Apples & yogurt: What money means in China

Money is the invisible friend (or foe) that appears in every story.

Janet, born in the 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 visualize her as a child, marveling 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 visualizes 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 neighborhood. 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.

Jennifer, 1980s

Jennifer’s husband lost 200,000 RMB (32,000 USD) on gambling, and some money on a mistress.

“He hit you?”, I ask. “Well,”, she says and pauses and lifts her shoulders: “Let’s say we both went to the hospital for a trip.” It’s as if she admits guilt, although reading my mind she quickly adds: “But he did those things, we have a two-year-old, we had just bought a house. You cannot do that shit.”

Their daughter is four years old now, not yet old enough to go to school, so Jennifer cannot get a day job: “In the morning I need to help her get dressed and make breakfast, send her to kindergarten. Then I buy some food for the day, and pick her up in the afternoon and accompany her in the playground.” She shows me photos of her daughter, playing outside and eating chicken at KFC. Jennifer smiles once, maybe twice — but three times she describes her daughter as annoying, although she does not mention the word ‘regret’.

But her life is a mess. Without a partner or job, Jennifer put up credit-card debt to pay off the mortgage, and now she cannot pay off either: “My parents help a bit, but they give my younger brother more financial support, he lives in Shanghai too, and also has a child. Now I don’t know what to do.”

Sara, 2010s

Sarah is 9 years old and loves playing outside, but often her friends don’t have time because they’re doing homework, or she has to do homework herself. She’s in the third year of primary school, but every day when she comes back from school she’ll have at least one hour of homework, often two — which turn into three hours if she wastes time. Then the weekend is filled with ‘interest classes’ (兴趣班), where she has to go to violin lessons, mathematics, and English.

Her mom wants to let her play, but homework is important. Sara needs good grades to go to a good school after this, a few hurdles to take before going to a good university. And so Sara can focus on either playing or doing homework; she does not need to help in the house, or clean her own plates, etcetera. Anything she wants is usually bought, as long as her grades are good. As such she has no concept of money, nor pocket money.

Because Sara loves football, basketball and running in general, her mom thinks she has the spirit of a boy. She’s trying to get her to wear dresses, but Sara always says no. “How much does a dress cost?”, she asks her mom. Her mom asks her what she thinks. Sara has no idea: “50 RMB? 500? Maybe 5000 RMB?”. I ask Sara if she knows how a jianbing (Chinese pancake) costs, and again she lifts her shoulders.

Fen, 1980s

Fen comes from a city in the North East (Dongbei), and makes good money as a fashion designer now. She tells a story of how money used to be so precious to her. When she was around 14 years old, she bought shoes with some money her mother gave her. The shoes were so pretty, she stored them in her closed to wear when a special occasion would come. But one month waiting turned into a year, and when the special occasion came, her feet would no longer fit the footwear. “No, they weren’t even such pretty shoes”, Fen says. But it was the price that added meaning to them.

Ping, 1950s

She’s in her sixties now, but she had a second child a long time ago when there was the one-child policy. She and her husband had furniture taken away from their home because they could not afford to pay the penalty, but she didn’t care: “You can always buy those things again.” She lost her job because of the punishment too, and couldn’t find a new job as an accountant, so she accompanied her husband to construction jobs and helping him out there.

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. Relatively new, as in a few decades, not many decades. 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. Money is the invisible friend (or foe) that appears in every story.

I heard an anecdote from an artist who mentioned that customers in a Shenzhen gallery never really ask about the art in the sense of its meaning, its appearance — but only ask about the expected price in five years. A friend of mine doesn’t turn on the air conditioner (heating function) on in the winter because it’s too expensive, but she does turn it on at the office. At home, she has an electrical blanket. I’ve seen people putting food in doggy bags: “Do you also want this dish? No, it tastes terrible! Oh, but it’s expensive. OK, let’s take it home!”


Do people in China aspire the same kind of ‘happy’ as in the West? As with Dejiang, he lost his siblings to hunger and lived through poverty. Such people don’t suddenly grow different people who pick up painting or start writing poetry to find meaning in life. Chinese people have a weird relationship with money, one that doesn’t always strike me as logical. Sometimes they need to show off, sometimes it’s for comfort or safety. And sometimes, even when driving a € 80,000 car, they’ll walk 30 minutes to save on a €1 parking fee.


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

Sometimes foreigners look with contempt to the relationship between Chinese and money: “the Chinese are indulgent and opulent“. But is that fair for us to say?

There’s something deeper. 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 realization 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. Money helps you take care when the government can’t.