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Women Farmers in China's Commercial Agrarian Economy

Based on the fieldwork in Chenggong county, Yunnan province, this study tries to show how the process of market reforms has transformed the lives of a large number of women in China's villages from being round-the-year labour providers to that of farmer entrepreneurs. It examines how the institutional changes brought about by the reforms have contributed to the rise of this distinctly new class of women entrepreneurs who have emerged as significant actors in the rural economy. The study examines three key variables - marketing opportunities, access to farm inputs and control over land, which influence their abilities in terms of negotiating the male-dominated institutions of the market. The article focuses on those institutional constraints that restrict these women entrepreneurs from participating equally in the market and make them vulnerable in a number of ways.

Women Farmers in China’s Commercial

Agrarian Economy

Based on the fieldwork in Chenggong county, Yunnan province, this study tries to show how the process of market reforms has transformed the lives of a large number of women in China’s villages from being round-the-year labour providers to that of farmer entrepreneurs. It examines how the institutional changes brought about by the reforms have contributed to the rise of this distinctly new class of women entrepreneurs who have emerged as significant actors in the rural economy. The study examines three key variables – marketing opportunities, access to farm inputs and control over land, which influence their abilities in terms of negotiating the male-dominated institutions of the market. The article focuses on those institutional constraints that restrict these women entrepreneurs from participating equally in the market and make them vulnerable in a number of ways.


ver the last two and a half decades, the agrarian economy in China has been undergoing increasing commercialisation. This process began in the late 1970s when the Communist Party of China (CPC) made agriculture one of the primary components of the ‘si ge xiandai hua’1 (four modernisation programme). Subsequently, at various stages, the Chinese countryside has been witnessing significant institutional changes. They have brought about far-reaching consequences in the very structure of agrarian relations that existed until then. The most visible outcome of these changes has been the rise and spread of commercial economy. The robust development of the rural market drastically curtailed the role of the state in determining the price and supply of farm products.

The commercialisation of agrarian economy in China can be seen as a direct outcome of two important policy interventions, i e, the introduction of household responsibility system (HRS) or ‘baochan daohu’ and the promotion of commodity economy in rural areas. The HRS significantly reduced the state monopoly over agricultural organisation and management. The new system allocated land to the peasant households according to their size for a fixed period. The HRS was considered as an enabling institutional reform which gave peasants the freedom to determine the choice and volume of agricultural production [Potter and Potter 1990; Vogel 1989; Croll 1988]. It was credited with the twin achievements of substantially increasing agricultural production as well as the peasants’ household income.2 Along with the introduction of the HRS, the central government decided to promote commodity economy in rural China. These policies encouraged the diversification of agricultural production to overcome dependence on traditional farm cultivation [Li Guogang et al 1987].3 Departing from the existing socialist model and in furtherance of the market reforms, the government announced a series of new policies in the late 1980s. The two important decisions were the abolition of the state monopoly over purchasing and marketing of farm produce and the restoration of rural and urban free markets.4 In addition, the central government has also issued regulations to allow cooperatives and individuals to purchase, sell and transport agricultural and sideline production in these free markets. However, the state did retain significant controls over the purchasing, pricing and distribution of major grain crops such as rice and wheat and cash crops such as cotton and tobacco and vital farm inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides.

It seems that the institutional reforms that were introduced in the wake of China’s rural reforms have negotiated the capacities of the state and given way to market forces in a variety of ways. In official parlance, they were referred to as promoting “socialist market economy” (SME) and it has been argued that the market mechanism was introduced to deal with inefficiencies of allocation and distribution that occur within the central planning system.5 The new policies have assigned the market a distinctive role in the Chinese economy. This reworking of the relations between state and the market have brought about significant changes at the level of the households for their survival and welfare strategies. It is going to have serious implications for women in terms of intra-household relations and matters of gender equity.6 Women’s choices within the household are largely determined by this new institutional arrangement which is largely structured along the market principles.

This paper seeks to examine the effects of commercialisation of agrarian economy on the lives of women in rural China by foregrounding the experiences of ‘nong min’7 (women farmers ) in a village in Yunnan province. It tries to explain how far these changes have altered gender roles within the household by focusing on the rise of a new entrepreneur class of women farmers in the village. Here, I would like to justify the usage of the term “entrepreneur” for women farmers. The Chinese translation for entrepreneur is ‘qiyejia’ meaning one who is engaged in private enterprises which is defined strictly in case of urban China. I still insist on this term for women farmers because it is their distinctive capability to take initiatives on their own to enter into business or small-scale enterprise of cash crops that makes them different from other farmers. This new stratum of women farmers have been able to successfully negotiate their ways through the dramatically changing social currents to carve out the space for their own development. What is more remarkable about this phenomenon is the entry of women into areas which were earlier dominated mostly by men. This is an interesting phenomenon to study in case of rural China and often these women are regarded as “model” women farmers by the All China Women’s Federation (ACWF ). The proposed study examines three key variables that influence women farmers’ ability in negotiating the market and state, i e, marketing opportunities, access to farm inputs and control over land.

Chenggong County8

Located in the east bank of Dianchi Lake adjacent to suburban Kunming with an area of 462 sq km, Chenggong is a unique county in China’s south-western region. Nature has endowed it with abundant horticultural resources. In Chinese ‘chenggong’ means “manifestation of happiness and good luck” and in popular parlance it is called a “year-round flower kingdom”. Advantages like fertile land, adequate water resources, and a beautiful countryside make this provincial capital China’s southeastern gateway. It produces and supplies vegetables, fruits and flowers for the central Yunnan.

In the early 1990s the county government had introduced economic reforms in Chenggong that had transformed the existing patterns of subsistence-based agricultural economy into that of cash-crops cultivation. These shifts prompted the emergence of free markets that are linked to the national and the international markets. The objective of these policies was basically to increase the income of the farmers with limited landholdings and consequently collect revenue for development. The county government’s new policies have , in a way, helped the farmers to increase the income from their small landholdings and in turn contributed to the overall development of the region.

These changes were markedly visible during the fieldwork carried out in Changle ‘cun’9 (village) in Dayu township in 2002 and subsequently in 2005. This village has also experienced similar changes in the cropping patterns over the past few years. Most of the households are engaged in the farming of cash crops and a number of them have also ventured into small-scale flower business. Besides meeting local demands, the village also produces vegetables and flowers for export purposes.

The transformation of the agrarian economy and the rise of markets have brought about significant changes in rural society, notably in the labour relations, land distributions and gender equality. The objective of the field study in Chenggong was to understand the formation and rise of a new gender category called the women entrepreneurs against these dynamics of social changes. I have conducted extensive survey in Dayu ‘xiang’10 (township) and in Chenggong county’s ‘Dounnan hua shichan’ (Dounnan flower market) which is considered to be the largest flower market in the province. This is the place where most of the farmers sell their produce.

Changing Nature of Women’s Work

In the case of China, it is important to note that women’s participation in the agricultural production was strongly encouraged since the liberation in 1949. The socialist state was ideologically committed to women’s liberation and considered their participation in the social production as a necessary condition. During agricultural collectivisation, the management of land was in the hands of the collectives which had disrupted the patriarchal control over women’s labour in significant ways. Various functions of the peasant households such as childcare and domestic responsibilities were largely taken over by the collectives. This certainly gave women the freedom to get involved in the remunerative work outside home.

However, with the introduction of HRS, there has been a shift in the way woman’s labour was defined and remunerated. Besides, significant changes have taken place in the post-reform period in terms of reducing the state control over the movement of labour in China. The relaxation in ‘hukou’ (household registration system) policies has provided more freedom to farmers to take up income earning opportunities outside their villages. These policies have their bearing on the different kinds of trends emerging in relation to the gender division of labour specific to each region. For instance in the coastal regions, men began to leave agriculture for wage work in the cities and thus burdened women with agriculture work and additional domestic responsibilities. This phenomenon was often described as feminisation of agriculture especially when agriculture was considered as a secondary or subsidiary activity. These processes have been well documented in some of the recent studies [Judd 1990; Song and Janice Jiggins 2000]. Jacka (1997) quotes county officials in Sichuan as describing the feminisation of the agricultural labour force. Thus, with the diversification of agriculture women’s labour shifted to lower and less remunerated work. As small industries and enterprises were set up in the rural areas, wage labour became an important factor with the labour market being increasingly dominated by men. However, in Changle village, the majority of women are still engaged in commercial farming activities such as growing of vegetables and flowers.

In the villages under study, it has been observed that most male members of the household, besides engaging in farming activities are also working in government or private sectors within the county itself. There are ‘ganbu’ (village cadres), factory workers, cold storage plants malignance operators and food-processing workers. Male members are keen to be employed in more remunerative jobs. Here, it seems that the earlier dichotomy between “heavy” and “light” work in the farming that used to define labour is no longer applicable. The greatest degree of gender differentiation in the village is found in terms of wage labour which is a male-dominated activity. This has affected women, as they have to shoulder the farming responsibilities as well as household work. The pull of the market dynamics has created new labour demands affecting the existing intra-household labour relations. These processes have leveraged male workers in a significant way enabling them to diversify their human capital profiles and secure better wage earning opportunities.

Changle village is a microcosm of China’s commercialising countryside. The agrarian changes that are taking place here are illustrative of similar processes set in motion by the rural reforms. The increasing commercialisation has changed the occupational structure which was prevalent in this region until recent times. There has been a significant shift from grain farming to cash crop cultivation. The field study conducted in Changle has brought to light the changes in the occupational profiles of women in the village. For this limited purpose, the main survey results are enumerated here. There are mainly three kinds of women’s work that can be seen in the village. Women in nearly 70 per cent of the households are still engaged in agricultural work, mainly vegetable and flower cultivation. Needless to state here is that household work is not regarded as a work to be mentioned separately. Only elderly women who form just 10 per cent of the total, said they were engaged in only housework. This category mainly includes women who are too old to work on the land, and have given it to their sons for cultivation. They stay at home to take care of their grandchildren and do other household chores. This kind of labour arrangement is quite prevalent in the villages. Another category is of those women who stay in the natal village after marriage and do not participate in farm work as they are preoccupied with child rearing. Women who were able to expand their income-earning work in way of becoming small-scale entrepreneurs constitute the third category.11 They are mainly engaged in marketing vegetables, flowers, fruits and fisheries.

However, the nature of women’s work within a household is determined by a number of factors. In this village, women’s labour within the household tend to vary according to the size and nature of commercial production that they are engaged in. This study uses these two variables to differentiate village households and women’s labour participation in various stages of production activities. On an average, large landholding households engaged in cash crop production are few. In some cases, they have taken additional land on lease to increase production so as to have surplus capital to invest in farmland. In village parlance such households are referred to as “hard working section” or ‘fu nong’ (rich farmers) implying that sufficient economic resources will also help them to earn the right political connection. In these households, generally men make all major decisions regarding production as well as management activities and women’s role tends to be limited to assistance in farm labour.

An interesting feature of the changing occupational relations in Changle village is the rise of a new stratum of women entrepreneurs. Their success story owes much to the support and encouragement of the All China Women’s Federation (ACWF). They were able to expand the agricultural production or diversify it into other more remunerative activities. In some situations, women have taken land on rent and converted it into commercial enterprises like poultry farms, fishery production, etc. For example, Li Yi of Dayu runs a flower enterprise quite successfully. Her flower business provides employment for a number of women at various stages of production such as nursery maintenance and cultivation, clearing, packing, etc. During the interview, she was seen busy packing the flowers and her family members including her mother and relatives were helping her. She was able to send her flowers to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Beijing, Nanjing, Taiwan and Japan and her export-oriented enterprise has earned her special recognition from the local government. In 2001, Li Yi was awarded “the best flower producer” by the county government and was portrayed as a model farmer. The ACWF is encouraging such entrepreneurial initiatives and has even provided loans to increase production.

Like Li Yi there are other women entrepreneurs in Chenggong county who run retail shops, small restaurants and poultry farms.12 In some households, women are involved in income earning activities with their husbands.13

Institutional Constraints

Women entrepreneurs in the village have no doubt emerged as significant actors in the new commercial economy. The new market forces in the agrarian economy have certainly enabled them to emerge as income-earners. This has seriously weakened the earlier dichotomy that existed in the division of labour where women worked in subsistence agriculture and men in wage earning jobs. However, these women entrepreneurs face a range of constraints when they attempt to start, sustain and expand their ventures. These constraints can be understood largely in terms of inadequate institutional support that make them vulnerable and limit their options to compete equally with men in the highly competitive market economy. This study has identified these institutional constraints mainly in relation to three factors: marketing opportunities, access to farm inputs, and control over cultivable land.

Gender Differentiation in Marketing Opportunities

One of the major changes that occurred in the Chinese economy during the reforms was the rise of free and periodic local markets across the countryside. These markets provide strong impetus to farmers as they help them to sell their produce. Since the mid1980s, this boom in China has greatly widened the income-earning opportunities for many villagers mainly in terms of facilitating their agricultural enterprises such as setting up of local retail shops, marketing of cash crops, etc. However, the dynamics of rural markets is not determined by these factors alone. To a large extent still, the state, through its varied political and bureaucratic institutions, intervenes and tries to regulate these markets.

Women who are engaged in commercial cash crop cultivation experience certain constraints in getting access to these markets. Better social mobility and interactions with the world outside the home, enable men to learn more about new profitable markets where they can sell their products at higher prices. The social world of village women however is confined to household and farm work and they remain largely uninformed about new developments in commercial farming as well as those taking place in the market. In this situation, women entrepreneurs seeking marketing opportunities are in a vulnerable position as they do not have direct access to the market. The women entrepreneurs often sell their produce to the accredited buyers who may be exporters or large-scale operators in the region. These markets function as typical trading centres where most farmers will be selling their produce to wholesale traders, who will in turn be selling them in the larger provincial markets. Besides this disadvantage, the role of middlemen also hampers the prospects of the women farmers as they depend on the contractors for selling their products. The women who are initiated into these enterprises are relatively younger and most often do not have the market experience to anticipate the quantum of demands. The specific information regarding how to make the produce more attuned to export market is not easily available. During the field survey, it was observed that the marketing of agricultural products is a serious problem in the villages of Dayu Xiang. For instance, the farmers of Dounan, a major horticultural centre in Chenggong county said that if the flowers are not properly cut in the right length, they are rejected by the buyers. In this situation, women generally tend to sell their produces in the local market. There are instances when women farmers are outmanoeuvred by contractors and end up selling their products at lower rates.

Another constraint is the lack of access to new technologies and marketing skills to further upgrade their production to suit the market demands. The specialised agricultural associations set up by the government fail to provide them with proper guidance, techniques and skills. Often men have special advantages as they have developed certain ‘guanxi’ or political connections with the local officials.14 As a result, they are able to corner more income earning opportunities like selling the produce to big contractors or to the city restaurants. The cumulative effect of the factors described above has been that the women entrepreneurs, despite optimum level work, will be earning less revenue than their male counterparts. In an interview with a vegetable seller in the county market, she explained to me the expenses she has to meet on a day to day basis. She has to pay monthly charges for the space in the market and pay the wages for the hired labourers (10 yuan each). While her daily income turned out to be 50 yuan per day and her overall savings come to hardly 10 or 20 yuan. Her family is gets an additional income of 100 yuan everyday that her husband earned from selling vegetables to various restaurants. However, he controls this money.15 Such disadvantages will greatly diminish women’s participation in the entrepreneurial activities on an equal footing with that of men.16

Finding sufficient capital is a daunting challenge for many women entrepreneurs and small savings are commonly prevalent in the villages here. The absence of an institutional credit facility that can provide them enough capital to start their own business has been a serious limitation [Cheng Fang 2000]. Even in situations where women are involved in agricultural production or manage household enterprises, it is often the case that the male member in the family will be in charge of business matters, such as arranging bank loans, seeking customers, making decisions on investments and keeping accounts.

Unequal Access to Farm Inputs

Subsequent to reforms and trade liberalisation, China’s agricultural sector has increasingly been linked to the export sector and it became imperative to make the agrarian produce competitive in the international market. Towards this goal, the local governments encouraged the farmers to use chemical fertilisers, improved seeds and farm equipments. And under the new rural reform policies the peasant households were made responsible for a range of farming related processes. These included procuring raw-materials and product inputs, gathering technical knowledge, and managing capital, and transporting, storing and marketing their products. In addition, they were encouraged to make the best use of improved technology, fertilisers and a variety of high yield seeds to increase farm production.

In this context, it is also necessary to understand how women engaged in the same farming enterprises become unequal competitors when it comes to receiving farm inputs and gathering technical information. Possibilities in succeeding in their rural enterprises is also linked to the access and control that they enjoy over the resources of production such as land, capital, labour and farm equipment which has been discussed elsewhere [Whitehead, Ann and others 2002]. Denial of direct access to agricultural information and services will make women dependent on men in the entire process of farm production where timely decisions are to be made, for instance, on what to grow, when to grow, from where to buy seeds, fertilisers, and pesticides and so on. These are the real challenges before the women farmers in the villages that enable them to make their produce more competitive in the market. In most situations, the choice of what to grow in the field is largely dependant on the timely information about market demands. One also needs to know about fertilisers and high quality seeds. Though joint decisions are quite common as women are also engaged in farm work, how to make the products more competitive in the market, what seeds and fertilisers to use are mainly decided by male members of the household.17 None of the women respondents with whom I interacted could give us information regarding the allocation of land to various kinds of crops and the usage of seeds, fertilisers and pesticides required for the farm production.

The farm inputs mentioned above are important components of any rural enterprises that Chinese women are increasingly entering into. Getting access to them from the concerned government departments such as the local agricultural associations is obviously crucial for their enterprises. The present institutional setting through which farm inputs are provided and technical informations are disseminated does not offer women farmers a level playing field with their male counterparts. These conditions create add on vulnerabilities for women farmers who often sell their produce in local markets at lower prices due to lack of market information. It has led to a new division of labour within the household where women farmers are getting tied down to the local rural market while men are expanding their business into much larger city markets.

The vulnerabilities and deficits that women experience in farming and marketing can actually be overcome by imparting them appropriate training and knowledge. Earlier there had been few government programmes aimed at improving the skills of women. One of the main initiatives among them was a training programme known as ‘shuang xue, shuang bi’ (competing and learning campaign) which was launched by the ACWF in 1989. This campaign was earlier called ‘xue wen hua, xue zhi su, bi chengji, bi kongxian’ (learn to read and write and learn farming skills and technology and compete for achievements and for contribution to production). The main focus of this public initiative was to encourage women to contribute to increase agricultural production by providing them training and informal education [Rai, Shirin M and Zhang Junzuo 1994]. However, these campaigns proved largely ineffective in terms of eliciting active support from the rural women. According to the village officials, the main reason for the low turnout of women in these programmes was their inadequate educational levels.18 A survey conducted in Changle village points at the modest educational background of the rural women. According to it, only 48.8 per cent them had primary education, 37.8 per cent had completed their secondary schooling, and only 4.9 per cent had higher education. During field interviews, many women explained to me that either prolonged illness or death in the family forced them into dropping out of school.

There are very few women agricultural professionals to conduct the training programme for women in the village. For instance, a survey on the gender distribution in agricultural stations, conducted in June 1993 in Kunming, found that there are just two women out of a total workforce of 53 personnel. At the county level, out of 16 specialised trainers only three are women.19 Often, they are not qualified enough to give training to women farmers in the village. It appears that the prevalent patriarchal values and the division of labour arising out of it in the countryside still remains a major structural constraint against women becoming active in public engagements especially in entrepreneurial initiatives. Besides their inadequate skills, and their being less acquainted with market forces makes it even more difficult for them to be effective players in the competitive market economy. However, some of these disadvantages can be overcome, if the training sessions impart appropriate practical skills to women so as to enable them to enter into highly competitive market structures [Lu Xiaokun 1995].

It is necessary to make the training sessions gender sensitive. More often, the time and venue of the meetings, as decided by male party cadres, are not suited to women farmers. One of the reasons for the relatively unenthusiastic response from women to these programmes is this practical inconvenience. A survey of women’s participation in these sessions revealed the gradual and steady decrease of women’s presence. Women had showed their inability to attend these kinds of training sessions, as they have to look after the children and perform household duties from morning till evening. Often these training sessions take place at the county level; the distance also makes it inconvenient for women to participate in the entire sessions.

Women’s Land Rights

Access to and control over cultivable land is one of the most important factors that determine to a great extent women’s equal participation in the family farms. In post-reform China, the peasant household has been given the main production responsibilities and is conferred with user-rights over land to allocate it rationally. However, the rights of family members over that share of land are essentially mediated by familial ideology and gender relations. Here I would argue that the way property rights especially land rights are looked upon by the Chinese society and defined in law and practised by the state agencies , largely contribute to women’s economic dependence on men. Though the PRC has formulated various laws recognising women’s rights to property, none of them clearly define women’s share in the household land.

In post-reform China, though land is collectively owned, the user-right is given to the household for a fixed period according to a contract. China has promulgated a new ‘tudi guanli fa’ (land management law) (LML) in 1998 when an attempt was made by the policymakers to extend the period of land lease up to 30 years.20 This was done with the idea of ensuring tenure security to the farmers.

These policy changes have affected the land allocation practices in rural China in many ways. Earlier, the land had been readjusted frequently according to the changes in the size of the families.21 The new 30 years’ contract will protect the rights of the peasant household from frequent land readjustments. However, it does not necessarily protect the rights of women as individual member of the household. Zhu Ling’s Shanxi study in 2000 found that while there had been no significant discrimination against women in gender land distribution under the HRS, every village had certain number of women who had no access to land and in some villages, the rate of landless women was quite high [Zhu Ling 2002]. Women who married after 1995 are more vulnerable as the new LML has made it more difficult to obtain approval of land adjustments for women. The extent of this growing denial of land to women has been increased by the scarcity of land due to population growth and demand for land for the state-initiated development projects. It is particularly the case for married women who move out to their husband’s village due to the patrilocal marriage system prevalent in the countryside.

In the early stages of the HRS, land readjustments were more frequent and provided an opportunity for landholdings to be adjusted to reflect changes in women’s marital status and residence. With the growing official discouragement and legal limitation of readjustments, women are increasingly facing difficulties in obtaining land in their husbands’ village or retaining it in their parents’ village. In the absence of appropriate land readjustments, the position of women within a household will become fundamentally different from that of men since men can inherit land use rights in their parental village while women are deprived of the same after marriage. In other words, upon marriage a woman becomes effectively landless. During the field survey in Changle village, it was found that the land allocation to the newly-married women depends on the availability of land in the village. The village officials said that they had kept 10 ‘mu’22 of land for allocation, but now it is no more available because of urbanisation and the construction of new buildings. With no readjustments taking place within the next 30 years, it might lead to potential loss of land rights to women.

Moreover, married daughters are seldom allowed to partition and transfer their share of the household land, whereas a married son can typically partition his land share from the household land when he establishes his own family.23 Further, women are discouraged from getting married in the same village as there is an implicit concern to ease the population pressure on the land. More often than not, women are caught in a difficult situation where there is a conflicting demand between farmers’ need for tenure security and women’s need for landholdings to be adjusted to take account of the changes in the family size.

Single women who are neither legally divorced nor widowed will confront serious difficulties as they do not have an independent source of livelihood. On the one hand, she loses ‘hukou’ as her land is often taken back by the village committee and on the other if she returns to her natal village, she is not welcomed as her share of land has already been distributed among other male members of the family.24 These customary practices that treat a married woman as an “outsider” ipso facto lower her social and economic status [Xu Ping 1995]. In most of the cases, when a husband moves to his wife’s village, he will be given land. As a general practice, a family can get an additional land only when a new member, i e, the husband of a daughter is moving in. In case of a family who has more than one daughter and whose husbands are moving into the village, only one daughter will be given land. In most of the cases where a daughter is married to a man who does not have hukou in the village, she might work on the land and stay in the same house but will not have user-right on land. It was also found that in rural areas around Nanning, Guangxi, women who are married to non-agriculturists do not receive the same treatment as those women whose husbands are engaged in agriculture. In four counties in Sichuan, if a husband is residing in an urban area, his wife must still stay with his parents in the rural areas. His parents have the permit of rural residents; neither the wife’s village of origin nor the in-laws’ village will give her land. Sometimes, women in this position can pay money to buy a resident registration in the village.

In recent times, there have been policy debates in China on whether land can be considered as private property and can be easily sold and purchased in the free market. The present situation gives freedom to peasants to rent out their land and thus only transfer their user-rights in land. In this situation, farmers can take extra land on lease or rent out their land that has helped those who want to expand their agricultural production. However, in case of women who are running their independent enterprises, they have to depend on the family to take extra land. Given the ambiguities in women’s individual rights over land, it is not clear now whether they would be benefiting from this situation.

In most of the situations, the rights of women over land are also structured by marriage, inheritance and customs which determine women’s access and control over land. More specifically, it is usually a woman’s relation to men, as daughter, wife or mother that defines their entitlement to land. Besides, local customs and prevailing in village practices also play an important role in determining women’s access to land and other property.

Thus, having no direct control over land, women often find it difficult to take independent decisions on the matters of land use and other issues. In most of the situations, women have to depend on their husbands for taking important decisions like converting the farmland for commercial ventures. They have to depend on the family networks even to get extra land to expand the size of their commercial enterprises.


The study of the rural reform experience in Chenggong county shows how the process of market reforms have transformed the lives of a large number of women in China’s villages. The reforms induced transitions from a largely subsistence-driven agricultural production to that of market-oriented cash crop cultivation which has created new avenues for income generation. For women in particular this process has been, on the one hand, very enabling as it created conditions for their participation in the market economy as relatively independent actors in many ways. Firstly, the rural reforms seem to have freed the women from the institutional constraints that existed under the earlier over-regulated socialist economy where their participation in the agricultural production was overburdened and limited to intensive labour input. Under the market-driven economy, agrarian relations that are emerging in rural China today have significantly changed this role of women from that of a round-the-year labour provider to that of a farmer entrepreneur where they enjoy greater leverage vis-à-vis the institutions of local economy. Secondly, the same process has considerably weakened the institutions of patriarchy embedded in the earlier agrarian relations and that are reproduced through the prevailing patterns of agricultural production. However, the introduction of cash crop cultivation has redefined the nature of gender relations within the household in many ways. Since cash crop is a labour-intensive enterprise and is mainly done by the households, the earlier dichotomy of “heavy” and “light” work does not determine the criterion for men and women’s work. Rather, a new division of labour has been created wherein the marketing of agricultural produce in the local market is done mainly by women and men are engaged in the outside market which are more profit-oriented and beneficial to them.

Thirdly, the field study of Changle village demonstrates how the commercialisation of the agrarian economy has created the above-mentioned socio-spatial conditions that contributed to the rise of a distinctly new class of women entrepreneurs in rural China. What is so remarkable about the emergence of this strata of women is the ways in which they participate in the rural market and the degree of freedom vis-à-vis the institutions of market as well as the state. These women have emerged as significant actors from just being the subsistence producers to profit-makers in the new commercial economy.

It is immensely relevant to note here that these women have been regarded as the most important segment of the rural population and are perceived as “model farmers” in the villages. With the acceleration of the process of commercialisation of agriculture, they were able to increase their role as relatively independent economic actors in the market. From being small-scale farmers with limited choices during the early years of the reforms, they have emerged as significant commercial entrepreneurs in their own right. Many of them became managers of their own business ventures providing irregular employment for many others. These women farmers/entrepreneurs have become the significant players in the local market economy and the ongoing rural transformations in China cannot be encapsulated without recognising their increasing role.

However, there still exist a number of institutional constraints that restrict these women entrepreneurs from expanding into other core areas of economic activities. An example to be noted here is the difficulties that they encounter whenever they tried to convert their commercial firms into large-scale export-oriented ventures.

The flower export market in Chenggong has been constantly undergoing changes according to the variations in demand and supply. In such situations, women farmers experience constraints in terms of getting access to new markets, improved varieties of seeds, fertilisers and technologies. Since their social world is mainly confined to the villages they remain largely unaware of or rather uninformed about them. In the absence of any updated information about these agricultural inputs, they find it difficult to compete with the big players in the much larger export market. Above all, their lack of independent access to property rights especially land, restrains them from being able to exercise their choices in both expanding their commercial ventures as well as in mobilising additional capital for investment and farming.

The lack of institutional support from the state and the prevalent discriminatory social and cultural practices make them vulnerable in many ways. These factors constrain their participation in the market economy. What is required is state-initiated specific gender empowerment schemes which need to be linked with the lives of the local women in China.




[I thank Manoranjan Mohanty and Patricia Uberoi for their comments on the earlier draft that I presented at the Institute of Chinese Studies, CSDS, Delhi. The fieldwork in China was carried out with the help of grants received from Nehru Memorial Fellowship and the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.]

1 As part of the “socialist modernisation” programme, the third plenum of the eleventh central committee of the CPC in 1978 identified agriculture as the basis for the economic development of the country.

2 In China as a whole, rural per capita income had increased by about 190per cent between 1978 and 1987. See Nee, Victor and Su Sijin (1990).

3 The diversification of agricultural production has not only altered the single crop pattern under the collective farming but also broke the traditional production pattern that was heavily oriented towards family consumption. The Chinese farmers were motivated to produce more diverse and more profitable crops from medicinal herbs to fruits,vegetables and other commercial crops. Although many farmers still produce grains for their own consumption, the land used to harvest commercial crops that were sold in the market increased to 49 per cent after 1985 and the land use for grain dropped to 9 per cent.

4 In 1980, 36,000 rural markets were set up after the end of the procurement system that accelerated the market growth in the countryside.See, Kate Xiao Zhou (1996).

5 This trend towards marketisation was formalised in the decision made at the 14th Party Congress of the CPC in 1992.

6 Earlier studies on the impact of economic reforms on women have suggested that the introduction of the household responsibility system (HRS) has reinforced the power of men over women and the youngover the old within a household. Kelkar (1988) postulates that the greater participation of women in the HRS is inadequate either for women’s control over their labour or for a high social valuation to be assigned to their participation. Delia Davin (1988) also believes that responsibility system actually reinforced both the role of household heads and male-female inequality. Aslanbeigui and Summerfield (1989) argue that the shift to the household as a production unit might affect the division of income among the individual members of the household. They conclude that by strengthening the traditional arrangements inthe Chinese economy, women’s bargaining power and hence their entitlements may decrease, affecting their development and capabilities.

7 The term ‘nongmin’ has been translated by many anthropologists as peasant. This denotes subordinated and fixed status rather than entrepreneurial farming. The reforms have removed the institutional constraints on the Chinese farmers that existed under the Mao period.

8 County in China is equivalent to district in Indian local administrative structure.

9 It refers to an earlier ‘Production Brigade’ in People’s Commune system which was prevalent till 1979. Cun as an administrative unit is equal to panchayat in India.

10 Xiang or township are the earlier people’s commune. It is equivalent to block/taluka or panchayat samiti in India.

11 In the local language, they are referred as nenggan ren, one who is capable of undertaking difficult tasks.

12 During field-survey, it was found that a village woman was running a commercially successful poultry farm on a very large-scale and her example was viewed as a model to others.

13 With the introduction of new Land Management Law, peasants can rent out their land to someone else and thus they have freedom to engage in other remunerative activities.

14 For a discussion on the new role of village government vis-à-vis clientelist politics, see, Jean C Oi (1989).

15 Author’s field notes.

16 In an interview with an official of Women’s Federation, I was told that men and women enjoy the same status as both of them earn money by selling vegetables in the market. However, she did not mention the income difference that exist between selling in local market and county or provincial market.

17 In an interview with the village woman regarding the decision on how does she divide the allocation of field into various cash crops and what is the input and output of the field. She replied that to get these details, she needs to consult her husband.

18 Dayu Xiang Fulian Sannian Gongzuo Zongjie (A Summary of Work Done by Women’s Federation in Dayu Township in last three years).

19 However, the village surveys conducted for the present study indicate a different trend. Though women were large in number in these service stations, but their knowledge and skills were quite inadequate and it is one of the reasons as cited by the officials for low level of development in the region.

20 Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo Tudi Guanli Fa (Land Management Law of the PRC, 1998) Article 14.

21 For example in a land readjustment a family that loses a member in the event of death or a daughter in marriage would lose land. Whereas a family which gains a new member through birth or marriage would receive additional land. Two general type of land readjustment exist in China. (1) Big or comprehensive readjustments which involve an overall change in the landholdings of all households in the village.Here all farmland in the village is given back to collective land owners which will be reallocated among village households so that each household receive entirely different amount of land. (2) A small readjustment consists of adding to or taking from a household’s existing landholding when their household size changes.

22 One mu is equivalent to one-sixth of an acre or .067 hectares.

23 Author’s field observation.

24 According to a report prepared by the Department of Women and Children’s Rights and Interests in 2000, the All China Women’s Federation had received 2,076 letters complaining about loss of land rights from rural women in 22 provinces during the first-half of 1999. These complaints about property disputes account for more than 40 per centof the total letters of complaint. Survey data was also being gathered and examined by the Women’s Federation. The Second Survey of the Situation of Women by the All China Women’s Federation in 1999 showed that 70 per cent of people who do not have land of their own are women, and that among them, 20 per cent have never had land;

43.8 per cent lost land when they got married; 7 per cent lost landwhen they divorced, and 57 per cent lost land when land was reallocated. And 90 per cent of women who did not have land attributed this to the above four reasons. A field study conducted by Lin Zhibin for the College of Rural Development of China Agricultural University (2001) in 22 villages of 17 provinces found that 5 per cent of women were landless as against 2 per cent of men. Among 163 married women interviewed, 32 per cent of them owned no land, and 80 per cent of those who were married after 1995 (after the second cycle redistribution) had no land allocated for them by their husband’s village. Among married women, the more recently married (assumed to be younger) were unlikely to get land because the new land law prevents adjustments of land distributions.


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