Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Anne Marie asked me about the video of Beijing I posted the other day (see January 10). My discussion of change focused on Beijing now, and the Beijing I came to five years ago. But this film is from the thirties. Lots of things are different now. Sidewalk cafes are still quite common, of course. And it is very common in China to see an elderly gentleman taking his bird for a walk--but in a cage, not on a string.

But there are certainly lots of changes, too. I still say "Asia lives on bikes," and bicycles need to be accommodated. But many more people drive cars now. And when the narrator of the video said, "woman wear the trousers," I was struck by the contrast with today's China, where fashion is very definitely a big part of life, especially among the young people. In today's China, people are inclined to talk about the contrast between fashion now as compared to the drabness of the Cultural Revolution. But in fact, for most people, women's dress was pretty drab before the Cultural Revolution also. Deng Xiaoping's reforms, which lifted so many millions of people out of poverty, had a phenomenal impact on cultural China far beyond what Deng himself (who was a peasant, and a very simple dresser) could have imagined. Americans tend to see the whole Communist era as a repudiation of capitalism. But the average Chinese people never really tasted free enterprise until after the Cultural Revolution. Before the revolution of 1949, China was not Communist. But it wasn't prosperous, either. There was a sharp divide between rich and poor, and the middle class was pitifully small. Most of the wealth from trade was controlled by foreigners. Very little of it benefited China, or the Chinese people.

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