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Making Things Better for Women

Like many people her age, Tan Shen, 50, worked on several jobs before settling on a profession, in her case sociology.

One might think that the twists and turns Tan has experienced would make good material for a sociological self-study, but she claims her focus is, and always has been, on the lives of other people.

"I've been concerned more about the external world than personal affairs from my childhood," Tan said, after repeated questions about her early life.

Tan has persistently taken up difficult tasks or research topics out of concern for what she considers the most marginalized groups of people in China, people who are displaced or disregarded.

Her devotion and research results have won her respect from colleagues at home and abroad.

Tan, also a senior editor with the Chinese language journal "Sociological Research" under the auspices of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has been invited to give lectures at leading universities in the United States including Harvard University. Many of her research projects have won support from international foundations.

Tan was recently invited to join in an ongoing nationwide survey on the social position of women, organized by the National Bureau of Statistics and the All-China Women's Federation.

She is responsible for one of four subjects: rural women working in cities. The topic fits nicely with her previous interests.

"I was brought up at a time when the mood of society was one that required us to develop social consciousness," she said.

Turning point in life

When she was still a young student in school, Tan had dreamed of becoming a journalist, a profession that would allow her to observe society and express her concern for social issues.

Then the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) broke out. She had no way of realizing her dream. Instead, after graduating from junior middle school in Beijing, she left home to till the land.

Thinking about those times was a "collective memory" rather than a personal reminiscence, Tan claimed, since millions of middle school graduates at that time had to leave their urban homes to begin "new lives" in rural areas.

The first few months of her life in the countryside were something new and fresh.

"Everything was amazing to the fresh faced urban youths like me when I had just arrived at Wenxi County in Shanxi Province," she said. "I was full of daring and vigor."

In the first few months, Tan recalled running through the vast fields and climbing the hills to compose lyric poetry that expressed her emotion.

Gradually, however, she found the freshness and charm she first experienced in the rural things were mere illusions.

"While I was admiring their way of life and learning from them, the peasants were aspiring to a life in the cities," she recalled. "We also discovered that the thoughts and ideas that the local peasants shared with us were not so divine as we had been told they would be."

She became frustrated at the gap between the ideal of rural ''re-education'' and the reality of it.

Fortunately, she got a chance to study in Shanxi University in 1973, where she majored in Chinese literature.

After finishing her college studies, she became an office clerk with the Wenxi County government.

In 1976, she returned to Beijing and took up managerial work at a State-run food factory.

In 1980, she was able to continue her studies at the People’s University of China in Beijing.

"I still loved Chinese literature and I cherished the opportunity," she said.

With her solid training in Chinese literature, she was able to get a job with Beijing Youth Daily as a reporter after finishing up at People’s University. A childhood dream had come true.

She worked as a journalist at the paper for five years. Although she made friends on the job, she was disappointed to discover that working for the newspaper did not furnish her with enough time and opportunity to explore and contemplate China's society.

So when a friend introduced her to sociological research, she quit her newspaper job and jumped at the new opportunity.

Sociology as a career

She soon took to her new profession as a sociologist with the Sociology Research Institute under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

"I enjoy the work as a sociologist and I've kept working here for so many years because it gives me enough time to think and do my research," she said.

She couldn't have begun her sociological work at a more critical time. Vigorous reforms began to spread from rural areas into the State-owned businesses in urban areas.

The social attentiveness she had developed since childhood, combined with her training as a journalist, enabled her to identify immediately the problems that would accompany China's reform drive.

As a woman, she naturally found herself drifting towards concern over the impact of reform on women.

According to Tan, the problems women have faced during reforms are numerous. The number of the women participating in managing the State was very small. They were often the first to lose their jobs during restructuring of State-run enterprises. As college graduates, they found it increasingly difficult to find jobs, while their male counterparts had more opportunities.

Gradually, she began to focus on rural women who were working in urban areas because of economic or family concerns.

"Though the women from the countryside have become a strong force in manufacturing industries, their status is not properly recognized by society," Tan said. "Unlike most of their urban counterparts, rural women do not often benefit from labor safety and other rights that are considered basic for all workers."

Letters of endearment

One case that Tan has worked on extensively is a devastating fire in 1993 at a toy factory in Shenzhen. It killed 87 women and left 51 disabled.

She couldn't forget the case during her research work in the Pearl River delta area, where hundreds of thousands of rural women from inland areas work in mushrooming labor-intensive factories.

She had to re-study the case in 1998, when an organization in Hong Kong approached her for her assistance in locating the victims and the families of the deceased after Chicco, the Italian parent company that owned the toy factory, agreed to provide a small amount of money in compensation to the victims and their families.

But the conditions for compensation were strict and a detailed name list was required.

Unfortunately for the organization, the toy factory had been mismanaged and there was no proper employees' registrar.

The only clues Tan had to work with were 109 personal letters she got from another sociologist, who was a member of the group that originally investigated the accident and collected the letters left in the women workers' dorms.

Though it was hard to figure out the names and the places in the letters because of sloppy handwriting and broken paper, Tan devoted much of her time and effort to working out the puzzles.

"Reading the letters - which were simple but moving - was just like reading the honest minds of these women and learning first-hand about their hard lives," Tan said.

She felt an urge to see what had happened to the survivors and the victims' families.

Following clues garnered from the letters and other sources, Tan took some of her students and began making strenuous journeys into the countryside to visit relatives of the deceased workers living in the southwest part of Sichuan Province and the central part of Henan Province.

Most of the families received very little money in compensation for their daughters' deaths in 1993.

"Whenever I recall what I saw in those villages, I feel pain in my heart," Tan said.

"Finding out where the families were was one aim, collecting material for my research was another, but the thing that kept me going through the visits was my conscience."

During the visits, she made friends with many of the girls who had worked in the factory. Some survivors still keep touch with her.

It was not until the end of 1999 that Chicoo finally made a concession to entrust an organization in Hong Kong to distribute the money to near 100 victims known so far.

At present, Tan has concentrated her research in Guangdong Province, where large populations of rural women work in urban factories.

"The rural girls' experience reminds me of my life in the countryside during the 'cultural revolution,'" she said. "I also left home at their age."

Job not finished yet

Searching for the lost names in the toy factory disaster has brought Tan Shen closer to rural subjects, she said.

An increasing number of rural people are migrating to work in the city, where fast social and economic development makes promises of wealth but present a harsh reality. Researchers should help increase the social awareness about the rights of these rural women workers in urban areas and work out ways to assist the government in addressing the problems and preventing tragedies like the toy factory fire from happening again, Tan said.

"I will not stop with the name list," she vowed. "I'm going to try to spread the word about them to kind people who are capable of giving them a hand."

(China Daily 03/07/2001)

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