By Simina Mistreanu
The woman cuts some beef into cubes and throws them into a frying pan.
“Dad, you bought us all kinds of meat – beef, fish, mutton – but there are no vegetables,” she tells the old man in the room.
Xiao Yangyu, 80, smiles. His daughter Xiao Zhiping and two grandchildren are over for dinner, and he bought enough meat to feed 10 people. The retired soldier and prison guard loves to eat meat.
Every time his grandchildren call and ask what he’s doing, he says: “I’m eating meat. I wish I could send you some through the phone.”
For most of his life, Xiao counted himself lucky if he had enough flour to make noodles or buns. He came of age with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China and lived through decades of famine, politically fuelled violence and traumatically enforced population-control policies.
Now a retiree who enjoys a comfortable military pension and his family’s adoration, Xiao marvels at China’s transformation into the world’s second-largest economy and the changes it has brought to people’s lives.
“People can have better living conditions now,” he says. “They have more money, and they are more open. They are free to do things.”
China has 230 million elderly people and the fastest-ageing population in human history.
After a life etched in trauma, many retired Chinese now enjoy relative prosperity, as well as the ability to discover new things and make choices – in contrast to a rigidly structured earlier life, according to a recent study by US researchers Liang Jiayin and Luo Baozhen.
“Because China went through such a tumultuous period of time, Chinese people are very resilient, sensitive, attuned to events around them,” says Luo, a sociology professor at Western Washington University.
“It’s what has allowed them to survive and thrive.”
For Xiao, the happiest time of his life has been the past eight years, when he has travelled the country using vacation packages for the elderly. He proudly shows photos of himself in cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Macau. They were the upturn in a life, like that of hundreds of millions of Chinese people, that revolved around surviving.
Xiao was born the second youngest of nine siblings in the village of Zhang Zhuang, where he still lives, in the coastal Jiangsu province.
He joined the army at 18, just a few years after the communists won the civil war against the Kuomintang party and established modern-day China. Xiao was stationed as a guard at a “prison village.”
The 6,000 prisoners in his section grew wheat, rice and cotton as well as raised cows. Many were political prisoners. While in the army, Xiao learned how to read, write and shoot guns. Two “best shooter” certificates from the late 1950s are cherished keepsakes.
He married Jiang Xiuying in 1958, the first year of the Great Leap Forward – Chinese leader Mao Zedong’s ambitious campaign to modernise China, which, combined with three consecutive years of natural disasters, led to a famine that killed up to 45 million people.
While fellow villagers were going hungry, Xiao sent Jiang food stamps he received at work. She toiled on the village’s collectivised fields, just as Xiao left the prison and took a job guarding a tobacco plantation.
Work was relentless. When the couple had their first child, Jiang would take short breaks to breastfeed the baby, then return to the field leaving him unattended. One day, they arrived home to discover the baby had fallen off the bed. In 1966, Mao started the Cultural Revolution – a purging of “bourgeois elements” during which he encouraged the killing of millions of intellectuals to safeguard his grasp on power.
Xiao’s generation’s burdens are still reflected today in interactions between people and in a sense of insecurity and distrust towards strangers, observers say.
“For a long time, Chinese people had to rely on their survival instinct without dignity,” says political and sociological commentator Zhang Lifan. “You live in such a society, and you cannot change it, so you have to conform to it.” One day when Jiang was home alone, police came to the house and took her away. The government had introduced the one-child policy in the late 1970s, but one of Xiao’s daughters-in-law had just given birth to her second child. The young couple fled to the mountains, but police came seeking revenge against grandma.
Xiao’s voice drops when he talks about how police tortured Jiang by taping her mouth shut and putting lit cigarettes in her nostrils.
She was released after several days but was shaken and never fully recovered. She died in 2012.
Xiao now spends most of his days listening to Chinese opera on the radio, playing mahjong with his friends or exercising. He loves reminiscing about his travels and working on the family tree, whose younger members he expects will have a brighter future. – DPA
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