By Hui Richards, Queensland University of Technology
After my mother’s funeral at the Sleeping Tiger Mountain in Wuhan I kissed her grave and said goodbye before we drove home. We are not supposed to look back as the ghost will follow us and bring bad luck to both the dead in the shadowy Yin World and the living in the daylight Yang World. But I could not help turning my head to look at Mum’s grave. I could not bear to leave her alone there. I wished her spirit could follow me back home, back to Australia.
When I was a little girl, my mother and I would walk along the bank of the Yangtze River. We sang revolutionary songs and she told me stories about our family, about Chinese history and about the world outside. In those days (during the Great Cultural Revolution) we didn’t have any other entertainment. Although it was a time of great upheaval and social turmoil, those songs and stories remind me of the love and warmth within the family, the love and warmth that sustained us through that difficult time.
I remember one day my mother told me there was a country where people had freedom of speech and freedom to choose their own president; someone had even once thrown an egg at the president and that country was the United States. I told my mother I would take her to the United States when I grew up. Twenty years later, I took her to Australia instead, only once for about a year. But Australia was always in her heart and it represented for her everything the world had to offer.
She was amazed at the beautiful beach, blue sky, fresh air, the clean city and friendly people. While here she learned everything she could about Australia and its people, political system and culture, the state and federal governments. One of the most interesting things for her was to read the Chinese newspapers in Brisbane. From those newspapers she learned more about China. The freedom of speech here allowed her to understand China from different perspectives.
Back in China Mum talked about Australia all the time, to her relatives, friends and neighbours. She even chose a photo taken by my husband in Australia as her funeral photo. She was fortunate to be able to travel to Australia. But had she lived a fortunate life?
My mother, Xing Defeng, was born and grew up Fengjie, a small town along the Three Gorges in Sichuan province (now it is under the administration of Chongqing). Fengjie was situated along the banks of Yangtze River, to the north-eastern side of China’s biggest city Chongqing. Mum witnessed the impact of massive political, social and economic changes on the family following the foundation of the communist party. Her hometown has now been drowned by the Three Gorges Dam and she is in the grave. I was also born in Fenjie.
For hundreds of years in this small town and others like it, women were constrained to strictly defined traditional roles – as wives, mothers and farm-workers, and they were subservient to men. Life is tough here. The original town of Fengjie was flooded by the great Three Gorges Dam and is now more than 150 metres underwater. A new town has been built higher up the mountain sides and there have been vast changes in people’s lives. But the rural people remain very poor and a woman has limited options. A woman can take on the traditional role of obedient wife, mother and labourer; she can marry a miner, in which case she is likely to become a widow and may get compensation or remarry; she can leave the town by marrying someone from the city; or she can go to a city to work in a factory, as a domestic maid or a karaoke girl.
Fengjie is in a mountainous area with poor land where not much will grow. The main income is from coal mines where men work in unhealthy and dangerous conditions. Many are injured or die in accidents. While they live they make large amounts of money, but most women see little of this wealth. The men spend most of it on drinking, gambling and sex.
The area remained poor after the revolution, and the situation of women did not improve. Even in the 1970s an ugly old man from the city could get a beautiful young wife from Fengjie in exchange for a ration ticket worth 10 kilograms of rice. My mother used to tell me ‘You are probably not worth 10 kilo rice ticket. You are so skinny’.
These women, whatever choice they make, are largely invisible and they are denied social, economic and political power. There have been many accounts of female migration and survival in times of great political, social and economic changes in modern China. Overall however, the stories of women have been largely ignored.
Mao Zedong famously said that women hold up half the sky. He meant that women had a responsibility to support the great Communist revolution and to contribute to the building of the new China, equal to that of men. Some people have seen this as a positive, recognizing the status and importance of women in China – others have seen it as a statement of servility, meaning women had an equal right to be oppressed. The reality is that whatever Mao meant, and however we interpret his words, the history of women in China has been a long catalogue of marginalisation, suppression, oppression and exploitation.
There is nothing published about the women of Fengjie. They have been marginalised in three ways: by gender, by class and by rural/urban differentiation. These women were, and still are, at the core of momentous social and economic change yet I have not been able to discover any official documentation about them. My research is beginning to fill that void and tell their stories.
The stories created by the Xing family women in Fengjie will provide a window into their lives as migrants. As a woman, and as a member of the Xing family from Fengjie I will occupy the dual role of both participant and observer. I will be an autoethnographer.
Each of those life stories is a comprehensive one on its own, but they are all interwoven and entangled with each other into a Chinese knot. This Chinese knot, with all of its human, social and political dramas and complexities can be seen as a microcosm of the broader Chinese society.
Featured Image thanks to flickr user: Edward Jung