Under the Heavy Sun: the Working Women of Bijie’s Villages

Photos by ERIC Li YuanlongTranslator by Sandra Lam


Even in late September,’s temperature could rise to more than 35 Celsius. Walking under the sun made one feel as if hair on fire. Sweat leaks out of one’s body like out of a leaking pipe.


A city dweller might have dreamed of staying indoors with modern air conditioning, far away from manual labor in the fields. However, villagers, especially those from the poorer families could not avoid the job. Women, as well as men, from grandmothers with sixty or seventy years to young newlyweds, had to till the soil or carry heavy loads through the mountains.


On the 20th and 21st of September, I travelled through Haizijie, Heguantun and Zhuchang districts of Bijie. I took many pictures of women doing hard labor in the rural areas. The purpose of these photos is not to elicit instant “respect” of these women, because for them, mere respect is far from enough.


Dusk on the mountainside, this Miao woman in traditional dress leads two horses. A baby sleeps on her back, probably her grandson. She’s hurrying home. Feeding the family and their livestock are both her responsibilities.


This Miao woman is using a tool unique to this region of Guizhou Hill Country to separate the bean crop. After sowing, tending and harvest, to feed her family tofu, she would still have many more steps to go. The soy needs to be ground into powder, boiled into a milk and coagulant added.


She walks in broad and rapid strides. What urgent housework awaits her that she is walking so fast while carrying so much?


In the old days, women were prohibited in building repair because they brought bad luck with them. After “liberation”, they work like men in the building trade, even carrying heavy bricks up the scaffolds.


There are no machines, only handheld tools. Work here has not changed substantially from six or seven decades ago.



Six road maintenance workers with temporary employment, only one man among them.


Perhaps her sons and daughters have all migrated to better jobs, this old woman has become the main workforce for her fields. From dawn to dusk, who knows how many thousand pounds of corn she would have to carry.



I do not know where they were from, where they were going, whether they were from the same family or only neighbors. But I do know that this was their daily work. City residents could think of retirement. Villagers who could walk would always have to work.


This style of large basket is usually associated with men. To get by, she has no choice but to carry them also. Perhaps there is some truth in the blustery propaganda that “women could carry half the sky”.


A grandmother of over seventy could not go into the fields anymore. She nonetheless works by stringing hot pepper. The bright red strands look more like works of art from an experienced hand.


When I was sent here during the Cultural Revolution, she was still a baby on her mother’s back. Now she’s a mother, and carries packages weighing over 120 pounds every day with heavy steps. Her parents are still poor. She could but shoulder the heavy burden of a family’s livelihood.


This elderly woman is alone. Her husband is long gone. None of her three children care about her.

Living in an old wooden house, “I’ll only eat as much as I can carry.

When I die, just bury me in my home.” She has no hope or illusions in anybody.
Tap water is the best reward during this brief break during back-breaking work in the brick factory.


Her hair looked as disheveled as the straw she is carrying. But the most difficult face. Those were a pair of eyes that have given up all hope in life.


Sweat, heat, sun. This Miao woman and her husband carry tons bricks every day. Her parents were carrying bricks to the truck, the baby sleeps under the bridge, oblivious to the flies on her face and behind. She is staying quiet amidst her parents’ back breaking work.


The men do the “technical” work of shaping the bricks. Women have to carry the raw material and formed bricks, by far the heavier half of manual labor.


Her canvass shoes are soaked. The field was muddy. To wealthy urbanites, “rest” means a cold drink and air conditioning. She takes a rest by leaning on her rake for several moments.



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