photo of Chinese woman northeast and southwest China
introducing the china collections

community activities
culture and customs
employment and income
family life
food security
social change
social relationships
spiritual beliefs
traditional skills

glossary of local terms

Every attempt has been made to gloss all the terms in the testimonies, but finding the meaning for all of them has not proved possible. Some may have been misheard or mistranscribed; some are locally and culturally specific, especially those from the southwest.

administrative village

Under the government’s administration structure, one “administrative” village comprises several “natural” villages, usually less than ten (see township).

animal year

reference to the Chinese system of certain years being identified with particular animals and their characteristics


Seventh Day Adventists; a Christian movement


person who deals with the spirit world. Such people play a prestigious role in the belief systems of the different minority peoples, but “outsiders” often connect them negatively with superstition and wrongdoing.


Literally “responsibility for produce”; under the household responsibility system, the total yield of one family is the produce of every member within the family.

barefoot doctor

medical practitioner providing a free service at village level. Local people were given a basic training in primary health care, using traditional and Western medicine. Introduced under Chairman Mao, the policy reached its peak in the early 1970s when over 2 million barefoot doctors were trained; since the introduction of a user-pay policy in the 1990s the system has disintegrated.


landscape of fertile plains surrounded by mountain ranges, typical of Yunnan province.

Big Spring

late January/early February, depending on the lunar calendar


refers to a public official holding a responsible or managerial position, usually full time, in party and government. A cadre may or may not be a member of the CCP, although a person in a sensitive position would almost certainly be a party member.

chaste tree

a deciduous tree with flexible branches and twigs, which are often used for basket-making

cogon grass

a tough grass, used for thatching

commune system/

introduced by the Communist party in the 1950s. The country was divided into settlement areas (communes). People worked collectively, all produce was pooled and shared out according to the number of heads in a household as well as work points earned. Replaced by the household responsibility system in 1978.

corn rice

corn rice is a mixture of the two and cheaper than pure rice; most farmers’ land in these mountains is only suitable for growing corn


thick rice soup made with plenty of water or broth to which a variety of flavours and foods can be added. Nutritious and easily digested, it is especially good for babies, old people and invalids. This porridge-like staple was not just “peasant food” but was enjoyed by all classes.

Cultural Revolution

nationwide movement from mid-1960s to mid-1970s, under Mao’s chairmanship. The aim was to destroy the “four olds” – old ideas, customs, cultures and habits – and “build the new China”. It was a period of widespread political purges, in which Mao’s Red Guards (the youth movement charged with affecting the revolution) targeted “reactionary intellectuals”. Rival factions fought each other, there was widespread suffering and much of China’s cultural and intellectual heritage was destroyed.


a branch of Christianity which spread to China in the 6th and 7th centuries from Persia, and originated with Pope Nestorius in Rome in 5 AD. Jin jiao had been used as a general name for Christianity in China since before 1949. Dajinjiao literally means big jin jiao (ie big Christianity); xiaojinjiao means small Christianity, presumably different variations

Dragon Boat Festival

Fifth day of fifth lunar month; the celebration is a time for protection from evil and disease for the rest of the year.


abnormally difficult and painful childbirth, including breech births.


the smallest unit of currency (10 fen = 1 jiao; 10 jiao = 1 yuan); also a land measurement (10 fen equals 1 mu)


when the Nationalist Party (Guomindang) was fighting the Communist Party – 1940s or early 1950s. See also “liberation”

gunny/ gunny blanket/ gunny cloth

made from flax or hemp – blanket, cloth or clothing (also called sackcloth)

household responsibility system

introduced in 1978 by Deng Xiaoping. Every household is allocated its own piece of land and is free to work it as it chooses, keeping most of the harvest but handing over a certain amount as “tax” to the government.


a form of arranged marriage, in which two families effectively exchange sons and daughters, hence known as “exchange marriage”. The son of family A marries the daughter of family B; the son of family B marries the daughter of family A. Huanqin remains a tradition in some rural parts of China.


In 1991, the policy of one child per family (instituted in the 1980s) was amended. Couples in certain minority groups are now allowed two children providing the second is born after an interval of five years (or, in some cases, four – administrative areas are permitted some discretion). If the interval is less, the family can be fined. (See also quota.)


literally “calling the spirit”; traditional Lahu practice through which ancestors’ spirits who are troubling their surviving relatives (causing illness, for example) are persuaded to leave their families in peace.


unit of currency: 10 cents equals 1 jiao ;10 jiao equals 1 yuan


a weight measure (of corn, meat etc); 2 jin equals 1 kg


a sleeping platform made from bricks or adobe, with pipes inside to carry heat from the stove to the chimney. A source of heat in winter, it is typically found in northern Chinese villages


kow-tow, to bow down and pray. Kou means knock and tou means head, hence kow-tow meant to touch/knock the ground with one’s forehead while kneeling to express worship (religious), or obedience/ submission to someone of higher social status


measurement of distance; 1 li equals 0.5 km; 2 li equals 1 km


a measure (of rice, meat etc); 1 liang equals 50 grams


literally, the sound of thunder. A plot of land called leixiang means it depends on rain for water, ie is not irrigated.

liberation army /
liberated / liberation

certain areas were “liberated” from the control of the Nationalist party (the Guomingdang) by the army under the leadership of the Chinese Communist party. The People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, when most of China was under Communist control; “liberation” could have taken place any time from the late 1940s to the early 1950s.

“made by the state”

term used by villagers to mean mass-produced goods, not hand-made, because formerly all factories were owned by the state


popular Chinese board game


inflammation of the uterus

“middle man”

Someone involved in the practice of trading in wives, which is now considered a crime

middle school

usually for ages 12-15


area of land: 1 mu equals 0.067 hectares; 15 mu equals 1 hectare


meaning different “ethnic groups” within China, including the Han, rather than “nationality” in the nation state sense (as in “Chinese”). “Nationality” is commonly used in this way in China, and has its origins in Stalin’s definition of nations/nationalities, on which the Chinese Communist Party officially based its definitions of ethnic groups within China in the 1950s and 1960s.

National Minority Affairs Committee

government body, responsible for the welfare of minority peoples and for policymaking and implementation. China has 55 minority ethnic groups, comprising around 8% of its total population. The committee is also involved in promoting minorities in government structures, and so assists with job applications, for example.


China Inland Mission; a large Christian mission established before 1949.

nutrient bag

small bag filled with nutrients and rich soil to nurture seedlings. Once the seed has germinated, the bag is cut open and the seedlings are planted out in fields.

quota [in family planning]

China’s family planning policy is more flexible in rural areas, and for minority peoples. In 1991, the policy of one child per family was amended, and certain minority groups are now allowed two children providing the second is born after an agreed interval (see interval)

radical mu

every Chinese character in the written language is composed of one radical and several strokes. Sometimes a radical standing by itself can be a character and carry a meaning on its own


made from flax or hemp – blanket, cloth or clothing. Also called gunny cloth.


unit of capacity: 1 sheng equals 1 litre

Small New Year

The big New Year is the lunar new year, the first day of the lunar calendar; the small New Year is the 15th day of the first month of the calendar

Small Spring

late February or early March, depending on the lunar calendar

spirit dance /
spirit thread

possibly connected with Lahu practice of “calling the spirit”: see jiaohun

Spring Festival

major national festival every January or February, depending on the lunar calendar

state [produced by]

term used by villagers to mean mass-produced goods, not hand-made, because formerly all factories were owned by the state

substitute teacher

someone not yet qualified and filling a position in areas where the government can’t recruit enough qualified teachers. The salary is lower and the position much less secure than that of qualified staff.


cluster or group, made up of several households within a village or community; a unit under the government’s administrative structure (see township).

tiger shoes

found on babies’ feet throughout rural China. Handmade of cloth, with toe caps made into a tiger’s head, they are believed to protect children from harm.


administrative units in China are, in descending order of size: state; province; district/ prefecture; county/city; township; administrative village; natural village; cluster/team; household

trader in wives

See “middle man”

women’s officer

one woman in every administrative village is appointed as the women’s officer, responsible for coordinating all the government’s assigned tasks among women; she may or not be paid a small allowance

work points /
work score

the work-point system was implemented from the late 1950s to late 1970s as part of collectivisation. All farmers in the same unit shared responsibility for production. Produce was pooled and shared out according to each farmer’s work score. The more hours worked, the higher the number of work points earned. Men earned more points than women and women’s reproductive work was discounted


Literally “five-guarantee”; a category of household under the welfare system for the elderly provided by the government’s Civil Affairs Department. The household is guaranteed special assistance in five areas: food, clothing, housing, medical care and burial services. Eligible households are the elderly living without children.


jin jiao had been used as a name for Christianity in China since before 1949; xiaojinjiao means small jin jiao (small Christianity). See also dajinjiao.


unit of currency; 10 jiao equals 1 yuan