Working Her Way Through History: Women Front and Center in Lijiang
She took the chicken by its legs and held it upside down for inspection. As it squawked, the customer poked through the feathers and nodded his approval. This one will do. After he paid, the two of them delivered the fowl to another woman who would kill, clean and package the meat.
As I walked through the meat section every butcher, with one exception, was a woman.
Jo Ling Kent
From slaughter to sale, women make up nearly all of the merchants at Zhongyi Market, the largest outdoor market in Lijiang. As I walked through the meat section every butcher, with one exception, was a woman. This is a job that has been long dominated by men in the United States so I was slightly surprised to find women in the majority. In Lijiang, however, women dominate most industries, ranging from textiles to tourism. For hundreds of years, Lijiang women have been putting dinner on the table for their families and they've always started well beyond the kitchen.
China is home to 56 recognized ethnic minorities, all of which are portrayed and valued as colorful traditions with diverse backgrounds. At the same time, these minorities are often perceived as backward and primitive compared to the Han majority, which dominate large cities and the densely populated east coast.
But, faraway in southwest China, the Naxi women of Lijiang are a progressive anomaly. A regular stop on the tea and silk routes, Lijiang has long been a major trading post for caravans and villagers traveling from South Asia into China. Traders converged here from Calcutta via Lhasa to exchange goods with Naxi women. The women in turn controlled the brokerage of currency exchange and the distribution goods through Yunnan Province. In fact, prior to 1949, Naxi women ran nearly all of the trading posts in central Lijiang while the men "were left to loaf, lounge and look after the babies," according to Peter Goullart, author of the 1957 Forgotten Kingdom.
Although Lijiang men are certainly no lazy bunch, Naxi women continue to dominate the Lijiang workforce today. In addition to comprising most of the traditionally female dominated industries such as hospitality, food service and education, women also own large businesses, serve in the local government and work in public sanitation and construction. A Naxi woman has yet to be appointed Prime Minister or Chairperson of the Central Community Party but seeing and interacting with a wide range of successful minority (and non-minority) women in a variety of industries is a refreshing and encouraging sign for what the future holds in Lijiang and hopefully the rest of China.
Unfortunately, gender equality has not yet run its entire course. Ironically, at home, many Lijiang women continue to take a secondary role to their husbands. Complete equality between the genders remains a challenge. Hopefully, women's success outside of the home and contributions to it will help tip the balance in her favor.
Ultimately, Lijiang seems to be headed in the right direction. Ironically, traditional clothing aptly symbolizes the Naxi commitment to women leading in the workplace. On the back of the traditional canvas dress, seven small circles of white leather are sewn horizontally across her shoulder blades. These circles represent the stars, which the age-old adage that as a Naxi woman raises her family she also works hard to hold up the heavens with her back as a supporter of the entire community. This longstanding tradition of women at work sends an empowering message, especially because of its deeply rooted belief that women are capable of being decision makers then and now, at home and beyond.
Jo Kent is a current Fulbright Scholar to China. She recently filmed documentary that tracks the cultural evolution of Lijiang (Yunnan Province) over the past 10 years, scheduled for release in 2007. Jo lives in Beijing. To contact Jo and to learn more about her, please visit her MyAsiance page at http://my.asiancemagazine.com/jolingk