photo of Chinese woman northeast and southwest China
China glossary

Diao’er; Fen; Cuiping; Suping

(CHINA 38 - Northeast)


F; F; F; F


28; ?; 34; ?




Longtang, Huanglongsi, Hebei


August 1997



Through the introduction of the elderly secretary, we came to Diao’er’s family home. She is a young woman, married. Her husband is currently working in a city and she is staying at home with her little daughter. Her house looks a bit old and shabby and things inside are not in good order. While we were talking, her neighbours came in, and so it became a group interview.

Section 1
Is your first name Diao’er?
Diao’er: Yes that’s what my family calls me. My original name is Jincui.

How old are you?
Diao’er: I was born in 1969.

Do you have any schooling?
Diao’er: Not much schooling. My family was too poor to send me to school. I had to quit before I could finish the second year of primary school.

How difficult was it?
Diao’er: There are altogether seven children, I am the fifth child. Before me there is one brother and three sisters, and after me there is one brother and a sister.

Did they all go to school?
Diao’er: My first two elder sisters have never been to school; they had to work to earn work points (points gained for working hours under collectivisation; these entitled people to a share of the produce farmed collectively) to help support the family. My elder brother finished junior middle school, so did my younger sister. My younger brother did not go on after he finished the primary school.

When did you get married?
Diao’er: When I was 22. My child is now four. I gave birth to her two years after I got married.

Just one daughter? Don’t you want a son?
Diao’er: No, I do not want another child. I think it would be too much of a burden. It is better to have only one child.

How about your mother-in-law and your husband? Do they want to have a son?
Diao’er: They (her husband’s family) said nothing, nor my husband. No one forced me to have another child… a son.
Section 2
What’s your husband’s name? How much schooling does he have?
Diao’er: His name is Jianqing, he is two years older than I am. He is a middle school graduate. Now he is working on a construction site in Baoding City. A few years ago he worked in Sichuan Province with my sister’s family.

Did you have betrothal gifts when you got married? Is there a custom for this?
Diao’er: We didn’t buy much, just two pieces of furniture, a sewing machine, a bicycle and a record player. This colour TV set was given to us by his family after we got married. My husband is the only son, and he was adopted.

How is the relationship with your mother-in-law’s family?
Diao’er: Not very good. Actually the problems are not from my husband’s family, but from the relatives. They step in whenever something happens. They always accuse us of not treating my parents-in-law well enough, always try to find fault with us. Sometimes I feel so disturbed and angry I go back to my mother’s home for a few days, which is not far, in the same village. You can tell this is not a comfortable home, the house is shabby and often the rain leaks in. Moreover I cannot even cook when it rains, for the brick stove is in the yard. So I have to go back to my mother for meals when it rains.

How much money did you spend for your marriage?
Diao’er: Just a few thousand, about 3000 yuan.

How much do you need to get married now?
Diao’er: Must be about 10,000. My brother spent 17,000 for his wedding. His wife is from Mancheng, near the county town. It is the custom that you have to have colour TV, record player, washing machine, electronic fan, bicycle etc.

How are you getting on with you mother-in-law?
Diao’er: Not very good - after all, my husband is her adopted son. When I first came to this family I really tried my best to treat them as my own parents. I would not say a word even when I was not in a good mood. That’s also one of the reasons why I do not want to have another child. My husband is often the one who suffers wrongs. When my parents-in-law’s nephews or nieces come, they drive him out.

Will others talk behind your parents’-in-law [back] because they do not have a son of their own?
Diao’er: No, others will say nothing.

When did you come to live by yourselves?
Diao’er: When my daughter was one year old.

Who raised the issue of dividing up?
Diao’er: Actually I did [not] want to do this, so the first three times when the question was put forward, I did not agree. We were afraid that other villagers might blame us for not being filial; for trying to avoid the responsibility of taking care of the elders because my husband is an adopted son. My husband knelt down to beg them not to divide up the family, otherwise others would laugh at us, but they insisted. So we had to.
Section 3
Then you were given this old house?
Diao’er: Yes.

How about the land?
Diao’er: It was also divided up. Both take care of their own share. They are not so old, still strong enough to take care of themselves. My mother-in-law is only 50 and father-in-law only 60. Otherwise we would not have agreed to live apart.

Do all the young people go to live apart after they get married?
Diao’er: No, here the family won’t break up if there is only one son in the family. Usually families with several sons will divide up [and live separately].

How do people provide for the old?
Diao’er: Give them whatever they need.

Do you know that a daughter also has the right of inheritance according to the law to protect the rights and benefits of women and children?
Diao’er: No, we don’t. No one ever told us. We only know that sons can inherit the property; we do not know that daughters can also go back to their mother’s home asking for a share. Also this has never happened here.

How did you arrange your land in your mother’s home after you got married?
Diao’er: I used to be in team Two. When I got married, my share of the land was handed back to the team and was given to others, and I was given a new share from the team I belong to now.

How are you getting along with your husband’s relatives?
Diao’er: Not so good.

Who will you go to if you meet difficulties?
Diao’er: Mostly relatives from my mother’s family will come to help. Relatives on his side are not so friendly to us. If something happened they would drive us out, sometimes they even beat us. When that happened I used to be so upset that I even lost the hope of life.

Does your husband know his natural parents?
Diao’er: Yes, they are living in a village not far from here on the mountain. Not long ago his natural mother came down for a visit. I cooked a meal for her. My mother-in-law does not want to see anyone from that family, nor was she happy to see us have contact with them. So after his natural mother left, my mother-in-law made a fuss with me.

Are your husband’s natural family and his adopted family relatives?
Diao’er: No. At that time his natural family was very poor and his natural father was ill. Besides, there were several sons in the family, so they agreed to have my husband adopted.
Section 4
How much income do you have a year?
Diao’er: Not much, at most about 2,000 yuan.

What does this income include?
Diao’er: The small sum of money he earns by working at other places. I stay at home to take care of the child while working in the field. The harvest is just enough for our food. Besides some rice, we do not need to spend money on food.

Besides growing crops, what else do you do?
Diao’er: Nothing else. I have little spare time. I have to make clothes and shoes for the child.

Who will you ask for help in the busy season?
Diao’er: Usually my father and my brother. My sister is also in this village. Sometimes she also comes to help.

Have you ever thought of asking for a loan? If you could get it what would you like to do?
Diao’er: I did think about it, but I have never asked. Do business? It won’t do because I have no special skills. Even to raise pigs and rabbits you need skills. Without skills you cannot be successful. What should I do if I failed and could not pay back the loan? So I dare not ask for a loan.

From whom do you borrow money?
Diao’er: Who else but my mother’s family? Or we can go to the neighbours. But unless very necessary we won’t borrow money from others. My husband can earn some by working outside. And the child is small, we do not need much.

She starts to go to school this year. Will you need money for that?
Diao’er: Exactly. The new term has just started. Already we have handed in 90 yuan, half a year’s tuition. Still I have to buy notebooks for her.
[The neighbours came and joined us.]

What do women usually do in your village?
Diao’er: Mostly they are working in the fields. Since almost all the men have left the village with only the old and the young at home, all work in the fields is left to women. Now men who go out are trying to find jobs through someone they know. Otherwise they cannot get the money for their work.

Just now I asked what would you do if you could get the loan?
Suping: I would raise some sheep, and some rabbits.

Is there anyone who grows vegetables to sell?
Suping: It won’t work, for every family grows vegetables of their own. No one would buy vegetables. Besides, it is too far from Mancheng to ship the vegetables there. I think it is better for women in our village to raise rabbits or do some handicrafts.
[Another woman joined us: Fen. She has poor hearing, so we had to speak loudly for her to hear.]
Section 5
Hi, what’s your name?
Fen: My name’s Fen. I am fourth, born in the year of the rooster. I did not finish middle school because my family was poor at that time. I started to work in the field when I was 16 or 17 and I earned six work points a day (points gained for working hours under collectivisation; these entitled people to a share of the produce farmed collectively). My granny became widowed at the age of only 27. She raised my father and my uncle and two aunts by begging. My uncle went to join the army at 18 and died within a hundred days after he went into the army. My mother married my father at the age of 17, while my father was 20. My granny treated my mother like her own daughter. My mother gave birth to four daughters and I am the youngest. When I was only about one year old my mother died, at the age of 27. My granny was both the granny and the mother, and my father was also the mother. Life was really hard for us then. Though the government gave us the pension for my uncle that did not help much. Now my father is living with us. He is so very happy to see my two sons. I got married at the age of 23.

How much income do you have?
Fen: There isn’t much you can get from the land by growing crops. We planted some fruit trees, but this year’s drought ruined them all.
Suping: You can only plant certain kinds of fruit trees such as apricot or peach, and they are all on the hill where there is no water.

[To Fen] Is your husband also working away from the village?
Fen: He works at a workshop making bricks. He doesn’t earn much money. I am the only one to work in the field. It is down to me to sow seed in spring, it is me to harvest in autumn. My father is raising a sheep. He is getting on in years, so I also have to help him. This year the ewe gave birth to six lambs. I have to work in the field as well as at home. It is a lot of hard work.

Do you buy chemical fertiliser or accumulate natural manure?
Suping: We mostly depend on natural manure. Who can afford to buy chemical fertiliser which is very expensive since we have little income a year? It would not be a bad year if we could earn 2000 yuan.

What are women's major works all year round?
Suping: Spring is the time to get the land ready, and to prune the trees. Then it is time for sowing. As the seedlings come up, the hoeing starts. We need to hoe several times, and then there is the time for spreading manure and also watering. When there is a drought we have to shoulder (carry) water up to the field. That is the most exhausting work. Autumn is the busy season for harvesting. After harvesting we still have to make the land ready again for planting winter wheat. With the end of the planting of wheat, the work in the field comes to an end.
But even in winter we women cannot have a rest. We have to go up the mountains to collect firewood. In order to save some money on coal, we need to get firewood. Often we collect enough firewood for the whole year during the winter time. That will keep us busy till just a few days before the Spring Festival (major national festival every January or February, depending on the lunar calendar). Then it is time to prepare for the New Year, killing a pig, preserving the meat to make it last for the whole year. Life is hard and exhausting for us women all the year round. We are not afraid of hardship. The key problem is we do not have the money to start with. If the government can allocate us funds, we will certainly make good use of the money for a good start to get rid of the poverty.
Fen: Now whatever you do it costs money. If you have someone to water the land, it costs 14 yuan (for the electricity) for just one hour. Work in the fields is heavy, so you need a son. And things will be especially difficult if you do not have anyone who cares for you in the leading group of the village. My family do not have any relatives among the [village] leaders, so good things never come to us.
Diao’er: Even using the water from the reservoir costs 6 yuan an hour. This year we spent about 200 yuan watering the land.
Suping: A large part of the money that men earn by working in other places has to be spent on things like that. So life is still hard. It is by no means easy for those men who leave home to work in cities. Sometimes they worked for a whole year but came home empty-handed. They were cheated and dared not to ask for what they should be given.
Section 6
Do you have any entertainment in the village, such as watching television?
Suping: We women have so much work to do - how can we afford the time to watch TV?

Did you join the yanggee dancing (popular rural folk dance) last year during the Spring Festival?
Suping: People here in the mountains are still feudal-minded (old-fashioned); they feel embarrassed to dance in front of others. There are few cultural activities in the village.
Fen: I like reading. Would you please bring me some books next time you come, such as books about breeding? I also like stories.
Suping: Breeding livestock needs a lot of money, such as pigs, which is more than 20 yuan a kg. That is beyond ordinary people.

How about social order?
Fen: There are all kinds of people. A few days ago, my father was cheated of several hundred yuan. A piece of big rock fell down from the hillside, fell on our donkey and killed it. My father took the dead donkey to the market to sell it. He got 600 yuan. However, on his way home, he met a young man by the road holding a little statue of Buddha. The man said it was a golden statue worth a thousand yuan. He was urgently in need of money so he could sell it to my father at a lower price. My father believed his words and bought the statue with all the money he had. But when he got home and showed it to others he learnt it was only a bronze one which was worth nothing. My father was so furious that he has had a relapse with his asthma.
Section 7
Is there anyone who believes in Buddhism and goes to burn joss sticks in the temple?
Diao’er: No one really believes in Buddhism, but there are people who burn joss sticks. There is a temple down there and every first and 15th days of the lunar month there will be people in the temple to burn joss sticks.

Where do villagers go to see a doctor when they fall ill?
Suping: Now someone is running a clinic in the village. But for ordinary people the medicines are too expensive. One dosage of medicine for a cold will cost a little less than 1 yuan. One saline infusion is 20 yuan.
Diao’er: My daughter was ill and I took her to the clinic in Gaoshizhuang. The infusion treatment alone cost us 500 yuan. Most of the money her father brought home was spent on the treatment. But the child was ill and there was no other choice.

What are the common ailments among women?
Suping: Most women suffer from some illness because of overworking, such as aching back and legs, and women’s diseases are more common. The worst thing is we usually cannot get treatment.

Do you have regular checks during pregnancy?
Diao’er: Very rarely. No one takes it seriously even after half a year of pregnancy, not to mention having checks every two months.

Usually where do women give birth to babies?
Diao’er: At home, and no one helps with the delivery. I delivered my baby without any help. I just found a piece of thread to tie up the umbilical cord. The scissors were not sterilised.
Suping: The same with me. When I gave birth to my son, my husband was still working in the city. He didn’t come back. Now there is a clinic women can go to for a birth. But that will cost a few dozen yuan. People feel reluctant to spend that money. And there is no special food for the woman lying-in (following the birth). If the family has chickens then maybe she can have some eggs; otherwise she won’t spend money to buy eggs. It will be considered especially good if there are some dry noodles for her. Thinking about this makes me cry. Life is too hard for us women living in the mountains. Until the last moment before giving birth women are still labouring in the fields.

Will there be any difference in the treatment between giving birth to a boy and a girl?
All: No difference.

What are the natural disasters you often have?
All: Drought, flood, hailstorm and windstorm.

Are there any mineral resources here?
All: Not that we know of. We really hope you can help us set up some projects, such as handicraft processes. We are eager to change the poor conditions.
Section 8
What do you most hope for?
Suping: To find ways to get rid of poverty. Of course, the most practical way I think is livestock breeding. So we can make money while taking care of the family. It is not likely for us to go out [to find work elsewhere]. I want to learn the skills that are necessary for breeding.

Have you realised any benefits of your place?
All: Benefits? Yes, fresh air, that is good for your health. And people here are warm-hearted.

Any inconveniences?
All: First of all, we have to climb up and down the hills all the time. That is really very tiring. That also makes it hard to transport goods if you want to do business. Even going to see a doctor is difficult. Being confined in the mountains makes me feel so restrained. How nice it would be if I could have a chance to go out to have a look at the outside world.

What do you wish your children will do in the future?
All: Make them study hard so that they can leave this poor mountain area. We were born here and were raised up here. And we have to stay here. We often tell our children, “See what a hard life we are living. You should not have the same life like us.”

What are the happiest things for you?
Diao’er: Happiness? None, we have to toil all year round and still not have enough to eat.

Are there any craftsmen or people with special skills?
Diao’er: No.

When did you get electricity?
All: About 11 years ago. Now every family has a meter. It is about half a yuan for each kwh.

[To Cuiping] What’s your name and how about your family?
Cuiping: I am Cuiping, now 34. I have two children, a boy and a girl. My husband is also working outside the village. The year before last we bought a tricycle motor on a loan. It took us about 7000 yuan to buy it. I cannot leave home - with our parents to help, I have to take care of the family. It is not easy work to do transportation [of goods using the motorised tricycle?]. Sometimes I gave my husband a hand. Once we were caught by heavy rain on our way and were stuck there. Luckily there was a family nearby who were kind enough to let us take shelter in their house. At that time I thought life was too hard. Even now when I think about it I feel like crying.

Who is the decisionmaker at home nowadays?
All: Both the husband and the wife. Usually the couple will talk things over. Women have the say on daily routine. But on things of importance, such as building a house or purchasing a vehicle, it is men who have the final say.
Section 9
To change these backward conditions what do you think should be done first?
All: Of course the building of roads. Then to develop breeding [livestock]. With the money you can have a vehicle, and that makes it possible to ship your goods out of the mountains to sell them directly without being exploited by the dealers. Planting fruit trees is also a good way to get rid of poverty.

Will your husbands come back to help in the busy seasons?
All: Usually not. It is not easy working outside. They are afraid the bosses will be reluctant to give them leave, and they are afraid that they will earn less money. Usually they are working at places not far from home. Every two months or so they can come back for a while, help in the fields and then hurry back.

What kind of women do you think are good women?
All: Capable women are good. Women who can keep good relationships with others, women who take good care of their children and who are filial to the old.

What does it mean when people say a woman is wild?
All: [It means] not knowing her place, running out all the time, not taking good care of her family.

If a woman is out doing business, will she be considered wild?
Suping: No, for she is out for business, not anything dishonest. If I could I would go out and do business myself.

What kind of TV programmes and newspaper do you like?
Fen: I like reading newspapers, and am concerned about what is happening in the outside world. I also like watching news and stories, like Kung fu movies.
Diao’er: I have little schooling and cannot read newspapers. I just hope that my child can become somebody and live a better life.