Chinese Farmers of a New Type

China has made great achievements as regards theoretical research into, and practice of, reproductive health since the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development. Subsequent to this conference, the Chinese central government made two strategic changes in its birth control policy. Its working objective changed from simple population control to a combination of birth control and reproductive health promotion, and its mode of operation altered from administrative to scientific management, and provision of a family planning service.

In recent years, through the cooperation of the United Nations Population Fund and related Chinese departments, the PO3 project, aimed at increasing Chinese farmers’ awareness of reproductive health, and carrying out research into their education level on this subject, has been implemented. Investigative teams have been sent by the All China Women’s Federation to rural areas to assess the local situation and hear what farmers have to say on this topic.

Chen Xinxin, a researcher with the Research Institute of Women under the All China Women's Federation, recently went to Mulan County in Heilongjiang Province with a research group, where there are still no railways. They carried out a sample survey among men and women of child-bearing age in Lidong Town and in Xinsheng Township’s Yude and Xinfa villages, distributed questionnaires to a junior middle school grade three class, held seminars on various topics in the county, and interviewed local leaders.

Love and Marriage

There are 14 townships in Mulan County, and at the end of 1998 its population was 250,000, composed of a 51.2 percent male, 48.8 percent female ratio. The annual per capita income of urban residents at that time was 5,464 yuan, and farmers’ per capita income was 2,197 yuan. The county’s annual grain output was 310,000 tons. As grain prices have dropped in recent years, farmers’ incomes in the two villages we visited are very low, the annual income per capita being less than 1,000 yuan.

According to the villagers we spoke to, there are now very few arranged and mercenary marriages. Young men and women get to know each other through a matchmaker, and if they feel themselves to be well suited, marry. Free choice of marriage partner is not very common, but is no longer opposed.

The criteria for a suitable spouse are a good personality, outlook, and education level. Women usually consider men who are of equal status, as regards living conditions and social class. Young people are no longer forced into arranged marriages by their parents, but make their marital decisions independently. They therefore experience fewer marital conflicts, and the divorce rate is low. Young women now enjoy freedom of love and marriage, and 96 percent of fathers agree to let their daughters choose their own marriage partner, which is a huge progress.

Most young couples live apart from their parents, and husband and wife have equal status. They discuss family affairs together, and in most cases, the wife controls the family finances. There are no extramarital affairs, family violence, and female abductions and trafficking here, and the divorce rate is less than 1 percent. Among the local male population, 89.1 percent agree that men and women are equal, and 5.3 percent express the belief that women are superior to men.

Farmers have a sound basis for this opinion. Women’s social status has risen in proportion to female participation in the labor force. Thirty-eight-year-old Zhao Min has a son and daughter, and his wife does both house and farm work. “Nowadays, both men and women are busy,” says Zhao. “Women do both family and field work. My wife gets up at four or five o'clock in the morning to cook breakfast, and after eating, we go together to work in the fields. When we get home, she feeds the chickens and pigs, does laundry for the children, cooks and washes the dishes. Women now labor far more than men, and have consequently heightened their social status. These days, no man in my village would dare to beat his wife.”

According to statistics, men also do their share of housework, 29 percent of them doing one to two hours per day, 23 percent doing over three hours, 16.4 percent doing two to three hours, and 30 percent doing very little or none at all. Chinese rural men are learning to respect their wife and make more effort to ease their burden.

Wife beating is looked down upon and rarely occurs in the villages. If a couple has a quarrel and the wife goes back to her parents, her husband must go after her and apologize before taking her home. A man who has been divorced because of family violence finds it hard to remarry.

Chinese farmers rarely consider the quality of their marriage. Most are too shy to discuss their sex-life, and the overall quality of their marriage. Fifty-one-year-old Chang Fengshan and his wife have two sons and two daughters. “To be frank, all men want a happier life,” says Chang, “but life is hard, and we are still at the stage of trying to make ends meet. We have no time to think about sexual harmony.” Fifty-seven-year-old Dai Jun has two daughters and a son, and his wife has been sick for a long time. “It does not matter whether I am happy with my wife or not,” he says, “We are married, and must understand each other in order to be able to live together. There are some couples who cannot sustain a compatible relationship, but they constitute less than one percent, and very few get divorced.”

Supporting the Family Planning Policy

The concept of having a son to continue the family line has long been deeply ingrained in the Chinese consciousness, especially in rural areas, and implementation of the family planning policy was initially hard going. Many people became obsessed with the need to give birth to a son, believing they would otherwise be a laughing stock.

The situation has, however, changed dramatically in recent years. Liu Yonggui and his wife have practiced contraception throughout the year they have been married. Liu says that he and his wife want to wait till they are better off before having a baby. An ever-increasing number of young rural couples are of a similar mindset, and no longer have a child so soon after marriage as has hitherto been the norm.

Harbin, capital of Heilongjiang Province, has seven districts and 12 counties, and Mulan is only a small county. According to Ms Qiu Xiaoping of the Mulan County Family Planning Commission, the old method of giving administrative orders to carry out the family planning policy has been replaced by the provision of a reproductive health service that is in the interests of the masses. Women with children can choose the contraception methods that suit them best, and measures are in force to avoid abortion and induced labor so as to reduce physical discomfort and economic loss.

In the old days, sons could be relied upon to do hard labor, to support family elders and to continue the family clan, but now sons and daughters are considered equal, and there are even those that believe daughters to be better than sons. There are several reasons.

As regards matrimony, the son’s family is required to spend far more than that of the bride, who are expected to give a small sum only, to help the couple live a little more comfortably. Financial pressure on the parents of the groom, however, is quite heavy. Ten years ago, an amount of 1,800 to 2,000 yuan was required for a marriage, whereas now as much as 40,000 to 50,000 yuan is necessary. “My youngest son is still single,” says Chang Fengshan. “I save on food and expenses, but I may still have to borrow money when he gets married. I have been through great hardship in order to bring up my children, and to see to them married. Too many sons are no longer affordable.”

Another reason is that most daughters are more naturally filial than are sons. Daughters frequently go to see their parents after marriage, bringing them good food or new clothes. If their parents are sick, they take them to hospital and make sure they get proper treatment. Daughters are emotionally more close to their parents. Sons in comparison are more concerned with their own families, and after having children of their own, seldom take the time to consider their parents.

According to statistics, 29.5 percent of fathers in the area where our research was carried out preferred daughters, 28.4 percent preferred sons, and 41 percent had no preference over sons or daughters. This data clearly shows that Chinese farmers are rapidly and dramatically changing their traditional concepts.

Reproductive Health to be Popularized

“I feel that there is a great difference between developing and developed regions in terms of reproductive health,” says Tan Xiaoguang, director of the Family Planning Office of Lidong Town. “Our town’s Lixian Village is an area inhabited by the Korean ethnic group. Many villagers have relatives in the Republic of Korea and go there to work and earn good money. As a result, their living standards have improved, and they pay more attention to their health and hygiene. When they are sick, they take the initiative to go to hospital for treatment. In the past few years, there have been no instances of early marriages or early child bearing in the village. Like urban dwellers, some marry at 30 or older, and on International Women’s Day, they invite representatives from the Women’s Federation along to celebrate it.”

There are 13 villages in Lidong Town. Since 1998, all women have been given physical examinations to gauge and record their reproductive health. To date, out of the 2,576 women examined, 587 were found to be sick, 397 of whom have been cured. Health cards have been drawn up for them to keep as health records, and those who have received treatment are visited regularly by doctors until recovery. Clinical fees in the town are low, and treatment has shown good results, encouraging people from surrounding areas to come and seek help. This has increased the income of local doctors, enabling them to buy better equipment. The local clinic is now open every day, including weekends and holidays, in line with the needs of local farmers.

Children Are Our Future

The family planning policy enables parents to pay more attention to their child’s education. Although most farmers are still fundamentally poor, they are eager for their children to receive more education, despite substantial increases in education expenses. They believe their children are their future, and therefore want them to undergo healthy physical and mental development.

We held a discussion with seven teachers at the Xinsheng Township Middle School. They told us that rural youth are inclined to be more simple, conservative and close-minded than their urban counterparts. There are no cases of puppy love leading to teen-age pregnancies in the school. Parents are busy with their work and have no time to talk about love, and when the students go home, their activities consist of doing their homework and share of housework. Occasionally a boy and girl may gain favorable impressions of one another and exchange letters. In such cases, teachers try to direct their attention towards study, and the problem is generally easily solved.

We also held a seminar with the students and asked them to fill out questionnaires. The students stated that boys and girls are equal at school. The election of class leaders is decided according to ability, and there were those who thought that girls were in some ways better suited to this station than boys. To their minds, their grandparents’ generation discriminated against women, but within their parents’ generation, men and women are equal, the only disparity being that their mothers do more housework and their fathers more farm work. We talked with 14 students in the class: three boys were sole children in their family, and the other 11 had one sibling. These students said they felt no gender discrimination at home, and that their parents had stated that they would provide their study expenses as long as they wished to learn, regardless of their gender.

The school plays an important role in reproductive health education, but it cannot teach them everything. Teachers expressed the hope that reading materials might be given to the students, explaining the facts of life in more detail, especially to girls.

Students have a physiological hygiene class at junior middle school, when they study the whole spectrum of life, from the cell to the whole human body, and consequently feel quite natural and relaxed when learning about sex.

Reproductive health is a complex subject, and the knowledge of female teachers frequently falls far short of what it should be, insofar as knowing how to bear a healthy baby, the points requiring attention during pregnancy, methods of child-birth available, and mother and infant post natal care. They are now learning about all these aspects of reproductive health, and encourage their students to do the same.

Implementation of the PO3 Project has helped to regularize and legalize the female and infant health care service and training in the poorer areas, and to promote reproductive health activities in the interests of women in rural areas. Chinese women’s social status has consequently improved, and they are even more aware of their own worth.

(China Today 09/11/2001)

In This Series

Most Chinese Children Don’t Want to Be Farmers

China Plans Nationwide Inspection of Farmers' Fees

Farmers Earn More

More and More Farmers Go Online

Farmers Given Growing Options

Rural Towns Seek Ways to Expand Medical Services


Love Affairs: The Top Threat to Marriage

A Good Day for Divorce?

New Marriage Law, a Hit on Book Market

Marriage Law to Better Protect Women and Children

Marriage Rate Down While Divorces on Rise

Women Face Dilemma on Child-Bearing


The Situation of Chinese Women

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