Chen Pei Zheng works six days a week on a Shanghai construction team building new apartments that will be considerably different from her own two-room cold-water flat. The new buildings will accommodate (are you ready, Whirlpool?) refrigerators and washing machines.
"During the Cultural Revolution," Chen told me, "people were not only afraid to possess such things, they were afraid to even think about possessing them. The saying was: 'It is revisionist to pursue better living conditions. The more revolutionary a person is, the poorer he is.'"
Such sentiments have now gone the way of chairman Mao's Little Red Book that was waved at me and quoted to me everywhere when I was here eight years ago as a correspondent for The Washington Post. I looked for it on this visit, asked what happened to it and I was told by one young man that it had been confiscated, and by another that it was bought back by the government, along with other books people no longer had any use for.
Whatever has happened to the book, the revolution it fueled, the revolution that was the soul of the China I knew, has been transformed into what looks like a revolution of rising expectations. And it begins in nursery school.
Eight years ago the children at play in Shanghai's Children's Palace sang "We Wish Chairman Mao a Long Long Life" and "Little Red Soldiers Sifting the Grain." At that time a little girl told me that her favorite game was "The Little Red Road of the Red Army" -- an obstacle course of hills and barbed wire and hand-over-hand climbs. "When we walk on this road," she told me, "we must learn from the revolutionary spirit of the Red Army and learn and support the revolution enthusiastically." She actually said that.
Today's children at the Friendship Kindergarten jump rope, climb on the jungle jim, play with dolls, paint pictures in American coloring books and imitate ducklings and butterflies. The obstacle course still exisits. It is called "The Road of the Brave."
The head of the Friendship Kindergarten, Mrs. Le Chang, recalled that "during the Cultural Revolution even kindergarten children were indoctrinated in politics and Mao thought. Education was very serious and without regard to the character and the needs of the children. Today we pay attention to individual tastes."
The sheer number of children is a growing problem. Where once the goal was the two-child family, now, in a nation of close to a billion people, the goal -- the rule -- is the one-child family. If you have one child, tuition is free. If you have two, you pay for both. If you have more than two, you get no food allowance. Contraceptives are readily available at the corner drug store. There is abortion on demand. But in the countryside, where the elderly still depend on their children to care for them, I was told there is not much interest in the one-child family, whatever the consequences.
Courtship has returned to china, but the courtships are often very long because the housing shortage forces a young couple to wait to marry. Late marriage is encouraged anyway, as a means of keeping the birth rate down, and the more patriotic young men frequently wait until they're 27 or 28, although the legal age is 20 for girls and 22 for boys.
Coquetry has also returned. The short bobbed hair is now longer and curled or plaited in long braids caught up fashionably behind the ears with colorful ribbon. The padded jackets, rarely regulation blue any more, are instead pink, orange, green or even flowered print or elaborate brocade. Girls show embroidered collars above their jackets and tie scarves around their necks.
"Everybody wants to look pretty," my translator observed, in a comment that would have been considered revisionist if not downright revolutionary eight years ago. And they want to look pretty right down to their long underwear, which is now seen in stores and on clotheslines in peach, blue, purple, red or pink, in addition to the standard white or blue.
Despite the late marriages and the efforts to look pretty, they will tell you that sexual mores are still strict. But one young man, waiting to get married, wasn't so sure: "Where there are human beings, there is bound to be sex, married or not married, mores or no mores."
When I asked this uncharacteristically outspoken fellow about the air-raid shelters, that network of tunnels that Mao taught would save enough of them from nuclear attack, he said: "The tunnels still exist, but they're useless. If there's a war we'll all be destroyed. Shelters are like acupuncture; it doesn't work." Eight years ago such a pronouncement would have meant a one-way ticket to Sinkiang.
Where do such ideas come from? Radio, perhaps. Most Chinese have them and are free to listen to the Voice of America, the BBC -- everything, in fact, but broadcasts from the Soviet Union, Vietnam and Taiwan. And they can follow English language courses on Chinese radio and television.
The youngest student of English I met was Hua Wei Chang, a two-year-old whose grandmother has taught him to sing the entire alphabet song, and who can say "hello," "goodbye," "sun," "moon" and "star" -- and point to each one to prove he knows what he's talking about. His grandfather, who had the air of an important party personage, was as friendly as the little boy, offering me a seat and a cigarette on the train to Souchow. That immediate fear of capitalist contamination seems to have disappeared.
Foreigners, in turn, are now reminded to be a little suspicious themselves. Eight years ago the folklore was that nothing would ever be stolen from you in China. You couldn't throw anything away because the dutiful (and non-materialistic) Chinese would rescue it from the wastebasket and rush to bring it to you. Now, to the 12 regulations posted in my Shanghai hotel room, a 13th has been added on a sliver of paper: "Please keep your valuables with you. The hotel is not responsible for any accident or loss if it is on your own account."
There are other post-Cultural Revolution changes. The word from Peking is that some private businesses will now be encouraged. In Sou-chow I saw shoemakers, tailors and barbers already plying their trades not on behalf of the state but as private entrepreneurs; farmers selling their produce and keeping the money for themselves. I was also surprised to learn that in the great proletarian Red Army privates were once again saluting superior officers. Last time I was here I was told that generals and privates were equal. Schools for gifted children have reopened. And in the universities grades abolished during the Cultural Revolution have been reinstituted.
So the images I bring home this year look very different from those of eight years ago. Not once did I see a portrait of Mao Tse-tung or any of his successors. Not once did I see a billboard exhorting everyone to "serve the people." "Self-reliance" and "diligence" were the words that stayed with me from my last visit. This time there's anew word. I saw it embroidered, in English, in burgundy-colored thread on a big pink blanket that had been hung out on a clothesline. The word was "happiness."