In a study of generations in China we decided to focus on the differences between elderly, middle-aged and young Chinese people in their upbringing and attitudes towards money, education and other cultural aspects of life in China. To help us explain the differences we created three personas that are all members of the same family:
Li Wu grew up during the early years of the communism era and lived through the suffering of the Cultural Revolution. As a result he’s a lot more conservative and holds traditional Chinese values.
Li Wang grew up after the introduction of the one child policy. His family doted on him and gave him the best opportunity possible. He’s managed to make good of his life but it has always been a struggle trying to keep up with a rapidly changing economy.
Li Pan grew up knowing only a very prosperous China. He has a lot of national pride seeing his homeland successfully host the 2008 Olympic games. He has also been heavily doted on by his family but is less influenced by traditional Chinese ideas and more by Western culture.
To research this topic we initially gathered information from a variety of online sources. We then complimented our research with interviews conducted, by us, with real Chinese people: Weiran Zhang (23) from Shandong province, who studied in Shanghai for four years, Peter Ruochen Zhang (21) from Henan province, Wilson Sijia Zhang (22) from Shanxi province, Wong Yut Yeung (Justin) (21) from Hong Kong, Win Lam (22) from Hong Kong and Michelle Ho (21) also from Hong Kong.
Over the years, there has been a lot of dramatic change in China, from the early years of communism and the Cultural Revolution, to a much more modern and liberal way of life. According to Weiran, the launch of Open Door Policy in 1980 caused “huge amounts of information to flood in that brought about change… although traditional values are still the mainstream.” With this change came a much better quality of life – “The living standard of our generation is much higher than my parents. Urbanisation brought people into the city – a new environment and different social rules. We have been brought up in a world of choice and diversification that my parents never thought or even heard of. Now, we are more tolerant and find it easier to adopt new and unusual things.” Wong Yut Yeung agrees with this and although he has never lived in China, his grandparents originated there. He stated “The Chinese were poor in the last generation so they want to give their kids the best life possible.” His grandparents fled China during the Cultural Revolution in search of a better quality of life.
Li Wang’s marriage was arranged for him when he finished his education. This was quite common in China. Win Lam’s grandmother “met her grandfather through an arranged marriage”. Parents often wanted this for their children as it meant that they would be more responsible and settle into their role as providers.
Li Wang and his wife are happy in their marriage and they hope Li Pan will do the same. Peter felt that “parents don’t want their children to fall in love too early or it will distract them. He should marry when he starts working so that he has responsibility”. According to Sijia, “if a man wants a girl from good family to marry him he has to show he is secure by having a good apartment and a nice car”.
Li Wu has a very different approach to money to his son or grandson. In our interview, Weiran said that older generations “were taught collectivism”. Almost all of our interviewees talk about the hardship endured by their ancestors. Sijia said that his “grandfather worried about whether they would have enough food and clothes to survive”. Weiran agrees, saying “starving was a threat for my parents. They are still frugal because of their experience and will tell me stories when I waste things.”
Although there is still a lot of poverty in rural China there has been positive changes in the cities. More and more people are entering the middle class and making enough money to splash out, and the government encourages this consumerism. Parents are more than happy to comply and dote heavily on their children. Peter feels that “children are over spoiled now because the parents don’t want them to suffer like they did.” Li Wang is the main money earner of the family. Sijia believes that “men still feel a sense of duty to earn money for the entire family.”
It is not uncommon these days for women to work however it is more difficult for them to find a job, as when they were growing up, education priority was given to the males.
When Li Wu was a boy he never had an education. This was down to the fact that his family simply did not have enough money. Win Lam explained that her “grandmother is illiterate. At the time, the priority was for her to stay at home and work on the farm”. Some families did manage to save enough money to send a child to school and priority was always given to the sons. Michelle Ho said that her “Dad had enough education from school but started working at 20 so he had to leave early.” More and more people like Li Wong were able to get a decent job in the city thanks to their schooling and earn enough money to bring their families out of poverty but it wasn’t always easy. Sijia told us his “parents struggled to get the skills needed to get a job” even with an education “because China changed so rapidly.”
Now Li Pan has been going to school since he was 5 years old. He has very good English and is much more technologically advanced than his parents. As Sijia explains, “there is a lot of pressure on children to do well since they are an only child and competition is fierce. Parents send their children to after school classes and some days they don’t get home until late. Even on weekends, they are busy with schoolwork. These days having an education does not guarantee you the best possible life.” Li Pan needs to prove he is talented.
Li Wu, like most of his generation, is a Buddhist. In the past, the Chinese have tended not to believe in a higher power, but focused more on family and the world and so many follow either Buddhism or Confucianism.
According to Win Lam “older generations are also more traditional, for example, they believe in no sex before marriage. They are very superstitious and believe that wearing Jade brings you luck and eating fish eyes will give you good eyesight.”
Li Wang and Li Pan however are Christians. Michelle claims “many young or rich Chinese have converted to Christianity. Some would say that this is purely just a symbol of status.”
In rural China, many people are self sufficient in growing their own food. Win Lam said that her “grandmother had a farm where she grew fruit and vegetables. She was able to save money when buying food at the market.” This is how Li Wu got by before moving to the city, but even now, he still prefers to buy local fresh produce for making traditional Chinese meals as opposed to Li Wang’s new found western tastes. Michelle explained, “the rich seem to be into western culture and food.”
It is not uncommon for Li Wang to grab a burger from McDonalds on his lunch break when he goes out with his co-workers.
Li Pan on the other hand is often fed by his grandparents and has quite a healthy diet of meat, rice and vegetables. He still thinks it’s a treat though when his Dad takes him out for Western food.
In the past, women were not always treated as equal. They were not offered the same opportunities as men and their job was simply to stay at home and care for the family. However, Weiran believes that “in modern times, women have more authority.” Peter pointed out “both parents work although in the past, this might not be the case.” Sijia said “these days, women look to marry a man who will respect them”; an aspect of culture he believes was “adopted from the west.”
There is a group of Chinese people we haven’t really touched on. The returnees. They are not necessarily a generation but a significant sub-group of the post 80s generation who travelled overseas to study and have now returned to China with overseas degrees – but most importantly, with a taste for the freedoms and lifestyles of the west, and a greater awareness of western ideas.
The research we carried out on generations in China has deepened our understanding of the culture both past and present and has given us an insight into how China might develop in the future. Interviewing Chinese people has not only helped us massively with this project, it has allowed us to establish good connections that we may call upon in the future.