A Look at Life in Northern China

Northern China Life Today as considered by Barb Cook

When I disembarked the ship at Xingang (port city for Beijing), the huge, modern cruise terminal that had been constructed for the 2008 Olympic games impressed us. The highways were new and massive landscaping and reclamations projects were ongoing.  Thousands of acres of land have been re-claimed or created that initially will be used for agricultural purposes and later for residential, commercial and industrial development.

Northern China is quite arid whereas Southern China has more rainfall. At the present time a huge water project is underway to bring fresh water from the South to the northern part of the country.  Electricity is produced from both coal and nuclear power plants. Prior to the Olympics all of the manufacturing facilities were moved outside of Beijing in an attempt to improve the quality of the air in the densely populated areas. Each area seems to have its own dialect with about 200 of them commonly used. Beijing (largest city) and Tianjin (third largest city) are 100 miles apart and different dialects are spoken in each. It was mentioned that the Chinese culture is becoming more westernized and that the old Chinese culture is being lost. Mandarin and English are both taught in the public schools.  All superhighways are toll roads.

Deciduous and evergreen trees are being planted to stabilize the soil and protect the highways from erosion and damage from high winds that sweep from the north containing sand from the Gobi Desert.  I saw several flocks of sheep that were being tended by a shepherd.  Drainage ditches and flood control measures were in great evidence. Huge electric power towers and transmission lines crisscross the area with streetlights in place along non-existent roadways.  Only one small tractor was seen and a few bicycles, people, and “Gator” type vehicles in the agricultural area, which had been divided into small plots of about an acre or two apiece. Farmers must use hand tools, because these plots are so small and inaccessible.  In another area, acres of poly-hut starting bed enclosures were seen. I saw one intensive dairy facility with Holstein-type cows. It appeared that a cover crop or winter wheat was sown in some areas. Wheat is commonly grown and used for food, whereas most of the rice is grown and commonly eaten in Southern China. China is presently promoting the idea of large corporate- owned farms. However, as better quality and lower-priced agricultural products are being imported, even this policy may change. For many years China was proud of being able to produce independently and feed her own people.  At one time farmers were more highly revered than they are today and ranked third behind the ruling family, governmental workers and ahead of industrialists, bankers and businessmen.

Between 1966 and 1976 the Cultural Revolution took place and intellectual pursuits were banned.  Well-educated university graduates and professor were forced to work in the factories.  After the death of Mao and the rise of the Peoples Republic of China, the plight of the farmer worsened, but advanced educational opportunities became available.  Between 1950 and 1980, with the country’s emphasis on growth and development, the farmer, for all purposes, became an employee of the government and everything raised belonged to the state for which the farmers were paid by the hour. Increasing prices of fertilizer and property taxes further decreased per capita income for farm families and the incentive to work hard and produce more food waned. Many farmers just put in their time or left their homes and sought employment as construction or production workers in a city. Food was rationed. Food had to be imported. Governmental policies changed and now farmers can independently sell any agricultural products over their quota. Production has increased, but farmers still do not earn a fraction of what those living and working in the construction trades and in the cities do.

However, if a rural family’s first child is a daughter, they can have a second child after five years. Many families believe that raising a child is too much bother and do not have any. Beginning in the 1980’s the strict birth control regulations of one couple/one child have been recently modified slightly to maintain the population and tax income for the state. For example, if two only-children marry they can have two children and wealthy families can families can pay a fee ($250,000) to be allowed to have another child. If a family does not abide by the laws they can be fined and/or lose their jobs/positions.

Our tour guide has a daughter and shared these thoughts with us: Children have no siblings and, therefore, do not learn how to interact with others; they are pushed so hard to excel in their education that they have no time for friends, playing, or pursuing hobbies.  They attend public school five days a week, and most take 2 to 5 extra classes during the weekends. His daughter is taking advanced math and advanced English. (The parents pay for these additional classes.) If a student successfully completes eighth grade and can pass the exam, his/her parents can make an annual donation ($16,500) to attend the high school in their area. I did not see any parks or recreational facilities for children. Tragically, only forty percent of the college graduates are able to find jobs. Competition is fierce in education and it is seen as the only way to become successful and improve one’s standard of living.

Nearly everyone (99%) lives in multiple-story apartment houses and refer to their apartment as their “house.” Quality school and medical facilities often dictate the area in which they seek to live and not the price of the apartment or size or other amenities. The purchase price for an apartment is about $2,500 a square meter – a little over 9 square feet. Our guide and his wife first lived in a 1,000 square foot apartment and, after a few years, his wife suggested he get a second job so they could afford a larger apartment.  After a few more years, she made the same request and soon he was working three jobs.  His own mother suggested that the next time his wife suggested a new apartment that he looks for a new wife.

This man is a dedicated father and started teaching his daughter at age two how to read and write English and write the Mandarin language (53,000 characters/words). He claims the culture of China will soon be lost.  Mandarin is the official spoken language of the country, but they have adopted a new alphabet consisting of single letters rather than words and the people are losing the ability to read old documents.  Also with the advent of Communism, except for a few things like the Great Wall and Forbidden City, nothing is sacred. However, the old ways are being preserved, to some extent, in Hong Kong

As city-dwellers’ income rose, they purchased cars, for which there is no place to park.  Thus, a family is allowed to purchase a car only after a member of the family acquires a driver’s license, is lucky enough to have his name drawn in the annual lottery, and financially able to afford the car. However, parking and traffic are serious problems and some people can only drive their car four days a week, Monday through Friday.  There are no restrictions if you are a governmental employee or on weekends or holidays.

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