“Gong’s class was on the fourth floor.” Her mother was undeterred: “School was her only way out.We didn’t want her to work in the fields like us.”The medical bills drove the family into debt, which tormented Gong.“We’re not like you foreigners, who make friends easily in a bar or go travelling and chat up a stranger,” she once told me. Our membership has a very clear goal: to get married.”Of all the upheavals in Chinese life in the past three decades, there is perhaps none more intimate than the opportunity to choose one’s mate.For years, village matchmakers and parents, factory bosses and Communist cadres efficiently paired off young people with minimum participation from the bride and groom.Arranged marriages were banned in 1950, but twenty years later, when the anthropologist Yan Yunxiang moved to a village in China’s northeast, local women had so little say regarding whom they married that they sobbed when they left home on their wedding day.
When she got out of the hospital, wearing a hip cast, she discovered that a rural school was no place for a student who was unable to walk. Instead, Gong’s mother moved into her dorm room and hoisted her daughter around campus on her back.
(“If anyone ever liked me, I have yet to hear about it.”) She spent her childhood at the foot of a mountain in the village of Waduangang, in Hunan, the home province of Chairman Mao. During the Cultural Revolution, they were paired because they had been branded as “well-off peasants,” one of the Five Black Categories.