With the approaching Olympic Games, the recent riots in Tibet, the trading alliances that are being made all over the world, and the on-going purging of corruption, China is very rarely out of the news these days.
Although on one level most Westerners are fully aware of China’s emergence into capitalist society it seems that, on another level, the spectre of China as the Yellow Peril - how many grew up thinking of it - is little changed in many minds.
Although the “opening up" took place 30 years ago there is still much ignorance about modern China, and what is known relates to the world of commerce, industry or politics. Although women are involved in these fields, it is largely a male-centred view that people have of the “mysterious Orient” with little or no thought given to those who “hold up half of the sky”: the women of China.
Current Chinese generational gaps illustrate how far the country has come since World War II. And, among women, this sometimes results in huge divides between the realities of young women and their grandmothers which are wider than those in any Western country.
The first “divide” one notices is purely physical: it’s a question of development. Down any street, in any city or village, old Chinese ladies shuffle along on tiny feet, eyes downcast and hand trustingly tucked into a companion’s arm. Usually a grandmother will be accompanied by her middle-aged daughter. Taller, more robust and slightly broader, these women’s feet are planted squarely into sensible black shoes, they wear navy blue, maroon or black, and favour tailored jackets with pants or straight skirts. However, it is when these women in turn are accompanied by their taller, rangier daughters that the contrasts can be most clearly remarked upon.
Of course these are broad generalisations and not every one of the approximately half billion women of China can be slipped neatly into these categories. But in such a highly populated country there are enough who do broadly adhere to these paradigms to form generalised societal groups.
It is not simply in their way of dressing that the generations differ so much from one another. The oldest group - the grandmothers and great grandmothers who were born before World War II - are those who still remember the world of Chinese fable. A land where women with bound feet hobbled painfully through courtyards. Where coloured fish swam lazily under ornamental bridges, where people wore wide woven hats and coloured pyjamas and the clothes of the wealthy glowed and shone in the myriad of silk textures for which China was famed.
Even if they were too late to have encountered China as a Dynastic country, these women were surrounded by those who had been brought up within the strict hierarchy of social class. They were familiar with Confucianism and the ancient stories of China’s past were more real to them than the world beyond their town gates.
These tiny bodies have given birth to the large families which were the countries great strength as well as its biggest weakness. They grew up accepting that men ruled the world with stern omnipotence and that women were leaves in the wind of fortune.
Their future was decided for them at birth - they were subservient to their parents and family, then their husband and mother-in-law, and, once the sons they had nurtured grew, they became subservient to them. They bowed their heads and survived as the greatest winds of change of all blew through their country and their survival into old age is a monument to the strength which is contained in their diminutive forms.
The middle-aged women are the feisty ones. They haggle on either side of market counters, staunchly battling for the best deal or the biggest bargain. They can be seen taking or picking up their grandchildren outside every school in the land: comparing - often with devastating frankness - the looks, intelligence, progress or demeanour of “their” babies or children to those of their elderly peers; briskly taking their charges onto the backs of bicycles, the wells of scooters or pushing them in bright plastic novelty vehicles; and elbowing into the crowds around local street vendors to ensure food reaches those small mouths almost as soon as they leave the school gates.
They are the ones who came of age during the wars, the unrest, the purges, the re-education programs, the cultural revolution and, most importantly, the famines. Unlike their mothers who could look back on peaceful childhoods and a slower, more tranquil way of life, they spent their younger years gnawed by constant hunger and living in a world of drabness and utility.