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.”
Worse, lack of political freedom makes Chinese afraid to discuss such problems and solutions, unlike in the freewheeling old days, he says.
If there’s one thing Shao’s experiences have taught him, it’s how quickly good times can end -- and how fast chaos can return.
Before 1949, “we were so naive,” he said. “We Chinese had no idea of the suffering we were going to inflict on each other.”
Half a century ago, Ma Feihai risked everything to make China communist. Now, at 86, the former Red Army spy says he’s all for capitalism.
That may seem like a contradiction too large for one lifetime, even by the hectic standards of China’s change. But Ma insists that he’s consistent. After all, he says, Marx was always just a means to a patriotic end -- making China strong.
Sitting in an apartment crowded with bookshelves, on a street once the exclusive enclave of Shanghai’s Western rulers, Ma speaks proudly of helping China achieve rising wealth and international stature. And if that means relying on free markets instead of communes, so be it.
“The revolution was about freedom from foreign domination and creating a better life for the Chinese people,” said Ma, who rose to a high post in Shanghai’s Communist Party after the 1949 revolution. “I’d call the revolution a success -- absolutely.”
Like many young Chinese who flocked to Mao’s ragtag group of revolutionaries, Ma was driven by outrage at a specific event -- Japan’s 1937 invasion of central China.
He still steams at the indignities: Chinese beaten on the street, children forced to eat rotten rice mixed with sand because the occupiers had seized all the best food -- not to mention his horror at reading that Japanese bombers had flattened an entire working-class city neighborhood.
But what angered him most was the lack of resistance by the man who then led China, Chiang Kai-shek.
“The Communist Party was the only one fighting Japan,” he said. “It was the only hope to save our country.”
But the math major had no idea how to become a communist. Threats of arrest had driven the party deep underground.
One day in 1937, an older classmate invited him on a walk. As they weaved their way around rickshaws and outdoor stalls, the classmate asked if he wanted to become a “rotten apple,” as party members had been branded.
For the next 12 years, Ma worked as a spy in Shanghai, secretly radioing reports about the city’s economy back to Mao’s guerrilla headquarters. He also helped train recruits. Detection could have meant execution.
Despite his idealism, Ma did not live happily ever after once the communists took power.
Like many Chinese, he saw his fortune swing widely under communist rule. In the heady years after 1949, he rose through party ranks, educating farmers and working for a time with military intelligence.
But even his revolutionary credentials couldn’t protect him from the Red Guards. They hung a wooden placard around his neck that said “capitalist roader” and paraded him in an open truck as children threw stones at him.
Now, so many years later, Ma says the party has chosen the right path in free market reform. But prosperity has brought its own risks for China’s communists.
One is its loss of higher purpose, as more young people join simply as a career move. More serious is rampant corruption, which threatens the public acceptance of its rule.
“The party needs good and correct leadership,” he said. “Otherwise, history and the people will decide its fate.”
Looking back over her 103 years, Zheng Jinlian doesn’t hesitate to pronounce life in China today better than ever. Imperial China was miserable, she says -- especially for women.
She is still bitter when recalling the landlord who owned her family’s farm in Zhejiang province, near Shanghai. Her parents had to bow before him, and pay the rent even if that meant going without food.
“When we didn’t have the money, his henchmen beat us,” she said.
Another early memory: the day her mother bound her feet, wrapping them in white cloth so tightly that the 8-year-old girl couldn’t stand up for weeks. Even today, she hobbles in custom black silk shoes around the apartment she shares with her 72-year-old daughter.
The wrapping was kept on until after puberty, when the bones in her crushed feet stopped growing.
“My feet were so painful and numb,” Zheng said. “My mother said no man would marry me without bound feet. She thought it was a painful process that every woman had to go through, like giving birth.”
Zheng was sold into marriage at age 10 with a neighbor’s 12-year-old son. During the day, she had to work in her in-laws’ wheat field. At night, she cleaned and cooked. Once a year, she was allowed to spend an afternoon with her parents.
“Her childhood was very unhappy,” said her daughter, Fu Yingdi. “She always reminds her grandchildren and great-grandchildren how fortunate they are.”
As warlords prowled the countryside after the 1912 abdication of China’s last emperor, Puyi, Zheng and her husband fled to Shanghai to “eat foreign food” -- work as servants for wealthy Westerners. Until World War II, Zheng donned a maid’s white apron and worked in a succession of British, French, American and Russian households. Living among foreigners shielded her family from much of the chaos sweeping China.
She remembers the elation she felt when she looked out her window one morning in May 1949 to see the streets filled with communist soldiers. Residents shouted, “Shanghai is liberated! Liberated!”
The communists quickly set up an employment center, training one of Zheng’s three sons to be a truck driver and finding her daughter work in a newly nationalized pen factory.
“We knew a new era had come,” Zheng said. “Chairman Mao rescued the poor. I worked for foreigners all my life, but I never got anything in the end.”
She says the last two decades of market reforms have given her great-grandchildren opportunities she had never imagined. One works at a bank; another studies computers in high school. But she also worries that communism’s gains are being eroded.
Shanghai’s development boom too often benefits rich Chinese and foreign investors, she says. Her family has just received notice that the city plans to tear down their apartment building and construct luxury housing.
“The foreigners are back. They and the wealthy are profiting from Shanghai’s development,” she said. “I never imagined the poor would be in such big trouble again.”