MORNING chores began early along the broad main street that runs through this sleepy farming village in China's heartland.
A tractor rattles past, churning up a pile of golden wheat spread on the road-turned-threshing ground. Young married women walk by with their arms hooked through baskets full of fragrant, fried dough twists - a customary harvest-time gift for mothers back in their home villages.
In nearby fields, peasant women like Zhao Xinlan hurry to reap bundles of ripened grain. This summer, as in many summers past, Ms. Zhao will bring home the harvest alone, without help from her absent husband.
Across China's countryside, farming is rapidly becoming women's work as market-driven reforms spur tens of millions of men to quit the land in less developed regions and migrate to lucrative jobs in cities and towns.
Women now shoulder between 60 and 70 percent of farmwork nationwide. In many villages, such as Xiaodian in central China's Henan Province, the ratio is higher, surpassing 80 or 90 percent, according to Chinese officials.
As a result, the decade of reform is creating a vital new economic role for China's 430 million rural women. For the first time women must occupy what has been a male domain in China for centuries: the grueling, never-ending production of food.
But country women shoulder other burdens. Along with farming, they often must raise children, keep house, and care for aged parents alone. Bound by deep-rooted Confucian ideals to serve their husbands and children, many women seem resigned to hard work and, at times, to cruel abuse.
The husband's absence adds emotional strain to the hours of toil. Many migrant men are unfaithful, according to Chinese experts and the official media.
The state-run Chinese Women's News recently reported on a dozen peasant women who left their villages in search of errant husbands.
"These women are broken-hearted when they discover their husbands with another woman," says a Chinese professor in women's studies who requested anonymity. "They face great hardship on the farm. Without some sort of moral support, they really can't handle it."
In Xiaodian, most men spend only a few days in the fields each year, when their factories close down during the busiest farming seasons. Others leave all the farm labor to their wives, as does Zhao's husband, a coal miner in a distant city. "My husband is good to me, but he can't handle anything here," Zhao says.
In the past, jobs like threshing grain and plowing were reserved for men, even in the 1960s and 70s when Mao's muscle-bound "iron girl" with cropped hair and baggy clothes was the feminine ideal.
Not so today.
"I do all the work, the man's half as well as the woman's," Zhao says, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear. "If I didn't do it, who would?"
New responsibilities on the farm have helped to boost the self-esteem of rural women. Zhao takes pride in her farming skills - in the easy, graceful way she swings a hoe, in her deftness at tending cotton on the family's one acre of land, and in the two kids born to her herd of snowy goats one June morning.
Many women have learned about new farming technology, fertilizers, and the use of more productive seeds. A few have become highly successful entrepreneurs, leading whole villages to prosperity.
Ten miles from Xiaodian, a large, headstrong woman named Liu Zhihua has transformed the village of Jinghua into a rural corporation that last year made profits of $500,000. Jinghua's 360 villagers now earn double the average per capita income of Chinese peasants.
But despite the central role of women on China's farms, their independence and opportunities remain limited. Men control the purse and decide what crops to grow in more than half of rural households, according to a 1991 survey. Moreover, the tasks of growing food, cooking, sewing, washing, and caring for children keep women bound to land and home. Child care
In Xiaodian, peasant women are often seen shepherding children down dusty, tree-lined paths leading to the fields. As their mothers farm, youngsters play, throwing rocks or digging up soil.
"When the children were young, I had no one to help me," Zhao says. She recalls most vividly the task of transplanting rice seedlings in 1980, when her youngest son was still a baby.
"Before dawn, we left for the fields. They are about three li [one mile] away. When we got there I had to lay the baby on the dirt and let him cry. After coming home we were all hungry, but there was no one to make food for us."
One day not long afterward, the baby crawled over to the brick hearth and burned his face, disfiguring it permanently around the left eye.
"I couldn't watch him well enough," sighs Zhao, who was busy with household chores at the time.
Childbearing itself ties rural women to the land. Women can manage - though with difficulty - to rear and nurse their children while farming, but they say factory work is impractical.
"You can put the baby on the field, but if you put it on the factory floor it will be crushed," Zhao says.
Many peasant women, restrained by ancient prejudices about their proper role in China's patriarchal society, fail to pursue greater opportunities.
Today, as in centuries past, a prime obligation of Chinese women is to bear sons. Morally, they must secure the male family line. Practically, they need a son to depend on in old age, since daughters leave home after marriage.
Women are often snubbed by their husbands' families if they fail to give birth to boys. Girl babies are more frequently abandoned after birth than boys, and female infanticide has not been eradicated, say Chinese experts in women's studies.
Girls are also more likely to be kept out of school. In 1988, 83 percent of the children unable to go to school were girls. Nearly one out of three rural Chinese women is illiterate. These women are three times as likely to die during pregnancy than literate women.
Daughters are not prized because they "marry out," serving their husbands' households after they wed. Matchmaking is still dominated by parental concerns over property and status that override a woman's choice. Today only 61 percent of rural women have the final say in whom they marry, officials say.
Blatant abuses of women are arising from the revival of traditional marriage practices in the countryside.
Concubinage, outlawed after the 1949 communist revolution, is reappearing in the southern province of Guangdong, officials say. A labor contractor, Jiang Jinmin, was recently sentenced to jail for taking six concubines in addition to his wife since 1978.
Moreover, the sale of women as brides or prostitutes, which was widespread in China before 1949, has reemerged as a major problem since Beijing began freeing market economic forces in the late 1970s. China each year reports at least 10,000 cases of rural women being abducted and sold, mainly as brides. The total number of abductions is believed to be much higher, especially as local cadres and police in some areas assist the "people mongers," according to official reports.
Abductors often lure women from poor mountain villages in Sichuan, Guizhou, and other hinterland provinces with promises of lucrative city jobs. Most are sold as wives for less than $1,000 to farmers in slightly better-off areas who cannot afford the exhorbitant cost of formal weddings.
The sale of women is widespread in rural Henan, provincial experts on women's issues say.
In Xiaodian, several men have bought brides from Sichuan in recent years, although they prefer to say their wives were "introduced" to them.
Li Jun, the youngest son in a large family, says he could not spend the more than $2,000 required for a respectable marriage in Xiaodian. So last year, he paid $200 to a "matchmaker" who delivered him a 21-year-old bride from Sichuan.
Like many farmers who buy and sell women, Mr. Li (not his real name) sees nothing wrong with the trade.
"She's pretty, she can till the land better than a northern Chinese man, she's a good housekeeper, and she saved me a lot of money," says Li, who earns $1 a day doing odd-jobs. Hunched shirtless over a bowl of noodles in his dim, two-room hovel, Li admits that he kept a close watch on his new bride at first to make sure she did not run away. Wife-buying accepted
Villagers in many areas view the women as legitimate purchases, cooperating to prevent escapes and protesting when they are rescued. Some farmers beat women who disobey, or threaten to resell them to older bachelors, official reports say. Once the women bear children, as Li's wife recently did, they are often ashamed to go home, and thus resign themselves to their circumstances.
"The cries of those who are sold, molested, and insulted are soon extinguished," write the authors of a 1989 reportage on abduction in the Shanghai magazine Encounter Monthly. "Instead, they are occupied by a shallow satisfaction, a happiness inside the pain, and a recognition of their fate."
Indeed, women in Xiaodian seem inured to the hardship and discrimination, content that they lead easier lives than did women in decades past. At Zhao's house, village ladies shoo the only man out of the room and sit chatting as they clean basketfuls of spring onions.
Guo Yunfang, a white-haired grandmother with tiny, bound feet, describes how, at the age of 10, her toes were all broken and feet wrapped in a long stip of cloth.
"Why did they do it? Well, when a girl married in those days, everyone looked at her feet, not at her face. If she teetered along `ta-ta-ta' on tiny feet she was considered pretty," Mrs. Guo says.
"My sister's marriage was arranged when she was two years old, she couldn't even talk. Mine was settled when I was 14," Guo says. "Of course, I hadn't set eyes on my husband before our wedding night. We were two strangers in one bed."
Another village woman, Wang Shenglan, breaks in. "We really had a hard time. I had 12 children, but only seven of them lived. I just kept getting pregnant. Every year I had to spin and weave to make shoes and clothes for them. I felt so irritated, with all the children crying."
"My mother's life was miserable," Zhao says. "When she was nine years old, her parents died. Her uncle married her off to the son of a family with some money. But she was unhappy. She was just like a slave in their home.
"One day she ran away. She hid in a dugout and ate ground-up peanut shells. But the family found her and took her back.
"In 1979, just when things were getting easier for her, my mother died of exhaustion and hunger. She was only 59 years old," Zhao says. "I am a lot better off than my mother."