Our guide in Xi’an, Leo, told us his fascinating family story. His grandparents and parents were moderately well off farmers in Shaanxi province – not rich, but prosperous. Then Mao’s Great Leap Forward happened, and Communist officials swarmed their village and kicked the family out of the house, making them work their own land, now as virtual slaves on the Commune. They became very fearful that their lives were becoming at risk, so in the dead of night, they fled their village and moved to Xi’an.
In Xi’an, they stayed in hiding with distant relatives in the Muslim Quarter. There they worked for the family members, but could not go out as they had no official identity, and they were fearful they would be asked for their papers. Shortly after moving to Xi’an, his grandparents died. The family worked very hard, and accumulated enough money to buy black market “official” papers, so then the family could go out and find real jobs. Everyone in the family worked – Leo , his older brother, and his three sisters.
Eventually, they saved enough to open a small market stall, and gradually built their business into several stores in Xi’an. Leo’s older brother entered University. They bought a house. The family was beginning to prosper again.
Then Mao declared the Cultural Revolution, and now it became illegal to own any kind of business. All businesses were either closed or were now owned by the State. The only thing you could keep was your house. Red Guards burned and looted, but tended to stay away from the Muslim Quarter. So, once again, the family was poor and lived in fear. The older brother was labelled a Capitalist and was kicked out of University. He was forced to go to work in a factory. So too were the father and mother. Leo was too young for the factory and was still in school, but all attention was now focused on him. His parents urged him to become the “number 1 student.”
His family did not give up however. In addition to their very paltry wages, they took in boarders – refugees who were once again fleeing the countryside. They made ends meet. They sent Leo to University. He became a school teacher – something that is highly esteemed in China. He guides on the side, and makes more money guiding than he does teaching school. His father passed away about 10 years ago, and his mother still lives in their family home in the Muslim Quarter of Xi’an. His older brother recently retired from his factory job, but was never able to live up to his potential according to Leo.
Leo is married and has one daughter who recently graduated from University. She has moved to Beijing, and Leo worries about her. She does not have the work ethic that he or his parents and grandparents had. Leo feels that because of the “one-child-policy” most of the young generation were spoiled. Guess it’s the same the world over – you worry about the kids.