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(CHINA 34 - Northeast)








Huanglongsi, Hebei


August 1997


The interview starts off promisingly, but parts of it are a little confusing - possibly due to the translation or it could be the narrator’s style of talking. It is a personal interview during which Shuqing is very open about her children’s marriages. Her daughter Fengxian reluctantly agreed to marry a man whose sister would then be given in exchange to her brother – a practice known as huanqin. Fengxian’s own story of the dilemma this placed her in and her unhappiness about it is moving (see China 40). This “exchange” marriage cost the family nothing, but Shuqing’s other two sons also had problems finding brides (she describes one as “too stupid and too poor, and also ugly - although he worked well”). They appear to have married women whom the family bought from “the trader in wives” or middlemen. One wife was taken back by her parents; the other remained, despite being already married to somebody else. She talks about the “trade” in wives but it is unclear how common this was, and whether people generally consider it to be acceptable. This practice is now outlawed in China..

Shuqing has been married twice. She divorced her first husband because he insulted and beat her every day. Her second husband was much older than her but with a “good temper”. She had five children, one of whom was given away for adoption because she could not afford to take care of him when her husband was ill. (This practice seems to be not uncommon, as a number of narrators in both China collections mention it; several of the minority group women who were childless had adopted children from other members of their family.) Shuqing seems preoccupied with her family and the fact that they don’t support her as much as they should. This is an interesting interview, which provides insights into poverty and family relations from an older woman’s perspective.

detailed breakdown

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Section 1  Talks about her first husband whom she married at 17: “After the marriage, he complained of me as ‘having no cailiao (ability)’… He beat me everyday. His parents were unfair to me.”
Section 2-3  Her parents were poor and her mother died when she was three, which affected her badly: “I became dumb from missing my mother. I couldn’t speak …I could finally speak, gradually. But I was a fool (stupid).” Her sister was married aged 12; she was married at 17. First child died in infancy. She divorced her first husband after three years and arranged to be matched to another. The second husband was good to her: “He was 38 years old, and I was 20 years old. I knew he had a good temper. I didn’t mind his poverty and being advanced in years.” Their hardships following marriage: “The grain ration was not enough… We ate vegetables…and certain leaves - we got those from different plants… We worked for the agricultural producers’ cooperative.”
Section 3-4  Their grain ration increased after their first son was born. They had four sons and one daughter. She gave birth on her own: “I stood to give birth so the baby was on the floor, where nothing covered the floor. My husband knew nothing and couldn’t give me any help.” Her husband became ill at 55 and they owed a lot of money. They gave their fourth child up for adoption when he was four: “I decided. We didn’t have enough food to eat. My husband agreed with me, and so did his brother and sister. His adopted parents came here to meet him. They gave us 20 jin (2 jin equals 1 kg) of wheat and 50 yuan. Now this son is over 20 years old... He knew he was adopted, and we had contact with each other.” There does seem to have been some tension between her son and his adopted family: “I heard that he quarrelled with his adopted father. His adopted father said he (the son) didn’t provide for him.”
Section 4-5  She and her husband discussed events and problems together, although he took decisions on major issues (such as “buying” daughters-in-law). They bought a wife for her eldest son for 3,100 yuan but the woman’s parents came and took her back. The story becomes confusing at this point. It seems another woman is bought for another son: she is already married (and, it turns out, pregnant) and marries the son without getting divorced: “She was abducted. Her family didn’t know she was here… She didn’t want to go back… She said her mother-in-law was very severe with her.” Discusses her relationships with her different sons: “We lived our own life. When we divided our property, my first two sons were given the houses. And each of them gave 300 yuan to my third son to build a house.”
Section 5-6  Describes the “exchange” marriage involving her daughter Fengxian who was working in Beijing at the time: “It didn’t cost us any money when my second son married because it was an ‘exchange marriage’.” They called their daughter back from Beijing without letting on why: “We told her after she came back. She didn’t know what to do; she was cheated. But her life was alright after marriage.” Her sons give her some food and money, and she gathers medicinal herbs for extra cash. She’s always done this: “How could we live if I didn’t do that? My husband was ill.” Borrowed money from friends and neighbours in order to pay for her sons’ brides.
Section 7-8  Some from whom she borrows charge interest; others don’t or charge less because they are relatives. Still has a little debt. Cost of buying wives: “Beautiful women ask for more money normally.” Used to sell eggs at market to support her children’s education. “Now I raise chickens and I eat the eggs. But because I don’t have any spare money, I don’t attend the village market.”
Section 8-9  In order to survive, women work on the land while men get work outside the home. Some wives also work outside, although this is not generally accepted in the village “…as they wouldn’t be able to look after their family when they go out”. Says “it’s rare for unmarried girls to work outside; if they do, they usually sell goods.” She asks her nephews for help if she needs it, but says, “The lives of the children are also bitter, and they are also too tired.” Talks about village life. Doesn’t have TV; can’t pay her electricity bill
Section 9-12  Health problems in the village. She suffers from chest pain. None of her children received much education. Brief mention of religion - does not practise Buddhism. She uses the proverb: “Crow and nightingale never sent things to you; and treasure never comes to you if you don’t work” to explain that “Everything depends on yourself.” Likes living in the village: “No matter where I go, such as Mancheng, I would miss this village, miss the people here, and this place.” Most changes have come due to the building of the road. “Comparing today with the old times, I think our life is better than before.” Talks about different developments in the village: availability of electricity and running water, and cultivation of fruit trees. She explains: “We drank the well water in the past, now we have running water in every family.” It seems she has fallen out with several members of her family – mostly several of the daughters-in-law - and thinks they should be supporting her.