'Eating Bitterness': Hardship and Opportunity for Rural Women in China

Urbanization has lowered a once-high suicide rate. But life is still hard.
thecremator.jpgZhengwu Cheng (L) and Sijia Wang (R) in a scene from The Cremator (Busan International Film Festival)

Young Xiuqiao slowly approaches the cold chamber of a rural Shaanxi Province mortuary, led by the facility's cremator, old Lao. She'd spent weeks searching for her sister, who'd gone out for migrant work and never returned home. Old Lao opens the chamber and prods Xiuqiao to have a look at the corpse's face. She reluctantly obliges and then slumps to the ground in despair -- but she doesn't shed a single tear.

This scene from an independent film called The Cremator is based on the Chinese concept of "eating bitterness," an expression that loosely means pushing ahead in the face of extreme hardship. In 2011, then 21-year-old Yang Sijia got her big break when she was chosen for two roles in the film -- a migrant worker who takes her own life, and her sister, Xiuqiao, who's left to deal with her suicide. Wanting to depict rural Shaanxi life authentically, the director used non-professional actors from the province. If Sijia's quiet agony was convincing, it was because her real life had entailed even more bitterness than her character's.

An oft-cited study published in 2002 found that, between 1995 and 1999, Chinese women committed suicide at a 25 percent higher rate than Chinese men -- a clear contrast with worldwide trends -- and that rural suicides happened at three times the rate of urban areas. The study shocked the nation and led to dozens of media reports. But now, more than a decade after its release, suicide rates among this demographic have plummeted.

According to Michael Phillips, executive director of the WHO's Suicide Prevention Center in Beijing and the conductor of the 2002 study, the male to female suicide rate is now nearly equivalent, and the rural rate is now just twice the urban rate. Furthermore, research by Tsinghua University Sociologist Jing Jun found that the suicide rate among rural women actually dipped below that of rural men back in 2006 and has since remained relatively steady at around 9 cases per 100,000 people, down from 33 in 1987.

Both researchers believe urbanization is the primary factor for this change. The proportion of rural workers traveling away from their hometown for employment has shot up from 7 percent of China's rural labor force in 1987 to nearly 30 percent today. Of those migrant workers, over a third are now women. Jing Jun says that by leaving for most of the year to work in cities, women are separated from abusive husbands and overbearing in-laws -- the primary stresses cited in cases of suicide among rural women. Separating women from pesticides -- a highly accessible and lethal substance correlated with impulsive suicides -- is another key factor.

But the dropping suicide rate may mask many of the issues that continue to put pressure on rural women both in the countryside and when they branch out into the cities.

*** 

Sijia was born in 1990 in a Shaanxi village of a few thousand, and was among the first generation of Chinese to grow up entwined in migrant life. As a child, she moved frequently with her migrant worker parents, an experience that made her feel like an outsider wherever she went. Because she was socially isolated, Sijia devoted herself to her studies and became a star student. Her future seemed bright. "But then during the summer between middle school and high school, something happened that wasn't very happy," she said. "It changed my life."

Her father had brought her to be a part-time cook for the summer at a golf course he was now working at, which was almost exclusively used and staffed by men. One evening, a woman at a neighboring shop on the course asked Sijia to stay and keep an eye on the place while she ran home. The woman told her she could even take a shower in the back while she was gone. Sijia agreed, went to the back and slipped out of her clothes. It was then that her father's boss came in.

"There was only one wall between us and where my dad was," she said. "I was crying but it was my dad's boss. I was scared, so I didn't scream."

She was 16.

The experience altered Sijia's perspective. Nevertheless, her studious habits stuck and she managed to get into a film college in Xi'an, an impressive accomplishment for a student with her background and something that would have been impossible for her parents a generation ago. But her problems weren't over.

During college she worked a gamut of part-time jobs to support herself, from selling clothes on the street to washing dishes. One job was at a high-end restaurant where she and another girl would greet customers at the door as they entered. But after a few months, her boss came to her and said he was scaling back. Only one of the two girls would be kept on. "If you're together with me, I'll keep you," he told Sijia. She decided to quit.

Throughout high school and college, Sijia sometimes cut herself and even attempted suicide four times by choking herself with a rope. But on each occasion, she lost her nerve before any serious damage was done. During this time that she began visiting a Buddhist "master" she'd met years earlier when her mother brought her to pray at a temple before an exam, an experience that slowly brought her out of her psychological torment. In contemporary China, where the constantly shifting social order has caused many to feel lost, interest in religion has skyrocketed.

Eric Fish is a writer based in Beijing.

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