RURAL LIFE IN CHINA
According to the 2010 census, 51.3 percent of China’s population lives in rural areas. This is down from 63.9 percent in the 2000 census, which used a different counting system, and over 95 percent in the 1920s. There are around 800 million rural peasants and migrant workers--roughly 500 million farmers and 300 million to 400 million excess unskilled rural laborers. The rural population has declined from 82 percent in 1970 to 74 percent in 1990 to 64 percent in 2001 to 56 percent in 2007 and is expected to drop below 40 percent by 2030. Land essentially belongs to local government, a holdover from the commune era.
Average disposable annual income for Chinese urban residents in 2012 was the equivalent of about $4,000, an increase of 9.6 percent after taking inflation into account. Average rural net income was just under $1,300 per person, a rise of 10.7 percent after adjusting for inflation, the Chinese National Bureau of Statistics announced in January. [Source: Chris Buckley, New York Times, February 5, 2013 ^^]
There is a wide gap between the wealth of the impoverished countryside and the booming cities, with the income of rural residents less than a third of that of urban residents. The bureau also said that in 2012 China’s Gini coefficient, a widely used index of income inequality, was 0.474, slightly higher than levels of inequality in the United States, where income disparity now stands as one of the highest among advanced industrial nations. But some economists have said China’s measure is actually much higher, when illicit and poorly reported sources of wealth are taken into account. The annual per capita disposable income of or rural residents was 2,762 yuan (around $300) in 2006 compared to 8,799 yuan for urban dwellers. For every 100 household in the countryside there are 89 color televisions, 22 refrigerators and 62 cell phones. By contrast, for 100 every household in the cities there are 137 color televisions, 92 refrigerators and 153 cell phones.
A typical village farmer grow rice, corn, chilies and vegetables on a half acre of land, and maybe keeps some chickens and pigs. Farmers produce enough to eat but not much to sell. There are inadequate basic public services such as education, health and applications of new technologies.Typical rural families live in simple wooden houses, use outhouses and cook in shacks over open hearths. Many villagers now have televisions and even washing machines, refrigerators and DVD players, but manyvillages only have electricity during the night as rural industries need the power during the day. Land-line phones are still rare. Cell phones are becoming more common. In villages outside Shanghai you can find people with stylish haircuts and expensive suits that live in houses with coal grills and plastic tables.
Increasingly people in the countryside are staying put and resisting the trend to migrate to the cities. Singaporean job recruiter Brien Chua told the Strait Times, “With lodging expensive and food costing more than double the price than back home, no one wants to move to the big cities anymore.” Some migrants go home and find a spouse and settle down.
Good Websites and Sources: Book: Rural Life in Modern China by C.F. Mobo ; Rural Life in Northern China members.shaw.ca ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; NPR Pieces on Rural China npr.org ; People’s Daily article peopledaily.com ; Library of Congress loc.gov ; Book: Will the Boat Sink the Water: The Life of China’s Peasants by Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao (Public Affairs, 2006)
Links in this Website: POOR PEOPLE IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; RURAL LIFE IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; VILLAGES IN CHINAFactsanddetails.com/China ; URBAN LIFE IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; MIGRANT WORKERS IN CHINAFactsanddetails.com/China ; AGRICULTURE IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; AGRICULTURE IN CHINA UNDER THE COMMUNISTS Factsanddetails.com/China ; PROBLEMS FACED BY FARMERS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; LAND SEIZURES AND FARMERS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; RICE AGRICULTURE IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China
China's City Dwellers Now Outnumber the Rural Population
In January 2012, the Chinese government said the number of people living in cities exceeded the rural population for the first time. Urban dwellers now represent 51.27 percent of China's entire population of nearly 1.35 billion -- or 690.8 million people -- the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said. It added that China had an extra 21 million people living in cities by the end of 2011 compared to a year earlier -- more than the entire population of Sri Lanka -- while the number of rural dwellers dropped. [Source: AFP, January 17, 2012]
AFP reported: “The shift marks a turning point for China, which for centuries has been a mainly agrarian nation, but which has witnessed a huge population shift to cities over the past three decades as people seek to benefit from the nation's economic growth. The development experts warned was likely to put strain on society and the environment. "Urbanisation is an irreversible process and in the next 20 years, China's urban population will reach 75 percent of the total population," Li Jianmin, head of the Institute of Population and Development Research at Nankai University, told AFP. "This will have a huge impact on China's environment, and on social and economic development."
A significant portion of China's urban dwellers are migrant workers---rural residents seeking work in towns and cities---who have helped fuel growth in the world's second-largest economy. A national census published in April last year showed China counted more than 221 million migrants, and a government report released months later predicted that more than 100 million farmers would move to cities by 2020.
Li said the rising number of urban dwellers would put a strain on resources as new or expanded cities would have to be built, adding that different urban centres had adopted different attitudes towards the issue. "Big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai have already clearly stated they want to contain the population increase," he said. They "have implemented a number of measures that are necessary as it is a severe test for local resources and traffic." But he said some small and medium-sized cities were still actively encouraging the rural population to become urbanites, which put a strain on resources and could pollute the local environment.
Rural Families in China
In contemporary society, rural families no longer own land or pass it down to the next generation. They may, however, own and transmit houses. Rural families pay medical expenses and school fees for their children. Under the people's commune system in force from 1958 to 1982, the income of a peasant family depended directly on the number of laborers it contributed to the collective fields. This, combined with concern over the level of support for the aged or disabled provided by the collective unit, encouraged peasants to have many sons. Under the agricultural reforms that began in the late 1970s, households took on an increased and more responsible economic role. The labor of family members is still the primary determinant of income. But rural economic growth and commercialization increasingly have rewarded managerial and technical skills and have made unskilled farm labor less desirable. As long as this economic trend continues in the countryside in the late 1980s, peasant families are likely to opt for fewer but better educated children. [Source: Library of Congress]
The consequence of the general changes in China's economy and the greater separation of families and economic enterprises has been a greater standardization of family forms since 1950. In 1987 most families approximated the middle peasant (a peasant owning some land) norm of the past. Such a family consisted of five or six people and was based on marriage between an adult son and an adult woman who moved into her husband's family. The variant family forms--either the very large and complex or those based on minor, nonstandard forms of marriage--were much less common. The state had outlawed concubinage, child betrothal, and the sale of infants or females, all of which were formerly practiced, though not common. Increased life expectancy meant that a greater proportion of infants survived to adulthood and that more adults lived into their sixties or seventies. More rural families were able to achieve the traditional goal of a three-generation family in the 1980s. There were fewer orphans and young or middle-aged widows or widowers. Far fewer men were forced to retain lifelong single status. Divorce, although possible, was rare, and families were stable, on-going units. [Ibid]
Views on Rural Life in China
In his book The Villagers, Richard Critchfield wrote: "I found that once you stepped inside a [Chinese] peasant family's household walls, property, marriage and the family mattered just as much as in any village. There were the same proudly displayed photographs, the same complaints about the expenses of weddings, the same deference shown to old people, even the same mind-numbing homemade country liquor that is, alas, the gesture of having broken the social ice from Africa to India." [Source: "The Villagers" by Richard Critchfield, Anchor Books]
A peasant farmer told the New York Times, "There's a huge difference between life now and the way it was. Our life today is better than a landlord's life in the past. But tell this to a young people and they don't want to hear. They say, Go away! They don't know about the old life...Last year [my son] wanted to buy a stereo cassette recorder for [$80]. I said, 'No that's too much. We should buy a mule.' A mule can work. It's useful. A stereo isn't. And a mule is so big, while a stereo is so small." [Source: Sheryl Wudunn, New York Times magazine, September 4, 1994]
One villager in Henan Province told the Los Angeles Times, “Farmers are realistic. 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,”
Mao publically idealized peasants, he sent dwellers to the countryside to learn from them. Many think his actions were motivated purely by politics. The best education, health care and other benefits generally went to urban people, perpetuating inequality that exists today.
Wei Minghe was in his late 60s. He still had the rawboned build of a farmer, but now he lived in a retirement apartment in the nearby city of Huairou, although he returned faithfully each year for Qingming. Later that day, I gave him a ride back to the city. When I asked him if he missed Spring Valley, he said, "Before this apartment, I never lived in a place with good heat." His view of progress made perfect sense, just like the wishes of the ancestors---tile roofs versus thatched. [Source: Peter Hessler, National Geographic, January 2010]
Peter Hessler wrote: “In 2001, I began renting a home in a village, partly because I was curious about the region's history, but soon I realized that glimpses of the past were fleeting. Like most Chinese of the current generation, the villagers focused on today's opportunities: the rising prices for local crops, the construction boom that was bringing new jobs to Beijing, less than two hours away.
On the making of his documentary film Beijing Besieged by Garbage , photojournalist and filmmaker Wang Jiuliang said: In the summer of 2008, I returned to my hometown, a small rural village... I needed to find particularly clean natural environments to use as backgrounds for some photographs. But such places are hard to find now. Everywhere, covered by plastic tarps, there is the so-called modern agriculture, which has produced a countless number of discarded pesticide and chemical fertilizer packages scattered across the fields, ditches, and ponds. Herbicides and pesticides together have transformed the once-fertile natural environment into a lifeless one, and the rapidly developing consumerist lifestyle of the villagers has filled the village with piles of nondegradable garbage. The clean and beautiful hometown of my childhood memories---only a decade or two old---is nowhere to be found. [Source: Wang Jiuliang,, cross-currents.berkeley.edu, dgeneratefilms.com]
Hard Times in the Old Days
One of Hessler’s students wrote, “My parents were born in a poor farmer’s family. They told us they had eaten barks, grass, etc. At that time grandpa and grandma had no open mind and didn’t allow my mother to go to school because she is a girl.”
In the old days strangers sometimes showed up and stole things, kidnapped women and children and killed people . Often villagers could do little but stuff their baskets with rice and run and hid in the mountains.
Many if not most young people dream of escaping their villages and getting jobs and enjoying city life. In the old days the easiest way for a man to escape village life was to join the army. These days it is achieved by becoming a migrant worker or getting a job in a factory town or by working hard in school and attending university.
Recalling life in the 1960s, a woman in her 80s told the Los Angeles Times she worked all day in the fields and didn’t return home until after nightfall. ‘sometimes.” she said, “I would be hungry until 9 o’clock at night. We would lie in bed surrounded by mosquitos , to weak from hunger to fight them from biting us.”
Collectivization and Class Status in China
The first major action to alter village society was the land reform of the late 1940s and early 1950s, in which the party sent work teams to every village to carry out its land reform policy. This in itself was an unprecedented display of administrative and political power. The land reform had several related goals. The work teams were to redistribute some (though not all) land from the wealthier families or land-owning trusts to the poorest segments of the population and so to effect a more equitable distribution of the basic means of production; to overthrow the village elites, who might be expected to oppose the party and its programs; to recruit new village leaders from among those who demonstrated the most commitment to the party's goals; and to teach everyone to think in terms of class status rather than kinship group or patron-client ties. [Source: Library of Congress]
“In pursuit of the last goal, the party work teams convened extensive series of meetings, and they classified all the village families either as landlords, rich peasants, middle peasants, or poor peasants. These labels, based on family landholdings and overall economic position roughly between 1945 and 1950, became a permanent and hereditary part of every family's identity and, as late as 1980, still affected, for example, such things as chances for admission to the armed forces, colleges, universities, and local administrative posts and even marriage prospects. [Ibid]
“The collectivization of agriculture was essentially completed with the establishment of the people's communes in 1958. Communes were large, embracing scores of villages. They were intended to be multipurpose organizations, combining economic and local administrative functions. Under the commune system the household remained the basic unit of consumption, and some differences in standards of living remained, although they were not as marked as they had been before land reform. Under such a system, however, upward mobility required becoming a team or commune cadre or obtaining a scarce technical position such as a truck driver's. [Ibid]
Decollectivization in China
Under the collectivized system, grain production kept up with population growth (China's population nearly doubled from 1950 to 1980), and the rural population was guaranteed a secure but low level of subsistence. But the collectivized system seemed to offer few possibilities for rapid economic growth. There was some discontent with a system that relied so heavily on orders from above and made so little allowance for local conditions or local initiative. In the late 1970s, administrators in provincial-level units with extensive regions of low yields and consequent low standards of living began experimenting with new forms of tenure and production. In most cases, these took the form of breaking up the collective production team, contracting with individual households to work assigned portions of collective land, and expanding the variety of crops or livestock that could be produced. The experiments were deemed successful and popular, and they soon spread to all districts. By the winter of 1982-83, the people's communes were abolished; they were replaced by administrative townships and a number of specialized teams or businesses that often leased such collective assets as tractors and provided services for money. [Source: Library of Congress]
“The agricultural reforms of the early 1980s led to a confusingly large number of new production arrangements and contracts. Underlying the variability of administrative and contractual forms were several basic principles and trends. In the first place, land, the fundamental means of production, remained collective property. It was leased, allocated, or contracted to individual households, but the households did not own the land and could not transfer it to other households. The household became, in most cases, the basic economic unit and was responsible for its own production and losses. Most economic activity was arranged through contracts, which typically secured promises to provide a certain amount of a commodity or sum of money to the township government in return for the use of land, or workshops, or tractors. [Ibid]
“The goal of the contracting system was to increase efficiency in the use of resources and to tap peasant initiative. The rigid requirement that all villages produce grain was replaced by recognition of the advantages of specialization and exchange, as well as a much greater role for markets. Some "specialized households" devoted themselves entirely to production of cash crops or provision of services and reaped large rewards. The overall picture was one of increasing specialization, differentiation, and exchange in the rural economy and in society in general. Rural incomes increased rapidly, in part because the state substantially increased the prices it paid for staple crops and in part because of economic growth stimulated by the expansion of markets and the rediscovery of comparative advantage. [Ibid]
Consequences of Rural Reform in China
Decollectivization increased the options available to individual households and made household heads increasingly responsible for the economic success of their households. In 1987, for example, it was legally possible to leave the village and move into a nearby town to work in a small factory, open a noodle stand, or set up a machine repair business. Farmers, however, still could not legally move into medium-sized or large cities. The Chinese press reported an increased appreciation in the countryside for education and an increased desire for agriculturally oriented newspapers and journals, as well as clearly written manuals on such profitable trades as rabbit-raising and beekeeping. As specialization and division of labor increased, along with increasingly visible differences in income and living standards, it became more difficult to encompass most of the rural population in a few large categories. During the early 1980s, the pace of economic and social change in rural China was rapid, and the people caught up in the change had difficulty making sense of the process. [Source: Library of Congress]
“The state retained both its powers and its role in the rural economy in the 1980s. Decollectivization, like the collectivization of the 1950s, was directed from the top down. Sometimes, apparently, it was imposed on communities that had been content with their collective methods. But in permitting households and communities greater leeway to decide what to produce and in allowing the growth of rural markets and small-scale industries, the state stepped back from the close supervision and mandatory quotas of the 1960s and 1970s. [Ibid]
“Decollectivization obviated the supervisory functions of lowlevel cadres, who no longer needed to oversee work on the collective fields. Some cadres became full-time administrators in township offices, and others took advantage of the reforms by establishing specialized production households or by leasing collective property at favorable rates. Former cadres, with their networks of connections and familiarity with administrative procedures, were in a better position than ordinary farmers to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the growth of markets and commercial activity. Even those cadres not wholly devoted to increasing their own families' income found that to serve their fellow villagers as expected it was necessary to act as entrepreneurs. Village-level cadres in the mid-1980s were functioning less as overseers and more as extension agents and marketing consultants. [Ibid]
“By 1987 rural society was more open and diverse than in the 1960s and 1970s, and the rigid collective units of that period, which had reflected the state's overwhelming concern for security, had been replaced by networks and clusters of smaller units. The new, looser structure demonstrated the priority placed on efficiency and economic growth. Basic security, in the sense of an adequate supply of food and guarantees of support for the disabled, orphaned, or aged, was taken for granted. Less than half of China's population remembered the insecurity and risks of pre-1950 society, but the costs and inefficiencies of the collective system were fresh in their minds. Increased specialization and division of labor were trends not likely to be reversed. In the rural areas the significance of the work unit appeared to have diminished, although people still lived in villages, and the actions of low-level administrative cadres still affected ordinary farmers or petty traders in immediate ways. [Ibid]
“The state and its officials still dominated the economy, controlled supplies of essential goods, taxed and regulated businesses and markets, and awarded contracts. The stratification system of the Maoist period had been based on a hierarchy of functionally unspecialized cadres directing the labors of a fairly uniform mass of peasants. It was replaced in the 1980s by a new elite of economically specialized households and entrepreneurs who had managed to come to terms with the administrative cadres who controlled access to many of the resources necessary for economic success. Local cadres still had the power to impose fees, taxes, and all manner of exactions. The norms of the new system were not clear, and the economic and social system continued to change in response to the rapid growth of rural commerce and industry and to national economic policies and reforms. [Ibid]
Increased commercial activity produced a high degree of normative ambiguity, especially in areas like central Guangdong and Jiangsu provinces, where rural economic growth was fastest. Neither the proper role of local officials nor the rights and obligations of new entrepreneurs or traders were clear. The line between the normal use of personal contacts and hospitality and extraordinary and criminal favoritism and corruption was ambiguous. There were hints of the development of a system of patron-client ties, in which administrative cadres granted favors to ordinary farmers in return for support, esteem, and an occasional gift. The increased number of corruption cases reported in the Chinese press and the widespread assumption that the decollectivization and rural economic reforms had led to growing corruption probably reflected both the increased opportunities for deals and favors of all sorts and the ambiguous nature of many of the transactions and relationships. The party's repeated calls for improved "socialist spiritual civilization" and the attempts of the central authorities both to create a system of civil law and to foster respect for it can be interpreted as responses to the problem. On the local level, where cadres and entrepreneurs were engaged in constant negotiation on the rules of their game, the problem was presumably being addressed in a more straightforward fashion. [Ibid]
Chinese Village Life in the Deng Era
Joe Zhang wrote in New York Times, “Nostalgia in China may sound strange to people whose image of the country’s recent history is colored by memories of Mao’s disastrous policies, which in the years following the Communist revolution in 1949 brought economic disaster, starvation and mass death. But my generation, which came of age after the Great Famine and at the end of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1970s, missed the worst of the misery. And in typical Chinese fashion, my elders preferred not to talk about the bad days. [Source: Joe Zhang, New York Times, November 28, 2014. Zhang, a former manager at the People’s Bank of China, is the author of “Party Man, Company Man: Is China’s State Capitalism Doomed?” <>]
“My childhood came at a unique moment for China. We were still living traditional village lives, having left the horrors of Mao behind, but not yet in the thick of the capitalist frenzy. Families were strong, crime was unheard of and the landscape was pristine. We didn’t mind being poor — in my third and fourth years at primary school in the early-’70s, the whole school did not have textbooks — because we didn’t know what we were missing. We lived in peaceful, tight-knit communities. <>
“Beginning in the late 1970s, the communes were split up into family farms, prompting a surge of productivity and more freedom for rural residents. Peasants suddenly had the power to decide what crops to grow, how to grow them and how to sell their harvests and other products. Many farmers decided to leave the land to work in factories in the boomtowns along the southeast coast, bringing home money as well as fresh knowledge from the outside world. Many brought back much-needed skills to build their own businesses. This golden era was celebrated as the triumph of Deng Xiaoping’s economic liberation.” <>
Life of Fujian Peaseant
Describing the early of a poor Chinese man who eventually made his way to New York, Kirk Semple and Jeffrey E. Singer wrote in the New York Times, “Mr. Wang grew up in Gui’an, a rural village in a mountainous region of Fujian Province; he dropped out of school when he was about 13 to join his relatives in the rice paddies.” “He told jokes, even on the hardest days,” his older sister, Wang Wenzhen, recalled in a telephone interview from the family’s home in Gui’an. “But he was also an introverted, reserved person; didn’t share his true feelings.” [Source: Kirk Semple and Jeffrey E. Singer, New York Times, March 22, 2011]
As a young man, Mr. Wang never talked about career plans, his sister told the New York Times “We are in a very backward village,” she explained. “All they can think about is making more money. What else can we dare to wish for?” She added: “I am sure he had his own dream, but he never talked about it. He knew that’s impossible.” [Ibid]
His father died of a stomach ailment when Mr. Wang was 19, tipping the family deeper into poverty. Mr. Wang left home in search of better work to help support the family and, through his 20s and 30s, chased opportunities for work in Fujian Province, mostly manual labor. For several years he drove a taxi, often taking the night shift so he could help with household chores during the day and take his mother, who was chronically ill, to the hospital, Ms. Wang said. [Ibid]
“Mr. Wang struggled not only with work but also with love. As his friends successfully found mates, married and started families, Mr. Wang, a thin man with close-set eyes and a crop of thick black hair, met failure. His sister blamed the family’s economic straits. “Nobody wanted to pick him,” she said. “Which girl would want to marry into poverty?” [Ibid]
“When he was about 30---old to be a bachelor by the standards of his village---he married Lin Yaofang and they had a baby, a girl. When Ms. Lin became pregnant again, in violation of the country’s one-child policy, the authorities made her get an abortion, relatives and friends said.When word of her third pregnancy reached the government, he later told friends, officials went to their house to take Ms. Lin away, leading to Mr. Wang’s detention and beating.” [Ibid]
Farmer's Life in China in 2011
Farmer in a 1935 pre-Mao film Victor Mair, University of Pennsylvania, wrote in the MCLC List: A visiting graduate student from Zhejiang (Huzhou) told me about the life of his parents. Here are some of the facts he recited to me. 1) They own 1 MU of land. 1 mu = 0.16473692097811 acre. 2) On that land they grow paddy rice. 3) They also have a couple of mulberry trees and are trying to make some money (a tiny amount) by raising a small quantity of silkworms. 4) Apparently they can almost grow enough rice for their own needs, but they must seek work in factories to pay for their other needs. [Source: Victor Mair, University of Pennsylvania]
The husband (father) works in the local water treatment plant: 10 hours a day, 7 days a week. I don't know exactly what the wife (mother) does, but it is a similar kind of job. Neither the mother nor the father receive any benefits from their jobs except a very small salary (about 1,000 RMB [$156.519] per month, e.g., they have no medical insurance and have no retirement benefits. Their jobs away from home are characterized as "informal" -- i.e., such jobs have no benefits or security. This is the sort of job that virtually all farmers who are lucky enough to find extra work away from home have. I asked the student what happens when his parents get sick. He said, "They can't afford to get sick." I said, "What if they really get sick?" The student said that, in such a case, people have to borrow money from family and friends to pay their medical expenses. But, I said, then they have to go in debt and it would be very stressful to try to pay back the people to whom they owe money when their income is so marginal in the first place. He said, "That's true, so they truly can't afford to get sick."
When they retire, the parents will receive 100 RMB ($15.6519) per month from the farmers' association; they will receive nothing from their other "informal" jobs. A pound of pork costs 25 RMB ($3.91298). If they get sick after they retire, they have to rely on their meager savings to pay for treatment. This means, even more than when they were working, that they really can't afford to get sick. And, if they do get sick, the treatment they receive will be of a very inferior kind (because they won't be able to pay for a good doctor and won't be able to make the bribes that are necessary for even the most minimally decent kind of medical treatment).
The student said that his parents consider themselves fortunate in comparison with most farmers in other parts of China. The southeast coastal area where the visiting graduate student is from is by far the richest area of China. He told me that's why there is a huge influx of migrants from poor areas like Gansu and Guizhou. People can barely survive in such areas, so they are forced to come to urban regions to work in factories for very low wages (such jobs are rarely available in the poor areas they come from).
Putting a Farmer's Life into Perspective
In response to Victor Mair's notes on "The Farmer's Life in China," Matt Sommer wrote: There’s another way to look at this situation, taking a longer-term view: Back in the Mao era, when there was relatively little rural industrialization and almost no opportunity to migrate in search of other work, these people almost certainly would not have had access to those factory jobs you mention. So they would have been stuck on the land, doing hyper-involuted agriculture round the clock, trying to squeeze every last bit of rice out of their little field, with very little to show for their back-breaking labor. They would have been hungry and malnourished all the time.
Also, the collectives they were trapped in would have provided as little or nearly as little safety net as they have now. The reform era has created a huge amount of rural industrialization, esp in the main coastal areas like Zhejiang, and that has had the benefit of soaking up a lot of the excess, under-employed labor that had previously had no outlet except for extremely labor-intensive, inefficient agriculture that was involuted far beyond the point of diminishing returns. The people you mention are now able to work all day in factories and do their agricultural work in their spare time---probably with very little decline in grain output per field. (This is typical for much of the Yangzi Delta.) That is testimony to how much under-employment had existed there prior to the availability of the factory jobs---all that labor could be taken out of agriculture without lowering grain production. The fact that the percentage of people working in agriculture overall is now down to about 50 percent is further testimony to that change---the percentage would have been closer to 70-75 percent a couple decades ago, but a lot of that labor was simply wasted b/c of incredible inefficiency of its use.
Another point worth considering is that this couple’s son is now a grad student at university---quite a fantastic opportunity for him as an individual, but also for their entire family. The fact is, if we were still in the Mao era, that young man you met would almost certainly be stuck on the farm with his parents, and they would be trying to feed three people from that rice paddy, w/o the factory jobs or the chance at higher education. Because of their son’s opportunities, the whole family’s standard of living is bound to improve, once he gets out of school. Obviously, that’s not typical; but it points to the larger phenomenon of younger people from the countryside being able to leave and look for other, better (or at least not as bad) situations elsewhere. There are lots of poor rural areas where nearly all the young people (especially the women) have left. That opportunity for labor to migrate---together with the rural industrialization---is the reason why the percentage of population (under-)employed in agriculture has been dropping so rapidly, and it’s one of the main reasons China’s GDP is rising so rapidly. Once the situation stabilizes (which eventually it will have to do), then China’s GDP growth rate is bound to slow down quite a bit. Already, labor costs in China are rising, which suggests that this may be starting to happen.
None of this is intended to prettify their situation or gloss over the terrible problems you point out. The benefits of industrialization and the reform era have not been equally shared---to say the least! But having said that, I---m convinced that the situation you describe is actually a net improvement over what it would have been twenty-five or thirty years ago. I bet the rural suicide rate was at least as bad (prob even worse) in the Mao era and in the early 20th century as it is now--- Margery Wolf published an article back in the early 1970s about female suicide in early 20th century Taiwan (using the Japanese household registers, which are very accurate and precise), and the demographic profile she came up with was basically the same as what we see in rural China now: i.e. mostly women right around marriage age and elderly women.
Rural Daily Life in China
In rural areas, time as measured by a clock has little relevance. People wake up at dawn and go about their chores until they are finished or its gets dark. In hot climates, people wake up early, often between 4:00 and 5:00am, and do their most arduous tasks before it gets too hot. During the hottest hours people rest and nap and resume their activities in the relatively cooler hours before sunset. As a rule people usually go to bed pretty early.
One villager in Gansu told the Washington Post that on a typical day she rises at 6:00am. cleans the floor and furniture and cooks breakfast. Afterwards she weeds the wheat field and them returns to cook lunch and feed the chickens. After more fieldwork she returns to cook dinner. After dinner she and her children sit on hard bed and she tells them stories or they watch television.
Villages are often empty on the morning because everyone is out working in the fields or doing other chores. Before breakfast, a rural family usually feed their animals, and collects eggs and milk. Water is tossed outside during the dry season to help keep down the dust. Treks often have to be made a kilometer or so outside the village to fetch firewood for cooking or to make charcoal and sometimes to collect water for bathing and drinking. During the rainy season water is collected off the roof of the house.
Rural Chores in China
Life in the countryside in much of China has changed little in the last thousand years. Rice is still planted in paddies by hand and tilled by hoes or wooden plows pulled by oxen or water buffalo. Pigs and herds of ducks wander around the farms.
The roads are filled with slow moving tractors, peasants carrying belongings on shoulder poles, peasants carrying heavily-loaded baskets yokes and farmers moving everything from produce to cement in hand carts, bicycles or carts attached to their bicycles.
Newly harvested grain is threshed in the central square; water is collected from a hand pump; Dried red peppers , onions and garlic are hung from houses.. Hours are spent washing clothes in the afternoon in streams that feed fish ponds and rice fields. While the clothes are being washed, small gates into the pond and irrigation ditches are closed so the fish and crops are not contaminated by soapy water. Chores such as washing clothes are performed communally in some villages---a hold over from the collective farming days.
Villagers are very resourceful. Soccer balls are made from tin cans and large insects are tied to strings and kept as pets. Nothing is wasted in China. Human waste is collected from family outhouses and used as fertilizer called night soil. Outhouses are often placed near pig sties so waste can be collected from both sources and used for fertilizer. The morning distribution of night soil is common sight throughout China.
See Agriculture, Economics
Rural Income and Markets in China
A typical family of seven described by Business Week in 2000 lived in a four room house, used 0.64 of an acre for growing rice, used 0.59 an acre for growing other crops and owned four pigs, one horse and 20 ducks. Their expenditures were $546: $217 for food, $96 for transportation, $72 for fertilizer and pesticides, $48 for medicine, medical services, $36 for local taxes; $7 for road building and improvement; $4 for power station maintenance; $6 for education and culture and $60 for cloth and clothes.
The family's income was $674: $12 from the sale of 100 kilograms of rice; $54 from the sale of 100 kilograms of chilies; $25 from the sale of 150 kilograms of rapeseed; $163 from selling pigs; $34 from the sale of 20 ducks; $145 from the father’s construction work; and $241 in remittances from a daughter working in southern China in a factory.
Many villagers have become dependent on the money family members earn as migrant workers and factory employees. There is often prestige attahked to how many children a family have that are working outside the village that and how much money they send home.
Markets are often the center of economic and social life. Peasants hawk melons and potatoes and other food crops from blankets spread on the ground the back of ox carts. There are also snake oil salesmen, opera troupes, fortunetellers, watermelon sellers, billiard table operators, noodle stalls, and gambling tables. Choosy Chinese shoppers prefers honest, straightforward sellers.
"Market day is magic for millions of Chinese peasants who see civilization only three or four times a month when they pack their bundles and their hopes and head for town," wrote Patrick Tyler in the New York Times. "They stream out of the mountains on bike or on foot or in a packed horse carts, cheerfully suffering the burdens of their rice bags, pork shanks or spinach heaps. They travel for hours along bumpy roads, some just hoping to make a successful purchase of a needed farm tool, a well-woven basket or a hand-fitted wooden water pail to balance on a shoulder pole."
Image Sources: 1) Pole man, Bucklin archives http://www.bucklinchinaarchive.com/ ; 2) Chores, Agroecology ; 3) Sewing ladies, Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html ; 4) Others Beifan.com http://www.beifan.com/
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated July 2015