Bitter Stereotypes
by A. Haupt

From the writer: When I was in high school, I was very involved with Amnesty International. Ever since then, the concern about basic human rights has been a vital part of my outlook on life. I chose Elisabeth Rosenthal's article because I liked the challenge of analyzing the complicated and sensitive issue of human rights in China. The realization that most people couldn't care less about the topic pushed me. I hope that by choosing Rosenthal's article, I have made at least one person more aware of the need to protect human rights.

From the teacher: The writer's sense of justice and humanity comes across clearly in this essay. This transitional studio assignment asked students to examine a mass media article for its hidden motives and subtle uses of rhetorical devices. Angie reaches beyond the assignment with her suggestion that the setting (a Western publication) may limit even the potential validity of such a story, due primarily to what constitutes proof in this setting, and that proof's disconnection from the reality of the issue.

From the editors: What drew us to this piece was how passionately Haupt critiques the validity of a strictly Western explanation for the problem of suicide among women in rural China. She points out that such stories may best be told by those closest to the issue. We agree.

The prevailing Western stereotype of Chinese society is that it is cold, harsh, and backward. Our whole image of China is tainted. We associate China with the ridiculousness of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, with the brutality of the Tiananmen Square massacre, with the horrors of human rights abuses in Tibet and in mainland China, with the fortune cookie, and with the phrase "Confucius says" (even though only a handful of us could explain who Confucius was and what he said). Therefore, it is not surprising that the media tends to over-simplify Chinese issues, so that they can fit with our (mis)understanding of Chinese society. I believe that Elisabeth Rosenthal's article, "Suicide Reveals Bitter Roots of China's Rural Life," (New York Times 24 January 1999: early ed. Sec. 1: 1+) fell into the stereotype trap.

Rosenthal's article is about the unusually high rate of suicides among China's rural female population. The title promises to explain the phenomena: "Reveal Bitter Roots." And yet, only six short paragraphs (in a five-page story) address the possible causes (roots) of the problem. Even those six paragraphs do not merit the title's claim.

The first time the causes are mentioned(2), they are listed as being "the low status of women in China; the rapid shift to a market economy; the easy rural availability of pesticide." The word "roots" implies the core or the source of origin and nature. Imagine all the subterranean knots and channels that sustain and support a great tree. Rosenthal's roots, however, are shallow and untangled. They are over-simplified and generalized statements.

Rosenthal claims that "many of the suicides are chaotic mini-dramas - precipitated by a minor family quarrel, an illness or bad news." After reading that sentence, I assumed that the Western stereotype had been reinforced. After all, a woman would have to be naive, ignorant, or just plain nuts, to kill herself after "arguing publicly with her husband about which to do first, transplant seedlings or plant cotton"(3).

Or would she? Rosenthal's article informs us that in rural China, "customs and language reinforce women's feelings of worthlessness and helplessness"(4). Aha! Maybe her naivete is taught and expected. Well, that makes more sense - after all, we know that Chinese society has yet to catch up to the 20th century, so . . . our stereotype is enforced again.

There are other subtle stereotypic hints as well. Rosenthal further paints the sexism of Chinese society "in many rural areas they still think women are useless"(4). And still, apparently "a significant proportion of the [suicide] attempts are impulsive - women can't take it anymore and they drink pesticides" (4). This could be presented as a tragic element, though in the context of the American bias towards the Chinese, it comes across as a critique of Chinese rationale and sophistication. A woman who has the emotional maturity of a child might be that impulsive and naive about the consequences (doesn't she know what pesticides do?)-but a liberated woman of the West? Never!

Furthermore, when discussing the claim that the high suicide rate can be attributed to economic standards, Rosenthal says that many rural husbands move to the cities looking for employment, which puts even more responsibility on their wives. "With the gap widening between rich and poor, some believe that rural women are increasingly aware of the comforts they will never have"(4). Once again, the preceding statement seems to have been oversimplified. We are led to believe that despite what the traditional Chinese values may have been, the most important thing now is money and luxury (i.e. the American conquest of China has been successful). Never mind that these women probably knew for years (decades?) that they would never have certain "comforts."

But why is it necessary to apply such a grossly Americanized standard as materialism? Why can't our little Western minds understand that not all cultures are as greedy as ours? I find it hard to believe that rural Chinese women are killing themselves en masse because they can't buy a Big Mac or a new pair of Nikes . . . but then again, stating that these women are overburdened with responsibilities (taking care of themselves, their children, their farms, and perhaps other family members) after being abandoned (do these men send money home? do they ever come back?) by their husbands, sounds, well, too feminist - and the sisterhood is not as powerful today as it once was (and Rosenthal can't risk alienating her reader - the average American). Better stick to further defacing the dollar.

American stereotypes seem to be enforced in yet another way- Rosenthal chose only educated and predominantly Western individuals to speak in her article. She quotes Ms. Wang, a nurse who works for the government, "I thought 'My sister, why didn't you treasure your life?'"(1). Could Wang's statement reflect that although she grew up in a Chinese village, she no longer understands rural life? Or, has her "westernization" purged her of that understanding? (She is not a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, but a nurse who uses standard Western practices like pumping the stomach, giving oxygen, and an intravenous shot of Atropine (1). Because she is educated, she is no longer just a rural woman.)

Rosenthal also a quoted Chinese journalist, Xie Lihua (founder of a self-help magazine, Rural Women Knowing All and senior editor of China Women's News) There is little doubt that Xie is more "modern" than her rural readers are.

Western ideas are further represented by Dr. Arthur Kleinman, professor of medical anthropology at Harvard University, and Dr. Michael Philips, a Canadian psychiatrist who works in China. We are also bombarded by suicide statistics courtesy of the World Bank, Harvard University and the World Health Organization.

And who could argue with a Harvard scholar? Or sort through the listed facts and numbers to glimpse at the flesh-and-bone rural Chinese woman?

Why didn't Rosenthal choose to give a voice to the rural women themselves? Is it because she physically couldn't interview them, or because their statements are not as impressive as those of "educated" Chinese loyal to the government, or Ivy League professors?

While I applaud Rosenthal for informing the United States about this horrid problem, I am disappointed that she chose to resort to stereotypes to get her message across. It would have been much more difficult to paint an objective portrait of rural Chinese culture and strive to understand it. But in the long run, that would have been much more beneficial to the women of rural China, and to the world in general.


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