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(CHINA 40 - Northeast)






Petty-trader; previously nanny


Huanglongsi, Hebei



This testimony is different to the others in the collection: it is not a recorded interview but a written autobiographical account from a woman who had always wanted to tell her story. Fengxian writes about her time in Beijing looking after the children of well-off families, and then her huanqin (exchange) marriage which took her to a remote village. Huanqin is a tradition in some parts of rural China: a daughter from one family marries a son from another family and in “exchange” a daughter from that family marries a son from the first family. It is therefore a type of arranged marriage. Fengxian did not want to go through with the huanqin. She describes vividly how pressure to be loyal to her family in the end gave her no choice but to agree. “Tears ran down on my face. If I didn't agree to the exchange, I would let them down and I was unworthy of their love and care. But if I agreed to it, the happiness of my whole life would be ruined. I wept out my grief to the heavens.... In order to please my parents and my brothers, I at last agreed to exchange a wife for one of my brothers.” For her mother’s perspective on the situation, see interview China 34.

Her time in her husband’s family was difficult and lonely; several times she tried to leave and divorce her husband. Eventually she decided to stay for the sake of her two sons. Like other narrators, she describes the grave economic situations in which she sometimes found herself. Her husband took out many loans, starting with the one for their marriage and followed by others to improve their house and purchase a large number of sheep. He was forced to work outside the village to help pay off the loans, leaving her on her own to work in the fields and care for the children.

This written account provides more personal detail on the narrator’s marriage and married life than some of the other testimonies. This may be a result of the way it has been documented and the manner in which Fengxian recalls many conversations between herself and others, which bring this story to life.

detailed breakdown

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Section 1-2  Her father forbade her to continue her education so she could help at home. After working for her family for a while she received consent from her father to “work as a children’s nanny in big citiesI was too excited. It was the first time that I left my remote mountain village.” Her journey to the family she went to work for.
Section 2-4  The mother of the children she was looking after was highly critical of her work; Fengxian felt looked down upon by her and decided to leave. She found a better job: “I enjoyed my life at Mrs Li’s because she treated me as her own child....Time fled quickly. I had stayed at Mrs Li’s for almost a year.” Fengxian returned home, “At that time, I couldn't reach home by bus directly. I had to walk on foot for more than 30 miles.”
Section 4-6  She returned to Beijing for another job with a senior official’s family. This family insisted she ate with them rather than after them, and the grandmother treated her as a member of her family: “Grandma had devoted her life to our country... Most of the old senior officials had the same spirits as grandma.” Happy memories of a holiday trip: “It was the first time that I saw the sea. I had seen it on the screen, but this time, it was real. It was too wonderful.” She received a letter from her father demanding that she return home immediately. When she got home she was told she had been summoned because there was a lot of work to be done.
Section 6-7  One day when working in the fields some women started suggesting she should consider a huanqin marriage. Fengxian was strongly opposed to this idea, but pressure from her parents forced her to agree. “I had no courage to resist the marriage. I had to swallow my own suffering.” The huanqin offer came from a remote village and she describes the arrangements.
Section 7-8  Description of the day of marriage. She reflects: “Women want to seek happiness with their whole life, but no one can run away from these rules.” Frustrated that her husband didn’t care about love: “We were different by nature. I love talking and smiling while he was quite the contrary. We often quarrelled. After 20 days of marriage, he went away. He was going to work to pay off the debts for the wedding...” Life became more miserable when her parents-in-law suggested she live independently from them.
Section 9-10  The birth of her first child: “In the country, women in wealthy families can have some nourishment when they are in confinement. But my confinement was too miserable....I had nothing except some dried noodles sent by some neighbours…” Her husband left again. “My life was even harder. I did the farm work while carrying my son on my back.” Her parents-in-law refused to help her in the fields, and she decided to leave with her son. She visited her husband threatening to leave him, but others advised her to go home.
Section 10-11  When her husband returned he bought 90 sheep using a loan; Fengxian was angry about the risk he had taken. She explains, “We had our second son. We worked hard to raise sheep for a whole year but a disaster came in the spring. An epidemic disease spread in the sheep… We lost 30 sheep all at once and some lambs. Misfortunes dropped from heaven.” As a result her husband became depressed. “He often got drunk and we often quarrelled.” Eventually she left: “I can no longer bear this kind of life. I'll divorce you.” Her parents were disappointed and her mother warned her about the fate of her children. “My heart was torn into pieces by mother's words. My mother was right. These two children were my life’s hope. I came back to my home.”
Section 11-12  She returned and they managed to work things out: “The leaders of the production brigade came to make peace between us and criticised him [for drinking]. The knot in our heart disappeared and we began our new life. We didn't have complaints even though our life was much harder than before.” Her husband went away again: “I was so lonely. All the incidents passed before my eyes. I decided to write out all the incidents. Otherwise, I would be smothered to death.” After a visit to see the grandma of the family she had worked for in Beijing, she bought some pigs and chickens and started other income-generating initiatives. Eventually they managed to pay off their debts and even started lending money to others. She now works as a shoe repairer and hopes to earn enough money for her children so they have a “hopeful future”.