By Andrea Zarate
In a garden along a narrow village road, Zhang Fie Feng plucked weeds amid budding trees while her 5-year-old granddaughter marched down the rows, ignoring her grandmother’s requests to collect discarded dandelions.
Zhang, 56, is one of the women of Xiejiaqiao, a village where many women’s lives were defined by the social and economic environment in which they grew up. Historical events and the changing culture of rural China often shaped their occupations and roles within the family.
“I come from a poor family,” Zhang said. “My mother never received a formal education. Because of the government’s help and our will to work we have more money to spend. I can send my granddaughter to school on a [paid] bus service. She goes to kindergarten, but when she’s seven or eight I will enroll her in primary school.”
Zhang has lived in Xiejiaqiao village all her life, contributing to her family’s income by farming pecans, bamboo and other vegetables. There were very few educational opportunities for her as a child. She said her mother postponed her schooling until age 10. Zhang had to quit school shortly after to look after her siblings while her mother worked the farm and cared for her ill father.
“I struggled for knowledge, but learned very quickly,” she said. “I only went to school for four years all my life because my mother needed me to stay home.”
When she turned 15, the Cultural Revolution began and farming was encouraged over education. Zhang said she eventually married and started a family when she was 26.
“By then, I ran out of opportunities to get schooling,” she said.
Her brother went off to become a university graduate and now lives in Nanjing. Her son also left the village to work in transportation while she has dedicated her time to raising her granddaughter.
Xiang Wu Chun, 45, lives with her mother, Feng Ye Tan, 70, and the rest of her family down the road from Zhang’s plot of land. Xiang, dressed in boots muddied from the rainy weather, sat with her mother under their porch peeling the leaves off the greens in preparation for lunch.
Xiang, too, is the main caretaker of her family’s farmland. Like many women in the village, she grows food for her family meals as well as pecans and bamboo to sell for profit.
“My husband works as a painter but his salary does not maintain our family enough,” Xiang said. “In this village, the women are the ones that do most of the farming and still clean the home and make the meals too.”
The agricultural family changed household dynamics in rural China.
After Deng Xiaoping passed a new policy in 1979 to distribute land to the farmers, people began making profit off of their farming. With more material and financial opportunity, the men of the family have taken jobs in the city and left farming responsibilities to their wives.
“In that time [before economic reform] my husband and I worked together,” said Feng, Xiang’s mother. “He did most of the farming while I did the cooking for the family.” She said now that families have more material ambitions, men have left some of their agricultural life behind.
In the busiest time of the year Xiang wakes up at five in the morning to harvest the bamboo. At 11 a.m., she heads back home to cook lunch. She then goes back to the field until suppertime when she cooks up another meal.
“This is harder than the factory work other women do,” Xiang said. “I never tried working at a factory. The land needs me, and my family needs me to stay home.”
Still, the increasing prosperity in the village has given these rural Chinese women more choices. Zhang said she thinks her granddaughter won’t go on to become a farmer because she has more educational opportunities than women of previous generations.
“I want my granddaughter to live in the city,” Zhang said. “She’s very bright and can get a college education. If she leaves, it’s okay if the land is ruled by no one.”