Shengliver’s Note: My former classmate Ms Zhu Yufen killed herself after she delivered a baby girl. What caused her death? Was it Chinese prejudice against girls? Was it the harsh family planning policy? Or was it her own weak will? In this entry, which was first written in 2005, Shengliver tells her story and reflects on rural Chinese problems and on the country school we attended in the mid-1980s. Over the last few years, the Chinese government has relaxed the family planning rules a little.




Recent reports in foreign media about the forced abortions and sterilizations in Shandong Province, China, have provoked my thoughts on women in rural China.


Others are ignored, particularly rural women whose suicide rate – about 30 in every 100,000 people – is among the highest in the world. With many husbands leaving their villages to go and find work as migrant labourers in the cities, women in the countryside have less support in dealing with the traditional pressures of motherhood, farming and moving in with their in-laws. Many also have access to pesticides – a very painful but effective way to commit suicide. (The Guardian)


I had a female classmate in junior high school. Her name was Zhu Yufen.


Miss Zhu’s village was about 2 kilometres from mine. Besides, I passed her farmhouse on the way to school. Therefore we got rather familiar with each other and were on good terms. She had one brother and three or four sisters. It was a large family. Her mum died very young, leaving her father rearing them all.


In Grade Three, Junior High, she and a boy from another village got romantic. At least I thought so. The boy had a bicycle, which was still a luxury for most Chinese teens in the 1980s. He offered Miss Zhu free rides on the bike to and from school. We all thought they would end up in a marriage someday.


Unluckily the boy was able to pass the high school entrance exam and was thus enrolled in the county high school. Their romance came to an end. They parted from each other. The boy attended a polytechnic after high school, and landed a job in the city upon graduation. Miss Zhu, left behind in her village, remained a farmer.


Zhu Yufen, through a matchmaker, was married to a lad in a village near my home. The boy’s home was located in Henan Province while Zhu’s and mine were in Hubei Province, for my home village almost straddles the boundary between the two provinces.


I was in college when Miss Zhu got married. I learned about her marriage the first winter vacation. It was said to be a happy match for the boy’s family was well off. I didn’t see any of her in person in my college years.


The next winter vacation I asked mum about her. Mum said, “Yufen has committed suicide.”


It happened like this. Her life was happy immediately after her marriage. Her husband and her in-laws treated her very well. She had been a pretty girl in my eyes. But things changed after her baby came to the world. It was a girl, a healthy girl.


But it was a girl who was despised by the family. Her husband was the only boy of his parents. In Chinese traditions, he was supposed to extend the family line. The birth of the baby girl changed the family’s attitude towards Zhu Yufen, for everyone had been expecting a boy. My readers might say Zhu could have given birth to more babies if she had liked. But at that time a family had to pay a fortune to bring a second or a third child to the world. And there was a stigma attached to violating the state law on family planning. The government workers enforcing family planning policies were harsh. They could impose a heavy fine on the violator. They could also confiscate his property such as furniture and grains if the family could not pay it.


The cold attitude drove Zhu down into depression. Before the baby was one month old, Zhu ended it all, drinking some pesticide the family had reserved for their crops.


She died, leaving her baby in this world. I don’t know how the family felt. I know how I felt when I heard mum telling me her story. My heart ached.




The family planning policy has been successful in curbing the disastrous growth of the Chinese population, which resulted from the government policies of the first two decades (1950s and 1960s) of the Republic. The other side of the picture is that doubtlessly some local government officials were not able to implement the policies humanely. Zhu’s story is an indirect reflection of it.


These days, in Chinese villages, especially in central China and western China, the earning adults of a peasant family are absent, with the old looking after the young. The absence of father and/or mother creates huge problems for the growth of their children.


Chinese peasant wives still live wretched lives in many cases. A lot of them are poorly educated, burdened with heavy household duties and ignorant of their rights. They suffer from all kinds of psychological problems. Who can go out and offer them a hand? What role should the Chinese education system play in making a difference to country girls, most of whom are to become peasant wives later on?




Miss Zhu and I attended the same country school in the mid 1980s. The school served all the villages in my People’s Commune (later renamed Township).

graduation photo 1986 blog 

It was kind of a boarding school but the living conditions were horrible. We carried firewood and grains from home to the school kitchen. We studied and lived at the school for a fortnight before we had a two-day break. Meals served in the school kitchen, if it could be called such, were neither nutritious nor sufficient. We had cornmeal porridge for breakfast and supper, and noodles for midday. There was no rice, no bread, no meat and vegetables at all on the menu. In summer and autumn, there were a lot of worms in the soup, yet we had no choice but to swallow the unpalatable stuff with pickles our parents had prepared and jarred for us back home. Most days I was starving. There were many occasions at night when my classmates and I, under cover of darkness, sneaked away to the fields near the school to feed ourselves on some garden vegetables like radishes and potatoes. It was robbing the farmers!


Because there was no dining hall for the pupils, we had to eat in the open air. It was OK when the weather was fair. It was hell when the weather was foul. On rainy days, those of us without an umbrella had to shelter under the eaves at meals. Those with an umbrella stood and ate in the rain. Still our clothes were often wetted by the weather.


Despite hunger, we had to labour a lot for the school. The school would have more schoolrooms built one year, so we students had to make adobe bricks of mud and grass for the construction, and to port sand and stone from a river valley to the school with baskets and poles. One morning the whole school set out for a wood deep in the mountains, from where we fetched felled trees to be used as beams of our new schoolhouses. I remember walking in the mountains with my schoolmates for a whole day. There was no meal at midday. By the time I approached the school, trailing two cypress trees behind me, the sun was already setting.


All the boys in my class, around 30, slept on one bed in one room with one window. The window was iron barred with no glass panes. In winter it was covered with plastic; in summer nothing at all. Thus insects were free to come in and go out. (The classroom windows worked the same way). Looking back, I do feel that the main function of the dorm was no more than a roof over our head. The bed was in reality several wooden boards assembled on adobe bricks. A skin disease called scabies infected all the boys. The itch kept me scratching all over the body. The scratches festered, swelled and filled with pus. Lice and fleas thrived where we slept. Our quilt, clothes and hair were infested with the little animals. The lavatory was a hole in the ground.


There was no clean drinking water for us. When we were thirsty, we went and drank from a spring somewhere near the school. We washed our eating bowls in a ditch which channelled water to a small hydroelectric power plant. For some time, especially in the rainy autumnal days, everyone seemed to be suffering from diarrhoea. In winter we had no warm water. We had to wash ourselves in the freezing channel. There was not even a towel to clean and dry. Most of us ended up with inflamed eyes, especially in winter and spring. Frostbite was a common sight among the pupils.


Those days!


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