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China’s Women from the Inside

January 10, 2007

Wu Zhaoxia prefers life in the city to her home village. “There’s more going on,” says the young computer factory worker. “We can stay out till four in the morning enjoying ourselves.” One of a new generation of migrant workers from rural China, Zhaoxia is among many women interviewed for Women of the Country, which premiers tonight on PBS, the second of four films by Jonathan Lewis. The filmmaker recently spoke about his work at a Women’s Media Center sneak preview. The series, China from the Inside, focuses on life in contemporary China, from village elections under the Communist Party, to water shortage in the north, to Tibetan Buddhism and Falun Gong. Throughout ongoing discussions about which topics they would cover in the series, and with how much airtime, “we were adamant always that there was to be a film about Chinese women,” says Lewis, who also narrates the series. Paradoxically, as in other countries, women suffer under some of China’s most oppressive traditions while living at the cutting edge of social and economic change.  Women’s equality—long espoused by the Communist Party, as much to double the work force as anything else—meets resistance with such cultural values in force as the belief that women should not work for a wage outside the family home. Yet, as the film shows, many women welcome change. In one sequence, a group of rural Wiga women in northwestern Muslim Xinjang province feel free to air their views once their husbands have left the room. “If we work we can improve our lives,” says one, who wishes to buy school supplies for her children’s education. Women like Wu Zhaoxia enjoy the perks of urban life. Her parents labor all day in fields for little pay, but she relishes such amenities as a hot water boiler available at her factory.  She even has a boyfriend, free of her parents’ or a marriage broker’s interference. With overtime, Zhaoxia can earn $26 a week. She hopes to go into business rather than returning to the countryside. Along with the freedoms and advantages of city life, these migrant workers also face new challenges. One breaks down as she describes phone calls from her mother, asking her to go home. “Where I work, we’re not allowed to talk between 6:08 in the morning and 6:08 in the evening,” says another, through tears. “That’s why I can barely string a sentence together.” Many face exploitation, but for others, in more humane settings such as Zhaoxia’s campus-like factory, their employment means emancipation. “That was a real factory,” Lewis assures us. “They didn’t build it for me.” Xiao Zhang, another migrant featured in the film, works as a maid in Beijing. Zhang sees her husband, also a migrant worker, only for a few hours each week and during their annual 600-mile journey back home to rural Huang Zuio to celebrate the New Year. This is the only time of year they see their two young children, who, like those of many migrant workers, are being raised by their grandparents. The parents either cannot afford or do not have access to schools in the city. They arrive bearing armloads of gifts, and Xiao Huang, Zhang’s husband, describes how he tells their daughter to study hard so she can be anything she wants to be. But the emotional toll of saying goodbye to their children for yet another year is clear in both parents’ faces as they talk about leaving after their brief visit. Big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai represent only one face of China. Oppressive and even tragic conditions continue to exist, particularly in rural areas—from selective abortion of female fetuses to the alarmingly high rate of female suicide. “I know the other China,” says one woman in the film. “And it’s where there are more women, more poverty.  Changing China means changing the countryside. That means changing the women.” His films, says Lewis, look at a nation in transition. He recalls asking a young city factory worker whether she would go back to the countryside and explain what she had learned to the other young women. “What women?” she responded. “They’re all gone. There’s no one to explain it to.” Milon Nagi is a journalist and project coordinator at the Women's Media Center. Women of the Country, Episode 2 of China from the Inside (KQED/Granada), premieres tonight (January 10th) on PBS. The series continues on January 17th.  Click here to check your local airtimes.