BEIJING â€" Chinese people watching American television series are exposed to an enviable image of an average middle class American family. Bound for a leafy neighborhood in the suburbs, a Chevrolet leaves the bustling city and rolls into the driveway of a wooden home on a quiet street. Two or three kids are playing on the lawn, and an elegant woman walks outside to give a hug and kiss to her man on coming home.
Like their peers in America, China also features a demographic that is well-educated, works a stable job and has a family. They own their own hous, possess strong expertise and professionalism, and have a certain household spending power.
According to Wacai.com, an online banking platform, in China, a person classified as middle class is an adult under 45 years old, with invested financial assets of between 150,000 and 2 million RMB ($22,000 to $299,000), whose food spending accounts for less than 30% of total household expenditure. Itâ€™s estimated that China currently has 180 million such people, accounting for 13% of its population.
However, when it comes down to real life, many of Chinaâ€™s middle class feel that they are far behind their U.S. peers, who seem to be enjoying their lives in a much more leisurely way.
One recent Chinese post on the Internet said: "I'm a white-collar city person. I'm called middle class and I have a life many others envy. Yet I'm always anxious. I worry that I may be laid off tomorrow. Though I am healthy today, will I become poor if I have a serious illness one day? How much further can I climb up? And who will support my old age? One big-scale layoff, a possible pay cut, a fluctuation of the stock market, an adjustment of the tax rate or even just the housing subsidy fund can keep me up at night."
In a traditional definition, "middle class" means the part of population midway up the social pyramid. They are those who are mostly engaged in white-collar work, and are well-educated, with a stronger vocational ability, as well as corresponding household purchasing power. They also have more time to pursue leisure activities and travel associated with an elevated "quality of life."
Among all these measures, the pursuit of leisure is probably the most unattainable. Today in China, social resources are certainly not concentrated in the hands of the middle class, but the middle class are trapped between the upper and lower classes. In other words, it's a zero-sum game in which the middle class strive in an extremely intense competition, and try desperately hard to climb the ladder of success at risk of sliding down to the bottom of society.
Compared with a decade ago when middle-class Chinese were significantly better off than the working class, and were able to enjoy more leisure time, as the Chinese economy developed these people are gradually losing what they used to have.
Due to the slowdown of the Chinese economy and the tightening of various government policies, the majority of China's middle class are transiting from a leisured class to a group who mostly find themselves working overtime. The pressure comes from mortgages, education costs, health care, social security and rising living expenses, limiting free time and extending working hours to make ends meet.
There are pertinent questions raised by Japanese economist and corporate strategist Kenichi Ohmae in his M-Form Society theory, referring to a polarized society with extreme rich and extreme poor: Does your housing loan create tremendous pressure? Do you dare not get married or raise children because of your economic situation? Do you worry for your childrenâ€™s education? As long as your answer of one of these questions is yes, then you are not a bonafide member of the middle class, but what we call the "sandwich class."
Root of anxiety
By some estimates, to be a Chinese middle class not facing constant stress, one must have cash deposits of at least 5.5 million RMB ($822,000). This is not at all realistic for most of those who nonetheless think of themselves as middle-income.
But when you ask them, they are indeed worried about the potential spending in the years to come: childrenâ€™s education, savings for medical care and a pension, the cost of their childrenâ€™s marriage, personal career training, as well as car or house replacement.
China is the world's largest developing country, and as such lacks of fully established welfare state. Most daily needs are to be assumed by families themselves and thus a serious illness or an incident in life can suddenly make people very vulnerable.
For China, a stable middle class will be the key in determining whether the country will move towards a consumption-driven society that achieves social stability. It will be imperative to improve the welfare system and social security so that most working people are truly well-off, able to enjoy leisure time and dare to partake in the national consumption that can form the countyâ€™s backbone.
With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.
When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.
And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.
Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan
The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan
According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.
In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.
The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.
Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.
View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA
Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!
The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.
Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.
Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain
Old Belchite, Spain
Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…
That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.
Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.
If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.
Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan
Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.
The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.
Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."
Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.
Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden
The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden
After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).
Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.
Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia
Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia
During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.
Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.
Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy
Poveglia Island, Italy
Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).
During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.
In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.
Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.
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