Inheriting the earth
HAO Liuping's day begins at 4 am when she starts farming her patch of land in Yixian county, a picturesque valley filled with the tombs of the Qing dynasty. At noon she returns to her one-storey brick house where she cooks and cleans for her family until dusk.
'Yes, it's a hard life,' she admits cheerfully. Ms Hao is a stocky woman in her mid-thirties with a steady gaze. She is dressed in rough workclothes, a smock, blue cotton trousers and rubber boots. In the pen beside the house, a sow and her piglets rummage in the mud and a chained dog barks at the chickens while her husband looks on.
Like millions of other peasant wives around the country, Ms Hao now shoulders all the farm work except the harvesting.
'We say that we are 'bent under heaven, prostrate before the yellow earth',' Ms Hao said.
Behind her the corn stands high as a man and the air is rich with the special fragrance of ripening fields.
Peasant farming in China is sometimes compared to market gardening and her plot of around two mu shows all the signs of painstaking care. The stalks grow in measured straight lines in soil free of a single weed.
This is one of the poorest regions in Hebei province; indeed in China. After a year of backbreaking toil, most people in the villages here earn no more than 300 yuan (HK$270).
Four years ago life changed radically. Ms Hao's husband found a job in Beijing, working in a factory churning out the black coal bricks which Beijingers use in their stoves.
It is the kind of dirty, low-paid work which city-dwellers are no longer prepared to do. Now her husband spends most of the year in the capital, leaving her to farm their land. He only returns to help with the harvest.
Ms Hao is pleased with the change. With two incomes they were able to tear down their mud hut a year ago and they built a new three-room brick house for 8,000 yuan and bought a small black and white television. She has now borrowed some money and started her own sideline business growing vegetables in winter under a makeshift greenhouse of plastic sheeting.
Without hard-working women such as Ms Hao, China would never be able to feed its vast population. Yet it was not long ago, that Chinese men did all the farm work. A farmer without sons to help him would despair. The women stayed at home, hobbling around the courtyard in bound feet, sewing clothes and looking after numerous children.
'My mother never pulled a plough. She couldn't; she had small feet,' Ms Hao said.
After the Communist Party came to power, peasant women joined the agricultural labour force and were given equal rights to the land. Traditionally, land rights were passed on exclusively through males, leaving women with little status or power. Without land, a peasant, male or female, was without honour or position.
From the mid-1950s, such rights meant nothing. All the land was collectivised along with tools and draft animals. The state owned everything and in the communes, the peasants earned not money but work points. A man was automatically credited with more work points for a day in the fields than a woman.
'The cadres said men were stronger and did more work,' Ms Hao said.
Until the communes were disbanded in Yixian county around 1983, both men and women worked long hours, toiling from 5am until 11am and from 3pm until dusk.
'In those days I was even more tired than now. We always had to be in the fields,' she said.
The discovery made this year that women now do more agricultural work than men in China took even the Ministry of Labour by surprise.
'This is quite a change,' said Liu Danhua, deputy director of the rural division in the Labour Ministry.
Earlier this year she helped organise a survey of 4,000 households in 80 villages in eight provinces to study rural migration. It revealed that in households entirely reliant on agriculture, 64 per cent of the labourers are female and in those households which also engage in other activities, about 55 per cent of the farm work is done by women.
Other studies have also shown rural women work longer hours than men. A report by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) said they work an average of 11.4 hours a day compared to 10.1 for men when tasks such as shopping and cooking are included. They also have less leisure time.
The IFAD study was one of many being carried out in preparation for this year's UN Conference on Development and Women. About 450 million women live in rural China and the question of their status and future are crucial to both the global debate on Third World development and the future of China.
'You can use China as an example for rural women throughout the world,' IFAD President Fawzi Al-Sultan said in a recent interview.
China's breakneck industrialisation is sucking huge numbers of men into the urban labour force. The Labour Ministry believes 52 million have left the countryside since 1980; others reckon 100 million. Most of those remaining would like to leave farming altogether.
The wages are higher on city construction sites or in factories. At the same time the amount of arable land available keeps dropping. Over the last 35 years the average plot has fallen from 12.5 mu to two, a piece of land so small that few can generate a household income with it.
The fact that Chinese women are now in charge of food production has profound implications for the world's food supplies.
Social change on such a scale and at such a pace is staggering and the Chinese Government is not alone in wondering what it means.
'People are only now turning their attention to it,' Xie Lihua said. Two years ago she launched a magazine Rural Women Knowing All to help her readership cope with the change. 'When I started, no one thought this was worthwhile and nobody wanted to join me. Now I have six staff including some academics.' Some would argue the new trend is not an emancipation. As in the past, women are being left to do the worst and lowest-paid job - farm labour. This is a view Ms Xie vehemently rejects.
'No, I don't think this is right. Women now have much more status because they are in charge of the land,' she said.
Land is still the most important asset for most Chinese people and Ms Xie argues that for the first time in history, Chinese women have the right to inherit land.
This entitlement was made law in 1954 but remained only notional until the land was given back to the peasants in the early 1980s. It is still the case that a peasant's land is passed on to a son but population control policies often make that impossible.
'The one-child policy means that if a family has no son, they can have another child and if that's another girl, then one of the daughters keeps the land when she marries,' Ms Xie said.
Ms Hao also thinks that she now has equality. 'We are equal in all ways,' she said of her husband.
She and other women say they like the one-child policy because it liberates them. 'Life is easier for us than the older generation because we don't have to spend all our time looking after lots of children,' one of her neighbours, 52-year-old Song Rongqing said.
Modernisation and rising incomes are also lightening a woman's burden by making factory-made clothes and shoes available. In the past these had to be stitched by hand.
The older generation of rural women may be content with the way things are now but this may not hold good for long. Younger women are beginning to have higher expectations.
'I get lots of letters from readers in their 20s who don't want to stay in their village tied to the land. They don't want to spend their life as peasants,' Ms Xie said.
Government policies tend to encourage a change of thinking. Peasant women are asked to marry later when they are well into their 20s so there is a long period before women are tied down with a small child.
New ideas about the outside world are also filtering through to the villages. Literacy rates are still low among rural women but the Women's Federation and other agencies are trying to raise them. Rural women spend an average of only three years in school and 110 million are completely illiterate.
The growing prevalence of televisions even in very poor areas such as Yixian county plays an even larger role in advertising the attractions of the outside world.
'They all dream of going to the city to seek their fortune,' Ms Xie said.
In the village, unmarried women usually have no means to earn money. Those that do get away, often plan to return to their village and set up their own business; a beauty salon or a clothes shop are among the favourites. Going back and feeding the pigs, however, definitely does not figure prominently in their fantasies.
So who will look after the farm one day? Fortunately China is still a long way from having to confront that problem. There are still millions of rural women like Ms Hao who believe that for all the hard work, life is still getting better.