Translation: The Women of “Salt Town” 

This year, the United Nations’ theme for March 8 International Women’s Day was “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality.” In China, people marked the holiday with a variety of thought-provoking and creative events centered on women’s lives, both online and off. This third part of CDT’s series on International Women’s Day 2023 focuses on the oft-neglected lives of rural women, who must contend with issues including poverty, limited educational opportunities, gender discrimination, and domestic violence.

In her new nonfiction book “Salt Town” (盐镇), former sports journalist Yi Xiaohe (易小荷) explores the lives of women in a small town in Sichuan province. Best known for her writings about famous athletes such as Yao Ming and Michael Jordan, Yi Xiaohe spent a year recording the stories of women ages 17 to 90 living in the town of Xianshi (仙市), located just seven miles from her hometown of Zigong (自贡). Through shared meals, weddings, funerals, visits to the local temple, and long conversations, the author came to better understand the many pressures circumscribing the lives of the townswomen: poverty, limited economic and educational opportunities, marriage and child-rearing responsibilities, grinding physical work, rampant gender discrimination, and the ever-present specter of domestic violence. 

The cover of Yi Xiaohe’s new book “Salt Town” features a partial photo of an elderly woman crying at the top, against a light red background. The bottom panel has a tan background with a hand-drawn map and the author’s name at right, the book title in bold black text at center, and a short quote from the author at left, in brown text.

The cover of Yi Xiaohe’s new book “Salt Town”

Yi Xiaohe chose the book’s title partly because the town had once been the main way-station and port for the transport of salt from nearby Zigong, but also because the word “salt” seemed to aptly sum up the lives of the townswomen from time immemorial. “Life in ‘Salt Town’ is a series of tiny cuts and open wounds,” she says. “Women are desperately trying to stanch the bleeding, while men are sprinkling salt in the wounds.” In a recent interview with Luo Xin (罗昕) for The Paper (澎湃新闻), Yi Xiaohe explains how she wanted to be a witness to the women’s stories, to record their joys and sorrows, and to allow them to be seen and heard:

Every woman I spoke to had a shocking story. By comparison, if you live in a big city surrounded by elite professional women, you may hear one story in ten that really shocks you. But in “Salt Village,” shocking stories abound. Every woman has a somber story, whether because she never had fair access to education, or because she was nearly orphaned, or because she was estranged from her mother, or because she’d been subjected to repeated domestic violence all her life. At first I only planned to stay there for three months, but then I realized that wasn’t nearly long enough, so I lived in town consecutively for one year.

Three photos show three different women, viewed from behind, shouldering an overstuffed sack, an enormous rattan basket, and a heavy plastic water bottle, respectively.

Women shoulder the burdens of daily life in “Salt Village.” (Photograph by Yi Xiaohe)

[…] Auntie Wang was the first woman I decided to write about. Her story is also the one I’ve been following for the longest time. […] Everyone in town either knew about the domestic abuse or witnessed her husband abusing her, but they all seemed to take it for granted, and she herself never thought about trying to escape that life. At the same time, she’s also the most popular matchmaker in town.

I wanted to write her story not out of curiosity, but because it contains so much rich detail. Another example is the story of Tong Hui and Li Hongmei. A young woman coming to terms with her sexual identity in such a small town, in the 1990s, is a fundamental reflection of the changing times. More importantly, when Hongmei became “male,” she also assimilated into the town’s male culture. As one reader put it so well, after reading the story of Tong Hui and Hongmei, we realize that men, too, are trapped in their “predicament.” Hongmei was a woman, but after she had the sense of being a “husband,” she was gradually subsumed into the male culture of the town, and exhibited the same behavior—including smoking, drinking, and even domestic violence.

[…] I also want to say that this is not a book intended to provoke gender antagonism. As a journalist, I have tried to faithfully record everything about the lives of women in a small town, hoping that it will be informative for readers. I can understand that many readers label it as a feminist book, and that’s no problem. Everyone has the right to their own opinion, but every writer hopes that their book will be open-ended, so that different readers can glean different things from it. [Chinese]

In an interview with Lin Weixin (林炜鑫) published by WeChat account 正面连接 (Zhengmian Lianjie, zmconnect), Yi Xiaohe described the domestic violence that many women in “Salt Town” have experienced or witnessed:

I went to Xianshi to write a book. As a former sports reporter, I spent half my life writing for men, and now I want to write a bit for women.

[…] Auntie Wang is the woman I spent the longest time interviewing. Everyone in town knew that Mrs. Wang was being abused by her husband, Sun Tanjiang. The most brutal incident was when he pinned her on the ground, beat her, and then kicked her so hard she flew through the air. She was spitting up blood, but she was determined not to die, because if she did, what would happen to her two daughters? She only has two daughters, although she has been pregnant many times. When she talked about the pain of each miscarriage, I could feel my legs grow weak, but she always remained calm and composed. One moment she would be telling me about a very painful experience, and the next moment she would say, “Oh, I can’t chat any more, I have to go pick up the girls.”

Auntie Wang was beaten all her life, but she never got a divorce. Instead, she developed a tactic to avoid the beatings. Every time her husband tried to beat her, she would go out and run in circles around an orange tree. Everyone saw it, but no one tried to stop it. More than once, I told her, “You can’t let him hit you again.” And she said, “There’s nothing I can do about it. He’s just that kind of person, and this is just my fate.” He beat her again last year, but she didn’t tell me. Had I been there, I would have definitely rushed over to stop it. The reason she didn’t tell me, Auntie Wang said, was because he didn’t manage to land a blow.

[…] Liang Xiaoqing is the rare townswoman to protest domestic violence. She had witnessed domestic violence ever since she was a child, and knew instinctively that it was wrong for her father to beat her mother. After she became an adult, she told her father that if he ever beat her mother again, she would come to take her mother away. When Liang Xiaoqing went to work in a factory, she applied for permission to bring her mother to live in the workers’ dormitory, and the factory said yes. She raced home to pick up her mother, but in the end, her mother refused to go, saying, “I can’t just abandon your father.” Sometimes Liang Xiaoqing can’t comprehend why her mother stays: “He’s clearly abusing you, so why don’t you just leave?”

One day Liang Xiaoqing told me, “You know, I never went to school.” Thus I found out she had only been to first grade: it seems a male fortune teller had told her father that the family was destined to have no scholars, and advised him not to waste money on school.

Liang Xiaoqing draws well and has beautiful calligraphy—you can see how much effort she has put into it. After studying cosmetology, she had the chance to work in Beijing, but she was worried about her mother, so she eventually decided to come back and open a nail salon in town. I have met her husband, who is a very ordinary man, but at least he doesn’t beat women. She is now able to support the whole family with her earnings. She also got her driver’s license and bought a car. Having a car means having freedom.

[…] I think this is a book for everyone who cares about the fate of others. It’s not my intention to provoke antagonism between men and women, because the plight of women is a structural problem, and violence by men is but one of the symptoms. When men’s lives are steeped in misery, they too may be victims, taking out their frustrations on those weaker than themselves.

[…] There are no real feminists in town, at least none that I encountered. The townswomen are so fundamentally shackled by family responsibilities that none of them enjoy true freedom of choice, or the freedom to act solely in their own interests. Those things are a fundamental prerequisite for feminist consciousness. [Chinese]


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