Breaking Into City Life in Modern China

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Today we conclude our series, "A Nation of Individuals," about the rise of individualism in China. NPR's Rob Gifford profiles a 21-year-old woman who is in Beijing for six months of training. "Li Jia" — she asked that her real name not be used — has decided not to return to her small town in remote southern China, even though her family and her boss want her back. "I think life should be wonderful and colorful," she says. "I can fulfill my dream more easily in the big city."


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Today we're going to wrap up our series A Nation of Individuals. All week we've been examining the rise of individualism in China. We've heard about an Internet entrepreneur, an AIDS activist, a village leader and an evangelical Christian. In this final piece, NPR's Rob Gifford talks to a young woman faced with a very simple but very difficult choice. It's a choice that will decide her future.

ROB GIFFORD reporting:

The leaders of China have many difficult choices today: how to keep the economy growing, what to do about pollution, how to deal with Taiwan. Many of these choices have top-down impact on the lives of ordinary Chinese people. For decades, under Maoism, everything was decided top-down. Big political decisions still are. But the choices that are really transforming China are not being made in the party Politburo. They're being made by ordinary people.

(Soundbite of music; hushed voices)

GIFFORD: Sitting in a coffee bar in the university district of northwest Beijing, 21-year-old Li Jia has a choice of her own to make that will change her life. She's a confident, polite young woman who's happy talking about her life to a Western reporter. But like many people here, conditioned by China's recent totalitarian past, she will not let her real name be used.

She's come to Beijing for a six-month teacher training course from a town in a remote part of southern China, where she worked for two years in a government-paid job as an English teacher. During that time she attained a bachelor's degree by correspondence course. After two years' teaching, though, she couldn't help thinking, `There must be more to life.' The principal of her school allowed her to come to Beijing on condition that she return after the course is over.

LI JIA (English Teacher, Student): I think life should be wonderful and colorful. I think in the big cities there are more chances and more opportunities that I can get, and I can do more things I want. But in the small towns, I have some feelings of confinement. I don't like that. And as a young girl, I have a lot of dreams, and I think in the big cities I can fulfill my dreams.

GIFFORD: For decades under Mao and, in fact, for centuries under the imperial system before that, most Chinese people could only dream of fulfilling their dreams. Now, for the first time, many have both the social space and the economic wherewithal to do it. There are still many migrant workers in China who leave their tiny hometowns and come to find work out of sheer necessity. But there are also a new breed of young people, who are leaving their safe jobs in small towns all around China to dive into the sea of risk and opportunity in the big cities. They're the dreamers who are reshaping China's urban landscape, just as the European migrants did to North America a hundred years ago. But Li Jia now has a dilemma: She doesn't really want to return to her safe, stable teaching job, as she had promised.

LI JIA: My dilemma is that: Should I go back to my old job in my hometown, or should I just stay in the big cities to lead a new life? I feel a little nervous because I think this is, really, a very big decision for me and my whole life. This is a turning point. And I know that if I made the decision, the life will be totally different from the previous one.

GIFFORD: Standing at the crossroads of life is made more difficult for Li Jia because her parents do not want her staying in the big city. Confucian tradition, the one-child policy and just general concern about safety in China's convulsing urban centers make many small-town Chinese parents very protective of their children. But after 21 years of obedience as a very filial Chinese daughter, Li Jia has taken the radical step of going against her parents' wishes and is about to inform her old school that she's not coming back.

LI JIA: It is a big change for me to make the decision by myself and according to my thinking and my judgment. And I think, yeah, it's really a big change. And it's a difficult process, and it's not so easy for me to persuade my parents to agree with me.

(Soundbite of ambiance noises)

LI JIA: (Chinese spoken)

WEI-YIU(ph) (Friend of Li Jia): (Chinese spoken)

LI JIA: (Chinese spoken)

WEI-YIU: (Chinese spoken)

GIFFORD: A few days later, with classes finished for the summer and the deadline for her decision looming, Li Jia is out shopping with one of her friends. Wei-yiu is from Li Jia's hometown and was also a teacher there. She's decided not to return, and Li Jia is leaning that way, too. Li Jia says they love going out shopping together in Beijing's stores that are overflowing with goods.

LI JIA: Beijing is much more expensive than my hometown. There are more choices, and you can buy anything that you want, but maybe in my hometown sometimes the goods are limited.

GIFFORD: While Western women juggle their post-modern lives and many Muslim women still struggle to win basic freedoms, Chinese women seem to fit somewhere in between. Maoism destroyed China in many ways, but Mao also said that women hold up half the sky. And though he did much to enslave the entire nation to his political creeds, he undoubtedly did much to liberate women. There are, of course, still many inequalities, but Li Jia and Wei-yiu seem to have an unbounded optimism that the world is full of opportunities for them. Li Jia wants to be a businesswoman in a smart suit carrying a briefcase. Wei-yiu wants to become a scientist or a researcher.

WEI-YIU: I want to say nothing is impossible. As a young woman in China, I think just if you try your best, nothing is impossible. China's women are liberated. And, also, in our society there are many, many good examples, female examples, that they really met a big success--you know, career--as well as have a very good family. I think it's more equal, at least, than Japan.

GIFFORD: In fact, the choices made by Chinese women like these could well play as large a role in China's emergence as women have ever played in any country's emergence as a world power. Rob Gifford, NPR News, Beijing.

NORRIS: You can meet the other people profiled in our series at our Web site,

This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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