Changing Patterns of Rural Suicide (1980-2009)

Below, I have summarized Liu Yanwu’s article, The Problem of Rural Suicide (1980-2006) [刘燕舞:中国农村的自杀问题(1980-2006)]. The article responds to previous research on rural suicide, which had focused on the changing status of rural women, rather than on the modernization of village society as a whole. Liu argues that changing intergenerational family dynamics and the rising divorce rate of rural couples has caused the changing pattern of suicide in rural China. After the article summary, I make a few observations on what research in Shenzhen contextualizes the question of rural suicide.

The Problem of Rural Suicides (1980-2009)

Abstract [translated from text]: Based on a uniform survey of 34 villages accross 7 provinces and analysis of the suicides of 604 farmers between 1980 and 2009, this author believes that the suicide rate in villages continues to rise. There has been a significant decline in young people’s suicides and the marked rise of elder suicide in contemporary villages. The declining suicide rate of young women lowered the overall rate of young people’s suicide, however, the rapid rise of elder suicide has meant that the overall rate of villager suicide continues to rise. The analysis suggests that the determining factor in this complex situation is not the migration of village young women, but rather changing intergenerational relations and the increase of divorce. At root, the more obvious systemic cause of the complex transformation of rural suicide is that modernity continues to erode villages.

Keywords: sucide rate of young women (青年女性的自杀率), suicide rate of the elderly (老年人的自杀率), transformation of intergenerational relations (代际关系变动), divorce (离婚), modernity (现代性)

[article summary begins]

1. The Question

In the first section of the article, Liu Yanwu notes that her research is in response to an article by Jing Jun and others, “Rural Women’s Migration and the Declining Chinese Suicide Rate” (农村女性的迁移与中国自杀率的下降), which was published in 2010. This article attempted to explain China’s declining suicide rate over the past twenty years as a function of the migration of rural women to cities. Jing Jun’s research had taken into account the quality of previous statistics, but limited his research to those between ages 16 and 60, thereby not accounting for elder suicide.

2. Problems with the Data Set Used by Jing Jun et al

Liu Yanwu analyzes the data set that Jing Jun et al used, noting that these official statistics came from the entire country. However, as a result, the following errors marred Jing et al‘s analysis: the statistics were not uniform, they lacked data for various age brackets, and some statistics were limited to sex and hukou status. More seriously, Liu Yanwu notes that Jing et al‘s analysis (1) did not adjust the statistics for change over time; (2) came from four different sources, which had different methods for categorizing data; and (3) the statistics provided by the Health Department were limited to those who had been diagnosed with psychological problems. According to Liu, these limits misrepresented the situation in which rural suicide is actually on the rise.

3. Description and Analysis of the Data Set that Liu Used

Liu Yanwu collected data on 604 suicides between 1980 through 2009, with 264 men and 340 women suicides and dividing by age into young, middle aged, and elder groups. On this division, the data shows that more young women commit suicide than do young men, while the reverse is true among the elderly.

When these statistics are adjusted as a percentage of the population, the overall rural suicide rate is 51.84 per 100,000, which is higher than the published rate. Moreover, when these statistics are analyzed by decade what appears is that the suicide rate of young people is decreasing more slowly than the suicide rate of elders is rising. Moreover, after the year 2000, we see a rise in the suicide rate of middle-aged people.

4. Explanation and Discussion of Results

According to Liu, the question that needs to be explained is why has the suicide rate of young women declined, even as that of the elderly has risen?

Jing et al‘s analysis had focused on tensions between mother-in-laws and daughter-in-laws, arguing that the change in each decade could be explained as more young women left the villages, avoiding family problems. Consequently, in the 1980s young wives committed suicide more frequently, while more mother-in-laws committed suicide in the 1990s. In contrast, Liu argues that if simply avoiding family relations ameliorated the suicide rate then elder suicides would have remained unchanged or gone down as well, but that is not what we have seen. Thus, she proposes that the transformation of intergenerational relations and divorce have probably been more decisive factors in rural suicide over the past thirty years.

Liu further argues that the changing patterns in rural suicide reflect the erosion of traditional rural life by modernity. For example, Liu notes changing values. Traditionally, care in the villages was reciprocal — parents gave children life and raised them, in turn, these children took care of their elderly parents. However, in interviews with rural children in the city, Liu frequently heard traditional values given a new twist: yes, parents gave birth to us; yes, they raised us; but did they raise us well? The implication being that because the parents hadn’t given their children a high standard of material goods, thus in turn, all the children owed their parents was not starving them.

With respect to traditional marriage values, Liu discovered a similar transformation. Many of the divorced women admitted that their first marriage wasn’t bad by traditional standards, however, they believed that divorcing their first husband and remarrying offered a greater chance at happiness. Moreover, these women did not bring their first child with them, leaving them in the care of their ex-husband’s parents. Traditionally, daughter-in-laws took care of their husband’s families in addition to caring for their own parents. Thus, divorce often leaves rural elders without a caregiver. Liu concludes that from the point of view of young women, modernity has been a good thing, which in turn explains the declining suicide rate of young rural women. However, it has not been a good thing for rural elders, which explains their rising suicide rate

5. Conclusion

Liu concludes with the assertion that changing intergenerational family dynamics and the increase of divorce among rural couples explains changing patterns of rural suicide.

[end of article summary]

Observations: Liu’s work points to the moral predicament that modernization has placed rural men and women who are expected both to enter the workforce and to take care of their parents. However, jobs are elsewhere, leaving both the elderly and young children in the villages. Thus, the article notes that the lack of care for elderly rural residents has become a critical social problem because young people no longer feel obliged to take care of their parents. Likewise, young women who might have previously remained in satisfactory marriages are choosing divorce as a way of achieving happiness (幸福). For many elders, divorce impacts them both emotionally and materially.

Here’s the important gendered point: traditionally young women were expected to provide emotional and material care for the elderly and the young, including their husband’s parents. Consequently, Jing et al‘s abbreviated research focus, nevertheless hinges on the same point to which Liu returns — what happens when young women no longer conform to traditional roles? Who will take care of the elderly and the young if women do not?

Obviously, the answer is both men and women. However, in Shenzhen, I have not yet seen a movement for transforming men’s roles to include caregiving, except in the case of grandfathers babysitting grandchildren, while grandmothers, mothers, or nannies do the housework and food preparation. My sense is that Liu and Jing’s academic conclusions echo the popular derision that many women face in Shenzhen precisely because they have successfully adapted to the market economy. The argument is that when women don’t care for their families, the children, parents and husbands are neglected. Consequently, families fall apart which in turn leads to the collapse of society.

What this argument consistently ignores is the fact that caregiving is a human attribute. Each of us has responsibilities to take care of those around us and not to delegate that care to others. What I have learned in Shenzhen is that as long as society values market productivity above the quality of human life there is no reason for anyone — male or female — to give up market opportunities for caregiving responsibilities. Indeed, it seems obvious that in such a system that there is little incentive to give up one’s market earned privileges. Thus, unpaid caregiving is often as unattractive to successful women as it is to men, who as a group have yet to learn the range of caregiving skills that most women have.

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