Notes on "Small Happiness: Women of a Chinese Village"

VH 2126. Closed captioned. 59 min. 1984.

Questions to think about while watching the video:

Man: "To give birth to a boy is considered a big happiness. To give birth to a girl is a small happiness. The boy will remain in the household while a girl will be married off." [patrilocal residence]

In many areas of the Chinese countryside, a womanís getting married is called "finding a mother-in-lawís house." A man refers to his wife as "the woman inside my home." And if a woman is called "childless," it often really means she does not have a son.

Long Bow, village 400 miles south of Beijing, ideas of male dominance are being questioned, but they fade slowly.

Narrator: American woman born and raised in Beijing. In 1971, first went to Long Bow.

Conditions and customs vary widely in China. No one village can represent all of China. But the personal experiences of these women give you an idea of what rural Chinese womenís lives have been like for much of this century.

Lin Choa

Lin Choa is one of a few Long Bow women who graduated from high school. Her education helped her to see things differently. More contact between boys and girls is allowed in school than is typical elsewhere. There, she met Ming Chen, whom she eventually married. But their high school romance caused embarrassment. After high school, she wanted to do something for her village, but Ming Chenís father pressured him to get married, so he begged her. Her parents were against the marriage because his father was old-fashioned.

As is typical in China, she moved in with husbandís family [patrilocal residence]. Her mother-in-law is 60, father-in-law is 77. Last year, she gave birth to a boy. Their house consists of three rooms and a kitchen built around courtyard.

Changes in Marriage Arrangements

Not all women have freedom in choosing husbands. Parents or matchmakers usually initiate marriage discussions. Then, the couple make a decision after very limited contact with one another. In the past, young people had no say at all.

Another woman: "Itís hard to meet a man on your own." She left school at age 13. Now, she works in the village workshop with other girls. Father says that patterns of finding a spouse are different in factories and workshops in cities. But around here, people are not used to young kids getting together on their own. People would talk. The parents would say that "we donít want her to run around wild." The parents find a match, and if they young people agree, they get married.

Another young woman: Before she and her future husband got engaged, they never talked with one another, never went to a movie together.  It is thought that young people who are not engaged should not be alone together, that it would be indecent. Once youíre engaged, everyone knows, and then itís alright to be seen spending time together. Q: What if you donít like him? A: You break off the engagement. Itís allowed, but itís not good.

Couple on couch, sitting at distance. Knew one another as kids. Now engaged. Sitting uncomfortably. Boy says, "Everything has been decided for us."

Three older women, embarrassed to talk about how their engagements came about. One woman: matchmaker found her husband, her parents agreed. She didnít know what was going on. Was very young (child). "We had no choice."

Young couple: Boy talks with embarrassment, girl hides her face. Their parents started talking with one another (planning a potential marriage between their children).

One older woman: She didnít see her husband until she arrived at the wedding. It would have been shameful for an unmarried girl to see a man. Q: When you were first married, you didnít know your husband. What if you didnít get along? A: You fought, there was no divorce in those days. But the man could get rid of the woman by sending her back to her mother, even though that was very rare.


Weddings usually happen at the harvest or New Yearís. Groomís family hires a band and prepares a feast. Men cooking. Huge dishes, cooking noodles, vegetables. Groom wearing sashes, rides on horseback to brideís village and brings the bride and her relatives back. Procession around his village. Bride wearing sashes, headdress, sunglasses. Paper bird hangs from stick, groom holds bride up to try to grab it. This is the only time people will see the couple touch one another. In the future, they will always remain at least a couple of feet apart in public.

Bride enters courtyard, goes to change clothes. Feast begins. Then, ceremony. Someone reads list of groomís relatives. As each name is read, the couple kneels (she is helped along with a push).

Men play drinking games and get drunk. Women donít join in merriment.

On wedding night, loud crowd gathers in room. Everyone is a good friend of the groom. She canít run away because they watch her closely. People are afraid the couple will be shy, so for nine days, they have to keep the door unlocked, and anyone can come in to loosen them up.

Desires for Children vs. Birth Control Policy

One woman: "Everyone wants to get married.  A man wants a wife to have children, to "open the doors". The more children, the more prosperity. You should have as many children as your fate allows. Now, the State wants birth control."

Another woman: "I believe in birth control." Complains that her kids donít want to work, donít want to work in the fields, they want a city job.

In last 35 years, Chinaís population increased from 400 million to over 1 billion. If this rate continues, the nation will face severe food shortages. The government is enforcing strict laws. It has a One Child Policy, in which married couples should not have more than one child.  But country people still refuse to accept the idea of a smaller family if it does not include at least one son. The government allows rural families to have two children so that they have greater chances of having at least one son.

Q: Why do people want sons? Sons can open the doors and have more children, but a girl will grow up and leave. "We raise her for someone else."

Woman: "A daughter is not family, she is only a relative."  (Once she is married, she leaves the house.)

Head of the Womenís Association (Wing Yen) in charge of birth control: Workers in the mines and factories are allowed only one child, but there is no way this law can be enforced in the countryside, because weíre farmers [family-based production]. Canít do agriculture without a son. One child is sufficient for urban families. "How can you survive without a son?" [in family-based agriculture].

In the cities, a woman has to be sterilized after her first child.  In the countryside, a woman has to be sterilized after the second child. If she has two girls, then she can wait a while before undergoing the operation.  (This gives the woman another chance to have a son.  Even if a third child is not legal, itís allowed if it will give the family a chance to have a son.)

Women are concerned the operation will ruin their health.  A vasectomy is less dangerous than a tubal ligation, but it is felt that it is better for a woman's health to be harmed by the operation than a man's because the women "are just housewives."

The government's birth control policy doesnít challenge the attitudes which favor sons. And birth control has not improved the economic conditions that make men so necessary.  Since Chinese women still feel pressure by their husbands and in-laws to bear sons, but yet the government strictly controls their reproduction, "Chinese women feel trapped."

Some Improvements in Women's Lives

In the past, the most obvious sign of female oppression was foot-binding, which was banned in early 20th century, but continued in rural areas for decades.

Lin Choa's mother-in-law was 6 years old when her feet were bound. Men didnít want to marry women with big feet.  The toes bent down under big toe (walking on bent toes). Feet bound by soldiers. Years after feet have been unbound, they still are deformed. The binding caused sores, and the pus formed a crust. Feet became "a slushy mess." Couldnít walk because of the pain. Women would be ridiculed if they had big feet.

Older woman: when she was a teenager, women not married by sixteen were rare. She was 13 when married. By age 11, girls werenít allowed out of house.

In the past, daughters-in-law had no right to speak in the house. Didnít dare leave the house, only if vendors came by, and then only with the reluctant permission of her mother-in-law. "We were really oppressed."

1949: Communist Revolution ("Liberation"). It brought some changes for women, including the opportunity to have a role in choosing a husband, could demand divorce. The Revolution helped eliminate poverty and brought health care. The Cultural Revolution introduced new words for defining oppression, including "feudal," which women most often use to describe an authoritarian/tyrannical family member (husband, in-law, parent).

Today, daughters-in-law treated much better. "They only do housework when they feel like it."

In the past, a woman entered her new home as a stranger. The only real emotional bond that she could establish was with her son. However, the sonís marriage threatened that bond, so there were tensions between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law (true even today).

Lin Choa and her mother-in-law are unusually close. She helped her mother-in-law stand up for her own rights.

Lin Choa had two miscarriages. She was worried that her in-laws would be upset.

Changes in Women's Work

Long Bow is a village of over 2000 people. Main crops: corn and wheat. People used to live exclusively by farming. Women worked in home, venturing only as far as the neighborhood millstone to grind the grains. In the 1950s (after the revolution), women started working in the collective fields and bringing home an income. As a result of their new incomes, their status improved. But until recently, the daily pay rates were lower for women than for men. Then, a piecework system was introduced to increase efficiency, and some women started to earn more than men. Men are increasingly working outside the village, leaving more of the agricultural work to the women. Agricultural work is considered appropriate for women, because they can do it in and around their childcare and housework.

Woman: "Now women have two jobs, one outside and one inside the house." "Men donít take equal responsibility in the house." Children are close to their mothers because the mothers take care of their kids.

Recently, a highway and railroad were built nearby, enabling large factories to move in.  The village developed its own small industry (saw-blade polishing, using young, unmarried female workers). Male manager explains that men canít stand the confinement of factory work: "Itís like being in prison."

Female worker: The work is very dangerous, exhausting. Pay is good. In 1982, the workers quit working for a day. Hadnít gotten safety supplies or bonuses (the factory profits instead had been funneled into village agriculture). Young women give their pay to their parents. They were reluctant to confront the manager directly, because it is run like a family workshop (heís related to many of the girls).

Changes in Lin Choa's Mother-in-Law's Life

The traditional village fair is a big event. Opera performances. Lin Choa attends with her mother-in-law who thinks of this outing as a very special occasion, something she never would have been able to do in the past.

Lin Choaís mother-in-law says that when she was young, her family was so poor, her father thought about selling her for $200. Her husband came up with the money. Her father used the money to buy grain. She says: "I just endured everything waiting for my two sons to grow up." Kids have it much easier these days.

The next day, the mother-in-law refused to talk with the interviewer anymore, because she had been bullied by husband and sons for talking about the past. "They said I had hurt the family" [by mentioning that she had been sold].  She says that she used to cry all the time, but no one cared about her. After the birth of her second child, it was hard, the first baby was always crying. She smothered the new baby. "I had nothing to eat myself, and the first baby was crying. I had to kill my baby." No one would come to visit, because her husband would say she was a whore. She had to wait on him all the time, and he would say "Didnít I pay good money for you?" She says: "Things are fine now that I am in the care of my sons." But she is still bullied by her husband. Compared to the past, she says, "I feel like Iím in paradise."

The isolation and tragedy experienced by the mother-in-law are uncommon today. These complex problems have no simple solution. But as long as a Chinese woman has to leave her family, move into her husbandís house, and carry on his family line, she will be considered a "small happiness."