The Long March: Past is unknown territory for young Chinese

By Julie Middleton, Julie Middleton
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Emilly's parents, both in their 50s, are from the "the lost generation", their education halted and prospects shattered by the repressive 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.

It is an era of which Chinese young people appear remarkably ignorant. The past is a place no one wants to visit. "My parents don't say anything about it," Emilly says. "My generation don't really know about what happened. The history books say it was not a good time."

Emilly's lack of knowledge of China's past becomes striking as I get to know her better - and when I ask her mother to write down her life story in Mandarin and email it, Emilly is surprised at some of the things she learns.

Emilly's mother, Xian ("she-arn") Rong Chen, and her three siblings grew up in poverty, their father made a young widower when his wife died of tuberculosis. "Being able to eat until my stomach was full would have been great," she says.

Now retired, she and Emilly's father, Guo An ("gu-oh arn") Ji, a chauffeur, were teenagers when Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution - a campaign against bourgeois values - started in 1966. Meaningful education halted. Her mother became embroiled in the fervour, joining the rebel faction of the Red Guards.

Brandishing copies of The Little Red Book, a collection of Mao's decrees, they specialised in vindictiveness - even beatings and murder - against "enemies of the state". Amid the anarchy, Xian Rong met Guo An Ji. He was, in the politics of the time, of a capitalist family and thus beneath contempt, but "we fell in love at first sight despite all the differences between us". At 16, Xian Rong joined the People's Liberation Army for three years. Military life ensured enough to eat, and she was committed to the politics. But Guo An was condemned, like millions of Chinese, to harsh rural labour.

After Xian Rong's discharge from the Army the pair married.

Emilly was born in November 1976, three months after Mao's death. She was a sickly baby and her care exhausted the family's meagre income, the equivalent of $11 a month. But she remembers a pleasant childhood based on her father's work unit, the social entity which allocated housing and defined people's lives. Her father was an assembly-line worker, her mother a switchboard operator. Her parents wanted a boy and tried for one. Ran arrived eight years after Emilly. Punishment was swift - Xian Rong was denied promotion. It is something she will not discuss, and Emilly suspects there is a lot more to it.

As a child, Emilly remembers her parents' many arguments, but says that among her parents' generation splitting up is rarely an option. "In China, marriage means the union of two families, so if you want to divorce it's hard on both families."

Emilly's parents still live in Xuchang, 800km northwest of Shanghai and home to 4.3 million.

Xian Rong enjoys dabbling with "spare money" in China's 16-year-old stock market ("she loses a lot"). She talks of her daughters with pride. Ran is at university. Emilly was always top of her class, says her mother, but her parents were torn when the time came to decide whether she should take the hotly contested university entrance exam, or whether she should go to technical school and a factory job to bring in more money.

Emilly's father thought that education wasn't worthwhile, as Emilly would just get married off. Her mother, whose greatest regret is her own stolen education, disagrees. "Education was the best road to success, so that our children would not suffer from the same poverty we had," she says. "No matter what it cost, they had to attend school. That was the only way they could do well in life."

 

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