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

Urbanization has lowered a once-high suicide rate. But life is still hard.


Zhengwu 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.

"Buddhism teaches you to accept your destiny," Sijia said. "In a former life, I owed someone a debt, so I need to get rid of my sins. I used to want revenge on that man [from the golf course], but now I'm at peace with it."


In the summer of 2011, Sijia's life changed again when she was introduced to the director preparing to make The Cremator. After reading the script, she says she persuaded him that her life story was just like that of Xiuqiao's character, and that she could easily lend authenticity to the role.

When shooting began in rural Shaanxi, Sijia found herself almost completely surrounded by men. The sex ratio at birth in the province is now over 130 males for every 100 females (the skew is 118:100 nationwide). The imbalance is even greater in rural areas.

The demand for women brought about by this imbalance even extends into death in rural areas that practice a "ghost bride" custom, where unmarried dead are wedded posthumously and buried together so as to avoid a lonely afterlife. The gender imbalance has created a black market for ghost brides, a subject depicted in The Cremator.

Early in the film, a young woman is dredged from a river and taken to the local morgue. Its operators plan to sell the body for a "ghost marriage" but Old Lao, the terminally ill cremator, wants the girl to be his own eternal bride.

Sijia's character Xiuqiao shows up from another part of Shaanxi looking for her missing sister, who had come to the area to work as a cook for men in construction. Old Lao, not wanting to lose his ghost bride, turns Xiuqiao away, saying that no young women have turned up. Xiuqiao keeps looking, later turning to prostitution after running out of money during her search.

Eventually, Lao takes pity on the girl and shows her the body that turns out to be her sister.

Because there were no other young women to be found during filming, Sijia unexpectedly had to act as the corpse. This entailed being zipped into a body bag, slid into a morgue's cold chamber and shut into a coffin. Sijia was furious, but she says the complete isolation and feeling of death gave her a new perspective.

"The moment I laid down in the coffin, all sounds outside went away," she said. "The only thing I felt was that I would live up to my life's potential."


By most measurable indicators, the lot of rural women has improved dramatically in the decade since Michael Phillips' suicide study shocked the nation. In addition to the falling suicide rate, record numbers of women are attending college, rural healthcare has expanded greatly, and millions have been pulled from abject poverty.

But rural areas haven't kept up with cities, and women haven't kept pace with men. While per capita income tripled for rural residents from 2,253 RMB ($275) per year in 2000 to 6,977 RMB in 2011, incomes in cities nearly quadrupled from 6,280 to 23,979 RMB during the same period, according to China's National Bureau of Statistics. Rural women only earned 56 percent of what their male counterparts did in 2010, down from 79 percent in 1990. These gaps in money and power leave rural women vulnerable to exploitation.

Reliable statistics for sexual assault in China don't exist, but Tsun-Yin Luo, a professor at the Graduate Institute for Gender Studies at Shih-Hsin University in Taipei, estimates that fewer than one out of ten sexual assaults are ever reported in China. "The patriarchal culture actually brings sexual violence to female victims," she says. "Lots of victims of sexual assault feel ashamed of their victimization, and even if they don't feel ashamed, their family ensures that they feel ashamed."

Luo says that this disproportionally affects rural women, who don't have the same access to information about their rights. "Women in the countryside tend to be left behind," she says.

In coming years, China's growing gender imbalance will continue to shake up the dynamic for rural women, for better and for worse. The scarcity of females in the countryside is allowing women to be pickier about whom they marry and letting them marry into higher economic brackets.

However, instances of sexual assault and human trafficking for prostitution and bride-selling are on the rise. A 2009 study found that from 1988 to 2004, every 1 percent increase in China's gender imbalance increased violent and property crime by 3.7 percent. With roughly 1 million additional excess males reaching marrying age in China each year, some frustrated men are becoming more aggressive in finding partners. Last summer near Sijia's hometown in Shaanxi, a 38-member gang was busted for raping and selling women into prostitution.

It's hard to objectively measure whether the "bitterness" for rural women was greater in the past or will become greater in the future. Improving economic conditions concurrent with deteriorating social conditions is a common situation among young rural Chinese women -- a group with little power to speak out.

Sijia is still working on film sets and occasionally acting. In true "eating bitterness" fashion, she plays down the idea that her life is indicative of wider trends, saying she's just been unlucky and that her hardships aren't an of indictment on society. Overall, she's optimistic about her chances of being happy and for China to become a better place.

"I think you always have to have hope," she says. "My Buddhist mentor told me it's the heart that determines your environment. Good people will live in good places, and good places always have good people."