The Farmer Girl and the City: The Rootless Women of Rural China

Recently, a new novel by the famous Chinese author Jia Pingwa has brought the problems of China’s countryside women to the public’s attention. Women from China’s small villages are caught in a Catch 22: no matter if they stay on the countryside or enter the city’s labor market, they are at a disadvantage either way.

Ji Hua (极花), the new novel by renowned author Jia Pingwa (贾平凹), has again attracted public discussion on the fate and circumstances of China’s rural women. The novel recounts the story of a daughter from a rural family who goes to the city and becomes a victim of human trafficking. When she is rescued after three years, she returns to her family.

According to an article that was recently published by author Cao Dongbo (曹东勃) on Tencent’s public discussion platform Everybody, the book reiterates the vulnerable position of women in today’s rural China. When they fall victim to China’s black market bride trade, their prospects are hopeless, Cao writes. But even when are not victimized by these kinds of crime and are legally married, their basic rights are murky. In his essay, Cao describes the economic and social problems facing women within China’s small peasant economy.



“China’s countryside women lead ‘floating lives’ – they are rootless.”


In his article titled ‘The Countryside Women on the Ruins of Small Peasant Economy’ [小农经济废墟上的乡村女人], author and researcher Cao Dongbo addresses the predicament of women in China’s small rural villages. Amidst the giant rush to the city, these places are becoming more isolated and empty, leaving the choice for young unmarried women to either stay there and get married into another household, or to join the mass urbanization and end up in the lowest layers of society.

Many Chinese peasant families return to the farmland after working in the city – a phenomenon also referred to as ‘circulation migration’. But, according to research, many countryside women prefer working in the city over the farmland. Men, on the other hand, often feel better living the countryside life for the freedom it brings them. In his article, Cao questions this difference between men and women and ties it to the unequal (economic) position of women in China’s rural areas.

According to Cao, China’s countryside women lead ‘floating lives’ – they are rootless because their status, location, and economic rights change according to the role they have as daughter, bride, wife, daughter-in-law and mother.

Even when women have the legal right to their family’s or husband’s farmland, they often have to give it up when their family role changes. Throughout the path from daughter to daughter-in-law, depending on the circumstances, all land ownership is generally in the name of the father, husband or son, and not in the woman’s name – countryside women are thus generally at a disadvantage in this patriarchal countryside system.



“A married daughter is just like water that has been poured.”


Something that is at the heart of the issue is China’s hukou or ‘household registration’ system that is assigned at birth based on one’s community and family. China’s hukou system separates peasants from urban citizens, and is extra meaningful in rural areas; not only because the hukou of rural Chinese makes it harder for them to work and live in cities, but also because farmland and hukou have a tight connection.

In the post-Mao era, farmland started to be partially privatized. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, China’s system of collective farming arrangements slowly made room for a decentralization of agricultural production, with a new system that contracted farmland to households (“包产到户”). By “dividing a field per household” (“分田到户”), agricultural production went up, and the country suddenly saw a surplus of rural labor and an increased labor demand in the cities.


This, amongst others, caused a huge flow of peasants moving to the city to look for jobs there, leaving many small villages practically empty. Women started moving across the country to get married outside their (empty) villages and join their husband’s family. Since farmland does not move, this meant they also left the farmland that was assigned to their hukou – although they were actually entitled to it.

When a woman marries outside her hukou, she generally has to give up any benefits or rightful land ownership she had in her previous household. This is one of the reasons why it is said that “a married daughter is just like water that has been poured” (“嫁出去的闺女,泼出去的水”); she leaves her own family with empty hands to become part of another household.

In Rural Women in Urban China, Tamara Jacka calls this phenomenon an “ongoing abuse of women’s rights to land”.



“Why do many rural women complain about farm labor and praise factory life?”


“Why do many rural women complain about farm labor and praise factory life?”, Cao writes: “It is because culturally and institutionally, the existence of the female entity in the countryside is superficial and without roots. Her role changes from the beginning to the end in accordance with one’s life cycle, and whether she lives in the city or in a village greatly influences this.”

Cao goes back in history and says that modern industrial culture is a complex issue that has brought much good and bad to women’s emancipation. Without industrialization, terms like ‘equality of the sexes’ or ‘equal pay for equal work’ would be a far away dream. Women began participating in working society, competing on the labor market and changing their (financial) role in the household – all because of industrialization. In this way, working in the city has given women a new identity they previously did not have, which is a major reason why they might prefer factory work over their countryside living.


But on the other hand, Cao writes, industrial culture is also a nightmare for many young migrant women (aka “working sisters” 打工妹) whose personal diversity is destroyed because of the tiring, monotone and repetitive work they have to do. This limited activity is much different from that in the countryside, where women often have a variety of activities and skills in their day-to-day work.

Another effect of industrialization has been that because it forced people to separate themselves from the traditional family home, it also asked for new divisions within the household, where women transformed into “housewives”. According to Cao, there was a tacit understanding that both the man and the woman were involved in physical labor, and that men would take up the duty to provide for the household and compensate the woman’s contribution. But, Cao writes, people have become so used to this construction, that this initial ‘contract’ has become forgotten over the course of time. As pressure on families is getting bigger, women are struggling to balance their career, household tasks and motherhood, while they often lack any social and financial security.

In his conclusion, Cao says that women living in the slowly emptying rural villages of China generally have two options: either go into the cities and become a “factory girl”, or to turn to the suburbian fields and be a farmer.

Although the first might bring a sense of satisfaction -an identity- to working women, there is also a high intensity of labor and unequal household gender division that leads to insecure financial and social security situations for women. And although the latter, the farmer’s life, is a special way of life that often brings freedom and diversity, it does not give women any rights to land, and her identity will be determined according to the role she has in the household as daughter or wife. No matter which direction she chooses, they both do not realize the full potential of a women’s career. In her day-to-day work and life, she will continue to run into all sorts of “ceilings” (“天花板”).



“A daughter-in-law is the main worker and child-bearing machine of her husband’s family.”


Cao’s essay has drawn mixed reactions from Chinese netizens.

One female netizen writes: “I am a woman from a mountain village. About married life, we as local women often say that during the day, we work very hard in the house, and during the night, we give our bodies to our husbands so we can bear and raise children. After marriage, a daughter-in-law is the main worker and child-bearing machine of her husband’s family. We don’t say this to complain; it is a sort of self-fulfillment. Her husband’s family is a woman’s real family, and there’s happiness in the bitter. Also the nightly thing is a woman’s sweet devotion. The more you give, the happier you will be. It has been an iron law in China for centuries, and is the best situation for a right relation between the two genders – the best recipe for a stabile family and society.”

Another netizen comments: “When rural women enter the city, they can only end up in the lowest layers of society. Those marginalized people who cannot get an urban household registration do all kinds of jobs from being factory workers to waitresses to street cleaners. It’s not about the job they do, it’s about the fact that they often think it is better than being a peasant. But is it about the woman’s status, or about the reward she gets for her work? What is this choice based on? And is a woman’s status really higher in the city?”

“This is not a women’s issue,” one other QQ user says: “Of course, women’s problems stand out, but this is actually a problem of all of China’s inhabitants of rural villages, and is not about a ‘male versus female’ issue.”

– By Manya Koetse


– Cao Dongbo. 2016. “小农经济废墟上的乡村女人” [“The Countryside Women on the Ruins of Small Peasant Economy”]. Tencent Dajia (May 9) [14.5.16].

– Jacka, Tamara. 2005. Rural Women in Urban China: Gender, Migration, and Social Change. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe.

– Soh Yufen, Evelyn. 2014. “Inequality Among Women and China’s Hukou System”. Nanyang Technological University. Online at [11.5.16].

Farmland image via

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