From 1949 to 2019, China underwent a tremendous transformation. The historical events of the past 70 years have left no Chinese person untouched. The ups and downs of lives that are easily overlooked can serve as leads for fleshing out a broader narrative – one that runs from the establishment of the PRC through the Chinese economic reform and on to the new era beyond.
Looking back on the past, these people were the witnesses of history who experienced it firsthand. Looking ahead, they are the ones who drive and create the future.
Here are the stories of five ordinary Chinese as a retrospective survey of the last seven decades of change – the greater story of China as told by individuals amongst generations of its people.
Zhang Yuting: I am not your regular social media “influencer”
Zhang Yuting’s deepest impressions of her childhood are of a leaking roof on rainy days, filling the pots and pans with rainwater, and the wonderful times she and her mother had fishing in the river.
Born in Kangle Village in Fulu Township, Muling City, Heilongjiang Province in 1992, Zhang recalls living in a humble house amid poor living conditions when she was a child. Though she was an only child, she ate meat a few times in a year and only bought new clothes during the Spring Festival.
“I’m envious of my cousin, who was born after the turn of the century. He was born in an era where people didn’t have to worry about the basic necessities. He has never gone hungry nor suffered poverty. He really has it good.”
When she was ten, her parents decided to tear down the leaky old house. Rebuilding the house cost about 30,000 RMB (approximately S$5,800), equivalent to their annual household income.
Figures provided by the State Bureau of Statistics show that the per capita net income of rural dwellers in China was 784 RMB in 1992, the year Zhang was born. In 2002, it had increased to 2,476 RMB. Han Changbin, China’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, announced at the end of last year that the per capita net income of farmers was expected to exceed 14,600 RMB in 2018.
The Chinese society has undergone tremendous changes in the past 20 years. Zhang shares that while her generation has it harder than those born in the 2000s, they enjoy greater personal freedom when compared to their parents.
“I’m envious of my cousin, who was born after the turn of the century. He was born in an era where people didn’t have to worry about the basic necessities. He has never gone hungry nor suffered poverty. He really has it good.” Zhang says with a clear tone of envy.
Zhang Yuting first came across computers in middle school, and had to take compulsory computer lessons to learn how to use it. “Just look at my cousin, he doesn’t need to be taught at all. He can use the computer without training, as if he knows it instinctively. It’s amazing!”
With the rapid development of science and technology, the computer that Zhang spent a lot of effort learning only plays a minor role in her life now. She says that smartphones have replaced the computer she has at home. “I only use it to fill out e-courier forms. Otherwise, I don’t have much use for it.”
I want to enter the workforce as soon as possible
The Post-90s’ attitude towards life is more assertive and freer than that of their parents. This is due to their greater self-awareness, and to China’s increasing global power hence the increased confidence young people have towards the future. Zhang Yuting’s final year in middle school coincides with the Beijing Olympics, she recalls, “At that time, I felt very proud that the Chinese team won one gold medal after another. This pride was very different from what our teachers taught us in school. We were witnessing earth-shaking changes, and it aroused confidence in our country.”
Within four years, her dream came true: she brought her parents to live with her in Suifenhe, lifting them out of rural living through her hard work.
Because her family was not in a good position financially, Zhang Yuting gave up high school and started work at the age of 17. “When I decided not to continue my studies, I spent a month learning Russian, preparing to job hunt.”
Her family was against it in the beginning but she argued that if she went to high school or university, it would be another seven years before she could start working. “I wanted to enter the workforce as soon as possible to lighten the burden on my family, and to give everyone a better life.”
In 2009, Zhang moved to Suifenhe, a city on the Russian border, about an hour and a half away from home. She found a job involving foreign trade with Russia. She quickly settled down in this new city and began adapting to her new life. Within four years, her dream came true: she brought her parents to live with her in Suifenhe, lifting them out of rural living through her hard work.
Watch me fish, pick herbs and farm
Although her family’s quality of life has greatly improved, Zhang felt something was missing. She says, “I grew up in the countryside. When I was a child, my family would gather together to make our own fishing nets, and my mother would take me to fish in the river. These little joys were very fulfilling. After I moved to Suifenhe, I would fish at the nearby reservoir.” This sense of freedom and joy energised Zhang Yuting, and helped her discover her real interest. Since 2016, she began to live stream on Kuaishou (‘live’ short video platform), sharing her fishing adventures with netizens.
According to a 2018 report from China’s iResearch, the number of independent devices logged in to China’s short video industry reached 670 million per month last June, with an average usage of 33.1 minutes in the second quarter of last year. This points to the fact that the short video industry has become a fiercely competitive “Red Sea”, with users, capital investments, and various platforms fighting for a piece of the cake. Kuaishou and Douyin are two giants in the industry. According to QuestMobile, as of June 2019, the number of active users per month on Kuaishou has reached 341 million, catching up with Douyin, which has 486 million users.
Zhang also used her growing fan base on Kuaishou to sell local herbs and specialities. As her side income grew, she contemplated quitting her job to do full-time live streaming.
This time, she had the support of her parents. In less than a year, Zhang became a full-time live stream and short video content creator.
Zhang is not your regular social media “influencer”. She seldom accepts rewards from fans, relying on selling seasonal herbs and specialities as her source of income instead.
“I know how it’s like to be poor. Earning money is difficult. I don’t ask fans to give gifts or tips. I’d rather they save the money.”
Zhang’s earnings from live streaming is on par with what she made at her previous job in foreign trade. She declares proudly, “I’m happy now, because I’m making a living out of what I enjoy doing.”
Her live stream is filled with the warmth of country life. She fishes, picks herbs in the fields and cultivates the land. She currently has more than 960,000 fans. “Sometimes, if I don’t post for a while, my fans will leave comments urging me to post again.”
Zhang was the first of her peers to make social media content creation a career, becoming the envy of many around her.
Looking back, she feels that the Post-90s in China have experienced tremendous changes over the past 30 years. Although she endured hardship in her childhood, she now has more opportunities to do what she likes and live the way she wants.
(All photos courtesy of Zhang Yuting.)
The per capita “net income” of farmers refers to their total income from all channels during the year, after deductions for expenses required to maintain that income.