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2. The research project

2.1 Objectives
2.2 The field locations
2.3 Research process, methodology, and instruments

2.1 Objectives

The research project focuses on economic reform since 1979 as its main topic, with the land reform around 1950 as a subtopic. It studies the impact of social change and economic development on rural women, and puts forward our views and suggestions for the consideration of decision makers.

The following conceptual guidelines were used in the research:

- The household is taken as the primary living unit. At the present stage of development in rural China, the household continues to perform production functions.

- Gender is used as an analytical criterion in the study of changes in relationships within and outside the household.

- Age is used as an indicator of changes in the household.

The research, based on a survey of women in different age cohorts, using a life-course approach, covers the following areas:

- changes in women's education,
- changes in their employment situation,
- changes in their marriage, family structure, family life, and family relations,
- changes in their thinking and concepts.

2.2 The field locations

China is a huge country with a large population. As differences in historical and natural conditions between various regions unavoidably give rise to great discrepancies in economic development, we decided to select field locations from areas of different developmental status to make the research findings fairly representative of the general situation. This approach is also conducive to longitudinal study and comparative analysis of changes and their impact on women. Thus, one field location is in Jiangsu Province, one of the nation's well developed areas on the east coast, and the other is in Sichuan, an outlying landlocked province near the southern border. In selecting the locations, we saw to it that they were representative of the average living standards of the great majority of farmers in their respective provinces rather than the highest standards in that area so that the research results would mirror the actual overall conditions of rural women.


The two field locations selected were Hengtang Township in Danyang County of Zhengjiang Municipality, Jiangsu Province, and Jiahong Township in Guanxian County of Chengdu Municipality, Sichuan Province.

2.2.1 Hengtang Township, Jiangsu Province

THE PROVINCE, MUNICIPALITY, AND COUNTY. Jiangsu Province is situated on the east coast of China, on the lower reaches of the Changjiang (Yangtze) River, and is bounded by the Yellow Sea. It covers an area of over 100,000 km2 and has a population of 62.69 million. It leads the rest of China in industrial and agricultural output value, which totaled 145.8 billion yuan in 1986-26.8 times that of 1949 and 3 times that of 1978. The 1986 per capita annual income of farmers in the province was 561.28 yuan, which is 406.28 yuan over the 1978 figure. New housing is found everywhere across the rural areas, and the average floor space per person is 17.46 m2.

The major farm crops and products in Jiangsu include rice, wheat, rapped, cotton, silkworm cocoons, and pigs. In 1986 the total agricultural output value amounted to 24.75 billion yuan, as against 4.21 billion in 1949 and 14.09 billion in 1978. Since 1949 the agricultural output value has increased at an average annual rate of 6%. The rate rose to 14.3% in the eight years after 1978.

Since the rural economic reforms and adjustments in 1979, labour productivity has increased. People previously working on farms have switched to other occupations in increasing numbers, accelerating an all-round development of agriculture, forestry, animal husbandry, sideline occupations, and fishery. At the same time, township and village enterprises have developed rapidly. The 1986 output value of these enterprises reached 49.63 billion yuan, making up 41% of the total industrial output value of the province, and was 1.5 times the province's total output value of agriculture, forestry, animal husbandry, sideline occupations, and fishery. The commodity-producing sector in Jiangsu's rural economy increased from 20% in the 1960s to 40%-50% in the middle 1970s and more than 70% today. The development of rural industry has given impetus to the growth of small cities and towns.

Zhengjiang Municipality, located in southern Jiangsu, borders on the Changjiang River in the north. The Shanghai-Nanjing railway traverses its suburbs. The municipality covers an area of 3,721 km2 and administers six counties and districts. It has a population of 2,462,000, with 80% in the rural sector.

Danyang County, 50 km east of Zhenjiang, is one of the counties administered by Zhenjiang Municipality. It covers an area of 1,016 km2-of which 73% is flat, 18% hilly, and 9% crisscrossed by rivers and lakes encompasses 32 townships with 520 villages, and has a population of 765,300, with 89% in the rural sector. The Shanghai Nanjing railway traverses the county from east to west.

Hengtang Township

THE TOWNSHIP. Hengtang Township is located in Dan yang County, 44 km from Zhenjiang and 7 km south of Danyang. It covers an area of 50.7 km2 and has 3,000 hectares of arable land.

The township comprises 25 villages, with 10,183 households and a total population of 36,844, including 18,657 females, of whom 13,955 are above 17 years old.

With the Shanghai-Nanjing railway line and the Grand Canal crossing the township, it has convenient land and water transportation. Flat and rich land covers most of the township's terrain. The average temperature is 14.9C and the annual precipitation is 1,073 mm. The township's main farm products are rice, wheat, silkworm cocoons, pigs, poultry, and fish. Since the 1970s, township enterprises have been set up progressively, and its industrial products are silk, knit wear, clothing, leather, farm machinery, and sculpture. There were 33 township enterprises in Hengtang in 1986, with a total of 4,436 workers and managerial staff, of whom 2,946 were women, representing 66% of the total. Each village in the township runs its own factories, with altogether 3,129 workers and managerial staff, of whom 844, or 27%, are women.

Table 2.1 Annual industrial and agricultural output and per capita income of farmers, Hengtang, 1949-1986

  Total output (1,000 yuan) Agricultural output as % of total Per capita income (yuan)
1949 5 479 100 30
1978 12,983 64.3 182
1984 35,100 54 480
1985 44,775 46.4 494
1986 48,270 40.3 628

Table 2.2 Education in Hengtang, 1950s-1986




Primary schools

Middle schools





Female pupils




Early 1950s 3 67 28 873 516 0    
1978 18 548 29 2,910 1,480 5 1,446 433
1985 30 977 28 4,074 1,942 6 1,604 665
1986 30 799 29 3,655 1,767 6 1,408 685


Tables 2.1 and 2.2 provide information on economic output, incomes, and education.

In the field of health care, there were only nine self-employed medical men and one privately owned pharmacy in the township in 1949. Unsterilized midwifery caused high mortality from puerperal fever and tetanus. The infant mortality rate then was around 150 per thousand. In 1952 the first township health station was set up, which started to popularize modern midwifery. In the early 1960s the health station developed into a hospital, and a number of modern midwives were trained. As a result, the infant mortality rate dropped to 20-30 per thousand. In the late 1980s health service developed rapidly, and the township hospital became better equipped. Now the hospital has 35 doctors, nurses, and other staff, with departments of medicine, surgery, gynecology, and others. It accommodates in-patients. In addition to the hospital, there are 28 health stations in the township, with 54 health workers. Women in the township get annual screening for gynecological diseases. Family planning is well under way. Very few infant deaths occur.

2.2.2 Jiahong Township, Sichuan Province

THE PROVINCE, MUNICIPALITY, AND COUNTY. Sichuan, a large outlying, landlocked province near the southern border of China, is agricultural and one of the nation's important grain-producing areas. The major agricultural products are grain, oil-bearing crops, pigs, tea, mulberries, silkworm cocoons, and oranges. It covers an area of 578,000 km2, 6% of China's total area. Sichuan's vast territory is rich in natural resources, but it does not have much arable land. As it is an inland province with inadequate means of communication, the flow of information is slow and the rich resources have not been fully tapped. Sichuan has a population of 100 million, making up a tenth of the nation's total. It abounds with manpower but labour productivity is rather low. The province's total industrial and agricultural output value in 1986 was 82.37 billion yuan, 18.9 times that of 1949 and 2.3 times that of 1978. The average annual per capita income of farmers in 1986 was 338 yuan.

From 1951 to 1952, land reform was carried out throughout the province, soon followed by a movement to set up mutual-aid teams and agricultural cooperatives. The total output value of industry and agriculture in Sichuan in 1949 was 4.35 billion yuan, 83% of which came from agriculture. In the eight years 1950-1957, the total output value of Sichuan's industry and agriculture went up 1.5 times, increasing at an average annual rate of 12.1%. The agricultural output value alone rose 67.5%, at an average annual rate of 6.7%. However, inexperience and faulty management retarded agricultural growth. In some years, output even declined. As a result, Sichuan, historically known as "the land of abundance," sometimes had to rely on state subsidy for subsistence.

The economic reform in rural China which began in 1978 ushered in a new upsurge. From that time on? the province's industrial and agricultural production has increased continuously. The average annual per capita income of farmers in 1986 was 2.9 times that of 1978. With more money in hand, farmers began to build new houses. The average per capita floor space among farmers in Sichuan in 1978 was 8.56 m2; it increased to 12.54 m2 in 1983.

Chengdu, the provincial capital, in the center of the province, lies in the heart of the Chengdu Plain. Chengdu Municipality encompasses 12 counties and 5 districts and covers an area of 12,000 km2. It has a population of over 8 million, about 6 million of whom are engaged in agriculture.

Guanxian County, 55 km north-west of Chengdu, is directly under Chengdu Municipality. The county is located in the well-known Dujiangyan Irrigation System, built in 256 B.C., and takes its name from the word "guan," which means irrigation. The county abounds with water resources, and 86.9% of its cultivated land is irrigated by gravity. The main crops are rice, wheat, and rape-seed; livestock breeding consists mainly of pigs.

The annual per capita income in Guanxian County in 1949 was 69 yuan; it was 196 yuan in 1979 and 402 yuan in 1985.

THE TOWNSHIP. Jiahong Township, directly under Guanxian County, is located in the eastern part of the county, bordering the northwest fringe of the Chengdu Plain. It covers an area of 12.5 km2 and comprises nine villages, of which eight are on the plain and one is in the mountains. Transportation was inconvenient before 1949; since then highways and paths have been built in the township and its surrounding villages.

The township has 2,641 households, with a total population of 10,992, comprising 5,520 males and 5,472 females.

Jiahong Township has a temperate climate: the average temperature is 15.5C and annual precipitation is 1,243 mm. It has fairly fertile land, with 806 hectares of arable land, 93% of which is irrigated by the Dujiangyan Irrigation System. The main agricultural products are grain, pigs, poultry, fish, fruit, and tea, while industrial products are edible oil, processed grain and poultry products, and building materials. The township has farm-machine repair shops. Table 2.3 provides information on the township's economic output and rural income.

Since 1980, 300 out of the 2,641 households in Jiahong Township have built new houses, with a total floor space of 31,000 m2, an average of 103.3 m2 per household. Another 173 households have refurbished their old houses with a total floor space of 11,000 m2, an average of 63.6 m2 per household.

Jiahong Township

There is no running water in the township. Most of the households (97.8%) use well-water for drinking (there are 287 tube wells and 398 ordinary ones); the rest get their drinking water from rivers.

There are nine primary schools and one middle school in the township, with a total enrolment of 1,974.

There is a hospital in the township and a health station in each village, so the farmers do not have to travel far to see a doctor. Schistosomiasis, which used to plague Jiahong, has been wiped out after many years of persistent treatment and prevention.

Table 2.3 Annual industrial and agricultural output and per capita income of farmers, Jiahong, 1978-1986


Total output (1,000 yuan)

Agricultural output as % of total

Per capita income(yuan)

1978 3 310 94.56 74
1979 3,590 95.26 74
1980 3,970 90.18 96
1981 4,050 90.62 100
1982 4,350 91.03 182
1983 4,700 91.06 281
1984 5,090 87.62 337
1985 6 040 77.48 369
1986 6,570 52.80 465


2.3 Research process, methodology, and instruments

2.3.1 General survey of the female population and their households

A general survey was conducted in each of the field locations, covering 9,729 households with a total female population of 18,225 in 25 villages of Hengtang Township, Jiangsu, and 2,545 households with 3,654 women over 17 years old in Jiahong Township, Sichuan.

The contents of the general survey included basic data on women over 17 years old and other members of their families such as name, date and place of birth, educational level, marital status, occupation, and family income.

The general survey involved heavy work, and was carried out with the help and support of the local governments. We fully utilized second-hand materials such as 1982 census records and family histories. During the general survey, the interviewers went to each family only to check and add to the existing information. This method ensured accuracy and saved time.

See Appendix 1 for the general-survey form, and Appendix 2 for findings from the survey.

Table 2.4 The three age cohorts


Ages at key dates


Birth years

Land reform 1952

Economic reform 1979

Time of survey 1986

Elderly 1921-1931 21-31 48-58 55-65
Middle-age 1941-1951 1-11 28-38 35-45
Young 1959-1969   10-20 17-27


2.3.2 Age-cohort design

Three age cohorts were selected for study, coordinated with the times of crucial rural reforms during the period under research. This topological design facilitated a life-course study of the changes in women's education, occupations, marriage, fertility, motherhood, and old age under specific historical circumstances. Table 2.4 shows the three age cohorts so designed.

2.3.3 Sampling

Stratified cluster sampling with random selection was used on the basis of the background information and findings of data analysis obtained from the general survey. The villages in each township were divided into upper, middle, and lower income-level categories. Four villages were selected from each field location as cluster samples representative of each of the three categories. Then from the four villages in each location, 450 women belonging to the three age cohorts were selected at random as subjects of the research. The sample thus comprised 900 women in all.

From the general survey, we had found that there were only a few unmarried women in the elderly and middle-age cohorts, while unmarried women made up a high percentage of the young cohort. Therefore we decided to select 125 women from the elderly and middle-age cohorts and 200 from the young cohort in each location for the sample, so that the numbers of both married and unmarried women in the latter group were proportionally increased to facilitate analysis and comparison.

2.3.4 Questionnaire design and field survey

We formulated a draft questionnaire according to the methods of life history study, taking into consideration the specific situation in rural China, particularly the life of women in the two field locations. After several pilot tests on a number of respondents, we revised the questionnaire and finally divided it into two parts: quantitative and qualitative.

The quantitative study, using the questionnaire and a life-history matrix, was conducted among all the 900 research subjects. According to the original plan, the qualitative study was only to be conducted among a small number of more responsive women. During the field survey, however, we discovered that the life tempo of women in the two field locations was different. Most of the women in the Jiangsu location were very busy, so the qualitative study was only carried out among a small number of respondents. But in the Sichuan location the pace of life was rather slow, and most of the women were willing to answer questions, so the qualitative study was conducted among most of the respondents there.

For the contents of the questionnaires and life-history matrix, see Appendices 3-5.

2.3.5 Informal discussions and special visits

During the field survey, informal discussion on special topics was held among women from the three age cohorts. The topics discussed were marital life, family relations, relations between generations, expectations, concepts and attitudes towards various questions, and others. Besides, special visits were paid to those women who were very familiar with local conditions and had rather high prestige in the community. Exchanging views with them helped to confirm the survey materials.

The informal discussions and special visits were very fruitful. About 40 such activities were conducted during the survey in the two field locations.

2.3.6 Time-allocation Study

A time-allocation study was used as a supplementary research method during our survey. It was carried out among 20 women, including elderly, middle aged, and young women, and 5 men in each field location for seven days during each of the two farming seasons: the busy season and the slack season.

The contents for the time-allocation study were determined in light of the specific conditions in our rural areas and on the basis of pilot tests and amendments, and were divided under four headings: productive labour, household chores, daily life, and leisure time.

Before the study period began, the members of the sample were trained and asked to keep a detailed daily record of their activities by themselves. If a woman could not do this by herself, her husband or children helped her. During the period of the study, interviewers went to each family every day to collect and check the records and also gave guidance when necessary.

For the time-allocation-study forms, see Appendix 6.

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