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China’s lost generation coddles its young

Partly out of embarrassment that they played a role in a discredited political experiment, parents from what has been called the Lost Generation -- those who came of age during China's Great Cultural Revolution -- have turned their offspring into the Coddled Generation.
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Duan Xingmei, a retired teacher, spent her teenage years discussing Mao Zedong and pulling a plow through the cornfields. With her comrades, she recited slogans, fought hunger and worked like a draft animal in the name of China's Great Cultural Revolution.

Duan's daughter, Zhou Jie, spent her teens studying computer science and English, then finished off with some courses in fashion design. Tuition and expenses were footed by mom and dad. Her parents gave her a computer in her first year at college and a cell phone in her third year. She has never lacked for anything and knows almost nothing of the upheaval and want that her mother lived through during China's political frenzy of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

"She has told me very little, very little," said Zhou, 24, who works in customer relations at a Nanjing clothing company that exports stylish jeans to Italy. "She just says it was very hard."

As a growing economy produces new wealth and a spreading middle class in China, the epochal Cultural Revolution has receded to the distant past in just one generation. The millions of urban youths who were forced to abandon their books and live their teenage years with peasants have grown into indulgent middle-aged parents, eager to spare their children not only the deprivation, but even the knowledge of what happened during those tumultuous years.

"That special period of history ruined many parents' golden years," Sun Xiaoyun, deputy director of the Youth and Children Research Center, said in a report on China's particular generation gap. "Their dreams were blown away. So they tend to place all their hopes on the next generation."

The 'Coddled Generation'
Partly out of embarrassment that they played a role in a discredited political experiment, parents from what has been called the Lost Generation have turned their offspring into the Coddled Generation. In the process, whatever lessons were to be learned from the political madness that seized China then have largely been lost on today's students, who have grown up taking stability and economic well-being for granted.

The Lost Generation's eagerness to forget the bitter past and concentrate on China's material achievements helps explain why the ruling Communist Party retains its monopoly on power. Parents are focused on bettering their children's lives and their children are living in a time of loosened controls and economic progress.

"Nowadays our life is so much better, so my mother doesn't like to talk about the past, because it was so terrible," said Zhou, whose $200 MP3 music player dangled from her neck across a trendy high turtleneck and onto a stylishly tailored jacket.

Duan, 54, said in an interview that she often tried to tell her daughter what she went through, but that it never sank in. "She just doesn't seem to believe it," Duan said, adding: "Our generation was not very lucky."

Families torn apart
Mao launched the Great Cultural Revolution in 1966 with the goal of renewing China's revolutionary spirit after several years of moderate economic policies. By the time order was restored, millions of families had been torn apart and the country had come to the brink of civil war between Mao's Red Guards and people they called Capitalist Roaders.

Teenagers, particularly those from wealthy or intellectual families, were forced to leave cities and live with farmers, sharing their hard lives and, it was hoped, gaining new insight into the Maoist revolution. Red Guards, meanwhile, took over schools and universities, substituting political criteria for academic achievement.

Millions of lives were smashed in the resulting chaos. Now that they are parents, those who were caught up in the turmoil have displayed unshakeable determination to see their children live more enjoyable lives by using the opportunities available since China opened to the world and adopted market reforms under Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s.

Tian Shi, 50, the son of a doctor and grandson of a landowner, was sent to a military camp just below the Russian border, where he spent his entire adolescence. Although far from rich, he recently forked over nearly $400 for a cell phone for his 14-year-old daughter, who spent her last vacation in Australia perfecting her English.

Tian's older sister, Lu Jiang, 53, spent seven years on a flea-ridden farm planting crops and slopping pigs. Her son Ha Li, who graduated from Shandong University, all expenses paid, has gone on to graduate studies in computer science at the University of Paris, where he receives regular cash infusions from his parents.

Lu Zhimin, 47, a Beijing lawyer, said his high school years were roiled by political unrest in the classroom, where students challenged teachers to prove they had the correct revolutionary credentials. He escaped going to the countryside by joining the army, he said, and went to work in a factory for $5 a month as soon as he was demobilized. Later, he taught himself enough to qualify as a lawyer.

"At that time, the students were called on to learn from workers, from farmers and from soldiers," he recalled.

But Lu's daughter, Lu Xu, 18, was called on to learn from her professors at a comfortable high school. She performed well enough to be admitted this fall to the prestigious Beijing University, where she is studying geography and astronomy, equipped with a monthly cash allowance from her mother and a bank card from her father.

Lu Xu's only memory of going to a farm was the time she went to a Beijing suburb to use her new telescope for stargazing in the clear country air. Her idea of deprivation was the long wait for her MP3 player and the university rules that dictate lights out in her dorm after 11 p.m.

"As the only child in our family, my daughter lacks independence," Lu said over a steaming bowl of sesame porridge. "I wanted to develop her ability to earn money or support herself. So I asked her to work part time during the summer vacation in a drug store owned by my friend. She refused after she visited the store. She gave two reasons. One, it's too far away. Two, she had her own vacation plans."

'They don't even know'
Duan, the retired teacher in Nanjing, keeps two traditional photo albums in her bedroom. One shows her daughter at 20, posing in a variety of fashionable outfits to record her fresh beauty for posterity. The other shows Duan, carefully coiffed and made up, elegant but no longer fresh. Unable to take the coming-of-age photos at 20, during the Cultural Revolution, she hired a photographer and did it at 50.

"They don't even know," said Duan, referring to the happy ignorance of her daughter's generation. "We don't want to spend all our time talking about the past. It's no use talking with them about the past."

Duan said when she finished secondary school in 1968, she was assigned to Che Men village in Jiangsu province, where farmers mostly planted corn and nobody had time or money for taking photos. There was little discussion of not going, she said, because everybody knew what would happen if you refused.

"If you didn't go, your parents would lose their jobs," she said. "It was called voluntary, but it really wasn't."

On the farm, there was no rice, no meat and no fruit. The main diet was sweet potatoes and corn meal, Duan said. Life at the farm was a hardship her daughter does not comprehend, in large part because Duan has made sure nothing of it was ever repeated during her daughter's upbringing.

"They don't have the spirit of struggle like we did," Duan said, looking back on the result. "And if they do the same way with their own children as we did with ours, it will be very dangerous. They should understand that only a few people can have such a rich life."