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.