Apples & yogurt: What money means in China

Janet, 1970s

Janet teaches about foreign-invested joint ventures in China at Fudan University. At the start of her lecture, she introduces herself starting from present to past. She now travels around the world advising big multinationals — but her roots lie in 70s rural China. Janet tells us how she’d perceive an apple to be a real and rare luxury. “An apple!”, she yells — and I visualise her as a child, marvelling at the fruit in her small hands. Janet tells that only during Chinese New Year her family would have fish or meat. To buy clothes, her family had to rely on relatives who would sometimes travel to cities. That’s the childhood of my professor right in front of me.

Lucy, 1980s

Lucy grew up a decade later, in a dingy tier-3 city instead of a rural area. When she tells about her childhood, my mind visualises grey buildings below grey clouds. Lucy was actually from a wealthy family — relatively speaking — but that didn’t mean her house had a shower, just like the thousands of other apartments in the area. She’d walk hand-in-hand with her mother to the public showers, and shower with her mom and the other girls and women from the neighbourhood. Because her dad worked in a dairy factory, her household did have one luxury though: Yoghurt — but her mom constantly reminded Lucy never to let her classmates know that, in fear of making them jealous.

Dejiang, 1950s

Dejiang grew up in the 50s, in a city not far from Shanghai. He grew up in a family of five, but lost two brothers due to lack of food. I actually heard that from others, because Dejiang himself doesn’t talk about his youth. His photo album tells stories too. In his 30s, Dejiang posed for a photo with a random car because before that point, he had never seen a car. It would take him a whole day to travel to Shanghai, whereas now, thanks to the Sutong Bridge, it’s a two hours ride in his Buick. There’s a photo of him in the early 1990s when Shanghai’s Pudong was just grassland with fisher boats.

Chen, 1980s

Chen grew up three hours from Shanghai (in today’s travel time) in a mountain village, surrounded by bamboo and a creek. His father was strict with him, he was never allowed to waste money, electricity, water, food, or time. And if he did, he’d be beaten with a stick. Now, Chen owns a house in Shanghai. Actually, his wife makes more money than he does, and his wife’s father paid the largest part of the house. But Chen cannot escape his youth and upbringing. When he sees his wife’s father uses the air conditioner in mid-summer — 35 degrees outside — he can’t help himself to sarcastically remark to his wife about how wasteful her dad is. Because Chen is the man of the house, and he has already forgotten that his wife’s dad actually helped him buy the house in the first place. Their four-year-old son also doesn’t escape his father’s youth either, in form of a wooden stick.

All the above names are fictional, but the stories are not.

How money affects life in China

For many Chinese people, money is a relatively new thing, yet one that feels extremely feeble, as if it can disappear at any time. And even though money has arrived in China (over 30 years of double digits GDP growth), and even though people sometimes change, they don’t suddenly grow different people who pick up painting, or start writing poetry to find meaning in life.


As a foreigner, it can be weird to see fanaticism by which Chinese people splurge their money on Gucci bags and Prada shoes, the importance of showing others they have made it (it matters less to their pride whether it’s their own earned-money, or whether it’s their parents’ money being spent). But it’s even weirder to see how money is factored into so many decisions, even relationships. Not owning a house, a car, or having a high-income job will drastically lower your chances of dating successfully.


Parents in China also push their child extremely hard. I don’t remember having any homework during primary school, but Chinese primary school students have homework every day, and in the weekend they’re taken to their moms and dads to extracurricular classes outside of school in the weekend: music, calligraphy, dancing, piano, violin, English. All around the city are such out-of-school schools, with bored moms & dads watching their phones while their kids are getting classes inside.

Parents need to get their children to two hoops, and all of their time is spend considering these. First, the gaokao, the university entrance exam that determines to which university their child can go to. And once their children graduate from university, they’re released on the job market. More often than not, brilliant minds are released into the job market but forced to work for a boss who determines how the company works. A boss who takes the biggest chunk of money for him- or herself, and leaves around 6,000 RMB for an entry-level job. From which it is impossible to go on luxurious holidays, buy a car, designer clothing — let alone buy a house in Shanghai.

Understanding how money has a different role in China

I asked a Chinese friend what happens to an old person if they are sick and they or their family has no money. “Well, they just die” was the answer. And that in part is why rich guys marry rich girls and vice versa, why parents push their kids — university being the modern caste. The realisation should be this: Many safety nets that we take for granted in Europe still don’t exist in China. When a member in your family loses his or her job, then how will you take care of your family? When you factor that in, I can understand why money is so important, because having money often equals safety, and safety is a prerequisite for happiness. So yes, sometimes money is happiness.