Two Chinese Villages, Two Views of Rural Poverty
Women on Their Own And Men Who Sit Idle

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 1, 2006; A01

DACITAN, China -- Nestled mid-slope in the foothills of China's second-poorest province, Dacitan is a village run almost entirely by women, mothers who work the potato and wheat fields while their husbands are away.

Seventy miles to the east, perched on a remote mountain ridge above a collapsing dirt road, Sale is thick with men who sit idle, hoping for opportunity that never arrives and women who rarely do.

Both are Muslim villages populated by members of the ethnic Hui minority, and both are stark examples of the cost of China's blistering economic growth. While cities are booming, drawing migrant workers from the countryside and demonstrably improving life in some rural towns, other communities are shrinking. In the case of Dacitan, the women are left behind for months at a time as the men search for work; in Sale, the men say that few women want husbands in a poor, isolated village such as their own.

"Life here is so miserable, no one wants to marry the men," said Ma Xiuhua, 42, who grew up in Sale and was home visiting her mother. "For girls, the ideal way is to marry someone in the city or in a better village."

Cities hold promise for Chinese today, as home to the new wealth that is far removed from the rural poor. In the last 25 years, China has lifted about 400 million people out of poverty, according to a World Bank report, but efforts to reduce poverty have slowed significantly since the late 1990s and have declined since 2001. Millions of people still eke out a living in conditions that barely support life.

"Currently, the poverty elimination work for the Chinese government is much harder than 20 years ago. Those people who have been left behind are extremely poor and don't have enough skills to be lifted out of poverty," said Wang Yukai, an expert in rural poverty and deputy director of the National School of Administration in Beijing, which trains government officials.

Here in rural Gansu province, in northern central China, treatment for a bad kidney or a broken shoulder can cost a year's salary. The rising cost of gasoline and fertilizer, plus local fees for road building, irrigation and family planning have chipped away at gains derived from the new economy.

Each community survives in its own way.

"Before they went away to work as migrant workers, most of the heavy farm work was done by the men," said Chen Maiya, a 30-year-old resident of Dacitan. "Now it is done by the women. Sometimes I feel tired, but I can do nothing."

Women Left Behind

About 1,200 people live in Dacitan (pronounced DA-tse-tahn). It is the women who sustain the village from day to day. They line the main road on their way to work in the fields. They care for the children. They cook the meals.

Their husbands spend six to 10 months a year away from home. Even when they return to help with the harvest, as they did on a recent day, they are hard to spot.

The women are not in the habit of complaining publicly. Ma Haijizhe, for one, has no time.

Wearing mismatched silver earrings, a black velvet head covering and a shy smile, the 31-year-old mother of three said she rises each day at 6 a.m., cleans the floor and furniture, then cooks breakfast. Afterward, she weeds the wheat fields, then returns to cook lunch and feed the chickens. After more field work, she comes home at 6 p.m. to prepare dinner. After that, she and the children sit on a large hard bed, which also serves as the dining table, and she tells them stories or watches TV.

Her husband, Ma Yagubai, was among the men to arrive home recently. He had spent six months searching the Qinghai mountains for caterpillar fungus, a medicinal herb that is said to strengthen both lungs and sexual prowess and that is sold in pharmacies and airport gift shops for $200 an ounce.

He set down his belongings in the courtyard: a blanket, a sack of clothes and two empty cans of cooking oil. In a month, he said, he would be off again, this time to work at a construction site elsewhere in Gansu. Rural residents in the province make, on average, $247 a year. Last year, Ma Yagubai made only $250, so he didn't come home at all.

"It's not so difficult for me," he said. "This is my life."

His wife expressed a similar sense of indifference: "I don't miss him, I don't miss him at all," she said.

As Ma Yagubai spoke to visitors, his wife moved to the blackened shed that serves as a kitchen for her dirt-floor home. In seconds, she broke branches to stoke a fire, added oil to a large pot, sliced vegetables and potatoes, and gave her 5-year-old son a package of dried ramen noodles to chew on. She winced as she burned a finger in her haste. The next moment, she hoisted firewood onto her back to move it out of a light drizzle, then washed rice bowls with a swipe of her hand and a dash of boiled water before shooing chickens out of the courtyard for exercise.

Lunch was served in minutes -- steamed bread and a slightly spicy bowl of shredded cabbage and potatoes. It's the same for every meal. Her children "don't ask for anything else because that's all they know," she said. When she finally paused, she declined to join her family for the meal.

"Men eat first, women eat second," she said.

There is a Chinese proverb that applies to Ma Haijizhe: "Women hold up half the sky." But she has not heard of it. She has never attended school.

"It doesn't matter if I'm here or not," she said.

Her neighbor, Chen Maiya, is just as resigned to the status quo in the village. And, like Ma Haijizhe, she shows deference to the men.

"Although women do most of the work, it is the men who are in charge and who give the orders when they are here," she said. "If women were in charge, I don't know what would happen. Besides, it's impossible."

Also impossible was the suggestion that the women might be lonely. Asked if she missed her husband, who left for the city of Lhasa two months ago, Chen burst out laughing. She missed him, she said, but only in the sense that he "can come back and help me with the work."

And then Chen, wearing a red and black coat with sequins, a green velvet head scarf and orange paint on her fingernails, excused herself. She had to cook lunch for eight neighbors and relatives.

Years ago, many of Dacitan's 250 households hardly had enough to eat. Now children take steamed bread to school. Even though the village has not prospered like large towns or other cities, some progress has come. Houses are no longer made of just mud and straw. A paved road to the village was also built last year.

Still, Ma Yagubai must walk two hours to the closest bus route.

"Compared to 10 years ago, you can see the clothes people are wearing are better," he said. "But the food is the same. It used to be that you couldn't drive a car here. You would have to bicycle or walk.

"It is the same now," he said, "but I can always ask a neighbor for a ride on his three-wheel motorcycle."

Men Going Nowhere

To arrive in Sale (pronounced sa-LUH) is to drive up a dilapidated road and see men and boys everywhere. Women are scarce.

A large portion of the men say they are bachelors. They complain that they are so poor no one will marry them, unless the women come from even more impoverished villages. Dowries can be 600 percent of what a man here makes each year.

The village is home to about 1,000 people. It is at least five miles from the closest paved road, making escape difficult for anyone without connections or money. The slopes are steep, and the men say they cannot leave all the farming to the women who remain. Every rooftop has a lifeless hose that droops down to a metal bucket meant to catch rainwater, increasingly infrequent. The drinking water is gray.

"The road is broken, it's a mountainous region and there is no water," said Ma Jinghai, 26, who returned to Sale recently after two months on a construction site. He earned $125 but had to spend more than half that on his bus trip home.

Given the conditions and their despair, the men have resorted to a dubious means of securing wives, some villagers say: luring women here on false pretenses.

"Some women were tricked here -- they don't even understand the local dialect," said Ma Jinghai, who said he was upfront with his own wife, telling her exactly how poor he was when they met in the city of Lanzhou.

Stories here are often told in piecemeal fashion, with a wariness reserved for strangers, and not everyone is forthcoming. But walk into some of the homes, and the picture Ma Jinghai described becomes clearer.

Just south of Sale's only main intersection, near a fetid pool that children swim in and donkeys drink from, is a lonely-looking house with a dirt courtyard.

Inside, Ma Hasan, 34, said he was the poorest man in the village. Then he bragged that his wife was from Shaanxi province and college-educated.

"I cheated her here. I told her there's a very fun place . . . and we can have a lot of fun there," he said. That was six years ago, and for all he knows, he said, her parents might think she's dead.

"I have no problem meeting them," he said, "but what if they come and see this village and tell her she cannot stay in such a poor village? What will I do? I'm afraid to lose her."

His wife, once known as Liu Ting and now called Haliman, looks different from the rest of the villagers. She is Han Chinese, with plump cheeks and a nervous demeanor. She emerged for a visitor and waved but said nothing. Ma said his wife's journey to Sale began in a cheap restaurant in a Lanzhou market.

"She was working in a nearby shopping center as a salesperson," Ma said. "Three of my friends who were also friends of hers told me they wanted to hook me up with her. . . . They asked me how do I feel about this girl, do I want to marry her. I said yes. And then they asked her, and she said no."

So Ma promised a good time instead. Then his friends forced her into a car with them and Ma and drove the three hours back to Sale. "She resisted my advances at first for a week, and then it was done," he said.

Another villager, Ma Jun, 23, played down the number of women brought to Sale against their will. "We only have 10 girls who were cheated here," he said.

Ma Jun's family negotiated his wife's dowry down to $2,500, but that was still a steep price. Last year, working with a road repair crew, he earned only $625.

Her family gave the couple a new washing machine, one of only a few in the village. There were firecrackers, and 100 guests came out to celebrate.

At the wedding, a rare occasion in Sale, half the village came to watch the couple eat.

Researcher Jin Ling contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company