photo of Chinese woman northeast and southwest China
family life

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introducing the china collections

gender in the northeast collection

 key testimonies
 gender in the southwest collection

Apart from one interview in which a woman's husband joins in, all of the narrators are women. The collection therefore primarily illustrates women's experiences and their perspectives on development in their area. All were asked whether sons and daughters were treated differently and about people's reactions to the birth of a boy or a girl. Nearly all stressed that there was no difference in feeling towards or treatment of their sons and daughters. However, one narrator (Qiaoyun, China 39) does admit that people "will feel a bit disappointed if they have two daughters because no more kids are allowed".

Despite this apparent equality at birth, women's and men's experiences differ significantly at the time of marriage. Several women interviewed had no choice when it came to their marriage arrangements. One was "sold" to the village by marriage brokers (a practice now outlawed in China) and another was 'exchanged' into the family of her brother's wife. Divorce is rare, it seems, but not unheard of. One woman (China 40) describes how she was persuaded from divorcing her husband, even though he was beating her, because it would have meant having to split her children up; one belonging to her and one to him. After deciding not to divorce her husband she received support from the production brigade who "came to make peace between us and criticised him [for drinking]".

Husband and wife Qiaoyun and Youngchun (China 39) were both active during the period of collectivisation introduced by the Communist party in the 1950s, when people worked collectively, and produce was shared out according to the size of a household as well as work points earned. Qiaoyun and her husband talk openly about their participation in tasks traditionally done by the opposite sex. Qiaoyun explains, "When we were hoeing with the men I didn't fall behind them. I also did ploughing at that time, which was usually men's work." Her husband helped in the home: "We shared the housework. I cooked while he looked after the kids." Youngchun also helped his wife during childbirth, and is skilled in stitching shoes and knitting. However, despite this sharing of roles their work was not equally rewarded. Several narrators say men could always earn more work points even if they worked on the same task for the same amount of time: "Men could earn 10 work points if they went to work from the early morning. But for women, they could only earn eight work points if they went work from early morning" (China 36).

The commune system was replaced by the household responsibility system in 1978. Then came China's economic reforms, and gender roles at the village level shifted again. Left in the village to manage the household and farming tasks while their husbands went to work in the cities, women became responsible for many day-to-day issues and decisions. There are even examples of women taking the future into their own hands and contracting a mountain slope for cultivation. In one instance, a group of friends combined forces to take on this task without consulting their husbands. However, there are comments which suggest that it is men who still make the major household decisions, even though they spend most of their time outside Huanglongsi.

The testimonies do suggest that women's lives are not easy. Several narrators emphasise that women have a "hard life". They have a heavy workload; bear responsibility for farm, household and children; have limited health facilities; and in some instances are living away from their own family and support networks. Social norms remain powerful, and relationships with their in-laws are important. When asked what makes a "good woman", several narrators agree: "Women who can keep good relationships with others, women who take good care of their children and who are filial to the old" (China 38).

One woman (Junrong, China 39) reflects on how the men go out from the village to earn their money and comments: "…women are somehow confined. They work at home, take care of the kids, while managing to raise some domestic animals to earn money. They are shouldering a heavy burden." One interview is distinguished by its energy and sense of optimism and achievement - the one with the village head (China 30). Her position and experiences cannot be considered typical of the other villagers, and there is a sense that both she and her interviewers are presenting her as a sort of heroine to inspire the other women.

quotes about gender

"At first there were gossips saying 'She depends on her face, not her wits, at her work.' I didn't care at all. I am honest and act squarely, so I am not afraid of gossip. It is very difficult for women to do something significant. However, the more difficult it is, the more excited and happier you will feel when you succeed. I always say to myself, 'I cannot have my life as plain as water. I must have my goals and achievements.'"
Fengying, F/40, village head, China 30

"Both the husband and the wife [are the family decisionmakers]. Usually the couple will discuss 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."
All, F, China 38

"Here in most cases the woman goes to live in her husband's family after her marriage. Then she won't inherit the property of her parents, and vice versa. I mean if the man goes to live in his wife's family, he won't inherit from his own family. The wife will get the inheritance from her parents."
Fengying, F/40, village head, China 30

"Both of us [took charge of household affairs]. We talked it over. He made decisions on major events, and I made decisions on smaller matters… When we had a major event, he usually discussed it with me."
Shuqing, F/62, China 34

"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 chicken then maybe she can have some eggs; otherwise she won't spend money to buy eggs… 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."
Suping, F/?, China 38

"There is a [village] woman who is no more than 30. She is an ambitious woman working in Beijing. She has a job there and is learning to drive. She wants to settle down there. She said she won't get married until she buys a house of her own… We admire her for her ambition and ability.
Junrong, F/36, China 39

"…being a woman one should have self-esteem, should have aims and goals... The most important thing is that a woman should never rely on her husband to support her. Only when a woman is economically independent can she have her say in family. Once you set your goal, you should work hard and stick to it. We women are not at all inferior to men."
Fengying, F/40, village head, China 30

"[A daughter having the right of inheritance?] No, we don't [know about that]. No one ever told us. We only know that sons can inherit the property…[not] that daughters can also go back to their mother's home asking for a share. Also this has never happened here."
Diao'er, F/28, China 38

"I'm never discouraged by having daughters instead of sons. I don't think that sons are better than daughters. I have daughters so I place my hopes on them; if I had sons I would do the same."
Cuiying, F/41, China 33

key testimonies featuring gender

  No.   Name   Sex/Age   Occupation   Location  
Summary Transcript   30   Fengying   Female/40   Village head of Huanglongsi   Huanglongsi, Hebei  
Summary Transcript   31   Shuling   Female/40   Farmer   Longtang, Huanglongsi, Hebei  
Summary Transcript   32   Shuling (L); Dong’er (D); Xiaoyan (X)   F/40; F/26; F/31   Farmers   Longtang, Huanglongsi, Hebei  
Summary Transcript   33   Cuiying   Female/41   Farmer   Longtang, Huanglonsi, Hebei  
Summary Transcript   34   Shuqing   Female/62   Farmer   Huanglongsi, Hebei  
Summary Transcript   35   Li and Erfa   F/29; M/30   farmer, contract plasterer   Huanglongsi, Hebei  
Summary Transcript   36   Sumei   Female/62   Farmer   Huanglongsi, Hebei  
Summary Transcript   37   Nan; Xumei; Yanling   F/31; F/58; F/?   Farmers   Beiwan, Huanglongsi, Hebei  
Summary Transcript   38   Diao’er; Fen; Cuiping; Suping   F/28; F/?; F/34; F/?   Farmers   Longtang, Huanglongsi, Hebei  
Summary Transcript   39   Qiaoyun; Youngchun; Junrong   F/65; M/74; F/36   Farmers   Huanglongsi, Hebei  
Summary Transcript   40   Fengxian   Female/?   Petty-trader; previously nanny   Huanglongsi, Hebei