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Private Revolutions by Yuan Yang review – the women who tried to carve a path in a new China

Private Revolutions by Yuan Yang review – the women who tried to carve a path in a new China

When Yuan Yang was four years old, she tells us, her parents brought her from China to the UK as they pursued new educational opportunities. Although Private Revolutions, her vivid and detailed memoir, is not primarily the story of her own family, they, too, exemplify the theme of the book: a close look at how China’s citizens responded to the potentially transformative opportunities that four decades of rapid growth afforded.

Under Mao, Yang’s father’s family laboured as peasants in western China; as a child, her father paid his school fees with sweet potatoes, and when the sweet potato season was over he ate watermelon. From this unpromising beginning, he made it to university and later to a doctorate in computer science in the UK. Yang writes of his departure from China: “It was a simple decision for him: all the students who could leave were doing so. Chinese academia lagged behind the west, especially in the sciences, and the Beijing government’s massacre of students and workers in Tiananmen Square in 1989 had left many questioning the future of China’s universities.”

Her mother’s family had been a couple of rungs up the social scale, working in a state semiconductor materials factory buried at the foot of the holy Mount Emei in Sichuan province, hidden from China’s then hostile neighbour, the Soviet Union. Hers was an equally remarkable progression – secondary, then tertiary education as a means of advancement and eventual escape.

Brought up in the UK, Yang returned to China each year to visit grandparents, and in 2016 moved to Beijing to serve as a correspondent for the Financial Times. The stories she tells in this book describe the responses of a series of young women to Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening”, launched after Mao’s death in the 70s and renewed in the early 90s following the Tiananmen massacre.

Over just a couple of generations, an overwhelmingly agrarian society with deep attachments to family and clan became a mostly urban society composed of single-child families. Girls, who in the countryside are seen as a burden, could now go to city factories and earn cash, that rarest of assets in rural societies. The young men, previously bound to the land, migrated to the booming urban building sites. For the first time they had a measure of agency and the opportunity to change their fate. This is both a study of a moment of social mobility that the author considers now over, and a window into the realities of a changing social and political system, in which cultural prejudice and bureaucratic restrictions continued to obstruct the hopes of its citizens.

Yuan Yang: ‘the story of a unique time’View image in fullscreen

Four young women – Leiya, Siyue, Sam and June – battled poverty, poor diets, bad schools, repressive attitudes and family separation as they tested the limits of the new possibilities that the Deng era offered. In China, citizens remain tied to their place of birth through a registration system that now allows them to travel and work elsewhere but denies the adults social rights and denies their children access to education other than in their place of origin. This forces migrant workers to live apart from their children, often for many years. That is a battle that Leiya took on: she escaped a village that saw her only as a potential mother of the next generation of males and the many injustices suffered by migrant factory workers spurred her to organise on their behalf, setting up a series of help centres to support them and to demand labour protection and other rights.

Siyue rebelled against a repressive education system and became an educational entrepreneur; Sam became a radical Maoist out of indignation at the treatment of the workers, only to find that China’s revolutionary party does not want any more revolutions; June acted on the realisation that there is a world beyond her native mountain village that she could explore.

Sam’s parents had moved from Sichuan to the boom town of Shenzhen, just over the border from Hong Kong and one of the first “special economic zones” that became the engines of China’s industrial revolution. Shenzhen became a huge city within 20 years, but Sam was forced back to the village in her early teens since she was not entitled to sit university entrance exams outside her home province.

The transformation of China that resulted from Deng’s reform and opening was astonishing, but it was also hard-won by millions of China’s citizens, each trying to carve a new path, as Yang’s subjects did. It was an era of possibility but also one of cruel inequalities in which the already powerful appropriated land, profits and more power. All were open to self-transformation, but were also exploited in brutal working conditions and abused by greedy bureaucrats; all were vulnerable to reversals of fortune and changes in policy: Siyue’s highly successful private tutoring company was closed down overnight when Xi Jinping decided the sector had to go.

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The stories Yang tells are the fruit of a set of close relationships that would be difficult to achieve now in China’s changed mood. It is the tale of a unique time and an intimate picture of what it was like to live through, and learn to navigate, the storm.

Isabel Hilton is founder of the China Dialogue Trust

Private Revolutions: Coming of Age in a New China by Yuan Yang is published by Bloomsbury (£22). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Source: theguardian.com