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Rural women’s literature shapes village landscape

By TIAN NI | 2016-11-10 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Ma Huijuan, a writer from rural China, is writing on cellphone.


Since the dawn of the 21st century, the transformation of the urban-rural development pattern has led to dramatic changes in the countryside. As individuals, rural women have broken earthly barriers and challenged traditional norms, living their lives to the fullest.

Simultaneously, writers among them have started to vigorously explore the social realities of rural areas through multiple platforms, such as books and new media technology. Their works are emblematic of the feelings and perspectives of the times because they write about rural women’s life experiences and diverse rural landscape, reflecting the awkward urban-rural relationship and a sense of spiritual exploration.

Multi-dimensional life
Female authors from rural areas touch upon a variety of elements, such as nature, gender, ethics, life, plants and animals. They mainly record daily experience, hometown culture as well as their homesickness and spiritual journey.

For example, Liao Fuxiang tells a love story filled with twists and turns between A Wen and a soldier in her novel A Woman Seeking Happiness. The works of Zhou Chunlan are filled with rural characteristics. In Dust, she reflects on her miseries after working and coming back from Guangzhou, while Jiang Lanfang devotes attention to the impacts of urbanization in the stories about land acquisition and demolition.

In War of Marriage, Jiang tells the story of the tragic life of a rural woman named Jin Yan in China’s northwest Shaanxi Province, exposing the trauma caused by domestic violence. Cui Hua, the main character of Love Affair in the Countryside, fights against destiny by cheating on her husband and indulging herself in affairs with different men. In Li Yongjian’s novel Passion for Longjiang River, rural transformation and abundance are highlighted.

In the works of this kind, the decision to stay in or leave their home villages is a common theme of women’s lives. Cities and villages provide rural women with different living situations. These rural women live and grow in their hometown, so rural life has become part of their soul. They are fed but also constrained by their huge passion for the land.

At the same time, urbanization separates them from the places they once lived, leading to fears and anxieties about losing one’s home. However, rural women are often blocked by gender inequality when they leave for cities with the goal of developing on their own. Some of them even engage in sexual bartering to improve their living conditions.

In various relationships connecting ethics, nature, life and women, rural women writers convey intimacy and interdependence between women and their hometowns, interpreting complex human relations as well as present rural changes. These descriptions give us a full picture of rural women’s lives while revealing the decline and revitalization of rural culture.

New media involvement
New media technology has created great convenience. Women writers from urban and rural areas are no longer isolated islands but have begun to integrate with each other. Those from the countryside adopt bold and wild self-expression, challenging the traditional writing pattern through various forms of “We-media”— known to Western audiences as “user-generated content.”

Yu Xiuhua is a farmer from Hengdian Village of central China’s Hubei Province. She started to write poems in 1998 and opened an account on a Chinese blogging website in 2009. Ever since, she has vigorously expressed her feelings in her works. Yu’s Playing on the Barnyard was published in the renowned poetry magazine Shi Kan in 2014. Shi Kan’s official account released her poems and essays which were amplely acclaimed by mass media and Internet users, receiving more than 50,000 clicks in a short period of time.

Her poems are so full of passion and tension that villages are wild, isolated and sluggish rather than quiet and peaceful. In Midnight Village, she writes the following lines: How much wasteland is there in the village. Men do not exactly know. How women’s hearts become desperate. Men totally have no idea.

Yu’s expression about villages contains avant-garde elements of postmodernism. She combines reality and fantasy, so descriptions about urban-rural gap and life expectation are simple but thrilling. Her poem collection Moonlight Shed on My Left Palm was published in January 2015 and sold more than 100,000 copies, the largest sales volume in China in the past two decades.

In contrast with the gloomy villages of Yu’s works, Ma Huijuan is dedicated to vibrancy of the wasteland. Ma started to write on the nostalgia she felt for her hometown Jingyuan County in Ningxia Autonomous Region in 2010 under her penname “Riverwind.” She wrote about nature, animals, people as well as activities, such as blind dating in the village and sheep shearing at the foot of Luoshan Mountain.

Ma uploaded her articles to an online personal account and interacted with Internet users there. She focused on the life experience of migrants and how women of the Hui ethnic group have strived to keep rural tradition alive while venturing into the workforce. In 2014, her fans online submitted her prose to the literary magazines and it was published, attracting the attention of the media. Ma’s prose collection Words of River Wind was published in 2016.

Women writers from the countryside make full use of Internet resources, capital investment so that they can release their works by online editions and paper publications, but they are not manipulated and destroyed by the medium.

The Internet has become the best platform because it allows rural women to express their loneliness, passion and hopes. They construct stories and express emotion by combing creativity, simplicity, imagination, ideology and realities, presenting scenarios of rural life in which women are at the center of the narrative. Writing aims to artistically mix realities with surreal elements, constituting an innovative form of expression.

Possibilities, constraints
In the era of new media, it has become a common task for women writers from the countryside to explore rural landscapes and seek artistic practice, which requires sufficient rural elements and critical reflection. Most women writers wrote about their individual experiences in 1990s, but since the start of the 21st century, they have endeavored to create stories with greater dramatic structure.

Rural women apply daily scenarios to their writing and boldly express a rustic natural strength. They use love and maternal strength to defend their hometowns and rural culture. They use self-awareness to fight against traditional patriarchal control to liberate themselves and the countryside.

In fact, the rural landscape has already undergone changes. Modern transformation and social changes are fast and deep, penetrating and disassembling villages in terms of external ecology, fundamental culture as well as psychological construction.

Writers are destined to experience a concomitant shift in writing style due to experience accumulation and value changes. Rural women writers have made great efforts to describe changing women and realities in villages, but fail to present the complex ities human mind and seek its social and historical roots.

At the same time, the absence of a broad vision means rural women writers must create by experience. In this way, their works put emphasis on emotional expression and individualist thinking while ignoring doubts about history and tradition. Most women writers observe villages from a moral perspective rather than an artistic one, so they are powerless and awkward when it comes to realities because they lack the ability and insight to analyze the world.

In terms of literary criticism, though works of rural women writers are rough, simple and innocent, their narration has shaped a unique landscape and led to a number of crucial changes. They have challenged the literary status quo by telling their own stories and publishing paper editions, which is a testament that it is possible for women to stop imitating Western patterns of literary theory and conduct bold literary experiments in their own cultural context.

Rural women writers express their passion and feelings of separation from their hometowns through various forms of new media, which allows them to overcome the pressures of the capital market. They delve deeply into life and explore the relationships connecting nature, women and realities. Admittedly, there is a gap between their ideology and rural development, but their writing is of textual and social value. No doubt that the rural land will provide fertile soil for excellent women writers from the countryside in the future.

Tian Ni is from the Institute of Literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.