The Two Chinas
Digital Photo Collage


The Tragedy Amongst Rural Chinese Women

Feb. 12, 2009
N.J. Lukanovich

There's an enduring myth that suicide rates are especially high in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, the short days and long nights of winter causing terminal depression, and a newer myth that Japan has the highest rates in the world - too much pressure to succeed, goes the common wisdom. But the reality is quite different: the country with the highest rate of suicide in 2008 is Lithuania, followed by Belarus and then Russia. The lowest rates are in St. Kitts, Jordan, Haiti, Honduras and Antigua, where less than 1 in 100,000 people take their own lives. In Lituania, the rate is 81 people out of 100,000.

There have been sensational reports about China's suicide rate, but their overall rate isn't high, what makes China notable is being one of only two nations in the world where women commit suicide more often than men, the other being Afghanistan. Although women attempt suicide more often than men, the choice of less violent methods allows for intervention, but in rural China women have been using pesticides to kill themselves, and intervention is only successful if there is a hospital close by where the effects can be quickly treated.

Some have postulated that the reforms since the l980's and the breakdown of tradition are causing a mental health epidemic. Students are under too much pressure to succeed and find college level jobs. The lust for material success has driven people mad. But the overall suicide statistics in China are lower than in many other nations, and the ratio is 3-4 times higher in rural areas than in the cities, whereas in most nations the opposite it true. Clearly the problem is not in the urban areas where tradition has broken down.

Others speculate that Chinese culture is partly to blame, that the taboo against suicide is not as strong as in many other cultures. The proponents of this thesis point to the stories in Chinese history of those who killed themselves for the honour of their family, their own glory, to prove their honesty, or for true love. One's reputation, in Chinese culture, has often been more important than one's life. For a rural woman to be a "good" woman, she must be a virgin before marriage, never seen alone with a man other than her husband, and never remarry if she is widowed. But this doesn't explain the increase in suicide rates among rural women.

Women have gained more rights and freedoms in many parts of the world and in urban centers of China itself; this new reality may be making it more difficult for women in regions where they are denied freedoms and individual rights, but are aware that women elsewhere have these rights. If you believe that all women are treated like chattel than you are likely to accept your circumstance, believing it to be the norm. The phrase "the Two Chinas" is used in regard to mainland China (People's Republic of China) and Taiwan (Republic of China), but there are also two Chinas within mainland China, the urban China and the rural China.

There have been reports of women who tried to kill themselves when they lived in the country, but then later, even after they'd managed to find jobs in the city, tried again. When one woman was asked why she still wanted to kill herself even though she had finally escaped the countryside, she responded that it was too painful to live with the knowledge that she'd been forced to give away her baby girl, that she hadn't received an education, that she had limited choices compared to girls in the city, and can not understand her cruel fate.

The Communist Party of China promotes gender equality, but change is clearly coming too slowly for women in rural areas. While the preference for boys in urban China is gradually diminishing, in rural China a boy is a must. The one child policy has created horrendous problems of infanticide, selective abortion, and the abandonment of girls, even though rural families are allowed two children if the first is a girl. (For more on this topic see China - A New Twist on Pro-Choice).

Women in rural areas normally marry at the age of 18; they are expected to care for the old, care for the sick, care for the young, but on top of this, work in the fields. They work, in essence, non-stop. They are considered to be the property of fathers, or brothers, or husbands - or the husband's family. Those who do not have options, or feel they have no options, those who lose hope completely for a way out of their predicament, chose death over life.

Rural women who have not been taught to read or write are killing themselves, not because of the pressure of not getting a college level job, not because of ancient Chinese stories of honour and death, or a wish for a return to traditions, but because they have been left out of the reforms and are still forced to take on traditional roles.

Suicide is most commonly committed by those suffering a terrible despair and lack of hope for a brighter future. These women are not mentally ill, their unbearable pain is caused is by circumstance - the lives of rural Chinese women can be as difficult as the lives of Afghan women. If there is a general problem, then there is also a general solution. A breakdown of tradition would clearly be a good thing for women in rural China, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the world where women do not have the individual human rights, even when they are supposedly protected by law.