China Books

Mr Wu and Family, by Pallavi Aiyar

Smoke & Mirrors cover scan.jpg
Smoke and Mirrors by Pallavi Aiyar

Pallavi Aiyar is been the Beijing correspondent for Indian newspaper The Hindu, and has been living in Beijing since 2002. Harper Collins India recently published her book about about her experiences called Smoke and Mirrors.

You can buy the book online here (and also on starting September). There is a review of the book in the International Herald Tribune, and a Q&A with the author on Danwei here.

The following excerpt is part of a chapter from Smoke and Mirrors and is published here with the author's permission.

Mr Wu and Family

by Pallavi Aiyar

One of communism’s lingering legacies in China was a basic belief in the dignity of labour and to me it was this belief that created the broadest gulf between India and China; a chasm ultimately much harder to bridge than that of GDP growth rates or flashy infrastructure.

This realisation struck me first during a conversation with Cindy, my KFC-loving, beggar-despising student at BBI. We were sitting together one afternoon back at the apartment in SOHO, sharing a pot of freshly boiled green tea. Cindy was helping me out with the research for a story I was working on at the time.

As we took a break, Cindy ran her fingers through her stylishly cut hair and looked around the freshly vacuumed apartment thoughtfully. Did I have an ayi, she asked? Ayi, a word that literally meant auntie in Mandarin, was the standard epithet for “maid” in China.

I answered that I had someone come in thrice a week for a few hours each time, to do the laundry, clean the house and cook a simple meal or two. What did I pay her, Cindy inquired next.

I paid $100 a month but my ayi had several other clients besides me and I estimated that she made between $300-500 in total every month.

It was Cindy’s next question that left me speechless. Could I help find her mother a job as an ayi, she asked. The idea that a university educated, obviously well-off young girl clad in Levis jeans was interested in finding a job as a maid for her mother was almost as improbable to me as that of a millionaire landlord fixing toilets. I hadn’t of course, met Mr Wu yet.

Cindy went on to explain that her mother had recently retired and was anxious to move from Changsha, the city where she lived, to Beijing. Mother and daughter missed each other and were looking forward to being together again. But Cindy was concerned that her mother would get bored without a job. “My mum’s a great cook,” she said, “She’ll make a good ayi.”

I never did find a job for Cindy’s mother but I thought about her request often.

In India I had grown up surrounded by servants. We had a maid who made up the beds and set the table and another who cooked and washed the dishes. There was a gardener who came by in the mornings, and a young boy who would arrive on weekend afternoons to polish the brass. The boy was the son of the neighbourhood “press wali,” the lady who ironed our clothes with an old-fashioned coal-heated iron. Last and least in terms of status, we had a jamadarni, who cleaned out the toilets every day.

This might sound like a life of haute luxury but in fact I came from a middle-class background. I was already in college by the time we could afford to have an air conditioner installed in the house to run on the days that the temperature soared to almost 45 degrees centigrade. It was cheaper in the India of the time to have a full-time maid than pay the electricity bills for an air conditioner.

Our maids lived with us. They had a room each in the “servant’s quarters” to the back of the house. Their rooms were big enough to fit in a bed and perhaps a cupboard but over the years the space had to stretch to accommodate much more than that. In these tiny lodgings would be housed the possessions and dreams of a lifetime.

The cook lived with her husband and two sons; the bed-maker and table setter, with her husband, three daughters and later, one son. Sometimes a relative of one of the maids would visit and stay over for the night. The elasticity of the rooms was infinite.

We were “good” to our servants; my mother drilled into me the need to be polite to them. We paid for the medical expenses of their families and made sure their kids went to school. We bought them presents on special occasions and allowed them into the bedroom on Sunday mornings to watch the latest episode of the Ramayana, the televised version of the Hindu epic that was wildly popular in the 1980s.

But when we watched TV together, the servants sat on the floor, while my mother, the “memsahib”, my brother, “baba” and I, “baby” lolled back on the bed or sat crossed legged on chairs.

In all the years our servants worked for us, and they still do at my mother’s home, not once did they sit down at the dining table with us for a meal; not once did we ask them to. We inhabited two different planes of existence, the servants and us, separated by language- we spoke English to each other and Hindi only to the servants- and wholly different choices. While I fretted about whether to choose Cambridge or Oxford in the event of being offered scholarships to both, the table-laying maid, not much older than I was at the time, fretted about whether or not to give in to her husband’s demand for another, fourth child, in the hope of it being a boy. It was.

In China, communism had collapsed the feudal hierarchies that had once created similar parallel worlds between those that served and were served.[1]In Mao’s China landlords lived as peasants and intellectuals did the bidding of the illiterate. This flattening of Chinese society was achieved through force and as the dead light of Mrs Wu’s eyes hinted at when she talked of her past, at a terrible human cost. Yet, in the end it had propelled China into a modernity that seemed an epoch away from the caste-bound, class-enforced social hierarchies that persisted in India.

When I wrote a story along similar lines for a newspaper, friends from Delhi were outraged. How could you write such things about India, they asked me accusingly? “We are good to our servants.”

My story had focussed on differing attitudes on either side of the Himalayas towards the dignity of labour. At the article’s centre were a series of interviews I conducted with neighbourhood toilet cleaners.

Gandhi had identified toilet cleaning as key to revolutionizing society. He stressed repeatedly that in a society’s approach to private and public sanitation lay its commitment to true freedom and dignity. If he were correct in his beliefs, then it was authoritarian China, not democratic India that had in fact achieved self-respect for its citizens my article argued.

My argument was backed up by conversations with sanitation workers like Yu Bao Ping, the cleaner at the public loo in a neighbouring hutong to ours.

The 38-year-old was originally a rice farmer from Anhui province. He moved to Beijing in early 2004 and landed the toilet cleaning job, soon after. He was lucky to have got such a good job in Beijing, he told me. Compared to the backbreaking labor of farming, the toilet business was a cinch. It gave him a stable income of around $100 a month and most importantly, a chance to broaden his horizons in the big city.

Before moving to Beijing he had been afraid of life in a city where he knew no one, but thanks to the toilet he had made many friends. Most of the homes around Yu’s toilet, as in other hutongs, lacked private facilities and so the majority of those in the lane used the communal toilet. “Everyone in this neighbourhood comes through these doors,” Yu said, smiling.

When I said goodbye to Yu Bao Ping, he shook my hand with confidence and invited me to come back a few weeks later. His wife would be joining him soon and he wanted to introduce us. She had apparently never met a foreigner before. I thought of India where in some parts of the country people would still rush off to take a bath if they accidentally touched a bhangi.

I realized that Yu who cleaned out flush toilets with running water performed a function far less degrading than the hundreds of thousands of night soil workers in India who continued manually to handle human refuse on a daily basis. Bhangis in India were identifiable most of all by the smell of shit that clung to them; a smell that never left them as they spent their lives amidst the bacteria of a society that shunned them. Yu Bao Ping was spared this.

But manual cleaning of toilets had a long history in China too and it was only fairly recently that hutong loos had been outfitted with proper plumbing. In my conversations with the toilet cleaners, they all admitted that it was not a stigma-free job.

Lou Ya the cleaner at a toilet near Beijing’s historic Drum Tower said she knew there were people who would view her work with revulsion. Although she had little time for them, “I’m not stealing and I stand my own two feet,” there were moments when Lou wished she didn’t have to spend her days cleaning other people’s “big mess.” But, then she would think about the story of Shi Chuanxiang, take a deep breath and keep going.

I had never heard of Shi Chuanxiang and hurried home to investigate this obviously inspirational figure for toilet cleaners. I discovered that he was one of the “model workers” of communist folklore. Model workers were exemplary figures chosen by the Party from the country’s vast working class; a practice intended to instill in citizens a respect for manual labor.

Shi had spent more than forty years of his life shoveling and carrying human refuse from hole-in-the-ground public bathrooms, when he was designated a “model worker” and subsequently received by Liu Shaoqi the then President, in 1959. He became an idealized figure and people across the country were exhorted to learn from Shi. His story was compulsory reading in elementary schools even today.

What influence it had in today’s China was debatable. Despite having imbibed Shi’s story at a tender age it was obvious that Chinese youngsters were not running off en masse to take up toilet cleaning. The revolutionary fervour that had impelled their parents had long dissipated. In the old China joining the ranks of those who chose to emulate Shi was a way of publicly flagging the volunteer’s correct class credentials. In the new China a platinum credit card was the preferred manner to signal the owners’ participation in the correct class.

By the time I moved to Beijing, China had long emerged from the topsy-turvy vortex of revolution and was well into the process of settling back into a semblance of its class-divided pre-communist days. What was once one of the world’s most equal societies was fast transforming into one of the most unequal.

In Beijing it was common enough to see black toothed construction workers, squatting on their haunches and shoveling plain rice into their mouths, taking shelter from the harsh mid-day sun in the shadow of a BMW.

Powering the motor of China’s showy cities was a vast, underclass of migrants, performing the services and jobs city-folk wrinkled up their noses at. So it was with toilet cleaners. Not one amongst those I interviewed was from Beijing.

But despite all the remerging inequalities of class and circumstance, a little of the dignity that the country’s painful tryst with communism had conferred on labour, persisted.

The stigma attached to cleaning toilets was thus far from visceral. To the toilet attendants I spoke with, it was simply a job; not the best they could have hoped for but preferable nonetheless to many others. Some of the cleaners had worked previously as construction labourers. They were happier mopping the floors of a loo, than sweating away at building sites. One young woman had been a waitress. She quit in favour of the toilet job, because it was less stressful.

I got little sense that these were people condemned to cleaning toilets for life. Lou Ya wanted to be a hairdresser some day. Yu Bao Ping planned to save enough money to return to Anhui with his wife a few years later and start up his own business.

Unlike in India, “servant” in China was more an adjective than a noun. It described a job that someone did rather than defining the essence of who they were.

In part this difference sprang from the fact that servants in China were richer. As I had told Cindy, Li ayi, my maid, made almost $500 a month, more than what many of my students would go on to earn as journalists or white-collar workers in offices. Moreover, all migrants, no matter how poor had rights to a plot of land back in their village and were thus rarely destitute.[2]

But another, equally crucial factor that distinguished the serving classes in India and China was education. Our cook in Delhi was illiterate, as were almost half of all Indian women. By contrast Li ayi was a middle-school graduate and during the Cultural Revolution had even taught at a village primary school for a few years. Yu Bao Ping, the toilet cleaner, had two years of high school behind him.

In 2003, only 68 percent of Indians over the age of 15 were categorized as literate compared to 95 percent for China. .[3]Female illiteracy rates in China were around 13 percent compared to well over 50 percent in India. [4]This was despite the fact that in India the definition of literacy was much less stringent, often restricted to the mere ability to write one’s name. In China by contrast, being counted as literate required the ability to write 1,500 characters.

The systematic denial of an education to women or those of certain castes was one of the most insidious atrocities that a society could commit against its own people. Perpetuated over generations it robbed those discriminated against of a belief in their own worth as human beings. Illiteracy deprived people of their ability to function independently and narrowed their choices to the point where bondage was often the only option.

It was perhaps the greatest failing of the Indian government that it had been unable to ensure a basic education for close to 300 million of its citizens.

In China the Party for all its autocratic, power-clinging tendencies had done a far better job than democratic India in ensuring an education for its people.

Moreover, the communist revolution had ensured that everyone of a certain generation had cleaned toilets and swept floors. The new rich that drove Mercedes and vacationed in Paris had parents that had scrubbed and washed as much as my ayi did today.

Youngsters like my students would talk of the suffering their parents endured during Mao’s reign and the fact that they themselves were spared the same trials with open relief. But even though servant’s work was for them something to be avoided, they were aware that the line separating them from it was far from inviolable, it had been crossed only a generation ago.

In India, the same line was thick, almost sacred, its solidity preventing identification between those on either side and thus reinforcing their separation.

Not all the credit for the comparative fluidity of this line in China belonged to communism. China had historically been a more egalitarian society than India. [5]The examinations to the imperial civil services for example were theoretically open to anyone, underpinned by the idea that merit rather than birth was the correct criterion by which to determine a person’s future.

It was in the absence of caste that the original seeds of the relative social mobility in China, lay. Caste’s boundary walls in India had always been higher and more forbidding than those of class in China.

Mr Wu’s wise investments in hutong homes had ensured that his son was amongst those quickly scaling up the class ladder. At twenty seven, little Wu, as his parents affectionately referred to him was the embodiment of a “little emperor,” an over-indulged, only child.

Every penny that Mr Wu scrimped to save over the years was spent on giving his son the opportunities he himself was denied. Thus Mr Wu rode a moped but gave his son a spanking white Fiat to drive around in. Our courtyard was rented out in the son’s name and the money earned in rent spent on the construction of another, more elaborate siheyuan that would be little Wu’s to live in, once ready.

Little Wu had no job or income of his own. His parents told us he was studying English and often urged him to practice his linguistic skills with us. He never did. “Oh little Wu is a shy boy,” his mother would explain in embarrassment at his inability or unwillingness.

While Mr Wu rushed around the house, unflagging in his energy for stoppering leaks, little Wu, who often accompanied him, usually took a turn on the hammock chair we had out in the courtyard.

He snapped out of his lethargy on the occasions he caught his mother whispering to us about her suffering during the Cultural Revolution. “Why do you always have to bring up boring history?” he would snap, “especially in front of foreigners? Why do you give foreigners a bad impression of China?”

One day as the Wu family was about to leave, the latest plumbing crisis successfully resolved, Mr Wu asked Julio for a favour. “You’ve seen little Wu drive,” he said chattily. We had indeed and Julio nodded in acknowledgement. “He’s a very good driver,” continued Mr Wu, “Perhaps your embassy could hire him as a driver?”

It was difficult to judge who looked more flabbergasted, Julio or little Wu.

1 It should be kept in mind however that in classic communist style while everyone was equal in Mao’s China, some were more equal than others. Thus while feudal hierarchies might have been flattened, new party-based hierarchies of power and privilege took their place. For an account of the luxury and corruption that characterized Mao’s own “imperial court” see an excellent account by his personal physician: Li Zhisui, The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The inside story of the man who made modern China, Chatto & Windus, 1994

2These land rights were however use rights rather than ownership rights. Following the break up of the “people’s communes,” the early 80s saw a household responsibility system implemented in the countryside. Under this system while all land remained collectively owned, individual households were given long-term

3 World Development Indicators, 2005, World Bank.

4 However it should also be kept in mind that matters in India have improved sharply over the last decade with recent drives to improve education beginning to pay off. For example, of the 200 million children in the 6-14 year age group about 42 million were not in school in 2000. However, following a drive to bring them back initiated by the government in 2005 this number fell to 9.5 million – See Ahya Chetan, Xie Andy, Roach Stephen, Sheth Mihir and Yam Denise, India and China: New Tigers of Asia Part-II, Morgan Stanley Reserach, 2006 pp36. Again while only some 48 percent of adult women in India were literate, the figures for female youth literacy were a full 20 percentage points higher at 68 percent pointing to significant improvements. See: Lawson Sandra, Heacock David R, Stupnytska Anna, BRICs Monthly Report, Goldman Sachs, June 12, 2007

5 See Kuhn P., Chinese Views of Social Classification, in Watson J. (Ed), Class and Social Stratification in post-revolution China, Cambridge, 1984

There are currently 11 Comments for Mr Wu and Family, by Pallavi Aiyar.

Comments on Mr Wu and Family, by Pallavi Aiyar

--"a university educated, obviously well-off young girl finding a job as a maid for HER MOTHER as a millionaire landlord fixing toilets"?

Oh come on! Whats wrong with that? Why almost "as improbable" to this Indian lady? I guess Indian are real snobbish people.


I believe that is exactly the point Ms Aiyar is making.

If the book is more of the same, it looks to be a courageous and insightful personal journey. Thanks for highlighting it, Danwei.

Of course, it will be angrily, derisively shouted down by both Indian and Chinese "patriots" -- e.g. hgao's comments above.


It seems to me the point is somewhat more ambiguous. We don't have much information about the two specific cases mentioned above (the student asking for a job as a domestic helper for her mother + the millionaire landlord who fixed the toilets in his buildings), so let me present you with what I consider to be two extremes:

I know some people here in Shenzhen who think nothing of letting their parents work as domestic helpers while they buy fashionable clothes, visit the cinema and loiter at Starbucks. I also know others whose parents don't work and can't even be bothered to get beer for themselves, who sleep in their children's beds while their children sleep on the sofas of the one-bedroom apartments their meager salaries pay for. It's not that they have nowhere else to go. They could just have their kids send money home, if that's what they wanted.

Personally, it would make me uncomfortable to impose myself on either my parents or children in this way. Admittedly, many (and perhaps most) cases may well be more ambiguous, but I feel reasonably confident referring to the ones I just mentioned as examples of exploitation.

Here's hoping this excerpt from Ms Aiyar's book provokes a little more introspection in its readers than exhibited by the first commenter.

Heck, I know someone who employed their own extended family members as ayi's. Their philosophy is why not keep the money in the family, and give their relatives a chance to move to the city? Perhaps that shows that Chinese are nothing if not practical.

Hi everyone,
There's the full IHT review of her book up on my blog.!DFE95C9AB5B43908!993.entry

Communism did shatter China's sense of class but the inequality gap is increasing and I believe that that sense of class - how one group can be inherently superior than the other - is coming back. The middle class is becoming more rich while the peasants are being left behind from the economic revolution, both politicall socially and economically.

I haven't read this book so I don't know how accurate IHT review reflected on its agenda. Nonetheless, the reviewer, who obviously is a Dalai lama fangirl, uses (or extrapolates) the authors rather peculiar personal perspective as an indictment to the Chinese society. The reviewer's tiring line of poverty-under-democracy-always-better-than-amplitude-under-nondemocracy sounds more like certain political mantra during the culture revolution. The reviewer takes transparent delight in the mutual disdain between Indians and Chinese, or more accurately, the Indian jealousy towword China. But then again, it's not surprising given the general Western attitude toward China these days. As for the book tittle, I wouldn't be surprised that an average beggar in India would rather have the "smoke and mirrors" than staying destitute.

Every one is equal in China, just some are rich, some are poor. There are people who are looked down upon, but those are the ones carry out illegal stuff, like prostitutes, or pimps. My mother is a doctor, after the retirement, she is bored, she is seeking to be a babysitter as she loves kids and I don't have any yet.

Well i havent read the book but few days back glanced thru some of its pages. Then i came across danwei. I bel India and China r going to be the most powerful and developed in years to come. but the so called differentiator element wld alwayz be thr..A china cant becme India and India cant be a these contrasts act as catalysts towards providing the energy to go on and beat the west in its own game...cheers !

An technical slight fault. about the definition of literacy. In Chinese, characters make up words, the most frequently used characters are not more than 3,000. The most popular Chinese dictionary, Xinhua Dictionary only contain 10,000 charactors. So with 1,500 characters, you can understand most of the newspaper, write letters and express yourself efficiently.

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