A Colony of Blue Ants: Consumerism, Cultural Revolution Style

Oct 02, 2010

We dreamed that one day we could go to Europe or America, but this was all in a low voice lest we were criticised as capitalist.


In 1968, while students were being sent up to the mountains and down to the countryside for "re-education", hiring at factories stopped, as did most production. Workers busied themselves with "class struggle".

Class struggle affected relationships between everyone – even within families, relationships were very intense. Of course we felt very unhappy at that time, and among friends and family we often expressed admiration for the situation in Western countries. We dreamed that one day we could go to Europe or America, but this was all in a low voice lest we were criticised as capitalist. Not like nowadays, everyone is driven crazy by money.

During the first five years of the Cultural Revolution, 1966 to 1971, the national average monthly salary was 30 yuan. But even if you had some money, there were increasingly fewer goods on the market as production decreased.

Students started returning to the cities in 1970 to work on construction sites. By 1971, half of them had returned, and the government started issuing coupons. This lasted until 1976. Every month, we got a sheet of coupons numbered one to 100. Each number represented something we could purchase – sugar, salt, eggs, cloth, wine, meat, etc. Only vegetables, books — which there were very few of — and cinema tickets could be bought without coupons. Other forms of money were illegal. There were depressing, dull markets everywhere in China.

In order to see a film, you would have to get up at 6 a.m., get in line and wait two hours to spend 5 fen for the ticket.

Under the planned economy, private businesses were illegal. But under lax supervision, black markets cropped up in the suburbs. Old women selling eggs, caught by the police, had their wares confiscated, and were criticised for "chasing the tail of capitalism".

I became a young worker at a factory. I never celebrated my birthday. On National Day or other holidays, the best thing you could do was go to a movie to enjoy a North Korean or Albanian film. But in order to see a film, you would have to get up at 6 a.m., get in line and wait two hours to spend 5 fen for the ticket. Few people could afford to eat out, and there were no private restaurants. Other than during holidays, we were rationed rice and vegetables and could afford meat maybe once a month.

My happiest times were when I had enough cigarettes to smoke. I smoked one pack of cigarettes every two days, but I got only four packs' worth of coupons each month. Because I lived in the dormitory, many of the coupons for household goods were useless to me. At the black market, I could exchange these for cigarette coupons. But even after that, I didn't have enough cigarettes. In those days you could often see men bending down to pick up cigarette butts from the ground. It was common — I used to do it, too!

There were privileged groups, but the gap between the poor and the rich was much smaller than it is today. High-ranking cadres could access certain luxury goods that the common people could not afford or were forbidden from purchasing. At the time the most luxurious items most of us could imagine buying was a bike, sewing machine, radio, or wristwatch. For these items we would save coupons for a year — 40 would buy a bike; 50 would buy a sewing machine. People needed a bike to ride to work, a sewing machine to make clothes, a watch to be on time to work, and a radio to get news from the government. These luxury goods at the time would cost 600 to 1,000 yuan altogether.

And of course, at that time there wasn't any fashion at all. A green soldier's cap was the most fashionable accessory, because the image of the "People's Liberation Army man" was the most charming prince in a Chinese girl's heart. You could get such a cap at a black market if you were willing to pay the price, but when you wore it, you had to be careful so that nobody could steal it right off your head. If you wore a pair of white tennis shoes, which were also rare at that time, you would be treated as a pagan or a decadent hipster. Everyone wore blue "zhong shan fu" (中山服), or a short blue or black jacket. Not even women's clothes were colourful. And of course Western suits were looked upon as symbols of capitalism. Fashions that might suggest any other political system were also forbidden. We kept our Chinese workers/farmers/soldiers/revolutionary style. In order to save money, people were resourceful, making their own clothes and even furniture.

If you could look down and see China from satellite at that time, what could you see? Nothing but a colony of blue ants!


Mao Zedong in “zhong shan fu” (中山服).

Mao Zedong in “zhong shan fu” (中山服).


This article by Wang Jian was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 6 ("consumerism"). Wang Jian is a Chengdu native who came of age during the Cultural Revolution and later taught himself English.