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The impact of economic development on rural women in China

The study
The findings
Atai: a young woman
Ren Zhen Chu: a middle-aged woman
Asman: the Tibetan landlady
Hai Zhang Tou: an old woman who was once a slave

All-China Women's Federation, Beijing, China



In old China, agricultural productivity was low and the small-scale peasant economy was basically a combination of traditional farming and handicraft industries. Most of the land belonged to a handful of landlords and the majority of peasants lived in poverty. Rural women generally worked at home, where they were responsible for the household chores, raising livestock, weaving, and various supplementary jobs. Their status in the family and society was very low.

Soon after modern China was founded in 1949, land reform began throughout the country. Landless people, both men and women, now got some land and women's economic status began to change: the feudal tradition of male superiority was under attack. Then the government began to transform the peasant economy by establishing public ownership of the basic means of production and a socialist co-operative economy. During this period rural women came out in their millions to participate in collective productive work. They earned their own income and expanded the range of their activities greatly. On the whole, their outlook broadened and their status in the family and society began to improve, though it was a gradual process and it differed in degree from individual to individual.

After 1957, inexperience and economic mismanagement put a damper on agricultural growth. Grain production was unduly emphasized, to the neglect of other crops. Those who tilled the land had little say in how it was used and egalitarian patterns of distribution were enforced. Women were further disadvantaged by the vestiges of feudal ideas that prevented the implementation of the principle of equal pay: they usually got less than men for doing the same amount of work. Moreover, while women participated in collective production just like men, they had also heavy household chores to attend to in the home. This situation lasted until the late 1970s.

At the end of 1978 China began rural structural reforms by adopting a household contract responsibility system whereby farmers could keep their surplus produce for themselves after they had sold a contracted amount to the state. The new economic policies effectively boosted the farmers" enthusiasm for work and raised levels of efficiency in agricultural production. Policies encouraged a diversified economy, and forestry, animal husbandry, fishing, and other sideline occupations flourished as well as farming. At the same time, village and township enterprises developed rapidly, providing employment for surplus rural labour, including women. While it would be difficult to give accurate relative values of the yuan during these different phases, the unadjusted figures will give some idea of general trends: in 1949, the value of China's total agricultural output was 32.6 billion yuan; in 1978 it was 156.7 billion yuan. In 1949, farmers had a per capita annual income of 44 yuan. It was 134 in 1978, and by 1986 it had risen to 424.

The study

The research project focused on the economic reforms since 1979, with the land reform of the early 1950s as a subtheme. It studied the impact of the consequent social change and economic development on the education, occupations, marriage, family formation, and attitudes of rural women.

China is a huge country with an enormous population. As the level of economic development differs from place to place, it was decided to select two research locations from areas at different stages of development to make the research findings fairly representative of the general situation while facilitating comparative analysis. One was in Jiangsu province and the other in Sichuan.

Hengtang is a township or district in Danyang county in the municipality of Zhengjiang in Jiangsu province. Jiangsu is on the cast coast of China. It covers an area of over 100,000 square kilometres and has a population of 62.69 million. It leads the rest of China in economic development and was one of the earliest provinces to start developing village and township enterprises. Its industrial and agricultural output was valued at 145.8 billion yuan in 1986, which was 26.8 times that of 1949 and three times that of 1')78. In 1986, the per capita annual income of farmers in the province was 561.28 yuan, which was 406.28 yuan above the 1978 figure.

Hengtang is in the south of Danyang county in the municipality of Zhengjiang. It covers an area of 507 square kilometres and includes 3,000 hectares of arable land. It comprises 25 villages and 10,183 households, with a total population of 36,844, including 18,657 females. The main farm products are rice, wheat, silkworm cocoons, pigs, poultry, and fish, and its industrial products include silk, knitwear, clothing, leather, farm machinery, and wood carvings. There were 33 township enterprises in Hengtang in 1986 with a total of 4,436 employees, two-thirds of whom were women. Besides these, every village in the area had its own factories. These village enterprises employed altogether 3,129 people, of whom 27 per cent were women. The per capita annual income of the farmers there was 628 yuan in 1986 compared to 182 yuan in 1978. Hengtang had 30 nurseries, 29 primary schools, and six middle schools, with a total enrolment of 5,000. It also had a fairly well equipped hospital and 28 health stations.

Jiahong is a township in Guanxian county, in the municipality of Chengdu in the province of Sichuan. Sichuan is an outlying, landlocked province near the country's southern border. It covers an area of 578,000 square kilometres and has a population of 100 million, making up one-tenth of the nation's total. The value of the province's total industrial and agricultural output in 1986 was 82.369 billion yuan, 18.9 times that of 1949 and 2.3 times that of 1978. The annual per capita income of farmers in 1986 was 338 yuan, or 2.9 times that of 1978.

Jiahong covers an area of 12.5 square kilometres and comprises nine villages, which include 2,641 households with a total population of 10,992, including 5,472 females. Jiahong has 806 hectares of fairly fertile arable land, 93 per cent of which is irrigated by the Dujiangyan irrigation system. Its main farm products are grain, pigs, poultry, fish, fruit, and tea, while its industries produce edible oil, processed grain, poultry products, and building materials. There is also a farm machine repair service. The annual per capita income of farmers in the township only was 74 yuan in 1978, but this had risen to 465 yuan by 1986. There were nine primary schools and one middle school, with a total enrolment of 1,974. There is a township hospital and a health station in each village, so the farmers did not have to travel far to see a doctor.

The main research method was a life-history approach supplemented by a time-allocation study. This was done through a general survey of women over 17 years old and their households in the two locations. In Hengtang the survey was conducted among 9,729 households with 13,955 women over 17. In Jiahong, it was carried out among 2,545 households, which included 3,654 women over 17 years. It recorded basic data on the women and other members of their families, including name, date and place of birth, educational level, marital status, occupation, and family income.

Using stratified cluster sampling with random selection, 450 women classified in three cohorts - old (55-65), middle-aged (35-45), and young (17-27) - were selected in each location for the in-depth quantitative and qualitative research. The sample size was thus 900 women in all. A life-history matrix was used for the longitudinal analysis. Informal discussions on special topics were also held with women from the three age-cohorts, and special visits were paid to those women with particular knowledge of local conditions. Exchanging views with them helped to confirm the survey results. A time-allocation study was carried out among 20 women, including some from each age-group, and five in each location, for seven days during both the busy season and the slack farming seasons.

The findings


The social changes and economic development which followed the founding of modern China made an obvious impact on women's education. The proportion of illiterates in the oldest cohort is 79.9 per cent, as against 11.8 per cent in the middle-aged cohort and 0.5 per cent in the young cohort. The women's educational levels have clearly risen considerably. While the majority of the oldest cohort are illiterate, the average length of schooling among the middle cohort was 4.1 years, with the majority of them having a primary education. Women in the youngest cohort had an average of 6.6 years schooling and 60 per cent of them had a secondary education. However, it is worth pointing out that dropping out of school was quite common in all three cohorts. The main reasons for this among the two older cohorts were financial difficulties, shortage of labour in the family, or the feudal view of women as inferior and unworthy of education. In the young cohort, 35 per cent dropped out because of financial difficulties, and nearly 50 per cent dropped out because they could not catch up with the rest of the class or failed entrance examinations to higher schools. Further investigation revealed that female schoolchildren did much more housework after school than boys did. The girls cut and collected green fodder, looked after younger siblings, and helped with cooking and washing. This heavy workload at home was an important factor in their academic difficulties.

Another noteworthy feature in the area of education is a decline in the number of years of schooling for young women in both locations. The trend was particularly obvious in Hengtang in the well-developed province of Jiangsu. At the time of the survey, all the women in the youngest cohort had already stopped schooling and taken jobs or become exclusively engaged in housework. The data showed that the 17-21 age-group had received 0.7 years less schooling on average than the 22-27 age-group. In the former, the number of women with junior middle-school education was 10.3 per cent less than in the 22-27 age-group, and those with senior middle-school education were 3.6 per cent less, even though the number of women with primary-school education was 14.1 per cent higher. There are several reasons for this. Since the rural economic reforms, the tempo of life in country areas has quickened as never before. While the adults are busy working, the bulk of housework falls on the shoulders of the young girls, who have little time left for studying and so may eventually have to drop out of school. Second, the new economic policies have caused some farmers to become overzealous in boosting production. Deep-seated mental attitudes have inclined them to a pragmatic and narrow focus on immediate gains. They therefore deemed it expedient to ask their children, especially their daughters, to engage in income-generating activities, even though this money was earned at the expense of their schooling. Moreover, work on the farm or in village industries was still mainly done by hand, so there was no big demand for educated skilled workers. New recruits for rural enterprises were supposed to have educational qualifications, but this rule was not always strictly observed. This situation hardly stimulated young women's motivation to study.

Adult education for women has also made progress over the years, but some problems call for urgent attention here, too. Since the 1950s, massive efforts have been made to wipe out illiteracy in China's rural areas and the survey shows that among the illiterates in the older cohort in both locations, 14 to 19 per cent had attended literacy classes. In the middle cohort, the figure was 55 per cent. However, the majority of these women had forgotten most of the words they had learned because they have had had little chance to use them. At the time of the survey they could only read a few characters and figures and write no more than their own names. They were in fact semi-literates.

The percentage of women participating in occupational training (including crop-planting, stock and fowl breeding, handicrafts, general education, health care, or accounting, for example) was very low in both locations. Although the prospects of employment for women are quite good in the township of Jiangsu, less than l per cent of the women in the old and middle cohorts there had had any vocational training. Even in the young cohort, the figure was no more than 10 per cent. In any case, this training lasted less than three months and sometimes it had only been for a few days.

The scope of the training programmes available in rural areas was limited, and they were not very relevant to women, the majority of whom were not particularly interested in them. With few exceptions, the older women in both locations had no desire for training. One-third of the middle cohort hoped to participate in training, while the rest had never thought about it or were not interested. Even among the young cohort, only about half the women wanted training programmes.

This lack of interest in learning, even among those with more education, was reflected in their reading habits. The survey showed that in Hengtang, one-third of the young women and two-thirds of the middle cohort did little reading. In Jiahong, nearly 60 per cent of the married young and middle groups did not read newspapers any more. About a quarter of the young unmarried women seldom read any newspapers. The reading material that appealed to women most in both locations was martial arts stories, thrillers, and romances. Popular science, agriculture, and marriage and family life ranked next. The women read mainly to pass the time, not to learn. This tendency is a serious problem that merits attention.


As a result of the development that accompanied rural economic reform, surplus labour, including women, began to shift to non-agricultural occupations. At the same time, the number of women mainly occupied in housework has gone up slightly. There are two reasons for this. After the reform, farmers had more say in organizing their work. Family members were now able to allocate the division of labour amongst themselves instead of doing mandatory collective jobs regardless of their age or gender. However, the more important reason was that there were not yet so many nonagricultural job opportunities for women.

Local levels of economic development were the main determinant of rural women's occupational structure and employment opportunities. A comparison of the situation in 1986 with that in the pre-reform years (before 1978) indicated some clear differences between the two locations. In Hengtang, there was a drop of 29.7 per cent in the number of women engaged in agriculture. Most of them shifted to nonagricultural work. At the time of the study, nearly 70 per cent of the young women were engaged in non-agricultural work, while this applied to only 1.6 per cent of the older women and 7.2 per cent of the middle group. The number of women whose main occupation was housework went up by only 1.8 per cent. About 35 per cent of the older cohort gave housework as their main occupation, but very few in the middle and young cohorts did. In Jiahong, the percentage of women in agricultural work dropped by 18.8 per cent. Among them, however, more shifted to housework than to non-agricultural employment; 56.7 per cent of the older women and 20 per cent of the middle and younger cohorts gave housework as their main occupation.

The nature of the industries in the township also made a difference to nonagricultural employment opportunities for the women. In Hengtang, where they were highly developed, local women were able to find jobs in net-making, silk-reeling, embroidery, garment-making, and the shoe industry. In Jiahong, however, where the level of economic development was low and the factories were mainly involved in processing food grains and edible oil, producing building materials, and repairing farm machinery, they did not provide enough work for men, let alone suitable jobs for women. Many men found short-term employment as contract construction workers or seasonal labourers in nearby towns and cities. Some of these jobs, such as bricklaying and carpentry, were strenuous and required skills that most women did not have. This kind of work outside the village went to strong men who earned good incomes in these labour-intensive sectors. They therefore worked away from home most of the year, which is another reason why their wives had to bear a heavy burden of household work at home.

In both locations, the percentage of women shifting to non-agricultural jobs was considerably higher in the youngest cohort. In the early days of industrial development, the workers did simple manual jobs and productivity was low. In order to raise productivity, industries later sought young and capable workers with a certain amount of education, and the young women were among the first to take up this work.

Table 1. Average age at marriage by age- cohort

Township Cohort Average age at marriage
Hengtang Older 18.4
Middle 21.1
Young 21.7
Jiahong Older 17.0
Middle 20.8
Young 20.8

Annual per capita figures show that total family income in Hengtang in 1986 was about 3.5 times that of 1978; in Jiahong, the 1986 figure was about five times that of 1978. Evidence of increasing income was clearly visible in the newly built houses, healthy children and adults, and changes in the style of clothing. However, both before and after the reforms, nearly half or more of the women in the three age-cohorts in both field locations earned less than their husbands. In some families the husbands earned more than twice as much as their wives did. However, as women's income increased after the reforms, the income gap between the two began to narrow. The figures show that it was less in Hengtang than in Jiahong.

After the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, the Marriage Law prohibited feudal pre-arranged and mercenary marriages and promulgated monogamy, equality between men and women, and the freedom to choose a life partner. The shackles of feudal tradition on marriage were broken, but old concepts die hard. Analysis of the three age-cohorts shows that the transition from the old marriage system to the new will take much longer than expected.

In both townships, 80 to 90 per cent of the marriages in the oldest cohort were arranged by parents. Among the middle-aged women, half made their own decisions about marriage and one third had pre-arranged marriages. Among the young women in Hengtang, 71 per cent of their marriages were determined by personal choice and parent-arranged marriages accounted for 12.5 per cent. In Jiahong, the corresponding figures were less than 50 and 25 per cent respectively, indicating that the influence of former practice was still strong.

There was a tendency towards later marriage age in both townships. The average age at marriage was higher for women in Hengtang than it was in Jiahong, as the figures in table I show.

Of course, it must be borne in mind that as all the women in the younger cohort had not yet married at the time of the study, the figures for their group cannot be regarded as definitive. In both townships, the traditional notion that the husband should be older than the wife is still prevalent. However, the age-gap between husband and wife has gradually narrowed and the number of husband-older couples was declining, as table 2 indicates.

Table 2. Age difference between husbands and wives

  % of husband-older marriages Average age-gap (years)
Older cohort 82.7 5.9
Middle cohort 73.9 4.4
Young cohort 72.6 3.7

From the 1950s rural women focused their attention on family conditions instead of personal qualifications when evaluating a prospective spouse. Their considerations were, in order of importance, the social status and stratum of the man's family, its financial standing, especially as this related to housing conditions, and, lastly, the qualities of the man himself. These conventional criteria for choosing a life partner were attributable to both former influences and the realities of China's rural development: several decades of egalitarianism and emphasis on collective labour had led people to disregard the ability and talents of the individual. However, after the rural reforms, the household contract system emphasized these personal qualities, which were becoming more important factors in choosing life partners, too. However, most of the young women paid more attention to the man's occupational skills and capabilities, as determinants of income and living standards, than to matters like personality, congeniality, or shared interests and ideals. Traces of the old approach to marriage were still discernible.

Although great efforts had been made to abolish such relics of feudal times at the time of the survey, betrothal gifts and dowries were still common in the rural areas. In both locations, the common practice was for the groom's family to provide a home and present a certain amount of money or some valuables to the wife's family as betrothal gifts. The dowry from the wife's family included bedding, clothing, utensils, bicycles, furniture, and electrical appliances. The survey showed that only a few women in the three age-cohorts favoured changing these practices, and the majority supported them. Several reasons were given for this. The girls began working when they were quite young. They handed all their earnings over to their parents who therefore had a responsibility to arrange their weddings and prepare betrothal gifts for them. Almost all the girls' parents thought this was right, as their daughters had worked for the family for years before marriage and contributed to family resources. They said they would not feel at ease if they married them off without a dowry. The girls themselves thought it would be unfair if their brothers got the benefit of their contribution to the family.

As for betrothal gifts, the young men's parents thought that they had nothing to lose, because the gifts to their future daughter-in-law would return to their families in the form of dowry. Others thought that since the wife's parents lose an able-bodied worker when their daughter marries, it was reasonable for the husband's family to give something to compensate for this economic loss. In some cases, people who had become well-off in recent years were afraid they would be looked down on if they did not follow the conventional practice. Basically, the practice continued to survive in spite of attempts to eradicate it because, even at the time of the study, young people still needed their parents' material support to set themselves up in married life. Further research might suggest ways of adapting the system to contemporary conditions in such a way that extravagance and waste could be avoided.

Turning to divorce and remarriage, most of the women in the three age-cohorts no longer felt bound by the old practice of remaining devoted to one husband even after his death. They also held that divorce should be possible if mutual affection no longer existed between husband and wife, and that a divorced or widowed woman had the right to remarry and should not be discriminated against if she did so. However, most of the married women adopted a prudent and practical attitude towards divorce because they thought that, after all, divorce harmed the family, the women themselves, and, especially, the children. In fact it would be hard for a divorced woman, burdened with children from a previous marriage, to marry a second husband and handle the complicated interrelationships in the new family. Most women therefore believed that divorce was not necessarily the best solution for couples at odds with one other, and that short of complete alienation, every effort should be made towards reconciliation. Rash divorce was something to be avoided.

Among the women interviewed in both locations, only six were divorced, accounting for 1 per cent of the total number of married women. They had all remarried. Eighty-two, or 13 per cent of the total, had been widows, of whom 22, or a quarter of the total number, had remarried.

The land reform of the early 1950s and the later economic reforms brought about a number of changes in family structures. Over half the families in the sample were nuclear families; a third were lineal families in which different generations of directly related people (grandparents, parents, adult children, for example) lived together. These two types thus accounted for over 85 per cent of the total and were the basic forms of family structure. As a result of rural socioeconomic development, the percentage of nuclear families was increasing steadily while that of lineal and joint (co-resident groups of related married couples) families was falling slowly. At the time of the survey joint families made up only 0.2 per cent of the total in Hengtang and 1.4 per cent in Jiahong. Single-person and other family types constituted a very small proportion of the total.

The life-course study of the three age-cohorts showed the pattern of these changes in family structure. From the time of their birth to their marriage, most of the respondents lived in nuclear families. After marriage, most of the women lived with their parents-in-law as a lineal family until around the time their first child was born or later, when the young couple left to form their own nuclear family.

Women's right to make family decisions was closely related to their status and role in the family. Girls living with their parents before marriage had little input. In the first two years after marriage, most of them lived with their parents-in-law, who had the final authority in family matters, though the women enjoyed more say in the purchase of daily necessities than they had before marriage. After the establishment of their own nuclear family, husband and wife had decision-making rights in different areas. The wife usually had more say in day-to-day purchases while the husband had more influence on the acquisition of means of production and housebuilding.

The results of the time-allocation study show that the women in all three age-cohorts had the primary responsibility for housework and spent much more time on it than their husbands did, though half the husbands often helped. The young husbands did more household work than the older ones. However, the effect of the rural reforms on sharing of domestic tasks was very different in the two locations.

In Hengtang, the percentage of husbands who share housework increased by 22 per cent in the oldest cohort and 13 per cent in the middle cohort after the reforms. In Jiahong, the data shows no increase in the older group and a decline of 12 per cent in the middle group. Since most of the young couples married after the reforms, no comparative figures were available for them. However, comparing the status quo at that time of the survey showed that young husbands in Hengtang did more household work than those in Jiahong. The difference was mainly the result of the differing stages of development in these places: after the reforms there were more employment opportunities for women in Hengtang than in Jiahong, and the pace of life there was faster, so sharing housework had become more of a necessity.

Analysis of the survey data suggests that as far as communicating ideas and feelings are concerned, the young couples were very close to each other, the middle-aged less so. As for the older couples, their marriages had been arbitrarily arranged by parents; the woman had not so much as a glimpse of her prospective husband before the wedding. As the matchmakers' descriptions were often exaggerated, many of the older women felt frustrated, and frequent quarrels with their husbands made their "golden years of marriage" miserable. They admitted that they were getting along with their husbands better than when they were younger, but only a few of the old couples really loved each other. The majority of them just managed to live together in peace after years of mutual adjustment.

The survey showed that most of the women in the oldest cohort were enjoying a secure life in both locations. If they lived by themselves, their children helped them by doing heavy jobs. If they were in good health, they often went in for poultry-breeding, wickerwork, and other light jobs as a sideline. The majority of their sons and daughters gave them some pocket money. In general, however, their income was less than that of the middle-aged and young women. Their room furnishings and living standards were interior, too. In Jiahong, local leaders and elderly people of status in the community helped in the analysis of the relationships between the older women and their children. Ten to twenty per cent were described as excellent, 40 to 50 per cent as good, and 30 to 40 per cent as inharmonious. It was agreed that while economic growth was bringing higher living standards to all, it still called for special attention to the material and nonmaterial well-being of the ageing.

Changing Attitudes

In Hengtang, the overwhelming majority of women in all three age-cohorts held that remunerated work should be the main occupation of women so that they could have an income to improve their own and their families' living standards and win genuine equality. But three-quarters of those interviewed in Jiahong thought that women had dual responsibilities. Although they shared the view that only by participating in production can women enhance their economic status and achieve equality, they still felt that women had a responsibility to be good housekeepers and look after their husbands and children. They wanted to allow their men to concentrate on paid work. Almost all of them believed that housework should be done by women. Sixty per cent thought they should do it themselves. The rest assigned it to other female members of the family - mothers, mothers-in-law, daughters, or daughters-in-law. Very few of them thought it should be done by their husbands or other males in the family. Even in Hengtang, where they strongly advocated women devoting the greater part of their time and energy to paid labour, most of them still thought that housework was their responsibility. In fact, quite a number of husbands in both locations did do household chores, particularly in Hengtang. On the whole, however, though the actual situation was changing, old ideas were very persistent.

The survey showed that the women working in industry, handicrafts, commerce, culture, education, and public health were satisfied with their jobs, which were considered better than farm work because they generated more income and offered more opportunities for social contact. Yet most of the women farmers were also satisfied with their work, as agricultural work offered more freedom, more choice of activity, and more time at their own disposal. Moreover, farm income had increased considerably. However, there were variations in the attitudes of the women in the different age-cohorts. Many in the oldest cohort felt rather alienated because they were old and semi-literate and no longer able to change their occupations. In the middle group, women whose husbands earned a higher income in non-agricultural work preferred to do the farm work so they could take care of the house and the children at the same time. Young women also thought that doing farm work made it easy for them to look after their babies, and so they were satisfied with it.

The women farmers were generally not eager to acquire more knowledge or improve their technical skills. Not many of them were interested in self-improvement or even training to prepare themselves for better jobs. They were content with their small gains and many seemed to lack initiative. This was despite the fact that there was also a tendency to look down on agricultural work. Most of the women hoped that their children would go to college or reach the highest educational level available so that they would not have to do it in the future. Some wanted their children to be skilled workers or to have jobs in culture, education, or public health. Only a few women wanted their children to become farmers. Of these, most were in the older cohort; few in the middle cohort and fewer still in the young cohort shared this view. Not one of the young women in Hengtang wanted their children to be farmers and only a few wanted them to be workers. Seventy-seven per cent of them wanted their children to have a college education and become engineers and technicians.


The survey shows that socio-economic developments in China since 1949 have had a strong and widespread impact on women's education, employment, marriage, and family life, as well as on their views and concepts. Changes in women's education and employment are particularly noteworthy because of the impact they in turn have had on economic development. However, a number of factors, including the stage of political development, levels of productivity, economic trends, and the lingering influence of outdated traditional ideologies have combined to have an inhibiting effect on both the growth of the rural economy and the advancement of women. There are some implications here for policy-makers. It is most important to upgrade women's competence by strengthening their education and training. In rural areas this means that the compulsory educational programme should be accompanied by publicity and mandatory measures to ensure the enrolment of all school-age girls. The problems of drop-outs and lower educational standards among female students require urgent attention.

In this respect, the experience in Hengtang, where special attention was paid to developing township enterprises suitable for women, offers an encouraging example. However, such enterprises were still in their initial stages and some weaknesses in management and other aspects were apparent. Women's organizations and the official departments concerned should intensify their scrutiny of the working conditions, hours, wage scales, welfare, and labour protection in these enterprises and take measures to advance and protect the legitimate rights and interests of workers.

More attention should be given to women's participation in adult education and occupational training programmes order to upgrade their scientific and technical knowledge and job skills. Policies should try to draw more women into programmes designed to develop the rural economy. There should be projects to raise the consciousness and confidence of rural women and to kindle their spirit of self-awareness, so that they shed outmoded apathy and complacency, reject vestiges of dependence on husbands, and discard their contempt for agricultural work. They should be motivated to become agents of change through active participation in developing the economy and bringing up a healthy younger generation. Women are needed for structural reform and economic development, and those women in the surplus rural workforce are an important human resource a nation cannot afford to neglect.


Sichuan, one of the provinces where the research described in the first part of this chapter was carried out, is a multinational province. It includes autonomous prefectures of the Ganzi Tibetan, Aba Tibetan, and Qiang and Liangshan Yi peoples and counties, where other minority nationalities live in small communities. There are altogether more than 3 million people of about 10 minority nationalities in the province, with the Yi and Tibetan peoples accounting for the majority of this population.

These narrative accounts of the lives of five Tibetan women of different age-groups come from the townships or districts of Shaba and Jiabi in Li County in the eastern part of the autonomous prefecture of the Aba Tibetan and Qiang nationalities. The vicissitudes of their lives and the impact of social reforms and economic development are clear at a glance. They were not collected as part of a systematic survey but rather as illustrative material which might help to shape the criteria if such a study were possible at a later date.

Before the emergence of modern China in 1949, the Tibetan region of Sichuan was basically organized as a feudal serfdom. Between 1950 and 1953, autonomous prefectures and counties were set up, one after another, for the Tibetan peoples in Ganzi and Aba. We have already seen that after the foundation of the People's Republic of China, land reforms were carried out rapidly in the majority of villages throughout the country. However, the practice in regions where minority nationalities lived was somewhat different. The government's first step was to extend economic assistance to the serfs and poverty-stricken people, and to provide them with free farm implements, cattle, seeds, grain, and relief funding to encourage them to increase production. Democratic reform, which was essentially land reform, came to this region between 1955 and 1957, and feudal privileges and exploitation were finally abolished.

After that, the Tibetan people of Sichuan, like peasants in other regions all over the country, followed a tortuous path towards development . Progress was very limited until the gradual implementation of agricultural reform and the introduction of the joint household contract responsibility system of production. It was not until the beginning of the 1980s that their lives and livelihood took a turn for the better. The stories of five Tibetan women of Sichuan reflect and illustrate these macro-events.

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