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Chinese women redraw the social map
No longer bound by ancient village ties, urbanization has unleashed a new generation of Chinese women. For some, it means a Western haircut and a degree from an elite technical college. For others, it means a chance to forage in the city garbage hea
 
Tish Durkin
Tish Durkin

If you want to feel like the weakest, laziest, most mollycoddled slacker ever to draw breath, come to China and hire someone.

Upon my arrival here in Dalian, a northeastern city of some 6 million people, my first order of business was to hire an interpreter. I interviewed several candidates who all left me feeling like a couch potato at a triathlon. All were young, rural-born women who had gotten big-city university degrees, and thus were by definition models of motivation. One applicant, in fact, had been the only student from her area to be accepted in her graduating year at Tsingshua University, the MIT of China. She had, she explained, attended a top secondary school—seven days a week, starting at 6:45 a.m., riding a bicycle an hour each way. Clearly, unlike their prospective employer, these were not people who had grown up on a steady diet of Barbie, Love Boat, and Mademoiselle.

I hired the one who had the best English—and who also seemed to embody one of the most powerful social changes afoot in China today: a lightning-speed, omnivorous urbanization that seems to be making and breaking the place at the same time. She is 27, and her Western name is Rita, though it used to be Coco. With her fire-engine-red sneakers, fashionably-fringed haircut, and easy English, Rita struck me as a plausible child of affluence, all cosmopolitan brio.

Not so: It turned out that she had grown up in a farmhouse in the rural south that still has no running water and no central heat; her mother still gets her cooking fire by lighting cornstalks. Then again, she emphasized, her mother had plenty to cook—unlike the women of her grandfather's youth, during parts of which every last person in every last village ate every last leaf off every last tree. When all the trees were bare, the men boiled their pigskin belts to eat those.

On a different note, Rita turned out to have tried some of the same cosmetic tricks as Cleopatra. One day, we went to a rocky beach about an hour out of town. While walking on a footpath, she picked a vivid pink flower of some kind.

"I used to use this!" she exclaimed fondly. "We'd fill it with salt and wrap it around our fingertips before bed! The next morning, our nails would be red!"
 
Who knew you could be under 30 and remember life before nail polish? But that's China for you. It is fair to see China as being composed of the multitudes who have come from some tiny rural place to make lives in some enormous urban place, and of the other multitudes they have left behind. This has led to the well-documented division between the urban China that is flying into the future and the rural China that is stuck in the past. But even if the government somehow manages to bridge that gap, as it has begun striving to do, women like Rita will have redrawn the social map.

Such women are well into marriageable age, yet have no immediate plans to get married, nor any intention of moving back to the hinterlands. Just a few generations removed from the days of bound feet, this would be remarkable enough as a feminist development. But it also poses a real demographic question. The Chinese government, mindful of the aging of a whole generation of parents of only children, has recently moved to relax its one-child family policy. Nonetheless, if and when the Ritas of the country have families, they will do so in cities, where it is now considered so expensive to live that second children, even if legally permitted, will be financially forbidden to many couples.

That's the kind of problem that many Chinese women are way past having. These women, too, embody urbanization, although not such a sunny side of it. The other morning, Rita and I found a 35-year-old woman named Zhu picking up rubbish outside a vegetable market. She and some companions were separating piles of cardboard, cable, and plastic and piling them improbably onto a sort of scooter/pickup hybrid on which it would all be driven to a recycling center.

As it happened, Zhu was from Rita's home region, where she had left three children. Chatting pleasantly in their dialect, she explained to Rita that in a really good month, going at it every day, she could collect as much as 1,000 RMB ($146). This was much better money than she could make staying home on a tiny plot of land that yielded little food and no other options. Also, the urban rent wasn't too bad, if you went for a place with no electricity or running water. Indeed, if Zhu does make that money, she's not considered truly poor here: Economic miracle or no, more than a hundred million Chinese live on less than $1 a day.

In written Chinese, the expression for "risk" famously combines the symbol for opportunity with the symbol for danger. No question, urbanization on such a scale is a social risk. But it's yet to be seen which half will cast a greater shadow on the whole: the opportunity of bettering millions of lives, or the danger of dislocating them.

 

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