The following stories are first-hand recollections of life in China during the years immediately after the Communists took power (1949-1951). They are written by Chan Kai Yee, author of Tiananmen‘s Tremendous Achievements (see link in right sidebar). We would recommend this book for those interested in more first-hand perspectives of life in China, particularly the political climate:
I wrote this as a chapter of the first edition of my book “Tiananmen’s Tremendous Achievements”. It is the history of the life of common people based on my quite special personal experience, but I removed it along with quite a few other chapters from the book, as the book is on national politics. However, as national politics may be a little boring, I post this chapter by instalments to entertain my readers.
Freedom in marriage and love was nominally won after the 1911 Revolution, but the Chinese traditional way of compulsory parent-arranged marriage remained until the Communist Party came to power in 1949. Then, a marriage law was promulgated to allow free love and marriage and ban the traditional compulsory marriage.
The Way People Dated in the Streets in Shanghai in the early 1950s
In the early 1950s, people had the freedom to date, but had to be very careful in their dating activities. If they kissed or if a man touched and the woman allowed the man to touch any of her private parts during dating, it meant that they were going to marry. Otherwise, even if there was mutual consent when those activities took place, the man might be accused of indecent assault while the woman might have a bad reputation.
My Maid Ah Rou’s Dating from 1949 to 1951
When I was a child after the communists came to power, Ah Rou, one of the maids in my family, was eighteen and actively dating. She often brought me with her when she was dating in the evening. Though the streetlights in quite a few streets were dim, she and her boyfriend would keep a distance of one foot between them when they were walking in the street. At that time, there were quite a few pairs dating in the streets with dim streetlight, but almost all of them kept such a distance. When Aj Rou and her boyfriend became more intimate, they would walk side by side while she held her boyfriend’s arm in her hand.
In China, you now often see a couple holding each other’s hand in the street. That is very common now. People even do wet kissing in public. In the two years when I accompanied my maid in her dating activities from 1949 to 1951, I never saw any couple holding each other’s hand in the street. In the late 1960s, when I was dating my girlfriend who later became my wife, I once happened to hold her hand in mine. I felt so good. We wanted to hold each other’s hand whenever we were dating in the streets, but we did not want it to be seen.
I found a way. When I dated her, I wore a pair of trousers with large pockets. I held her small hand in my hand and put our hands in my pocket. However, whenever she saw anyone she knew in the street, she would immediately take her hand out and put it behind her back stealthily.
Ah Rou and I were very close. She called me her little brother while I called her big sister.
You may wonder why I accompanied my maid when she was dating and whether I was interested in dating at that time. I was 8 to 10 years old and was certainly not interested in dating. I found it boring playing alone in the open when they were chatting on a bench hidden by shrubs and trees in a park. Ah Rou wanted to climb up the social ladder while my parents were very kind in helping her to do so. They allowed and subsidised her to take evening study courses to improve herself.
At that time, her boyfriends were mostly her classmates at the evening English courses she was taking. Most of them were college students. I asked her why college students took the English courses she was taking. Those courses were for secondary school students. A college student’s English must be poor if he needed to take such a course. Then how could he be admitted into a college in the first place. In all colleges at that time, lessons were given in foreign languages, mostly English. Ah Rou said that they took the courses in order to date secondary school girls.
As most of Ah Rou’s boyfriends were college students, they were of rich family background. At that time, college education was very expensive. A rich man would not marry the maid due to her low social status. She was not a slave, but Chinese society was still a class society at that time. Maids and servants were looked down upon by rich people. I was my maid’s little brother. She was so pretty.
I feared that her boyfriend just wanted to dally with her. They might make her lose her precious virginity but were not willing to marry her. As her little brother, I was there to protect her. I would go stealthily to check them in 10- to 20-minute intervals. If I saw her boyfriend kissing her or fondling her, I would go to them to talk with them. When her boyfriend heard my steps, he would stop.
Why did Ah Rou want me to accompany her when she was dating? I don’t know. Sometimes, I would tell her that her boyfriend was up to nothing good and only wanted to dally with her. She would say, “Don’t worry. I will not give myself to him unless he has married me.” I met quite a few of her boyfriends, but none of them married her.
She did not accept any gift from her boyfriends. Whenever they wanted to buy something for her, she told them to buy things for her little brother. As a result, I often got presents from them, which were usually expensive chocolates, sweets and biscuits.
When she began to date the man she later married. She did not tell me to accompany her. The man she married was the assistant general manager of an import and export company. He was 25 and Ah Rou was 20. He was not handsome, but looked quite good in his Western suit.
Ah Mei’s Marriage
There was another maid Ah Mei who worked in my friend Ma Youzheng’s family. She dated a college student in our neighbourhood. There was rumour among maids that she did not wear her panties when she went to a park with the college student. They were afraid that she would lose her virginity to the college student.
However, the college student soon broke up with her and began to date Ah Rou because Ah Mei was not pretty. She looked all right, but compared with Ah Rou, she could be regarded as plain. Having heard what the maids said, I certainly worried about Ah Rou, especially because it was her first dating. That was how I began to accompany her in order to protect her when she was dating.
Soon Ah Mei began to date a very strong young man introduced to her by her mother and married him after one month’s dating. The man earned over 80 yuan a month so that as is the custom then, Ah Mei was to become a housewife after her marriage. However, a few days after her marriage, she returned to her job and would not go home. Ah Rou said that her husband worked at a coal fuel factory and was dirty and stinking when he came home from his work. Ah Mei could not stand that and wanted a divorce. Her husband could be regarded as handsome. Before their marriage, we saw him come clean and well dressed and thought Ah Mei got a good boyfriend.
My friend Ma’s father was a rich factory owner. He seldom stayed at home. He had one wife and two concubines. Ma’s mother was the proper wife who lived on level 2 of their 4 storey house, a concubine lived on level 4, Ma’s grandmother lived in a big room on level 3 while Ma’s brother lived in another room on level 3. Ma’s father came only to see his mother but never spent the night with his wife or concubine there. He lived with another concubine at another house.
It was the Chinese tradition that fathers should be strict while mothers should be kind. Almost all children were afraid of their fathers at that time. Therefore, one would not play in the house of his friend if one was not sure that the friend’s father would not come back to the house. As there was no father in the house, about a dozen of our playmates in the neighborhood were used to play in Ma’s sitting room at level 1 and garden.
One day when we were playing at Ma’s garden, we saw two men come to visit Ah Mei. It turned out that they were the leaders of Ah Mei’s husband’s trade union. They came to try to persuade Ah Mei not to divorce her husband. Ah Mei told them why she would have a divorce. The two men asked Ah Mei whether she would come back to her husband if he came home clean and well dressed. Ah Mei said that certainly she would. Then the two men said, “You should go home now.” Ah Mei asked why. They said, “Your husband will come home clean and well dressed today. We discussed with the boss of the factory on the issue and he has built a locker room and a shower room in the factory. Now, all the workers leave the factory clean and well dressed after their work.”
At that time, Ma’s mother came and said that Ah Mei should stay. She said she was so lonely when Ah Mei had left. She wanted Ah Mei to stay in her house to keep her company. There were two storerooms in a bungalow in the garden. She would move all things in one room away to the other and let Ah Mei and her husband live in the room free of rent.
I saw Ah Mei and her husband living there happily. A year later they had a lovely baby boy. This was a marriage half arranged. At that time, most of the marriages were the results of such arrangements. The usual practice was that the parents of the couple had discussed the matter and thought that the couple was a good match and then the couple dated for one or two months and got married after they found each other satisfactory. As far as I know, there had been no problem in Ah Mei’s marriage since the early difficulty was overcome. However, there was something wrong in Ah Juan’s marriage, which was also a half-arranged one.
Ah Juan’s Marriage
Ah Juan lived in Ma’s house. She took care of Ma’s grandmother, but did not do any other housekeeping work. She dressed better than other maids but not so well as a miss in a family. She behaved more polite and more like an educated girl than the maids in the house. She was aged about 18, good-looking and very quiet. Ma told me that Ah Juan was a relative, but he did not know what kind of relative she was. If she was of the same generation as Ma, traditionally Ma should call her elder sister, while if she was of the same generation as Ma’s parents, Ma should call her auntie. However, Ma just called her Ah Juan. Ah Juan did not order the maids to do things as if she was a mistress in the house. All the maids had their meals in the kitchen, but I never saw Ah Juan join them. When Ah Juan was free, she would come down to be a just and sensible referee for us in our games. We all liked her.
(To be continued)Part 2 is now online at Tiananmen’s Tremendous Achievements
- Dating and Marriage in China Soon after Communist Takeover I (tiananmenstremendousachievements.wordpress.com)
- Dating and Marriage in China Soon after Communist Takeover II (tiananmenstremendousachievements.wordpress.com)
- A new female generation of “princesslings” in China? (chinadailymail.com)
- Bride trafficking to China could rise (chinadailymail.com)
- Chinese heroes and heroines – a few bad men? (chinadailymail.com)
- China: Thieves steal and sell female corpses for “corpse marriages” (chinadailymail.com)
- Q & A: Leta Hong Fincher on ‘Leftover Women’ (sinosphere.blogs.nytimes.com)
- No country for old maids: China’s ‘yellowed pearls’ (thestar.com)
- Raise the Red Lantern: a look at China’s concubine culture (ilookchina.net)
- Global Culture: International Business Between The United States and China – Selling Generators Abroad (socyberty.com)