A window on women's lives in rural China

``To give birth to a boy is considered a big happiness,'' said the jovial Chinese grandfather with a grin. ``To give birth to a girl is a small happiness. Well,'' he chuckled, ``you can't say it's no happiness.'' Little did this provincial patriarch suspect that two years after he made his remark it would inspire the title of a film, ``Small Happiness: Women of a Chinese Village,'' which will be screened in two prestigious film festivals this month: New Directors/New Films in New York on April 9 and 10, and the San Francisco Film Festival on April 15. The film will also be presented at New York's Public Theatre on April 12 and at the Boston Film and Video Foundation on April 19.

Since its completion in late 1984, this 58-minute documentary has won assorted awards, been purchased for television in several countries, and received enthusiastic reviews in a number of leading newspapers.

The film's directors are two young Americans, Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon, who spent six months in 1982 in the village of Zhang Zhuang, about 400 miles southwest of Peking -- which they have renamed Long Bow in deference to Western pronunciation.

Ms. Hinton was born in Peking to American parents and lived in China until she was 21, when she moved to the United States and learned English for the first time. Richard Gordon, a photographer, has traveled to China six times and speaks fluent Chinese.

``In `Small Happiness,' '' Carma Hinton explains, ``the women of Long Bow village speak about topics that include love and marriage, childbearing and birth control, family relationships, work, footbinding, and a strike in a local all-woman workshop.''

The principal speakers in the film were cleverly chosen to represent the contrasting lives of two generations of Chinese women. Ling Qiao, one of the most ``modern'' women in her village, has a high school education, learned to drive a tractor, and married for love rather than by parental arrangement (but with a certain amount of parental coercion, since her father-in-law-to-be refused to get out of bed until his son agreed to marry!). Her mother-in-law, perhaps significantly, is never given any name other than, simply, Mother-in-law.

Mother-in-law is the most moving figure in the film, presenting the most striking contrasts and admirably exemplifying the psychological changes that a degree of modernization can bring to a life that began under the ancient ``feudal'' regime.

Her daughter-in-law, Ling Qiao, had been warned against marrying into the Quan family. They were viewed as ``feudal'' -- a term used in today's China to describe old-style, authoritarian family relationships. Traditionally, antagonism often existed between young wives and their mothers-in-law. As Ms. Hinton, the film's narrator, explains, ``In the past, a woman entered her husband's family as a stranger. The only secure emotional bond she could establish was with her son. Her son's marriage threatened that bond. The new daughter-in-law was often abused.''

But Mother-in-law had suffered greatly as a young woman and had perhaps learned compassion. She had been sold by her father to a much older husband, entirely against her will, had borne eight children in isolation and bitterness, endured agonies as a result of footbinding, and even smothered her second child to spare it death by starvation.

But Ling Qiao's relationship with her mother-in-law is unusually close and supportive.

``I found that my mother-in-law was even more open-minded than most people,'' she says in Chinese, as her words are simultaneously translated into English. ``She's not feudal at all.''

``Ever since she married into this family,'' says Mother-in-law, ``I've felt happy and free. I started going out to see operas [at village fairs]. I've really risen up in the world.''

And Ling Qiao goes on, ``Now that I've had this baby, [Mother-in-law] has more energy than ever. At mealtimes she insists that I eat first while she takes care of my baby. I've really had it good here.''

In producing a son, Ling Qiao has fulfilled the primary function of her life, according to Chinese traditions, which die hard. In fact, the film points out that ``when a woman is described as `mei hai zi,' `childless,' it often really means that she does not have a son.''

One woman, interviewed as she washes clothes in the family courtyard, explains, ``A man gets a wife to `open the door.' That's what getting a wife is for: `Open the door' and establish descendants.'' But the cheery grandfather quoted earlier points out the essential difference between ``big'' and ``small'' happiness. ``A boy will remain in the household, while a girl will be married off.''

With a population of over 1 billion, the Chinese government has in recent years been enforcing stringent laws to govern the number of children a couple is allowed. Wen Ying, head of Long Bow's women's association in charge of birth control, speaks out in the film on the point of view of the farmers in the village.

``In the factories and mines, workers are allowed only one child, whether it's a boy or a girl. But there's no way this can be enforced in the countryside. In the factories they earn a regular salary. But here everyone works the land. You just can't do without a son. A daughter will leave the family when she gets married. How can you survive without a son?''

In recent years, Long Bow has begun to break out of its dependence on agriculture for survival. One of the village's best new sources of revenue is an all-woman workshop which polishes saw blades. A fascinating sequence in the film describes a labor dispute waged by the unmarried female workers against their manager.

``When we first started,'' one worker explains, ``we worked straight for 24 hours. It was endless, exhausting. . . .

``Last year for seven months we didn't get gloves, face masks, towels and soap, or our cash bonuses. . . . So we got angry and ran off to Big Ridge Mountain.''

The young girls knew that none of them would be able to withstand the pressure of their male superiors to go back to work. Their only recourse -- which was ultimately successful -- was to hide out until the revenue they produced for the workshop was missed and their boss was ready to negotiate.

But despite this victory, and despite the many ``feudal'' traditions still connected with marriage, one girl put her feelings about work vs. home life this way, ``When I get married . . . I'll quit that job. It's really not a pleasant place to work. I'll only do it for a few more years for the sake of my family. Once I marry and leave home, I'll quit.''

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