Women in China have long been silenced or sidelined—if they weren’t smothered at birth. But now a booming economy has transformed their lives. Hilary Spurling sees the changes for herself ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2011
"Impossible is nothing,” said my Chinese host in March, when I told her the English proverb “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”. She had just passed me a plateful of what looked like tiny, shiny, caramel-and-white striped silk purses. They turned out to be sliced pig’s ear, one of many traditional delicacies at a banquet that included fried ants, sea slugs and geese feet.
Of course almost nothing is impossible in a country where acrobats still juggle wooden chairs as if they were feathers or ping-pong balls—and where the gristle and cartilage of a pig’s ear turn up on your plate as an absurdly elegant appetiser.
What makes foreigners gasp and stretch their eyes in China now is the almost inconceivable speed and scale of the changes that, in the past ten years, have swept people off the land like a giant magnet. In 1990 three out of every four people still lived and worked, as they always had done, on farms. More than 40% have now moved to the cities. By 2015, according to an article I read in China Daily, based on a United Nations forecast, half the population will be urbanised.
The creative energy released by this frenetic development is palpable almost as soon as you step off the plane. It comes like a buzz off the people, especially the young women. When I arrived in the university town of Nanjing on my first visit to China in 2007, I spent days on end watching and talking to students, marvelling above all at the confidence, competence and poise of the girls. I was working on a book about Pearl Buck, who grew up in the Chinese countryside before teaching on the Nanjing campus in the 1920s, so I knew a lot about the world of these girls’ grandmothers: a slow-moving world where traffic went by river steamer or canal boat, and the only wheeled vehicle most people ever saw was a wheelbarrow. Girls were shut up at home on reaching puberty with no further access to the outside world, and no voice in their own or their family’s affairs. In traditional households they were forbidden to speak even to their husbands, except behind closed doors in the bedroom at night.
I’ve been fascinated by China all my life. The only two books I remember from early childhood were both Chinese. One was a collection of watercolours by Yui Shufang, “Chinese Children at Play”. It showed small boys with shaven heads and girls with black pigtails playing games I’d never heard of, and wearing clothes unlike any I’d ever seen. They had patterned tops and brightly coloured trousers: the sort of clothes children wear worldwide today, but I was a wartime child, and in England in the 1940s we mostly wore grey flannel skirts or shorts and plain drab hand-knits. This was my first picture-book, and I was entranced by it. The second was a storybook read aloud to me by my mother before I could read myself. “The Chinese Children Next Door” was about a family of six little girls who wanted a baby brother so badly that in the end their wish came true. The seventh child was a boy, the answer to his parents’ prayer, the pet and plaything of his elder sisters.
Both books bit deep and hard into my imagination. It was only years later, when I’d already started work on a Chinese book myself, that I came across the story that had meant so much to me as an episode in Pearl Buck’s memoirs, and realised that she was the author. “The Chinese Children Next Door” is a fictionalised version of the experience of her much older adoptive Chinese sister, a girl abandoned as a baby by her family and brought up as their own by Pearl’s parents. This sister was already a married woman with the first of six daughters by the time Pearl was born, and the two little girls grew up as best friends, witnessing the almost uncontrollable rage of the Chinese grandfather at a daughter-in-law who, year after year, produced only girls.
I knew “The Chinese Children Next Door” by heart as a child, probably because it echoed the much sadder stories my mother told me about her own early years, when she too was the youngest of six unwanted girls. Her mother finally managed, at her seventh try, to produce the boy who was all she and her husband had ever wanted in the first place. “My life was ruined when I was two,” my mother said. As a child I must have recognised, at any rate subconsciously, the harsh unspoken truths lurking between the lines of a story that made my mother’s early unhappiness somehow easier to bear. When Jawaharlal Nehru read Buck’s captivating tale aloud to Mahatma Gandhi on his sick-bed, both men burst out laughing. Like Buck, they were only too familiar with the realities of a world where female infanticide, domestic slavery and sexual bondage were commonplace.
Education and earning power have given the female descendants of that world independence in the past decade, and with it the self-reliance that comes from an unprecedented measure of control over their own lives. For the young women I met in Nanjing and Shanghai, even the draconian one-child policy of the last 30 years has an aspect of liberation. They looked blank when I asked about sex discrimination. “For some reason my parents wanted a boy as well as me,” one of them said, laughing. Her family had managed to get permission for a second child on the grounds that the first—my informant—had a fatal heart defect. Her mother was already pregnant again when a neighbour informed the family-planning office that the grounds for the permit were fake, so the baby had to be aborted.
All of them assured me that nowadays no one was treated differently on grounds of gender; but older people insisted that you have to pay attention to how people behave, not what they say. The arrival of a baby boy is greeted with celebration, the birth of a girl with condolence. Official statistics say that newborn boys outnumber girls by 118 to 100 in spite of the fact that, according to my friends, boys cost more. Parents have to start saving to buy a house or a flat for a son from the day of his birth, because no man has a hope of marrying unless he can provide a home for his bride—and girls can afford to be increasingly picky these days, in this as in much else.
All this turns the rural society of the last 2,000 years and more upside down. “Low culture, small knowledge,” another Chinese friend said scornfully, describing the villages in poor western parts of the country where girls are still expendable, and the one-child rule is so irregularly enforced that a large family of sons remains many mothers’ ambition. On my first visit, four years ago, I took a trip up the Yangzi, from Nanjing to the Lu mountains, in one of the big comfortable well-equipped coaches packed with Chinese tourists exploring their own country for the first time in history. It took eight hours, and I watched seven films screened one after another at the front of the bus: gangster movies, hoodlum fantasies, heroic or comedy thrillers, historical romances set in an imperial past where corrupt magistrates connived with rapacious landlords to oppress the locals. All of them blurred after a bit into a violent continuum of fist fights, knife fights, sword fights, sensational chases and gun battles punctuated by shots, grunts and thuds. Above and behind the male mayhem we heard the perpetual high screams or subdued moaning of women being beaten, tortured and raped.
Girls have not been routinely crippled by their mothers since the abolition of foot-binding almost a century ago, but in the villages many still die at birth by the traditional methods of stifling or strangulation. Their fate, and the mindset that makes it possible, were uncovered by Xinran in the 1990s when she was a young Chinese radio reporter based on the banks of the Yellow River, and she explored them for the first time in detail in her latest book, “Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother” (2010). Xinran’s initial contact with village life was a shock for which nothing in her urban background had prepared her, and one that reverberates through all her books. When she travelled the length and breadth of China in 2006, some of the interviews she conducted reduced even her Chinese cameraman to horrified incredulity.
Many of the stories people told Xinran were not essentially different from the accounts Pearl Buck had listened to as a young woman 70 or 80 years earlier. Born in 1892, Buck grew up hearing a distinctive noise: the low urgent monotone of Chinese women explaining their problems to her mother, who had been instructed, as a newly arrived and very young American missionary, to set up a women’s Bible class. Buck’s mother decided almost at once that Christian conversion was the last thing these people needed. From then on her Bible class functioned as an unofficial clinic, dispensing practical advice and a listening ear to women who had never been listened to by anyone before. When Pearl in turn inherited the class, its members talked to her as freely and frankly as they had done to her mother.
“She eschewed ideology; she avoided taking sides; she steered clear of experts and officials,” says Leslie T. Chang, whose own graphic reporting of women’s lives in China today relies on precisely this lack of prejudice, along with intuitive sympathy and close attention. “Pearl Buck’s understanding of the country was built on years of patient observation, living in backwater cities and befriending students, housewives, servants and farmers.” Listening to ordinary people, and recording clearly and accurately what they say, form the basis of Chang’s “Factory Girls” (2008) as of all Xinran’s books.
Of course things have moved on since Buck’s day. Starvation is no longer endemic in the countryside. Girls are not commonly driven to suicide by implacable mothers-in-law, nor sold into slavery or exchanged for food in time of famine. Even the villages now have television and telephones. But rural society is still constricted by isolation and hardship, by lack of prospects and, for women, by dread of conceiving a baby girl.
The realities of ordinary lives are no more up for discussion in China now than they were then. Buck’s account of a farming family in “The Good Earth” was widely attacked for its frankness when it came out in 1931. My biography of Buck has, I’m told, been severely cut in the Chinese edition: certainly it looks surprisingly slim. Chang’s book, published in the West in 2008, has yet to appear on the Chinese mainland. Xinran’s books have long been officially banned although, when the Guardian named her one of the world’s top 100 women on International Women’s Day in March, Beijing finally authorised the circulation of all but one of them in English translation.
Whether or not the women Xinran interviewed will ever read their own stories in print is another question. As a reporter in the 1990s she found people in the villages incurious, mute, reluctant to acknowledge the presence of a woman, let alone to answer her questions. Even in the towns she met with stubborn resistance. “The Chinese stood up against me,” she says. “They had never heard of the Cultural Revolution. They’d never heard of poverty in the countryside. Why was I trying to make them lose face?” I found the same attitude again and again in today’s students, who couldn’t see the point of deliberately stirring up their country’s history.
The past played no part in Chang’s conversations with the factory girls who had migrated from their villages to operate the assembly lines that produce the clothes we wear, the computer parts we need, the shoes, hats, handbags, games and gadgets that make the Western world go round. They work up to 13 hours a day, live in cold, dirty, overcrowded dormitories and eat poor food. They have no free time, health insurance, holidays or pension provision beyond the paltry state minimum. Three years ago their average wage was between 500 and 800 yuan—roughly £50-80—a month. Today, a shortage of labour means that young women in their 20s, the elite of the migrant workforce, can earn three times as much, or more.
They return to their villages at New Year bearing gifts: anoraks, trainers, sweets and toys for the children, pretty jackets for their mothers. They also inject unprecedented sums of money into the rural economy. Young unmarried women now subsidise their parents, pay for the education of younger brothers and sisters, distribute handouts to elderly relatives, and command growing respect from the village as well as from their families. Some go back home to settle, bringing capital and know-how. A friend told me about her female cousin who returned to farm the land in the village where their grandparents lived in a mud house with paper windows. People like this are beginning to put up glass-and-stone two-storey houses in the country, conspicuous proof of an alien world of development and enterprise. Factory girls may look victimised to outsiders, who take them to be helpless, ill-paid and insecure, easy prey to sexual and financial exploitation, stuck on the lowest and most vulnerable level of society. “But that’s not how they see themselves,” says Chang. In their own eyes they are proud, resourceful, energetic risk-takers at the cutting edge of a social revolution.
I overlapped with Xinran and Chang on the eastern book-festival circuit in March, spending nearly a week with Xinran in Dubai, following Chang into Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai. Listening to them talk about their books, and talking myself about mine, I realised for the first time how directly our subjects interlinked, and how, underlying the relentless change in China, there is much continuity. The first stories Buck wrote were about change, modernity, the seismic shifts already beginning to crack the country apart in the opening decades of the 20th century. She saw water come from the tap for the first time in 1900, and watched the first train come roaring out of a tunnel in the hill outside her home town of Zhenjiang four years later. Her parents had known the place as a sleepy market town before it became a foreign treaty port, a rich and expansive trading centre strategically positioned where the Yangzi meets the Grand Canal, in those days China’s main north-south traffic artery. The region still produces fish, rice, silk and tea, but, with the coming of roads, Zhenjiang dropped back into the sticks.
This year, some of its inhabitants told me with satisfaction, it finally tore down the last of its old houses. It has become a featureless provincial town, full of the kind of suburban shop fronts and drab apartment blocks familiar worldwide now that we all wear the same Chinese-made t-shirts, jeans and trainers, drive the same brands of car, and organise our lives in the same way by mobile phone. As I walked along the broad new embankment at twilight, I watched an aeroplane hanging against the pale sky. I did not realise, until I found it still there on my way back half an hour later, that it was a stationary paper kite—the contemporary equivalent of the flying pagodas I loved as a child in “Chinese Children at Play”.
I visited the school where Buck taught in 1915-16, now the Pearl S. Buck Middle School. Her students, all boys, were eager and hungry, starved of information even more than food. Today the school is mixed, but the intake still comes from poor families who could not otherwise afford education. One boy wanted to be a writer. One girl was so tense her lips moved all through my talk as she rehearsed, repeatedly, the question she planned to ask me in English. Another boy, falling over his words in a rush to get them out, explained that he had never spoken to a foreigner before, and it made him so nervous that he hoped I wouldn’t be angry. These teenagers, like all the students I met, wanted to know what Buck had done for their country, how I rated her books, and what I thought of her translations from the Chinese.
Buck’s books were banned under Mao, and she herself was classified a Public Enemy, guilty of peddling cultural imperialist lies. On my first visit to Zhenjiang four years ago, research in any normal sense seemed impossible. “It’s been too long, and no people want to talk about Pearl Buck,” I was told firmly. The house she lived in as a child had been destroyed, her mother’s grave was now buried under a housing development. Even the names of the people she knew locally had been removed from the Chinese edition of her memoirs.
Her slow rehabilitation speeded up just over a year ago when she was ranked, with government approval, one of the Top International Friends of China. Now there is a museum in her name, as well as the school whose pupils are learning to re-evaluate her. These children are more fortunate than their parents and grandparents. Many, perhaps most, will go on to university. I’m told that even people earning the basic subsistence wage of three yuan a day reckon to spend one on food, one on rent and a third on education. Schooling is tough and ferociously competitive for pupils. They start at six years old (preparations for entry can begin as young as three) and are weeded out from then on by cut-throat examinations. The young women I talked to all agreed that it was virtually impossible to find a Chinese school where children felt relaxed and happy. Many of them knew of young families who had left the country altogether to settle abroad rather than put an only child through the rigours of their own system.
But it is obvious to even the most cursory observer that education drives China. The university boom started as a means of extricating the country from economic recession. Wherever I went I talked to students in packed classrooms holding 250 or more. The huge new campuses on the outskirts of big cities were powerhouses, put up initially with strictly limited staff and resources to produce the new educated generation that has mobilised change. In the prosperous east, 50% of the school-leavers are now university-educated, and it is more like 70% in a city such as Nanjing.
This is a world without maps. There were no street plans or road maps under Chairman Mao, so even professionals don’t know how to read them. When the car in front skids to a halt without warning, it is generally because the driver is ringing a friend to ask how to get somewhere. On my first visit to the little country town where Buck set “The Good Earth”, still a backwater in the poorest part of Anhui, the massive mud ramparts, the mud houses and the muddy main street had all gone, leaving almost nothing she would have recognised except the street markets. When I spotted one of these down a side turning, the driver slammed on his brakes in the middle of a newly built four-lane highway, and simply abandoned his car while we got out to investigate. The side-street was lined, as it had been in Buck’s day, with stalls selling fruit, vegetables, mounds of different coloured grains, beans and pulses, caged and loose chickens, crates of white pigeons, great baskets of red and black crayfish, and live fish in plastic bowls of water: shrimp, crab, frogs, eels, lithe dark trout, silvery flatfish, white water-worms. Tailors and shoeshine boys worked from the gutter, and the air was filled with the smell of roast sesame seed from freshly baked buns, pancakes and waffles.
Places like this disappear too fast for maps. Any number of people told me about going back home after a few years away, only to find the streets where they grew up had vanished as completely as if they had never existed. In one of Buck’s earliest stories a hot-water seller watches his home, his business and his entire community being bulldozed to make way for the first modern road that ripped through Nanjing’s old city in 1927. This year Xinran arranged for me to meet a maker of paper lanterns who had the same thing happen to him during a more recent clearance round Nanjing’s Confucius temple.
His family belonged to a fraternity of 200-300 lantern-makers, now forcibly dispersed. They sold their seasonal wares on stalls round the temple at New Year from the reign of the first Ming emperor in the 15th century until Chairman Mao very nearly stamped out the trade during the Cultural Revolution. Today, Mr Lu’s cramped workshop in another part of town is still crammed with dragons, lions, unicorns, frogs, fish, lobsters, rabbits, exquisite pink silk lotus blossoms and tiny paper water-lilies, all cut, coloured and pasted by hand. His masterpiece last year was a traditional nine-dragon setpiece: a six-foot-long painted coffer designed to be carried shoulder-high with exuberant illuminated paper dragons prancing or coiled round the sides in red, green, blue, yellow and orange.
All of these are the product of hard labour in the sweltering heat of summer or in the freezing winter (in March, people were still wearing their padded coats indoors and out, in shops, restaurants, classrooms, even in their own homes). An order in hand for nine large lotus lanterns—a speciality invented by Mr Lu himself after close study of the originals on Nanjing’s Lotus Lake—could be met only by working late into the night for a week. The individual paper petals of the countless water-lilies designed to be floated every year on the lake had to be minutely and evenly scored, folded and crimped by hand, until two years ago when Mr Lu installed a simple, hand-operated drum-and-cable machine that can turn them out, two or three at a time, every four or five minutes. Even so each flower still needs to be individually assembled, tied and glued round a coloured nightlight.
Mr Lu, who is 70, has been practising and refining his skills since he was ten. “Nowadays the young people can’t stick at it for even one day,” he complains. He and his wife, also 70, face an uncertain future with dwindling custom, no one to take over from them and employees increasingly reluctant to work all day every day for less than the state retirement pension. Far worse, from their point of view, is the indifference or contempt of the young for a rich, complex, ancient art of colour and form that goes back 500 years and takes a lifetime to master.
Yet people like this are perhaps better off than the lost generation now in their 50s, men and women who grew up unskilled and uneducated when the schools were shut for ten years in the Cultural Revolution, forcing them to work as drivers, cleaners or manual labourers. The much younger women I met belong to what is generally agreed to be the luckiest of all the generations, born in the 1980s and 1990s to a time of prosperity and social mobility no longer so stringently constrained by political or practical exigencies of hunger and want. “They think differently,” one of their elders said to me.
Buck described a young Chinese university colleague with a postgraduate degree from America who flatly denied, during one of the many great famines, that such things could happen in China. She had seen desperation and misery at first hand in Chicago slums, but nothing Buck could say would persuade her to climb Nanjing city wall to see for herself refugees from the villages round about camping out without food or shelter.
I found similar indignation from polite but insistent students. Didn’t I know how much China had changed, they asked. The modern world had made a clean break with the sad primitive outmoded countryside depicted in “The Good Earth”. Didn’t I realise how little that world had to do with them now? People everywhere wanted to know what I meant by the title of my biography, “Burying the Bones”. I explained that it came from a passage in Buck’s memoirs about how, as a small girl, she made secret grave mounds for tiny dismembered limbs or fragments of skull—the remains of newborn girls thrown out for the dogs to devour—that she found in the tall grass beyond her parents’ back gate.
It seemed to me an image of amnesia, public and private. Heads always nodded in my audience when I said that all of us have bones to bury, things that are never talked about in families, things a whole nation might prefer to forget. People in China now dismiss their ugly memories just as people all over Europe dismissed the Holocaust for many years after the war. “Children can’t bear to remember what happened to their parents,” says Xinran, who recorded the life stories of men and women in their 70s and 80s in “China Witness” (2008), the only one of her books that remains banned today even in translation.
Buck insisted that our grandparents’ world belongs also to us. The past made us what we are now, and we forget it at our peril. At the end of my last talk at Nanjing university, a student pointed out that burying the bones has a further meaning in China, where the dead are traditionally returned to the earth from which they came so that they may find peace. He might have added that it is only when the past has been acknowledged and accepted that it can finally be laid to rest.
Hilary Spurling is the author of “Burying the Bones: Pearl Buck in China”. Her life of Matisse was the Whitbread Book of the Year in 2006. Picture Credit: David Hogsholt, ralphrepo, Robert Scoble, openDemocracy (via Flickr)