Women in Shangzhi village, Xinshao county, Hunan province,
in front of a slogan that says "removing the label of being
illiterate". Many in rural China are still subject to age-old
beliefs that their primary role is to do household chores
and take care of the family. Lu Jianshe
Contrary to the law, a deep-rooted tradition in rural north China still dictates it is sons who must care for the parents - and who stand to inherit the family assets. Mei Jia reports
Even as Wang Shui's mother awaited an operation to remove a tumor, relatives were trying to stop Wang from paying for the surgery that would save her mother's life.
The argument of the villagers of Houfangzi in southeastern Hebei province was that caring for one's parents rests solely with sons, as they stand to inherit the family's assets.
"Although this goes against China's law on inheritance (which give sons and daughters an equal share in the family wealth), the tradition is still deeply rooted in rural areas," says Li Yinhe, 58, the country's leading sociologist and sexologist, in Women at Houcun Village, her latest book based on a survey of gender relations in Houfangzi (shortened as Houcun in her book).
With a population of just 792, the village continues to follow some of the country's ancient customs, and is typical of northern China's countryside, Li says.
She surveyed 100 married women of the 187 families in the village, with the help of Wang, one of her doctoral students at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Wang, 33, the village's first-ever PhD candidate, spent a year gathering information from fellow villagers, aged between 20 and 60.
A Houfangzi woman at the carpet factory in her village. Wang Sui / For China Daily
Born into an ordinary farmer's family, Wang has a brother who is two years younger. Their mother's illness led to medical costs of some 20,000 yuan ($2,929) in 2007. Earning more than 3,000 yuan a month in Jingxian county, Wang's brother could afford the expense, but Wang wished to share it to show her love for her family.
"But my uncles and aunties feared that doing so would threaten the custom that only sons can inherit the family property," Wang says.
It was only when she shouted, "I won't take one penny of what is due to my brother", did they relent and allow her to foot half the medical bill.
Back in the village, many of her childhood girl friends scoffed at her. But Wang says she is used to such scorn. Growing up, while most of her friends were happy to drop out of school after a few years to get married, she wanted to top her class so she could go on to university.
Fortunately for her, her father treated both his children equally, and her brother was also supportive. In 1995, when Wang passed the national university entrance exam, the family decided to support her, the village's first girl to go to university.
However, with earnings of 1,500 yuan ($220) a year, her father could ill afford to educate both his children. So her brother quit high school, found odd jobs and even sent her 400 yuan a month while Wang studied in university.
"He's proud of me," she says. "When he got married in 2000, I gave him 20,000 yuan from my own savings so he could build a house."
Education is the key to raising the status of rural women, Li points out. The educated ones such as Wang are more apt to be professionals, contributing substantially to family income. "In rural north China, a woman's status is positively correlated with her income," Li says.
She quotes the case of Li Xiaomin, 26, an elementary school teacher, who is the village's only married woman to eat at the dining table when guests arrive. Typically, the women of Houcun village eat in the kitchen, while their husbands chat and dine with guests at the table.
Li Xiaomin earns 1,000 yuan ($146) a month, which is much higher than the village's average of 170 yuan. In addition, she lives and works in her parents' village instead of her husband's, which Wang says "explains her high status".
Despite these changes, it is age-old tradition that dictates everyday life here.
Liu Jinrong, 42, is a high school graduate who founded a handmade carpet factory and sold her products overseas.
Her husband knows little about management, and Liu has to run the business while also attending to all household chores. And when guests - including those interested in her business - arrive, she has to stand by the table, serving them with a smile and listening to her husband, who makes all the final decisions regarding the factory.
"If I express my views, he'll revile me in front of the guests," Liu says. "All my acquaintances know that he's a factory head only in name. All he does is drink, eat and smoke cigarettes. And I'm the nanny without any payment."
Says Li, the sociologist: "Liu's case shows that patriarchal influences still dominate in rural areas."
While the status of women has risen greatly in the past 100 years, Li believes the natural division of labor, rural traditions regarding inheritance and the fact that most rural women live with their in-laws, limit their empowerment.
Where married women stay greatly determines their status in society, and not just in rural China. Last year, when Li did a survey of marital relations in five major cities, she found that 46.4 percent of women in the 4,013 families surveyed, lived with the husband's family.
"This makes the customs of inheritance impossible to change," Li says. A married woman living in her husband's village cannot go home frequently to take care of her parents and the family's lands.
Thus, except for the situation where a family has no sons, all its assets pass on to the sons in Houcun, Wang says.
Li believes that as urbanization expands, women can expect more equality. "More couples will live and work independently as nuclear families," she says.
Wang agrees and says she has noticed changes in her own family.
In the 1950s, when her grandparents had just married, her grandfather would give his wife a piece of melon rind sans the flesh, and this was considered a huge favor.
But Wang's mother dines at the table when no guests visit them. And her sister-in-law gets to tuck into her favorite dish, ahead of others, when the couple visits Wang's parents.
As for Wang, her success has earned her the respect of fellow villagers. When she goes home for Spring Festival, they invite her to write couplets to put on their front gate, a rare honor reserved for scholars.
"More girls now have the chance to complete higher education," Wang observes.
In the Guizhou countryside, moms with babies doing farmwork
is a common sight. Wu Dongjun