The Za at a Glance
from Dawn of the Butterflies by Marie Anna Lee, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Forethcoming
The za, or elderly women, have worked since early morning till late at night every day for their whole lives. They’re lean but can carry loads heavier than they are and do not tire easily. They can walk for hours through steep mountain paths in slippery plastic shoes, break their backs weeding rice or hoeing vegetables, and then haul firewood or vegetables for dinner back to the village in the evening. They can stay up late up working on whatever craft task is in season.
Despite many hardships, the za smile often and know how to have a good time. Merriment rather than worries have probably formed the wrinkles that line their faces. The women have a song for every occasion and if they don’t have one, they make it up. There’s hardly an undertaking that’s beyond their resourcefulness. They just need a sickle, a few tools, and access to the natural surroundings they grew up with, and they can make anything they need.
They are pillars of their families, tirelessly taking care of generation after generation. They make sure their descendants are better off than they are, sending them to schools and faraway places with a better quality of life. At the same time, they’re always there when needed, ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Their lives aren’t always easy. One family owned all the land in Dimen when they were little. They witnessed the turmoil preceding the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Their families received fields of their own during the land reform of 1953-54. The women handed in their pots and pans and burned timber to make steel in the Great Leap Forward of 1958 to 1960. They were not allowed to sing and perform Kam drama during the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976, and many of their children did not finish school.
Many of their family members migrated into cities in the 1980s and 1990s. Now they stand on the brink of the digital age. Open sewage, running water, cell phones, satellite television, and finally refrigerators and DVD players soon followed improved transportation and electricity. Throughout it all, they have remained steadfast in their ways, carrying their culture and customs through the change happening all around them.