XIAN, People’s Republic of China — Liu Xiaohua was the youngest of five children in an impoverished village where farm work is still done by hand and girls are often valued more for their virtue rather than their intellectual attainments. Most girls, in fact, drop out of school to help in the field.
Liu, now 23, is an exception, with the help of a unique scholarship program that may indicate the changing status of women in China. Lucy, as she now calls herself, is from Shaanxi Province in China’s arid Northwest, and a recent college graduate. She is also the first person in her small village to go on to higher education since the 1949 Communist Revolution.
“The people in my village think that there’s no need for girls to have more knowledge,” Liu says, in perfect English. “But when I left for the university my relatives and neighbors urged me to do something to help the village, and I hope I will.” A graduate of Xian’s Foreign Language University, she will teach English next year in a junior high school in Weinan.
Her college education, and that of about 110 others, was made possible in part by a scholarship from the Red Phoenix Project, a joint program of her province’s federation of women and commission for women and development.
In addition to its grinding poverty, Xian is known for the larger-than-life Pottery Army, excavated along with the tomb of China’s first emperor. Less well-known, but just as extraordinary, is the region’s traditional embroidery, detailed, brilliantly colored tableaux of mythical and real animals, as well as people in their daily labors.
Life is still hard in rural China, with 70 percent of the population and limited arable land. The annual per capita income in rural areas is about $265 a year, less than a dollar a day, and Shaanxi Province is among the very poorest.
China has about 145 million illiterate persons above the age of 15–and women comprise about 70 percent of them, according to official figures from 1995, about the time Liu entered college. The main priority of the official government program for advancement of women is to increase the literacy of rural women, 80 percent of whom are wholly or partially illiterate.
The Asian Development Bank has estimated that 25 percent of all Chinese women are illiterate, or semi-literate, compared with 10 percent of men. And a relatively small proportion of the population receives a higher education, and women comprise 36 percent of all university students.
Moreover, the suicide rate among Chinese women, about 500 a day, is nearly five times the global average, and most of the women live in rural areas, according to the World Health Organization. Experts cite as causes the low status of women, the rapid shift to a market economy and the availability of highly toxic pesticides in rural areas.
So the odds were against Liu. Her village is so remote that it doesn’t have a single telephone and there was little emphasis on education.
The women of her province wanted to make a difference with a grassroots, women-run organization to help women. Shaanxi girls in their teens begin to embroider their dowries, and married women embroider clothing and hats for their children, pillows and footwear for their elders, colorful curtains for temples and silk banners in honor of officials.
The women settled on using their ancient craft to transform the present. They selected the name “Red Phoenix” because in China the mythical bird is a powerful symbol of femininity and its red color symbolizes immortality. The phoenix also symbolizes peace, happiness and luck while its male counterpart is the dragon, symbol of power.
The women behind the Phoenix Project saw the region’s beautiful and fanciful embroidery, traditionally stitched by women with little or no education, as a way to help other rural women get ahead.
They enlisted more than 1,000 women from more than 100 cities and villages to stitch traditional designs onto color-coded cloths. Sewn together like a quilt, the squares formed an opulent, multi-colored canopy depicting a red phoenix. In the canopy, a gift from the women, a hundred birds pay homage to the phoenix, carp swim among lotus, fish jump and frogs frolic in streams and a snake coils around a rabbit.
Five year ago, at the Beijing Women’s Conference organized by the United Nations, their completed canopy drew raves and generated revenue for women’s scholarships. It sold for 315,000 yuan, a little less than $40,000, to a Xian entrepreneur.
A news conference generated more interest and a rush of contributions. The number of scholarships quickly increased from 20 to 85 a year. Now about 110 women receive a 1,000-yuan per year scholarship (slightly more than $100), renewable throughout their three to five years of college. It’s a small amount, but gifted students also may obtain loans and stipends covering modest costs in state-run schools.
To qualify for a scholarship, a woman must meet certain academic requirements and her family’s income must fall below her village’s starvation line, which sinks below the official national poverty line.
The project is rare, if not unique, in that the scholarship funds come from within China, rather than from overseas.
Most of the embroiderers live in the poorest half of the province and the revived interest in their work has meant that the art might be revived and developed.
“These young women are the future of China,” said Gao Xiaoxian, project director for the provincial Women’s Federation and an internationally known feminist. “That about says it.”