photo of Chinese woman northeast and southwest China
China glossary

Li and Erfa

(CHINA 35 - Northeast)


F; M


29; 30


farmer, contract plasterer


Huanglongsi, Hebei


August 1997



Liís ancestral home is in the suburbs of Anshun city, Guizhou Province. She was abducted and trafficked to Huanglongsi and married a local villager. They have a son and a daughter. Their family is quite well-off. Her husband works outside as a casual labourer and now he is on holiday at home. When we entered their house we saw a man squatting at the gate (a postgraduate from the University of Agriculture and Liís townsman, who used to call at her home). Li was glad to have an interview with me as were most of the villagers. She invited us to her house the day before yesterday. Quite soon into the interview Liís husband, Erfa (E) joins in and for the remainder of the interview they contribute equally.

Section 1
Before you came to Mancheng town, what did you do in your home town?
I worked as a temporary worker in the city hospital of Anshun. I carried medicine for patients, earning 45 yuan a month. I worked there for a year.

Did you ever go to school?
I began to work in the hospital after I had graduated from elementary school.

How did you come to Mancheng?
In 1987, some strangers came to my village, asking us to go to Guangzhou. We stayed there for half a month. It was too hot and the living conditions were too bad. We knitted sweaters there. Young girls were crying all the time. Then a 26-year-old young man came and said to us, ďLetís go to a so-and-so company which makes medicinal materials. You can earn more than 100 yuan a month.Ē So we three girls followed him. We went to Baoding city. While we were having our meals, the man asked us to keep silent, being afraid of being recognised as a ďtrader in wivesĒ. But we didnít listen to him. We spoke deliberately.
After we had our meals, we took to the road again. We went to Wanxian country and stayed there for a night. Then we went to Yixian country and stayed there for a night. Later we went back to Wanxian country. We arrived at a village called Qinggou and met my husbandís sister-in-law. She betrothed one of us to her brother and betrothed me to her brother-in-law (her husbandís younger brother). I agreed.
At that time I was 20 years old and my husband was 21. His family paid 2,500 yuan. I went to his home during the Dragon Boat Festival (the fifth day of the fifth lunar month), and we got married. My husbandís sister-in-law, my father-in-law and mother-in-law made arrangements for our wedding. My father-in-law is the branch secretary of the Party in the village. He said that if I ran away they would not expect to take back the 2,500 yuan. Anyway, he wished us to make a good life together. We lived with the whole family for two years. When my daughter was five months old, we broke up the family and began to live apart. Five months later, I asked my husband to leave home for work [outside].
Section 2
Where does he work? What job is he doing?
He went to Baoding and worked with a group of building workers; he daubed plaster on walls. At first, he earned 2,000 yuan and paid back the money he had borrowed to buy me. My husbandís family took another 500 yuan from their own pockets. Now we have already paid off our debts.

How many children do you have? How old are they? Do they go to school?
Our daughter was born in November 1989. She is eight and sheís a first-year student in elementary school. I gave birth to a son on August 23rd, 1991. He was born in the year of sheep. We were fined 200 yuan.
[From 1991, a family was allowed to have two children, but the first should be at least five years older than the second one. If the interval between the two childrenís birthdays is not long enough, the family will be fined].

Did you ever go back to Guizhou Province after you had arrived there?
We went back together. Once my mother came here to see me.
[Now that Liís husband, Erfa, had come back, we began to interview the couple. E represents Erfaís responses.]

May I ask you some questions? If itís OK, I hope you can answer them; if itís not, you donít have to. Whatís your major income source? Working or farming? E: We mainly depend on the farm work. I have some skills so I can work as a plasterer, earning 800 or 900 yuan a month. Sometimes I earn 1,000 yuan a month. But the head ofcontracted labour often cheats us right and left. He hasnít paid me yet. You see, I have been staying at home for a month since we harvested the wheat. Itís not easy to work outside. We should be paid every month, but we are never paid on time.

Your contractor owes you some money, doesnít he? E: Of course. We havenít received our last yearís payment. He doesnít have the money, because he canít get money from above. He owes me 500 yuan which should have been paid last year.

Where is the contractor from? E: Mancheng town. He has hidden away since the last Spring Festival (major national festival every January or February, depending on the lunar calendar). He still owes my brother 10,000 yuan. He said he would pay my brother, but he has nothingÖ

How many brothers do you have? E: My parents have three sons. Iím the second one, Erfa (er equals two).
Section 3
To whom do you give your wages? L: To me. I keep the money and we spend it together. Last year, our income was over 5,000 yuan. We spent 1,500 yuan for the trip to Guizhou. We are going to visit my home town again this year. My father passed away...
E: I called her mother when I was in Mancheng. My sister lives in that town.She has a telephone.

When are you going to see your mother? Will you go together? L: He will go alone. We canít go together unless we have 300 yuan.

Iím sure your mother likes this son-in-law. L: My mother likes him very much, but he is ungrateful. He took our children back stealthily. My mother was very cross. He was afraid that I would not come back to him any more. When I went back to my home town, I thought it would be fine if we settled down in Anshun. But he said ďNo.Ē Anyway my children are also his. He feared that I would apply for permanent residence for our children in Anshun, so he stole our children. He wanted to raise them to provide for his old age. It would not matter even without a wife [laughing].

E: Nowadays many southerners come to the north. All kinds of people. Life is good in the south. There are lots of vegetables, but I canít get used to the life there. I couldnít understand the dialects so I came back. Later I apologised to my mother-in-law for what I had doneÖ

Itís an interesting episode in your life, an interesting anecdote and it will be your sweet memory. Well, who does the farm work in your family? E: Usually Ni Li does. I come back to harvest the wheat during the fall.

How many mu (1 mu equals 0.067 hectares) of land do you cultivate?
L: We hire people to cultivate three mu. We grow wheat in one mu. During the harvest time we drive a cart to collect the wheat. Every yearís yield is about 700 or 800 jin (2 jin equals 1 kg). This year we may have a poor harvest of maize due to the drought. It would be fine if we could get a yield of 500 jin. Usually we can harvest over 1000 jin.

Can you feed the whole family with what you grow in the field? Do you buy vegetables or plant them yourselves?
L: We can feed ourselves with the grain. I like rice so I spend money buying rice. We plant vegetables ourselves, such as cucumber, Chinese chives, and so on.

If you had a sum of money what would you do?
If I had some money I would buy [some more] pigs and chickens to raise. I wouldnít buy xiao wei han yang (short-tailed sheep) because I donít have time to graze them. Our children must go to school. Now we are raising 20 chickens and one pig that weighs 100 jin. Pigs raised in the south are very clean. People build drought sheds (shelters to protect them from the sun) for them and let them stay there. They often give the pigs a bath. Like human beings, the animals love to be kept clean. However, pigs raised here are extremely dirty... Iíd like to raise them in my own way.
Section 4
Should you ever get a loan from the bank, could you set a good example for the whole village? [Ni Li was nodding her head.] Has your family contracted to develop the land on the hills?
L: No, we havenít. The children are still very young and we donít have any savings; besides, my husband has to work outside.
E: The hills have been divided by contractors. But trees canít live in some places. There are many weeds and twigs of the chaste tree (deciduous tree with flexible branches and twigs often used for basket-making).

Is it free [of cost] to collect weeds and twigs there? E: The contractors can collect as many as they can; others must pay 4 yuan.

If someone wanted to borrow some money, I wonder to whom he could turn? E: Personal connection is very important. Itís not easy to get a loan from the bank. Youíd better borrow some from your relatives or neighbours who have a good relationship with you.

Have you ever borrowed any money? How much did you borrow? L: Now we have stopped borrowing money. We used to borrow some. Usually we borrowed 10 or 20 yuan each time. We didnít dare to borrow too much. My mother is quite well off. Her children often give her 100 or 200 yuan. My father grazes sheep and he also raises buffaloes. His annual income is around 2000 yuan. Now the south is quite developed. My father, my brother and my sister-in-law all plant strawberries; last year they earned 30,000 yuan. One of my brothers is the branch secretary of the Party. My brothers and their wives are very capable. Some are planting strawberries; some are making fine dried noodles; some are running factories...
E: When I went there, no one was planting strawberries. It was the people from Zhejiang Province who took the lead to plant strawberries. I was doing odd jobs in Guizhou at that time. Since I didnít have any skills, my wages were very low.
L: This year my brother went to the Beijing Institute of Agriculture and Science to look for strawberry seeds. He didnít know that Mancheng town is famous for strawberry seeds. He came here and I told him that the seeds were sent from this place and they were much cheaper than those sold in Beijing. A plant is sold for one yuan in the Institute of Agriculture and Science, but here itís sold for no more than several fen (smallest unit of currency; 10 fen equals 1 jiao).
E: They went to my sisterís home in Mancheng. When they come again they can ask my brother-in-law for help.
L: Next time they can go there for help.

Did you get a loan from the bank? L: Itís difficult to get it. First they will make sure that your family is financially secure, and then they will lend you the money. Thatís how it is in Guizhou.
Section 5
If people want to borrow money in private they have to pay interest. Is that true in the south? L: In Guizhou, no matter how much you borrow you must sign your name, because they fear that you canít pay back the money; besides, they will charge you interest. Thatís how it is among relatives, even among brothers.
E: But itís not like that among relatives and neighbours in the north. Interest on borrowing is not charged. However, the way the southerners choose is a bit better. People from the south are loyal to their friends.
L: If you want to borrow 200 yuan from a person and he doesnít have so much, he will say ďtake 100Ē.

Does the matter affect good relationships among the neighbours? N and E: Not a bit. People visit each other quite often. When they visit relatives during the Spring Festival or attend weddings or funerals, they usually present gifts. They donít care whether these people are their relatives or not. They even donít care how much they spend. Usually people present 5 yuan and a box of cookies while attending a wedding or a funeral. They will give their relatives 30 or 50 yuan, at most 100 yuan.

What crops do the villagers grow? Is there any change?
E: People still grow maize, millet and wheat. They donít grow very many peanuts but some sweet potatoes...
L: There is red soil in Guizhou. Itís very sticky. The wheat flour produced there doesnít taste good. Itís sticky.

What kinds of farm work do you do in a year?
L: You have to take a lot of trouble to sow crops. You have to transplant rice seedlings and reap the rice, but itís easy to grow crops here. All you have to do is to dig a hole and pit the seeds or plant in the hole. You can plant 0.7 or 0.8 mu of maize in two days. You donít have to water them. You just wait for the rain. All you have to do is dig a hole.

You can grow crops in the north without much knowledge about agriculture, canít you?
L: Yes, you are right. You donít have to learn. What you need to do is to observe for a while and you know how to do the job.

Did you ever learn any farm techniques before?
L: No, I didnít. Itís the first time for me to attend the class given by the University of Agriculture.

What kinds of fertiliser do you use? Is there any change?
E: Now we mainly use manure. We raise pigs and collect their manure.

Do people apply chemical fertiliser?
L: We have no choice but to use it, because if you donít, the crops wonít grow.
E: Chemical fertiliser does harm to people. It will cause cancer, but we have no choice. My uncle doesnít use chemical fertiliser. He applies manure. His crops donít grow very well; however, they are different from those produced by others. The corn yielded from his land looks white and the wheat is shining.
Section 6
Do you spray agricultural chemicals on crops? Are there any pests?
L: Yes. We have to use the chemicals, for there are lots of pests. Itís time to get rid of the pests now, but we donít spray pesticide on the maize. We have already done so before it grows up. We don't spray too much of the pesticide on the maize. We spray most of the chemicals on the wheat because if we donít, it wonít grow.

Do you sell the crops harvested from your land?
L: No, we donít. We live on the crops, besides we have to feed our pigs and chickens.

Do you sell them or eat them? L: We donít sell them. We raise them to eat. Every Spring Festival we kill one of them. We have broken up the family and now we live apart. Every year we kill one of the livestock to make a feast.

How do you deal with the meat left after the holidays? L: We preserve the meat with salt and pepper water. I know how to make bacon, but the local people donít [eat] bacon. To make bacon you have to treat the meat with smoke. The salted meat is not delicious; however, bacon tastes much better. The northerners donít know how to make delicious food.
E: Thenortherners are not that subtle.
L: The southerners can make various dishes. People from my home town come here to work as cooks. Sometimes I cook, too.

[Towards Erfa.] May I know your name please? E: My nameís Erfa.

A good name. Right, you are going to make a fortune. If you go to a fair, what do you do? Sell or buy? L: I seldom buy vegetables, because we grow them ourselves. Sometimes I buy some clothes. We donít sell eggs. We use them to feed ourselves. Our life is quite ordinary.

Do women usually chat together? L: 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. We go to bed at 10 oíclock.

It seems that people like chatting. Why donít they watch TV? L: The programmes are full of fighting scenes. We donít like such programmes.

What kind of movies do you like? L: Those about life. I like those about how people cook in the city and those about love between husband and wife.

Is there anyone who professes a religion? Do people burn incense and pray? L: No one is really religious, but many burn incense.
E: Go down to a place called Longtang and you can find many people burn incense, because there is a temple. But people who live in this place donít do that.
Section 7
You have been living in the mountain area for many years. What aspects do you feel are convenient and which do you feel are inconvenient? L: Now Iím used to the life here, but I don't like eating millet gruel. I like rice. I often go to Mancheng to buy some rice. Every time I buy a bag of rice. When he came back from Mancheng he bought a bag of rice for me. Look,
this is what he bought!

In what aspects do you feel convenient in the mountain area? L: Shopping is convenient. Itís also easy to find vegetables. And itís convenient to find firewood. During the summer we use firewood. But itís not convenient for the children to go to school.

Who cuts the firewood? Do you have to buy it? L: In winter, when he comes off the work from town he cuts the firewood for the family. He also comes back when we are going to harvest wheat. He has been staying at home since this summer.
E: Itís not good to regard money as extremely important. I try to look on the bright side of things. Iím not the man who
cares about nothing but money. I wonít make money at the cost of my life. If donít have good health, whatís the use of money?

What life do you think is the best life? L: The best life? 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 wonít [have any]; raising pigs is the same. If you donít raise them, you wonít have meat to eat. We depend on ourselves. If you receive otherís help,
you have to regard it as a personal favour. We raise chickens and feed them with our crops so the eggs are extremely delicious.

What most makes you happy in life?
L: My two children. Look, they are back. Taking care of them makes me happy!
[At that time, Liís two children came back home. Hedon acted like a spoiled child in her arms. We stood up trying to finish todayís interview.]

Iíd like to ask you one more question. What worries you most? L: Nothing worries me. If we grow wheat I would become anxious if he couldnít come back. So is the case if we grow maize. Actually nothing worries me.

You have a happy lot. Youíve found a good husband and you have a son and a daughter. Your family is good and perfect. While itís still bright and your children are back, let me take a photograph of your family.
[The couple changed their clothes. She put on an elegant dress. Erfa told us that he bought his wife this beautiful dress. What he was wearing was also fashionable. After we took the picture we took our departure.]