In news broadcasts and interviews, old peasents frequently evoke “the Party’s benevolence (党恩)” to explain their lives. Young and hip urbanites hear these interviews as more evidence that old peasents are the dupes of corrupt officials. However, when I take the time to listen to an old peasent’s life history, it’s clear that more often than not, these peasents did benefit from the establishment of the People’s Republic.
Yesterday afternoon at the Dalang Culture Center, for example, I helped conducted interviews with Uncle Chen and Aunt Zhang for an oral history project. Both Uncle Chen and Aunt Zhang were both born into peasant families in 1930 and 1940, respectively. Auntie’s family owned three single-story houses, while Uncle had left home early because his family did not have room for him. Auntie mentioned that at the turn of the last century, her grandparents went to Singapore to work. Her mother was “brought home” as a child bride for her father. In contrast, Uncle did not mention his family except when asked about how poor his family had been, he remarked that two of his sisters had been sold to strangers, but where they ended up was unclear.
As a poor man, Uncle could not afford to marry. Instead, he went to find work in Hong Kong. In 1951, Uncle became sick and returned to his hometown, where he could recieve care. In 1952, although he had a sporadic education, Uncle was able to secure the documents necessary to join the first test for admission to the Bao’an Normal School. He passed the test and was admitted to an elementary school teachers program, which was located in the Nantou High School building. Teacher Chen emphasized the extent to which his current wellbeing was a result of the Party’s benevolence. He was assigned to teach at Langkou Elementary School, where he met Auntie.
As a young girl, Auntie stayed at home and helped her parents. However, when she was 10 years old, Auntie began attending Langkou elementary school because her father asked the school principal to allow her to bring her brother. 10 year-old Auntie strapped her brother to her back and attended classes. At lunch time she fed her brother a bottle of condensed milk that had been thinned with water. Several years later, she carried her sister to school. Altogether, Auntie carried her siblings for six years. At the end of elementary school, Auntie tested into middle school, where she studied elementary education. Auntie emphasized that her teachers like her because she was a good student. Moreover, her younger siblings were well-behaved and didn’t cry during classtime.
After Auntie graduated from middle school, she married Uncle, who was still teaching at the village school. Auntie’s mother exhorted her to marrie Uncle because he “could do anything”. Uncle could not give Auntie any presents for the marriage. However, he did have housing at the elementary school, where Auntie was also hired to teach first and third grade. The school was located near Auntie’s parents’ house. Auntie did not attribute any of her life history to the Party’s benevolence, but rather emphasized her family background and her mother’s words.
Implicit in Uncle and Auntie’s simple story were the gendered contours of rural poverty in South China, where one of the most important events of a lifetime was to continue family lines through marriage and children. Uncle and Aunt were born into South Chinese villages, where bringing in wives or selling out daughters was a common practice before 1949. However, they married 10 years after the establishment of the People’s Republic, when some policies had already restructured traditional social structures. Auntie married because her family could afford to give her an education, but not to keep her at home. In contrast, Uncle had delayed marriage until he could afford a family, which was a direct result of attending teaching school. He described that opportunity — and all that followed, a job, a house, and eventually a wife and children — as an expression of the Party’s benevolence.