toilets.

I attended a mixed elementary school in Beibanqiao, and then went on to the No.5 Boys’ Middle School—all the schools then were separated by sex. As soon as we got out of school in the summer we’d go swimming at Shichahai. In the winter of course we’d go ice skating. That’s how you knew a Beijing person. If a person couldn’t swim and couldn’t skate, well what kind of Beijing person were they? Perhaps they were really from the countryside.

There were a lot of campaigns in the 50’s, but one I remember best is the Steal Production campaign in the Great Leap Forward. All us school kids were told to go off and find iron. It was a competition-- you had to go find stuff. I remember scrambling up on the old city walls and finding a few strands of wire. The teacher was very happy with that.

One of the things we liked best in those days were ququanr. What’s a ququanr? Well it’s a cricket, in putonghua you say xishuai (cricket), but we say ququanr. Peasants came from Huairou, Miyun, and Changping selling crickets for two or three mao. We’d get excited when those crickets sellers came to town. We measured them by li, a Chinese mile. Of course, that was just a manner of speaking, they weren’t really a li long, but that’s what we’d say. If you had a real big one, that would be called an eight-li ququanr. We’d buy one and put in a ceramic jar, like this here preserved tofu jar. We’d take some soil and spread it on the bottom of the jar, and pound it down with a piece of wood. Then we’d put the cricket in the jar and put the cover on. The next day we’d open it up and put a little bit of cucumber peel in there. Pretty soon he’d start up—gulu, gulu, gulu, gulu. Oooh! we loved that sound—so nice to listen to.



Dai Daye. No. 14 Chaoyang Nanxiaojie—the siheyuan where I was born in 1951—was demolished a few years ago. No.9’s still there, but I’d say its zaowan de shir—it’s only a matter of time. There were ten people living in the courtyard—three generations. That courtyard had been in the family for a long time. We left in 1964, to live in our house here in Hou Gulouyuan, which was when I was in the sixth grade. I went to Dapaifang Elementary, and then in 1965 to Middle School No. 168. I still remember the day I joined the Red Guards on 13th September, 1966—about a month after Mao visited Tiananmen and had the armband pinned on him by Song Binbin. I had gone to Tiananmen to see Mao and I was really impressed, and because I had a “red” background—my father was a postman—I was able to join in September. There were about thirty or forty kids in our troop—all about fourteen or fifteen years old. For the first month or so we’d still go to school, but instead of going to class we’d hold meetings and study documents and the supreme knowledge of the Chairman.

In November, 1966 our whole troop decided to “link-up” and visit Chongqing and Jiangxi—not to visit any revolutionary sites, but just to establish solidarity with the other Red Guards. No teachers or adults went along, it was just us kids. It was great fun and we never lacked for food or lodging. Were my parents concerned? No, it was safer back then, and besides it would have been more dangerous not to have gone. I went to school for another year after that, and then I joined the Air Force in 1968.

In the wintertime, I always looked forward to Spring Festival. We got 250 grams of sunflower seeds, 300grams of peanuts, 250grams meat per person. We’d also get sesame paste and wheat flour. Mantou(wheat flour buns) were a treat back then—we normally had only wotou (coarse buns from cornmeal).

Before they closed Beihai Park for ten years in the Cultural Revolution, I loved to go to the Saturday night shows they held there in the summertime. It was only 1.5 mao. People went after dinner, taking advantage of the evening cool along the banks of the lake. There was local opera from Beijing and other places that sent troops to the Capital, and there were acrobats. But most of all I loved the movies—not kid movies, but adult movies. There was Lenin in October, and The Bicycle Thief and my favorite, Flowers of My Fatherland. The tickets were cheap, and everyone went back then. So I say that although we were poor, society was harmonious



Zhang Dajie. I was born in 1964 in Shunyi. My family lived in the Railroad Workers Dormitory. There were two rooms where my parents, my six siblings and I lived. I’m the second youngest.

I went to Liqiao Elementary School and I quite liked it. It was the Cultural Revolution—we were always up to movements like the one that Huang Shuai started. Huang Shuai was a Fifth Grader at Zhongguancun Elementary who wrote a letter to denouncing her teacher. At that time, she was taken to be at the front line of “educational revolution” and she was declared a “little forward commander.” Her diary was serialized in the newspaper and we had to study it and memorize it. Nevertheless, all the students were well-behaved—they accepted their benfen, their place. Even if you were mischievous, everyone would ignore you, and then your mischief wouldn’t be of much use, would it?

When I’d get out of school everyday I had to go fetch water from the local faucet. It was about thirty meters from my house, and I’d carry it back on a rod with two buckets on either end, back and forth at least three times. It was really heavy. But after that I’d go off and play with the other girls or do my homework. In the summer we’d go wading in the river—the boys went swimming but of course my mother couldn’t allow us girls to go swimming, could she? We’d also go off far into the countryside and collected wild plants to feed our chickens.

I liked Spring Festival best—we’d get money and new clothes. The most money I’d get was five mao, and I’d take all the money and buy candy. I really liked sweet things, especially a sort of milk flavored candy. Over Spring Festival our work unit would give us extra ration tickets—a half kilo of meat per person, some extra oil, 300 grams of sunflower seeds, a half kilo of peanuts, 2 kilos of wheat flour. They’d also give us extra ration tickets for cloth, and my mother would buy cloth to make new clothes.

After I graduated from middle school I went directly to work at the Beijing Railway station. I was sixteen.



My name is Jia Lini. We left our house in Tianqiao in 1988, when I was seven years old. It was as eight meter square room in a haphazardly built courtyard with lots of other families. You had to get water from a faucet at the gate, and there was only one toilet for all of us. So we were happy when my father’s work unit—the Beijing No.2 Leather Articles Factory—offered us a comfortable apartment in Jinsong. I’ve been back to that old house recently, and it’s even more depressing than when I lived there. All the people I knew have moved, and now only migrant laborers live there. I was glad when I heard the government is planning to demolish it.

My maternal grandma’s house in Chongwenmen was different. She lived in a true siheyuan, which was demolished a few years ago. Living in that house was like having a big family. When we got tired of skipping rubber bands (tiao pijinr) we’d sleep at our friends house, or in our own room. It didn’t really matter. If someone would cook some stewed meat they’d always bring some over for us to try. Of course, there really wasn’t any privacy to speak of, but people earned the same amount and thought simply, and so everyone was happy. Now we live in an apartment block, and we don’t know our neighbors.

At Jinsong No.2 Elementary School, I remember Mr. Tian, our writing teacher. He was an old fashioned teacher and I didn’t like him. He’d inspect every stroke of the characters that we wrote. We had to fold paper in a particular way and write our characters in a particular way, and when we rose raised our hands we’d had to hold our elbows on the desk and with a forearm at a ninety degree angle. There wasn’t any room for creativity. He would teach us about great figures, like Lei Feng and Lai Ning—a child who dies combating a forest fire near his home. At the time my mom felt that he made me depressed, but his influence on me was immense and I think the high standards I set for myself are a result of his teaching.

As far as winter, it was boring except for Spring Festival, which was really exciting. I remember we’d go to this particular shop near my granma’s house to buy new clothing—it’s still there and it’s still the same, state-run feeling. Often we’d buy something that I’d been looking at in the window for many months! The payment was Soviet style where you get a ticket and pay first before and present the stamped ticket before you’d receive the item you want to buy. There were big bolts of cloth that could be sewn into clothing. I remember buying my first cosmetics there—these little facial wipes. After that we’d go to the market and buy lots and lots of vegetables and mantou. Back then there weren’t any migrant workers, so when Spring Festival started all the shops would close so we’d have to buy lots and lots of mantou beforehand. Then we’d put on our new clothes and everyone would come over—probably about twelve people—and we’d all celebrate together in one room. It was pretty crowded. We’d all sit there and watch the Spring Festival broadcast on CCTV. Then when it was almost midnight, we’d get a whole bunch of firecrackers together and go outside and start letting them off.



[note: words originally in English here in italics] My name is Hong Lei. I was born in 1988 in Haidian. My grandfather and granma came to Beijing from Guizhou when they were sixteen, and when they first moved here they lived in a pingfang [one-story brick house]. But I never lived in a pingfang, I lived in an apartment block and I didn’t have any friends there. People who lived in pingfang had a lot of friends among their neighbors, but we never talked to our neighbors.

My elementary school was the Central University of Finance Elementary, after which I attended 123 Middle School. I didn’t like Middle School because the kids were stuck up. Afterwards I got into a really good school, which was Beijing Engineering College High School, even though I didn’t study that hard. The other kids were jealous after that and didn’t talk to me anymore. My high school friends were much better.

As for education, I don’t feel like there was a large change during the period of reform. It’s “swapping the soup, but not changing the drug.” The gaokao [university entrance exam]-based education will always be the same—always practice tests, practice tests and more practice tests. That’s because it will always be the gaokao deciding your fortune—unless you have a lot of cash to study abroad. Beijing kids have money so they go abroad and escape. But in the country kids have to have really, really good scores to go abroad.


My name is Wang Zixuan. I am ten years old. I live in Baiyun Qiao near Baiyun Guan, and I go to school at Baiyun Elementary in Xicheng. My favorite class is Ms. Zhu’s English class because English is easy to study and I’m good at writing English letters. The kids in my class are alright, but I don’t like the food at the school cafeteria. The eggplant is awful.

My best friend is Li Xiang—he’s in the same class as I. I like him because he has the toy I like best—a Transformer. I also saw the movie. My favorite scene is the scene when the Autobots and the Decepticons fight. It is really good.

When I get out of school in the afternoon, I like to go to the corner store and get some snacks and then go home and do my homework. That’s not because I like to, but because my granma forces me to. When I’m done with my homework, I watch cartoons on Kaku, and on the weekends I like to play PSP.

I really like my neighborhood—there are three gardens and an empty lot behind the complex where I play soccer with my friends. But my favorite place in Beijing is Shichahai, because every winter you can come here to ice skate. I come here every winter, and I also want to go skating on Kunming Lake by the Summer Palace, which is really big. I like ice-cars better than ice-skates, though. I can also roller-skate.

When I grow up I want to be an astronaut like Yang Liwei. I also want to go up on the moon for a look around! He’s really amazing, the first Chinese person to land on the moon [actually Yang orbited the moon without landing].

Where do I want to live when I grow up? Beijing, of course! Beijing’s the best because it has the biggest square in the world, Tiananmen. I went there and saw the Chairman Mao Memorial.

What plans do I have for Spring Festival? Well I want to get all my homework done early. On New Year’s Eve we have jiaozi. How many jiaozi can I eat? Two plates full, that’s about 16. I also really like tanghulu[glazed hawthorne berries]. Once we’re done eating, I get to let off fireworks! My dad always buys me the Thunder Bombs. Then I unwrap the box and light it anywhere and then run off as far as I can. Benglebengleng—even the box gets burnt up.


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