Small Happiness

TV Review: One Village In China
by John J. O'Connor

The New York Times
August 25, 1987

"One Village in China," a three-part series getting under way on public television, can claim an unusual and invaluable asset. At least two of the producers in the Long Bow Group, which produced the program, can speak Chinese, and they clearly know their subject. Carma Hinton, who introduces the programs, is an American born in Beijing in 1949. She spent her first 21 years in China. Richard Gordon, a photographer and cinematographer, has made seven trips to that country since 1975, and has worked in villages and in a Shanghai factory.

The series shows us the village of Long Bow, some 400 miles southwest of Beijing. About 20 percent of the population of 2,000 is Roman Catholic, which might account for the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers and the Catholic Communication Campaign being included in the long list of underwriters for the series. In any event, the Long Bow Group, which also includes Kathy Kline and Dan Sipe, was able to get many of the villagers to relax and to be relatively candid before the camera. Ms. Hinton carefully explains that no one village can represent all of China. One point underscored: although rural Chinese society has undergone tremendous changes during the past few decades, traditional attitudes continue to shape the life of the small village.

Tonight's hourlong essay is entitled "Small Happiness." In it, a Long Bow grandfather laughingly explains: "To give birth to a boy is considered a big happiness. To give birth to a girl is a small happiness. A boy will remain in the household, while a girl will be married off." When a woman is said to be childless it often means only that she hasn't produced a male child. The pattern of male dominance in Chinese society is longstanding and evidently stubborn. But "Small Happiness," with its interviews of both young and old women, finds that there have nevertheless been significant changes in the role of women.

One young woman, a graduate from high school, recalls how she and a fellow student defied their parents by marrying for love and not by family or matchmaker arrangement. Fortunately, she also found a sympathetic mother-in-law. In the past, in what is now referred to as "feudal" times, a woman's marriage was called "entering a mother-in-law's house," where the new bride was little more than a servant. Liberation arrived, to a degree, following the Revolution of 1949. Increasingly, women have a say in choosing their husbands, and may even initiate divorce proceedings. One elderly woman snappishly observes that "nowadays when you get a new daughter-in-law, you have to put her on a pedestal."

Women are also working more, and at jobs formerly reserved for men. The men, perhaps not surprisingly, are not uniformly happy about these changes, and tend to be adamantly against suggestions about equal pay. One segment of the program recounts how a group of women, fighting for better working conditions, shut down a local factory that specialized in polishing saw blades. The manager concedes that he had been lying to the women about possible concessions but adds bitterly that "they are so narrow-minded and petty." In any event, the dismissed women were eventually rehired, their demands reluctantly met.

Clearly absorbed with its subject, "One Village in China" tends to run on a bit too long. The same points are repeated several times. But the insights are fascinating, and many of the people being interviewed are delightful. Several of the older women are wonderfully feisty, even as they describe the outlawed but persistent practice of foot-binding to make their feet smaller. Big feet on a woman were considered a cause for shame. The binding caused terrible sores. In some instances, the feet turned into what one woman called a "slushy mess." Why were they willing to do it? "How could we not be willing?," an elder retorts. There is a remarkable sense of uncluttered authenticity here.


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