photo of Chinese woman northeast and southwest China
employment and income

community activities
culture and customs
family life
food security
social change
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culture and customs
family life
social change

introducing the china collections

economics in the southwest collection

 key testimonies
 economics in the northeast collection

While the general consensus is that people are better off than they were (the oldest narrators tell harrowing stories of the hunger and poverty of their childhoods), there is some difference in living standards. The more remote communities seem to be poorer. In the village of Fale, for example, one narrator says: "We don't have sheds and so the livestock are wandering around everywhere. You cannot control them. In summer, each family's livestock are tied outside by the door…We just have … no money to build the sheds." (China 26). By contrast, a Miao doctor (China 12) describes her home village: "The place has undergone many changes. There's not one family without pigsties and pens, and even the [animal] pens are built of tiles. No family lives in a thatched bamboo hut now." She attributes much of the new wealth to the growing of tobacco and the adoption of "more scientific" farming methods.

The narrators express an overwhelming preference for the "household responsibility system" over collectivisation. People say they like the independence it gives them and obviously perceive it as fairer; the commune system was seen as encouraging laziness in some people, who knew they would get the same quota of grain however little work they did. "We work by ourselves and don't have to share with others. What you do is yours. Everyone earns more. In the past, a group of people worked on the same piece of land. You dug on the piece of land and I would not labour more than you did. People didn't want to work hard. Like, when we grew the potatoes, we just threw them there and didn't care if they grew well. Now you grow potatoes, and you will get the yield" (China 25).

The opening up of opportunity that has come with China's economic liberalisation is largely welcomed, though it is clear that deep poverty remains in these villages. "In the past, we did not run many businesses… We didn't buy many things … [now] there are more ways to make money. Like my daughter-in-law, she often weaves bags to sell, and can earn 200 to 300 yuan a year. My son helps others to build houses; in one year he can have several hundreds yuan's of income!" (China 10). But she goes on to say: "Money comes and goes. We make more money and spend more. Now it seems that money is not being valued as much as in the past."

The rush for business has other drawbacks - it seems animal diseases are being spread much more rapidly: "There are too many people engaging in the [poultry] business. People want to make money and they don't care whether the chicken is sick or not. They sell them in the market, and the bacteria are easily spread to other places. We haven't raised one since last year. When [that one] was raised up and ready for sale, it got sick. In the past, our chickens seldom got sick" (China 10). Nevertheless, for most narrators, successful livestock production is seen as the first step to investing in other income-generating activities. "If they develop more with animal husbandry, they can sell cows, pigs, chickens - then they could have the money to build tiled houses, buy chemical fertilisers, chemical weedkiller, and have more food. Women's labour could be freed to do handicrafts and food processing" (China 16).

School fees are a major household cost, yet most narrators are determined to educate their children so that they can get paid work in the future. This means that many women are left to manage farms and families alone while the men take jobs in the plains or over the border in Myanmar or Laos, in order to make the cash to pay the fees and buy the farming inputs. Getting loans seems to be hard; there is hardly any mention of support in this way. Family support remains crucial. The poorest in these communities seem to be old people without children, for whom the state makes some provision: "…people who live alone are the wubaohu households (literally "five-guarantee" households, eligible for government support in five areas). [For example] the family with the most difficulty is Li here, a man who lives alone. His son died, and now his daughter-in-law has gone… [And] there is another household enjoying the 'five guarantees'. He never married" (China 24). In the poorer households, several mention that without state assistance, their situation would be worse: "If the country didn't give me these [roof] tiles, I might still live in the ragged thatched cottage" (China 9).

quotes about economics

"Last year, my eldest boy passed the enrolment exam of the Teacher's College, it (tuition?) cost 7000 yuan. Another child passed the enrolment exam of the county's First Middle School. Wa! It cost tens of thousands of yuan. I raised several pigs in a year. Three or four litters of piglets were not enough to pay the 2000 yuan tuition fee."
Meixin, 45/F, Yao, China 2

"There are many who've got rich. They are not rich if you compare them with other places. [But] compared with other people in this village, they've developed a lot. What did they depend on for their development? They bought some chemical fertilisers, planted more ... They raised livestock, several cows… They just depended on these to get rich. What other things could they depend on to get rich?… Some people are poor because of physical disability, or getting old; when they go out [of the village] they cannot make money. They are poorer..."
Zhonglan, 40/F, women's officer, Yi, China 25

"It was not easy when we had the collectivised commune system. Because of this system, some people worked slothfully, and the grain you worked hard for one year [to grow] was not sufficient to eat. Now, it's all up to you how hard you want to work and how much you want to eat. Grains are not in short supply…Now we have the household responsibility system. We ordinary people like it more, but are just afraid that the policy will change in the future, and don't know what will happen then."
Yeai, 52/F, Wa, China 9

"Before the Spring Festival, I borrow some money for sugar cane planting and rice seedlings. I buy cigarettes for those who lend me money."
Nala, 30/F, seamstress, Lahu, China 14

"We can only raise chickens to sell; we cannot make money by other means…. We'll kill one or two when relatives come. If no one comes and you kill chickens to eat [for yourselves], you cannot make money. In this place, because there is no road, living conditions are worse… People here just raise some chickens, sell them and then buy some salt or small things like that. We have to buy salt and hot peppers from the market. Living conditions are bad…. Sometimes we'll sell grain, but sometimes we need to buy grain."
Guangzhen, 45/F, Yi, China 24

"Both of us can have control [of the money]. [Laughs cheerfully.] As a family, it's always whoever has the time who will manage it. Money? It is just some pocket money, no big sum."
Dingzhen, 54/F, Yi, China 26

"The Cultural Revolution had some impact. We paid more tax [in the form of] grain to the state… I remember clearly bringing the grain to the government's storehouse. We were children…There was no road at that time… People spent a month over the delivery… We really delivered a lot of grain tax. We harvested a lot of corn, but one family could only save a little [of this] for themselves - [it was] not enough to eat for a year… [Now under] the household responsibility system, we only…deliver some in the Big Spring (late January/early February), but not in the Small Spring (late February/early March). But only a few people deliver."
Xuefeng, 41/F, doctor, Miao, China 12

"I heard from my son that one jin of meat is sold at 70 to 80 yuan; one hoe cost more than 7 yuan. In the past, one jin of salt was only 5 cents, now it's up to 7 to 8 jiao. The price level has been increased many times."
Erguai, 72/F, Wa, China 10

"If I have time, I want to weave [Wa] bags. Now the bags are worth some money. Don't you see that we need to pay for the water we drink, and to pay for rice milling? …running water is much more convenient than before, but we have to pay for it."
Yeai, 52/F, Wa, China 9

key testimonies featuring economics

  No.   Name   Sex/Age   Occupation   Location  
Summary Transcript   12   Xuefeng   Female/40   Doctor   Luquan town, Luquan county, Yunnan  
Summary Transcript   16   Ah   Female/22   Oxfam extension worker   Mengba village, Lancang county, Yunnan  
Summary Transcript   18   Mingchun   Male/27   Oxfam extension worker   Zaishu village, Weining county, Guizhou  
Summary Transcript   2   Meixin   Female/45   Farmer   Wenqian, Bama county, Guangxi  
Summary Transcript   26   Dingzhen   Female/54   Farmer   Fale village, Weining county, Guizhou  
Summary Transcript   9   Yeai   Female/52   Farmer and weaver   Xuelin village, Lancang county, Yunnan