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From Hungry Peasant to University Professor | Social Transitions in a Reformed China

“So China has changed very fast, right?” I encouraged Professor Liu to speak. “Yes, very fast,” he replied. “Is life better now?” The professor torqued his hand quickly back and forth and replied noncommittally, “In some ways, yes, in others I’m not so sure.” We were riding a train that was speeding towards Nanjing, and [...]

Rising China

“So China has changed very fast, right?” I encouraged Professor Liu to speak.

“Yes, very fast,” he replied.

“Is life better now?”

The professor torqued his hand quickly back and forth and replied noncommittally, “In some ways, yes, in others I’m not so sure.”

We were riding a train that was speeding towards Nanjing, and had move into a virtually empty car to converse privately. This was probably done less for the fact that we were discussing matters of Chinese politics and history but more for the fact that a Chinese man speaking fluent English to a foreigner on a train is often enough to draw a crowd of curious spectators.

The professor was a little paunch and dressed in a t-shirt and jeans and did not carry any luggage — not even a briefcase. From his appearance he could have been his university’s janitor or its dean: Chinese trains are places for dressing down. He handed me his business card.

I asked Professor Liu how old he was. The Chinese typically ask the age question to determine how they should address a new acquaintance or just out of curiosity, but I asked this question because I wanted to gauge how much of China’s recent history my new friend had experienced. He replied that he was 48 years old. This meant that he was 14 when Deng Xiaoping began the economic and political reforms that rocketed China to where it is today.

He grew up through the cultural revolution, though he was a little too young to have been one of the stalwart youths who quite literally turned the power dynamics of the society upside down by punishing their teachers, sending renown academics off to the countryside to shovel pig shit, and tearing down the vestiges of Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. Professor Liu was not a part of what has come to be called the lost generation — people who came of age during the Cultural Revolution and were subsequently unprepared for the reform era — but was a part of the generation that came immediately after it. Professor Liu and his peers were the first to have had the opportunity to capitalize in an economically open China.

I asked him if he remembered much from the time when he was a boy, when Mao Zedong ruled without checks or balances. He giggled in a way that I took to mean “that shit sucked,” the kind of little laugh that people give when remembering a period of hardship that they had recovered from, and began to tell me about his life during that era.

He told me that he was from a small village in Hubei province. “My neighborhood was all small houses,” he explained, “there was not even a road. I remember eating chicken back then,” he continued. “It was very special because we would not have chicken very often. Maybe one or two time a year. It was very special. So when we have chicken everybody would be like, ‘We are eating chicken tonight, we are eating chicken tonight,’ and it tasted very good. Then chicken then was very delicious. It was not like the chicken we have today. Now we eat chicken everyday but it’s not as good.”

“Do you know how Chinese people greet each other?” He then asked me.

I knew where he was going. “Yes, they ask, ‘Have you eaten?'”

“We were always hungry back then,” Professor Liu continued, “so we would always ask people if they had eaten today. We say ni chi le? Ni chi le?”

He then explained how people would need to use government distributed tickets to acquire food and the complications that this would cause.

“Everybody was equal then,” he then spoke as though this was a positive aspect of the era, “everybody made almost the same amount of money. Now people makes lots of different amounts of money. How much money do you think I made at my first job per month?” he asked me.

From how he poised the question I knew it was a low amount. “2,000 yuan,” I replied, not wanting to offend by citing an amount that was lower than what he was planning on shocking me with.

“No, lower,” Professor Liu said with a smile.

“1,000,” I replied.

“No, lower.”

“500.”

“No, lower,” he stated, joyful of my apparent surprise.

“200.” We were getting pretty low now.

“No, guess again.”

I gave up.

“50 RMB. That’s how much money I made at my first job.”

I did a quick calculation based on my estimate of the exchange rate of that time, but no matter how I sliced it, the guy didn’t make 20 bucks a month.

“Could someone afford to live on that small amount money?” I asked, wondering if additional support was needed for someone to make ends meet on such a meager income.

He did not fully understand my question, so I asked if 50 RMB per month was enough to pay for an apartment.

“We didn’t really have apartments then,” the professor explained. “When a person would get married they would go to their community leader and he would assign them to a place to live and they don’t have to pay.” He paused for a moment before adding with a slight smirk, “You could not expect very much, these houses were very small and maybe not very good.”

“How much money do you make now?” I asked.

He wanted to play the guessing game again. I took a shot in the dark and guessed 8,000 RMB, an average monthly salary for a university professor.

“No, more.”

We went up and up, and I called it quits at 12,000.

He peaked around the train car to be sure that nobody was eavesdropping before telling me that he makes 20,000 RMB ($3,225) per month, which is a very respectable load of money to be making in China.

“But the average wage for someone who does my job is 6,000,” he quickly added. “If you are lazy you don’t make very much money. Only 6,000. If you work hard you can make a lot more.”

I asked him how he makes a lot more. He replied that in addition to being a university professor he also had a job with a private company as well as investments in the stock market.

“How many hours per day do you work?” I had to ask.

“I don’t go to sleep before 12,” he replied.

Professor Liu lived through a colossal social upheaval. He grew up in a time of Communism, as poor and hungry as the people all around him, his food was acquired with vouchers, community leaders assigned him housing. Then China broke open, foreign investments came flooding in, and new opportunities arose. He capitalized and went to university and studied computer science, became a university professor, a consultant in the corporate sphere, and now makes a good salary, has a nice home in a middle class neighborhood were he watches American movies and never has to go hungry. I asked him if as a boy he ever thought he would one day be living the life that he has now.

“I never thought that I could do this,” he replied.

Filed under: Changing China, China

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3548 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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  • mike crosby May 12, 2012, 12:53 am

    Just fascinating Wade. Thank you.

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    • Wade Shepard May 12, 2012, 7:45 am

      Thanks, but I should be thanking you for reading over all these years.

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