Tag Archives: China population

One Country–Uniform and Indivisible?

One Country, Uniform and Indivisible?      —by Jinny Batterson

The People’s Republic of China celebrates its national day on October 1.  This holiday commemorates the official launch of this new-old country’s most recent government. On this day in 1949, Chinese guerrilla fighter turned government leader Chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed from Beijing’s Gate of Heavenly Peace that, after over a century of turmoil, China had finally “stood up.”  During the 65 years since then, the P.R.C. has consolidated its rule over much of China’s extensive territory, gaining international recognition as China’s official government. But problems remain. I’ve had more chances than many to experience some of the diversity and potential for divisiveness in China during travels and teaching in her hinterlands.

China’s population is about 92% “Han,” the dominant ethnic group. However, the 92% Han figure tends to mask the diversity even within Han-dominated regions—the P.R.C. officially recognizes over 50 non-Han ethnicities. China’s most heavily populated regions tend to be east and south, from Shandong Province down through Shanghai toward Hong Kong. Here, Han citizens far outnumber other groups. In contrast, large expanses of territory in China’s north, west, and southwest are more sparsely peopled, with substantial numbers of non-Han inhabitants. In some areas, such as Xinjiang, Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and parts of Yunnan and Guangxi, other groups have historically outnumbered the Han. Intense resettlement and tourism efforts have increased the proportion of Han residents and visitors in these regions, but it is still possible, walking down a street in Kashgar or Lhasa, to feel one is no longer in China.

Any country with a continuous written history as long as the current expanse of China will have had periods when the unity of the country was tested.  Depending on the accounts you read and the length of your historical time line, you may have some doubt that China’s periods of “unity” are of longer duration than its periods of disunity. China is not, and never has been, a monolith, Western myths of uniform “yellow hoards” notwithstanding.  How to deal with the diversity that exists in many of its most strategically sensitive, resource-rich regions is a problem that has vexed successive Chinese governments for millennia.

My lengthiest exposure to the diversity of China came during the school year 2006-2007, when I was a foreign English teacher in Ala’er, Xinjiang.  I’ve been told that the town’s name means “jewel of the desert.” This small oasis town depended heavily for its existence on the glacier-fed Tarim River that came down from the mountains surrounding the Taklamakan Desert (the largest in Asia). The river supplied drinking and irrigation water to parts of that vast bowl-shaped depression before drying up near the desert’s eastern edge. I taught at a smallish “desert reclamation university” which had been founded during the 1950’s with the twin goals of securing China’s borderlands and taming the desert. Its ambition was to reclaim as much land as practical for productive agriculture or forest buffers against fierce windstorms and encroaching sands.

When I was in Ala’er, the non-student population of the town was predominantly Uyghur, a mostly Moslem pastoral group believed to be related to Turks, with a history of several centuries of nomadic subsistence in the area. The university was more heavily Han, though as many as 40% of its students came from non-Han groups. I was lucky that little of the sporadic violence that periodically mars relations between Han and non-Han inhabitants of the region occurred during my stay.  There were even some attempts at cross-cultural understanding—the end-of-Ramadan holiday of Eid al-Fitr was officially observed by Moslem students the year I was there, and several Han faculty members joined in the feasts and dancing.

The country of my birth, the United States of America, is poised to become a “majority minority country” within the next generation, with no single ethnic group predominating. As we struggle with our own diversity, may we have some compassion and understanding for the “minorities” (and the majority) within China.

The Double 9’s Festival and Aging

The Double 9’s Festival and Aging  —by Jinny Batterson

One rainy Saturday in September during our year of teaching in Sichuan province, a Chinese friend enticed us to return to a nearby tourist village, a reconstruction of 19th century agricultural life, now mostly dependent on tourist revenue rather than income from raising crops. She said it would be a special day in the life of the town. Getting there required a combination of crowded busses and taxi rides, threading our way along winding mountain roads. We arrived in one piece, grateful to have avoided both accidents and car sickness on the twisty journey.  We spent a couple of hours wandering the cobblestone streets, sampling local foods and crafts. Then, about mid-afternoon, we gathered with a crowd of umbrella-wielding foreigners and locals in the central square of Shang Li Ancient Town for a special presentation.

Dancers, magicians, singers, and storytellers entertained us for nearly an hour.  We didn’t get much of the dialogue, but our friend translated the basics—this was a festival honoring elders, the “double 9’s festival.”  I’ve since learned that the holiday has not always been elder-centric. It originated much further back in Chinese folkloric history as an attempt to counter the excessive “yang” (masculine/outward) energy of two successive supremely “yang”  numerals, nines. It was thought that on this day, climbing mountains, drinking chrysanthemum wine, and spending time outdoors would help to reduce yang, keeping it in balance with its corresponding feminine/inward “yin” energy. Starting in the late 1980’s, the Chinese government tried to rebrand the holiday into one honoring elders. “Double 9” or 99, represents a ripe old age in any culture, and the ninth day of the ninth month of the Chinese lunar calendar (falling in late September or early October) has since incorporated homage to elders in many Chinese locales.

Until a generation or so ago, there were not many elders in China. Dynastic upheavals, civil wars, famines, and natural disasters limited the life spans of all but a fortunate few.  Recently, improved public health, more political stability, and better economic conditions have substantially improved the odds of making it to a Chinese ripe old age. China is now one of the fastest-aging countries on the planet. Some experts estimate that by 2030, nearly one fourth of China’s population will be 65 or older.  The Chinese government is scrambling to catch up with this demographic time-bomb. Chinese culture, likewise, is trying to adapt as more and more adult children live in cities, far away from their aging parents and the traditional multi-generational compounds of the villages in which they grew up.  A “double-9’s festival”  is a small sop toward dealing with a potentially large problem.

During various visits in China, I saw different approaches to coping with a looming plenitude of elders, including various schemes to retain aging workers in basic urban services—light landscaping work, street sweeping, commercial child care. Elder-friendly housing compounds and “granny flats” are an increasing part of the housing stock. Plans are afoot to relax existing one-child policies for “double single” couples (in which each spouse is an only child).  Such policies, in place since the early 1980’s in urban areas, have stemmed the growth of China’s huge (1.3 billion) population, but also contributed to the rapid aging of its population as a whole.  Medical and pension systems are under review, with an aim toward improved governmental support.

It dawns on me, as I get somewhat closer to double 9’s myself, that elders can be, like those in any age group, both a burden and a blessing.  In the area of the U.S. where I now live, our proportion of elders jumped substantially in the years between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, so our local and state governments are trying to cope with this population shift as well. I hope that China, a country I’ve grown to love, can craft better policies to help elders continue to contribute, to be accorded and to earn respect, whether on “double 9’s” day, or any other.