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Li and Erfa

(CHINA 35 - Northeast)


F; M


29; 30


farmer, contract plasterer


Huanglongsi, Hebei


August 1997


Li was taken from her village in Guizhou province in the south on the pretext of an offer of employment but the “contractor” later sold her into marriage to a man from Huanglongsi. She explains, “We arrived at a village called Qinggou and met my husband’s sister-in-law. She betrothed one of us to her brother and betrothed me to her brother-in-law. I agreed.” Despite this form of forced marriage, she has stayed with her husband and has two children. Part way through the interview, her husband Erfa joins in and their interaction gives the impression that they respect each other and are happy together. Much of the interview is concerned with the family’s livelihood; Li works the land whilst her husband is a contractual plasterer working in the city. Like other narrators he describes the vulnerable position of migrant workers: “Sometimes I earn 1,000 yuan a month. But the head of the contracted labour often cheats us right and left. He hasn’t paid me yet.” Like other families from time to time they have to borrow money, and usually from relatives. “Personal connection is very important. It’s not easy to get a loan from the bank”, they stress.

Throughout the interview Li and her husband mention differences between life in the north and the south of China. Although there are things Li clearly misses about the south, she admits that she is now used to life in the mountains. She explains that it’s easy “to find vegetables. And it’s convenient to find firewood… But it’s not convenient for the children to go to school.” Her husband also recognises certain advantages of life in the south but says he “can’t get used to the life there”.

The interview contains a fair amount of comment on their farming practices and livelihoods, and about borrowing money. Towards the end, Li stresses the importance of self-reliance: “If you want to make a good living you have to work, no one will provide you with a good living. For instance, you raise chickens so you will have eggs to eat or you won’t [have any]; raising pigs is the same. If you don’t raise them, you won’t have meat to eat. We depend on ourselves.”

detailed breakdown

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Section 1  Li finished elementary school and worked as a temporary hospital worker. Then she, along with some other young women, left their home in the south with some strangers to get work; factory conditions were bad and she went on the road with a man promising better work. She was eventually taken to another village and married to her present husband for 2,500 yuan.
Section 2-3  Her parents-in-law seem welcoming and the marriage successful. She asks husband to migrate away for work: “He went to Baoding and worked with a group of building workers... At first, he earned 2,000 yuan and paid back the money he had borrowed to buy me. My husband’s family took another 500 yuan from their own pockets. Now we have already paid off our debts.” Her family were fined because her second child was born within the prescribed five-year interval between children. Husband joins the interview. They are mainly dependent on farm work, but he also works outside as a plaster. He has been cheated by contractor he worked for. He gives the money he earns to his wife and they “spend it together”.
Section 3-5  The family made one visit to Li’s home and plan another one. During the first visit, her husband “stole” the children back to Huanglongsi because he was afraid his wife would want to stay in the south. Later he apologised. Li does most of the farm work and her husband comes back to help with the harvest. “We can feed ourselves with the grain... We plant vegetables ourselves, such as cucumber, Chinese chives, and so on.” Rearing chickens and a pig. They have not contracted any land on the hill as they lack funds: “It’s not easy to get a loan from the bank. You’d better borrow some from your relatives or neighbours who have a good relationship with you.” Her family’s economic activities in the south. Different customs in the south and north of borrowing money from friends/neighbours.
Section 5-6  Borrowing money from relatives - say it doesn’t affect the relationships. More discussion of farming. Li says: “What you need to do is to observe [farming techniques] for a while and you know how to do the job.” She has just attended a class given by the University of Agriculture. Mainly uses manure but have to use chemical fertiliser which “does harm to people. It will cause cancer, but we have no choice… We have to use the chemicals [pesticides]We spray most of the chemicals on the wheat because if we don’t, it won’t grow.” Do not sell any of their crops: “I seldom buy vegetables, because we grow them ourselves…. We don’t sell eggs. We use them to feed ourselves. Our life is quite ordinary.” Brief mention of social life: “Every evening we have a chat on the threshing ground. There are men and women. We talk about the children, the crops and the things that have happened in the village.”
Section 7  “I’m used to the life here, but I don't like eating millet gruel.” She still misses the rice of her home area but now thinks living in a mountain area is good in terms of easy access to vegetables and firewood – “But it’s not convenient for the children to go to school.” Li believes you shouldn’t depend on others: “We depend on ourselves. If you receive other’s help, you have to regard it as a personal favour.” Asked what makes her most happy, she says, “My two children… Taking care of them makes me happy!”