Rural Chinese Families Feel Migration's Strains

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 18, 2007

GUIHUA, China -- For years now, nearly half the rice, wheat and vegetable farmers in this village in Henan province have been unable to make a living off their land. They have turned instead to more profitable migrant work in large, faraway cities.

So last week -- in a scene that will play out across the country as millions of Chinese return home for the Lunar New Year holiday, which began yesterday -- the modest concrete house that Chen Wenxiu, 56, shares with her husband and two grandchildren was bursting with eight more relatives. Most of them were back from jobs in carpentry, shoe factories, recycling or construction.

Chen cooked in a soot-covered kitchen while grandchildren played outside with a squirt gun. Women shooed chickens from the main room while the men ate first, sipping from glasses of grain alcohol and spitting bones onto the floor. One daughter was too busy running her business to come home.

"I'm so happy. They all just appeared in front of my eyes," Chen said of her children, as she served bowls of chicken, lotus root, steamed bread, and beans and pork. "I wish they would come home more frequently, but they need to go out and work to make money, and that's more important."

That money now takes precedence over family has long been an unspoken fact of life here, but it is a view often obscured by the popular notion that the Chinese are, above all, family-focused and family-centric. In Guihua, what looked like a cozy reunion was actually a glimpse of the tension and sacrifice of migrant work: Though it has helped lift millions out of poverty, it is tearing at the fabric of rural society.

"In the countryside, people pay more attention to economics than to emotions, feelings, family ties and all those sorts of things," said Zhang Shiqiang, 45, Chen's nephew and a member of Guihua's family planning committee.

"Farmers are realistic," he said. "If their kids are not high achievers at school, the parents just want them to finish school as soon as possible, get a job, build a house and get married."

It is typical in China for migrant workers to leave children at home in the care of grandparents. There are myriad reasons for them to do so: In cities, migrant workers face discrimination because of their rural backgrounds; it's hard for them to find affordable housing; and they are often forced to pay higher school fees than other residents because of an outdated system that grants preferential living conditions based on where one is born.

Here in Guihua, Xiao Qingtong, 34, said it seemed only natural to leave his daughter, 9, in the care of Grandma Chen when he and his wife took off for Kunshan, a city 300 miles to the east, to run a recycling business.

"I never thought of taking her with us because the education in Kunshan is not as good as here," he said.

Although he shows no sign of regretting that decision, he has had to relinquish connections to family life. A certificate on the wall in Chen's house showed that Xiao's daughter, Manman, had won recognition as a "student leader" last year. But not this year.

"How is she doing? I have no idea," Xiao said. "How can I possibly know that? I really can't take care of so many things. My priority now is to make money."


CONTINUED     1           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company