Study Tour – Hongcun Village (Anhui Province) July 6th

This post is from July 6th, 2010:

On July 3rd my WM study abroad group and I left Beijing on a trip, one which our director proudly announced is the only U.S. University in Beijing to do so, to central China and then Shanghai on the eastern coast.  I am writing this from Hongcun, a “village” in Anhui province.  I put village in quotes because even here there are cranes everywhere and new roads being built.  Billboards also dot the landscape, all signals of an obvious embrace of the tourist industry.  While this part of Anhui seems to be profiting from China’s economical boom, however, Anhui is generally  known as one of the poorest provinces in China, and many migrants living and working in China’s larger cities come from here.  As we were driving into Hongcun, my Professor pointed out several newly-built house, nestled among piles of brick and dirt, and stated that these new houses were being built from money sent back home from young migrants working in the city.  Seeing and hearing these things, I figured this would be the perfect place to interview the families witnessing such export of labor.  The following is a list of the questions I asked:

Do you have any children?

What do they do?

Do you know anyone whose children have left to work in the city?

Which city?

What do they do?

How much are they making?

And as I interviewed, of course, questions were change and added, but these give the general idea.

Because migrants range from 20s to 40s, I sought out older people, mostly older female vendors who seemed the most willing to talk, especially after buying something from them.  Because Chinese families are traditionally close, when speaking to one older woman whose son had gone out to work in Hefei, Anhui’s capital, I was surprised to find how uncomfortable she became when I asked about her son’s finances and whether or not he sent money back to her.  Because Chinese culture is generally not shy about discussing finances and how much one makes, when she stated that he makes a “common salary” and she was not clear as to exactly how much, I assumed she genuinely had no idea.  She also stated that she did not need his money, that she could get by on her own, but was willing to accept it during Spring Festival.  After my initial reaction, I remembered reading that this is not uncommon between migrants and their families.  Those that take the big step to “go out” away from home tend to be a little more individualistic as far as finances go, spending and saving as they see fit and with the desire to make it in the city.  Wishing to save money, lack of communication is also a problem in which a cell phone is usually a migrant’s only and most preferred communication device.  It is so important that, as the book Factory Girls and the film The World both illustrate, migrants being, well, migratory and so without permanent residence, once lost or stolen he or she has basically lost contact with “the world.”  Reading about how many migrants there are in China today- approximately 200 million, no one is sure – I assumed that it must be a successful endeavor and never really thought about the failure rate. Speaking with several people from this town, I learned that many, one man gave his own estimate of 60%, do not make it in the city and return to become what many migrants left home from in the first place – farmers.  Another man said that those that to make it, you must enroll in a university or technical program.  This is the only way to make it in the city which is largely due to the hukou, or household registration system, and the prejudices the hukou brings.  For example, those with a non-agricultural hukou are preferred over those with the agricultural hukou in the white-collar job industry.  So if you come from a town or a city, you would have better luck migrating to another city for work opposed to someone who comes from the country, even if your skills are the same.  Another twist to the hukou is that the same status passes down from generation to generation.  So if a child’s parents hold an agricultural hukou status, even if that child was born and raised in a city like Beijing, for example, that child is given the same status.  One way to change your hukou status, another being buying it which is insanely expensive, is to attend a University in the city.  This, however, is also an impossible dream for most of those with  agricultural status, as not only is rural education poor but the money it would require to send a child to an in-city university is not feasible for most rural parents.  Those from outside cities who wish to attend a University are also expected to test higher than locals on entrance exams.  Part of my examination of the rural/urban divide focuses on the hukou being an out-dated remnant of the 1950s.


  1. bjgullickson says:


    In this post you’ve touched on something that plays a large part in modern Chinese culture as more and more villagers migrate to large cities hoping for more pay. I can’t think of a more prescient social issue, and Hongcun is just one of many great places to gather primary data. Great work!

  2. mdschneider says:

    Thanks! It is definitely a pressing and very interesting matter! There is now an estimated 230 million migrant workers within China which is expected to increase to 250 million by 2012. In 2009, Chinese government figures had shown that loss of jobs among these migrants had forced about 23 million to return home. Because many migrants are not properly registered, due to the hukou and their migratory status, these numbers are most likely much higher. The part that interests me most, however, are the children of these migrants whose parents often leave them behind with grandparents to work in the cities so they tend to develop behavioral problems and receive poor education. And because of the hukou, those that go to the cities with their parents cannot afford to go to good schools their either and must attend run-down migrant set up schools. In Beijing alone, there is an estimated 300,000 migrant children who are not receiving proper education due to outlandish fees from the hukou.