photo of Chinese woman northeast and southwest China

community activities
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culture and customs
family life
social change

introducing the china collections

health in the southwest collection

 key testimonies
 health in the northeast collection

Health, or rather ill-health, is a key concern of these narrators. Medical facilities seem too expensive for many women, and are especially limited in the area of reproductive health. This, combined with women's heavy workload, means many narrators suffer constant poor health. Several point out improvements since their youth: "…I was trained to be tough. Otherwise, I could not have lived till today… people's living conditions [now] are so good - including the medical aspect which is much better than before" (China 10).

There are several references to herbal medicine, particularly in the past. One woman (China 10) says it was a male preserve: "We all took herbal medicines. But the people who know medicinal herbs are all men, not women. Even now I haven't heard about any women in this place who knows about herbal medicine. I'm not sure about the situation in other places." Today, it seems, people use "western" and traditional systems, though one or two narrators seem to have lost faith in that based on herbs and plants.

While arthritis and rheumatism are mentioned by many women, the main concern is "women's diseases". Because of the expense hospital treatment is rarely sought - and sometimes denied by a husband in charge of the finances - even when there are significant complications. Women also seem shy to talk about such problems with their husbands. One woman suffering from infertility (China 11), and from the associated social stigma, says her husband will not undergo any tests. She also mentions that she has had an untreated infection for 10 years. Their situation was briefly relieved when she adopted her nephew, because her brother "had one child that exceeded the family planning quota". But at three, he got diarrhoea and neither western nor herbal medicine could prevent his death.

Narrators say there is a lack of trained doctors; and several express doubts about local ones: "Their practical experience is not enough, nor is their training. Local doctors just know how to press your belly to test your health" (China 26). Several narrators clearly would prefer female doctors and there is an excellent interview with a Miao woman doctor (China 12) in Luquan country hospital. Her position is a rare one, and she clearly meets a great need for a sympathetic professional. "We are here really for those women… because they don't speak Han, they can't communicate with other people around, and are afraid of being scolded… So most of them come to see me… Besides, our attitudes are good and we can treat the diseases well, we are kind to them in all aspects..." She maintains that the tough but healthy mountain lifestyle means Miao women suffer less than those in the lowlands, who get water-borne diseases from dirty "standing pools". Nevertheless, she acknowledges that poor reproductive health care is a key source of women's health problems.

There is some mention of disability, with one woman (China 25) explaining that "Some people are poor because of physical disability…" She says there is some government help for families who are categorised as in special need, for example: "the family in our team… Her man's eyes aren't good, the woman is dumb (cannot speak), and his mum is very old… Usually when people need to pay some money every year [as in tax, fees for water, electricity etc], he doesn't pay. This year, people…gave him a set of bedding and 100 yuan." One short but interesting interview (China 14) is with a disabled woman whose childhood illness was never treated because her family was too poor. She works hard as a seamstress, longing to make enough money to have some treatment. The village leader waived the rules to allow her to have a second child in less than the allotted period of time, saying "We would not agree if it was somebody else. But because you are handicapped, we agree for you to have another child."

quotes about health

"Today's women, from courtship to marriage, and when they have children, are much happier than us. Their health should be better than that of people in the past… [In my day] people kept having children till they got a son. If family planning had been promoted in our time, how nice it would have been! The women of our time diced with the god of death, it was too horrible. Now people cannot have more than one or two children. They eat well and dress well. When they [have children], they…still look like a young girl."
Erguai, 72/F, Wa, China 10

"It's not common for us Miao women to have women's disease, probably because they live in the mountain area, because of the fresh air…Only a few…Usually they will come when they have pain…after they have had an IUD put in."
Xuefeng, 41/F, doctor, Miao, China 12

"Most diseases were malaria [in the past]… After the coming of the Communist Party, hospitals were established. The hospital gave out medicine and people got well… There is no malaria now. In the past, there were people who died of smallpox and measles… Now these diseases have been got rid off."
Natuo, 80/F, Lahu, China 15

"When a woman gives birth to a child, they just throw a bunch of grass in a corner - it's damp and infectious. Grass hides bacteria and will easily cause infection. Another common health problem …is prolapse of the womb… I always feel that women here are tough. They are shy to speak out if they are sick. They feel shy to tell even their husbands. If she has got a disease, she'll bear it by herself..."
Mingchun, 27/M, Oxfam extension worker, Miao, China 18

"[Women] don't go for a doctor mainly because of their poor economic condition. It takes a big sum of money to go to the hospital. Only when people are very sick, will they go to the hospital. [Women's health] is especially serious in the case of dystocia (abnormally difficult and painful childbirth, including breech births). Some women have experience in treating [this]. For example, if the foetus is in the wrong position (breech birth), experienced women can feel it and correct the position by touch."
Mingchun, 27/M, Oxfam extension worker, Miao, China 18

"…village doctors help to treat children's diseases. They give children injections, give them drugs, use their hands to touch the children and see what illness they have - they don't have any other methods of treatment. They don't have scientific knowledge…When a child has fever, they would just advise you to boil an egg and put it on the child's forehead. Medicinal herbs? They know some... Well, we need western medicines to cure illness. How could the herbal medicines which could be found in this place heal anything? Those medicines that have been processed are good; processed western medicine is good."
Zhonglan, 40/F, women's officer, Yi, China 25

"When I was young…the barefoot doctor (medical practitioner providing a free service at village level) visited the village from time to time. There is no one now. When people are sick, they have to go to Yancang and Lushan. We have nowhere to go if it's an emergency… Local doctors cannot treat serious cases. They are not as good as the doctors in the national hospital."
Dingzhen, 54/F, Yi, China 26

"All [my six babies] were delivered at home by myself. Nobody saw the process. I delivered [them] by myself. I cut [the umbilical cord] by myself."
Meixin, 45/F, Yao, China 2

key testimonies featuring health

  No.   Name   Sex/Age   Occupation   Location  
Summary Transcript   10   Erguai   Female/72   Farmer   Xuelin village, Lancang county, Yunnan  
Summary Transcript   11   Xiuying   Female/34   Farmer   Cuihua village, Luquan county, Yunnan  
Summary Transcript   14   Nala   Female/30   Seamstress   Mengba village, Lancang county, Yunnan  
Summary Transcript   15   Natuo   Female/70-80   Farmer   Mengba village, Lancang county, Yunnan  
Summary Transcript   18   Mingchun   Male/27   Oxfam extension worker   Zaishu village, Weining county, Guizhou  
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