This afternoon (Sunday, October 16) All About My Sisters, a deeply personal take on the psychological aftermath of China’s One Child Policy is screening in Canberra. It screens again later this month.
At the height of the One Child Policy in China, many baby girls were unwanted. Twenty years ago, when film director Wang Qiong’s parents—desperate for a boy—learned that they were expecting another daughter, they made a series of decisions that have haunted the family ever since.
BroadAgenda Editor Ginger Gorman speaks with Qiong.
Thank you so much for agreeing to speak with BroadAgenda. Congratulations on your acclaimed documentary, All About My Sisters. Firstly, tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you and what kind of films do you make?
My name is Wang Qiong, a Chinese documentary filmmaker. My films are about 苦 (the bitterness of life) – a concept from Buddhism – and how people deal with it.
The One Child Policy was a strict population control policy that restricted each family to have no more than one child as a respond to the population growth in China. It was established in 1982 and replaced by Two-Child Policy in 2015. Nowadays people are encouraged to have more children to deal with the aging of the population.
The One Child Policy had a direct impact on baby girls as it combined with the long-lasting phenomenon of preference to boys (重男轻女). Because people were only allowed to have one child, many families, in particular those from rural areas, wanted to make sure their first child was a boy. Aborting baby girls then became one of the solutions, and abandonment was another.
And what about your family? Who is in your family and how did that policy affect your lives?
As you can see in the film, every single member in my family was haunted by not only the policy but also the tradition of preference to boys. To me the tragedy is given by the combination of these two things. In order to have a son under the pressure of the policy, my mother had eight pregnancies and my parents hid from here to there for almost ten years. I am the second child in my family and like Jin, I was not welcome.
My aunt, the midwife who made the delivery when my mother was giving birth to me, once recalled that the moment I was born, the first thing my dad said was “a girl again?” with a heavy sign. I’m lucky that they kept me. But they had to send me to someone else to take care of as they needed to pretend that they didn’t have a second child.
So I had to live my different relatives in the first five years in my life, and that experience had subtly influenced my relationship with my parents. There was a period of time when I was temporally adopted by my second uncle, I even forgot that I had parents – my life was all about the giant buffalo I had to take care every day, my uncle that beat me up often when I refused to eat as much as they required, and villagers who always teased me that my mom would never come back.
Even after I returned to my parents as I grew up, I never feel at home even until today. Life was hard for my parents back then – they had to make a living, and to make a son secretly, they lost their patience with everything including their children. I was always scolded and beat up when I didn’t behave well. My first suicidal try was at nine (years old). Living with my parents was hard for me when I was a child and teenager.
Wang says her family’s story was always opaque. [Her sister] “Jin’s story was told by my parents and other adult family members very fragmentarily every year.” Picture: Supplied
Life was, and still is unquestionably much harder for Jin. We were both unwanted girls, but she was not that lucky as she was the chosen one to be disappeared. She survived the abortion, but she has to spend the rest of her life struggling in the complex family relationship. The best thing of her life is that she was given to a family that loves her. I will never forget the last word she said to me before she left the town – she said: “Life has given me love but more pain.”
Sometimes I hope that she can forgive because that might make her life easier, sometimes I don’t because it’s unfair to her. Once in the shooting I asked her if she still hates my parents (she even didn’t want me to call them “our parents”), she said she started to understand them as she grew up and she understands how important a son means to a family. I don’t know if that thought had made her life easier, but it was very ironic and painful to me that she said that. She accepted a rule that almost killed her.
I started to realize that how possible a person can be changed by a society. That’s the same power that convinced my parents to believe that boys are more important the girls and that forced my elder sister, Li, to bear a son for her husband. As a boy, my younger brother is the only wanted child in my family but that’s probably not from love – he’s here only because he can carry the family name by having a son or more in the future.
I made this film because I wanted to know more about my family and I wanted to reconcile Jin’s relationship with my parents. I also wanted to know what kind of society I was born in when I was unable to know anything about it.
It was hard for me to ask questions with my family, especially my parents. I remember when I was doing the interview with them, my hands were shaking. In China, families especially those from rural areas don’t usually have intimate conversations like this. We don’t talk about things. We just live the life. So I was extremely nervous and anxious when I was holding my notebook with all the questions I wrote down to ask my parents.
What I did was to lie to them to make the conversations more comfortable. Instead of telling the real purpose of making this film, I told them it’s a school assignment, and they believed it. Talking to Jin was easier because we are very close and I felt trusted by her. We talked about anything since we were children. My conversations with Li was also challenging as I was not really close to her. I tried to get closer with her and it happened when I spent more time with her.
A still from the film. Picture: Supplied
All families have secrets. But how did to manage to get your family to talk about – and tease out – this topic that had never been discussed and unpicked?
To most of others, what happened to my family was astonishing, but to my family, it’s already “normalized” as they live within it and as it happened to other people around them too.
They hear so many similar stories from people they know in the town. They don’t think they are “special”. I think the difficult part for them was for them to recall all the bad memories and to be emotional again in front of me. I don’t think I made any special efforts, except just listening to help them say it all out [loud].
You have been praised for your quiet, investigative voice in the film. But what did you learn from this process? What impact did it have on your family?
Before I started this project, I hated my parents for aborting and abandoning Jin. I thought they were just being stupid to be convinced that sons are better than girls.
As I had more and more conversations with them, I started to understand where the decisions came from and the sufferings they had been through for making those hard decisions. This film lets me I know more about my family and where we came from. And I have learned that sometimes violence is not a choice but an effect from a bigger violence.
What messages does your film leave the audience with about love and belonging?
Love needs willpower.
Is there anything else you want to say?
We all suffered, and we are all expected to forgive.
- Picture at top: Filming over the course of seven years, Wang captures moments of vulnerability, anguish and joy with insight and delicate artistry, connecting us with the universal desire for love and belonging that lies beneath her family’s difficult history. Picture: Supplied
Ginger Gorman is a fearless and multi award-winning social justice journalist and feminist. Ginger’s bestselling book, Troll Hunting, came out in 2019. Since then, she’s been in demand both nationally and globally as an expert on cyberhate and the real-life harm predator trolling can do. She's also the editor of BroadAgenda and gender editor at HerCanberra. Ginger hosts the popular "Seriously Social" podcast for the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. Follow her on Twitter.