This dilemma about whether to remain in the city or to return home to a simpler life is one that tens of millions of Chinese people must, at one time or another, face. There's no doubt that most of the people migrating to Chinese cities are benefiting from their move. Saying that, things in "special economic zones" and 10%+ annual growth are not always rosy. Life in such rapidly changing places can be disorienting.
Leslie T. Chang in the book Factory Girls does a great job of tackling this issue of migrant life in Chinese cities. Chang profiles a number of young women who are trying to make it in the southern boom town of Dongguan. Chang is a good writer who weaves nice narratives for the reader. But the thing that really makes Chang's book special is the access that she gets being a Chinese American woman. She gets the chance to do things that most western journalists never have the chance to do.
One of the passages that I enjoyed most from Factory Girls is the story of Chang accompanying a factory girl home for the Chinese New Year to the village in Hubei Province where she was raised. The description of life in the village is fascinating. It's a glimpse into a world that most westerners, even the ones who've lived in China, never get a chance to see.
This following passage from pages 272 - 4 is a beautiful summation of a Chinese migrant's life:
In lives blurred by journeys to strange places, there was one fixed point in the migrant universe: a farming village that was home. Agriculture brings little economic benefit now; family plots, of just under one acre on average, are too small to be profitable. But across China, the family farm is still being tended, because that is what people have always done. The land is less an income source than an insurance policy - a guarantee that a person can live and will not starve.After reading this, I asked Qian whether she knows this poem that Chang quoted. I started reading it to her in English. In the middle of the first line, she interrupted me and rattled off the rest of the poem in Chinese. She is definitely familiar with it. She says that the poem "is written with simple language but is wonderful."
The continuing link to a family farm has stabilized China in an age of mass migration. Its cities have not spawned the shantytown slums of so much of the developed world, because the migrant who fails in the city can always return home and find someone there. A teenager may go out for work, leaving his parents on the farm. A husband who migrates may have a wife at home tilling the fields, or sometimes the other way around. A married couple might go out together, leaving young children in the care of their aged parents. In the city, a migrant might look desperate, but almost every migrant has a farm to fall back on.
At home, the travelers (migrants returning home for the Chinese Spring Festival) fall back into the slower rhythms of the farm. Hierarchy governs village life: The older men, the chief decision makers in their families, choose what is best for the community too. A family eats and farms together, and at night the children often sleep with their parents in one large bed. The older children discipline the younger ones, and the younger ones obey. Guests show up unannounced and stay for days; communal routines of eating and sleeping and, these days, television viewing absorbs them easily. There are no secrets in the village.
In the city, this way of life is already dead. Small families live in high-rise apartments alongside neighbors who are not their kind. People forge relationships with those they do not know. Young migrants in the city have lived freely among strangers; they have competed for jobs; they have dated whom they pleased. No matter how fondly they recall their rural childhoods, in truth the village cannot take them back.
It is not a new story. The ache of the traveler returning home is a classic theme in Chinese literature. One of the first poems a school-child learns, from the eighth century, is about a man who goes back to his village after a lifetime away, to find that he no longer belongs.I left home as a youth, and as an old man returned,
My accent unchanged but my temples turned gray.
The children see me but don't know who I am,
Laughing, they ask where this stranger is from.
She found the original poem for me:
少小离家老大回，For nearly all young people in China, life in the countryside just won't do. Young people of Chinese villages are leaving their native hamlets in droves. This poem, written more than a millennium ago, is particularly pertinent today.
I'm sure everyone reading this post has heard the "largest migration in the history of the world" talk about China's countryside spilling into its cities. There are good reasons young people want to leave the countryside. Life there is rough and there is almost no opportunity for personal development.
Life in developing Chinese cities does not guarantee happiness though. What is more of a sure thing is that a person who's lived in a city will not be able to happily return to life in a village. Going from an urban life to a rural one just doesn't happen very often, or at all, by choice.
It's hard to say exactly what the pull of life in cities is. As I noted in my discussion of "Dwelling Narrowness" a couple weeks ago, many migrants do not get to enjoy any of the benefits or culture that big cities provide. Instead, they are either working day after day in a factory or are saving up doing a white collar job to buy a condo. But the draw remains.
My knee-jerk analysis is that Chinese people are attracted to the opportunity of life in the big city. Just as Europeans a century or two ago were drawn to America, Chinese cities gives those in the countryside the chance to do something different with themselves. Like in America, there is no guarantee of success in Chinese cities. But, as evidenced from the emptying of small villages into cities, the possibility of a better life is enough to be a magnet for the masses.