“I grew up in an extreme Communist family in the Eighties. We were never from money. My grandfather never cared about material things,” she says, apparently unaware that one could find irony in that statement given that the Wans enjoyed state-supported luxury. Now 92, and long retired, Wan Li continues to rank as one of the most recognizable political figures in China after Mao and Deng Xiaoping.
Wan’s nostalgia for her youth ebbs and flows. She speaks fondly of delightful autumns and a loving home life but abhors some deep-seated traditional mores, particularly those regarding the position of women in Chinese society. Girls, especially those from affluent families, are still groomed for marriage rather than encouraged to have careers and pick their own partners. “I live in Asia, where girls peak in their 20s, then they are picked by the men for marriage, and a woman’s life is over. I f---ing hate it,” she says. She has always seen fashion as a way of rebelling against such rigidity.
Perhaps ironically, then, she seems conflicted about the way in which China’s explosive economy has transformed its social dynamic. “Luxury goods are used to upgrade a person’s class,” she says, noting almost wistfully that before, one had to take the time to get to know someone before determining his or her station in life. Still, such change is inevitable—and she’s rolling with it in typically contradictory fashion. “If you want to survive in the modern world,” Wan says, “you better adapt to it rather than fight it.”