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History and Hardship Shape China's Elderly

'Even the emperor didn't have a microwave,' man observes. Witnesses offer a personal timeline of revolution, revision.

February 23, 2003|Martin Fackler | Associated Press Writer

SHANGHAI — In a high-rise apartment, near a street where Shanghai's young people shop for European fashions while chatting on cell phones, Zheng Jinlian summons memories of a time when an emperor still ruled China.

Her fine silver hair is neatly combed atop a face furrowed by 103 years of life. Her tiny feet, tucked into custom-made shoes barely 3 inches long, were bound up to stop them from growing, as was the fashion, when she was 8 years old -- in 1907.

Zheng grew up in a China where silk-clad imperial officials paraded in the streets, where cruel landlords abused farm families like hers. She saw that medieval world washed away by war, revolution and famine. Now she watches her great-grandchildren learn to surf the Internet.

Her life spans a time of dizzying transformation in the world's most populous nation. And she is not alone.

Ask the gray-haired men and women you see in Shanghai or almost anywhere else, strolling in alleys or playing Chinese chess in a park. They can tell you of convulsive changes, of turmoil almost unimaginable to people in a more developed nation.

In the span of a century, China has been ruled by emperors, split by warlords, invaded by foreigners, conquered by communist armies, marauded by slogan-chanting Red Guards, and upturned by market reforms and capitalism fever.

History has been cruel to some of the old ones, robbing them of wealth and status, leaving them lucky merely to be alive. For others, it's a tale of endurance and pride, of struggle to rid China of gross inequalities and foreign domination.

Those experiences have led many to view their country's future with a mixture of hope and unease. Life is better now than ever, they'll tell you, but the new wealth has revived some old problems as well.


Down a narrow, gray-brick alley and up a dark flight stairs, Shao Zucheng, 75, a retired English teacher, welcomes guests with a broad smile and a cup of steaming tea poured from a thermos.

In fluent English, he apologizes for the lack of sitting space in his room, a former servant's quarters filled by a bed, wardrobe and desk with a coffee machine.

It wasn't always this way, Shao will tell you.

Growing up in the 1930s, he lived in a mansion with 10 bedrooms and 40 servants. His great-grandfather was a Shanghai mayor. His father, Shao Xunmei, was a noted poet and owned the city's largest publishing house.

"Ours was one of the best known families in old Shanghai," Shao said.

As a boy, Shao wore British-made leather shoes and dark blue suits, the uniform of the expensive American missionary schools where he learned English.

One of his earliest memories is of his father's car -- only the second private automobile in Shanghai. It had a license plate that said simply "2" and was driven by a white-gloved chauffeur.

"The beggars crowded as we pulled in front of department stores," he said. "They could see right away: We were Chinese, but we were different."

That was swept away when the communists captured Shanghai in 1949. The newly installed People's Government began political persecutions. English-speaking capitalists like the Shaos topped the list.

Family assets were seized. Shao's wife of two years left him. His father was imprisoned for three years in 1958 as a spy for writing a letter to an American friend.

"When he came out of jail, he was so thin. He looked just like a monkey," Shao said. His father couldn't walk without help and never regained his health.

History wasn't through with Shao.

One afternoon a few months later, two dozen shouting high school students with red bands on their sleeves burst into his house. They were Red Guards, young communist fanatics unleashed by Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution.

Shao was ordered to stand in a corner as they tossed his possessions into the street -- clothes, furniture, books, even mattresses. After his house was ransacked twice more, he was put to work digging air-raid shelters by teenagers who called him "snake" and "devil."

"We never knew when they would come. We lived in terror every day," Shao said.

Today, sitting in his tiny room in a former luxury townhouse divided among half a dozen Chinese families, Shao is generous toward the regime that caused him so much pain.

He praises the communists for doing more to improve the lives of average citizens than any other government in China's history. Everyone in Shanghai owns a microwave, air conditioner and television, he says.

"Even the emperor didn't have a microwave," he said with a laugh. "In the old days, none of us thought China could change this fast."

But he also worries. He says Shanghai is reverting to its old self as the city's evolution into a global export center opens widening gaps between rich and poor.

"In my day, even the wealthiest families only had one house, and maybe two cars," he said. "Now the rich have several homes and garages full of cars."

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