the years before mao -- 4/19/17

Today's selection -- from The Search for Modern China by Jonathan D. Spence. In the years before Mao and communism, conditions for most families were abysmal and the country was increasingly ripe for a revolution. Many could not afford to get married, and among those who did, many had to sell their children or watch them slowly starve:

"[In a 1937 study of] 390 Shanghai families, none occupied more than one room. The survey gave a thorough description of one tenement house with a total floor space of 718 square feet. Despite its flat official language, the report still cre­ates a vivid picture of what urban living was like for many of the poor:

The courtyard has been covered in. The main ground floor room has been cut in two by a partition, and a passageway with a storage loft over made at the side. In the front part, about ten feet square, live the lessor and his family, five persons in all. He customarily pays the rent of the whole house to the landlord, letting out the rest to sub-tenants. In the back portion, about 10 ft. by 8 ft., live three persons. The kitchen has been sectioned off and three more live in a 9 ft. X 9 ft. room. Upstairs, the large front room has been divided into two. The front part is the best in the house for it has light and air and runs the full width of the house -- it is occupied by two persons. The back part, smaller by reason of the passage, is home to three persons. The room over the kitchen has its advantages because it is secluded; this also is occupied by two persons. This was originally a two storeyed house, but two lofts have been made in the slope of the roof. The front one has a height of only 5 feet in from, 7 ft. 6 in. at the apex of the roof, and is about eight feet deep; it shelters two persons. The back room, about 10 sq. ft., is right under the roof slope, is only 3 ft. high at the back and is occupied by a single person. What was the dry­ing stage has been enclosed, and two more people live in it -- about 9 sq. ft.4

Shanghai 1930s

"The same report added that these were by no means the worst conditions encountered. To examine those, one could go to the city's 5,094 huts of straw, bamboo, and reeds, where 25,345 people lived -- mostly factory workers­ -- paying anywhere from 40 cents to 3.00 yuan per 'room' per month. At the lowest level were the damp and dark shantytowns, often clustered on the edges of the foreign concession areas, where disease was endemic and usually untreated, and where the poor lived daily under the threat of having these frail shelters bulldozed flat as living 'eyesores' in the urban scene.

"Just as the cities were coming under studious scrutiny, so was the country­side. ...

"Many of these studies described conditions and even social tensions star­tlingly similar to those that had prevailed in the late Ming, suggesting that China's new levels of economic growth had as yet failed to reach hundreds of millions of people. ... At these times they joined scores of their fellows at 4:00 A.M. or earlier, waiting in anxious groups with their tools to see if any work would come that day. Few such men could ever afford to marry, and most died unnoticed after brief, miserable lives. Some of them 'escaped' to the factories or became human horses, pulling two-wheeled rickshaws through the crowded streets of China's cities. These rickshaw men were constantly exploited by racketeers, and returned after each backbreak­ing day to grim tenements, where they slept in rows, packed side by side, in spaces just vacated by fellow pullers who had returned to the streets. The life of one such man was powerfully rendered by Lao She in his great novel Rick­shaw, published in 1937.

"Tens of millions more (the 'poor peasants' of Mao Zedong's and other Communists' analyses) owned farms that were too small to be fully viable economically. These peasants perforce 'overemployed' the labor of their family members on their farms, while to earn extra cash they hired out their own labor at the busiest moments of the farm year, even though that was when they were most needed on their own land. Still, many had to sell their children or watch them slowly starve. With the surplus of poverty-stricken labor available, few of the wealthier farmers went to the expense of mecha­nizing the farm work, even when machinery and fuel were available. Nor did they invest much in draft animals, since the wages paid to a hired laborer per day were the same as the cost of a day's fodder for a single donkey. The man could be laid off when the need for him was over, but the donkey had to be fed and sheltered for the whole year, even when it was not being used."



Jonathan D. Spence


The Search for Modern China


W. W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2013, 1999, 1990 by Jonathan Spence


359-360, 362-363
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