Poor people living in rural areas depend on agriculture to make a living and feed their families. Most of the crops are raised for food. Meager surpluses or rice or potatoes or animals are sold for money. The head of the household and other family members often have no other job. Up until a few years ago It was not uncommon for a family to earn less than six dollars a month and be required to pay taxes of $10 a month.

Many people live in huts with a thatch or tin roof held on with rocks. They subsist off daily rations of flour and sugar, supplemented with tomatoes and yoghurt. They cook their meals over wood dung fires and gather their water down stream from village privies. Wood is in short supply. The wells from which water is fetched are often dry. Sugar, cigarettes and liquors have traditionally been regarded as the luxuries of village life. Cigarettes are a often luxury they can't afford.

Health care and education for the poor is generally of poor quality. According to World Bank economists, the mortality rate in the Chinese countryside is "as bad as you'll find in the developing world," and four out of five peasants can't afford to see a doctor. More than 180 million rural Chinese are illiterate. A Communist party cadre in Hubei wrote: "I often meet old people, grabbing my hands, saying they are wishing for an early death and young people running up to him recounting the tragedy of not being able to afford elementary school."

In remote Duyun prefecture of Guizhou province half of the 3.8 million people live below the poverty line of $1 a week. Many of these people are worse of than they were during the Mao era, when at least they were guaranteed grain rations and given subsidized medical care and free schooling. Tania Branigan wrote in The Guardian, “To understand just how poor rural Guizhou is, you can look at the statistics. Or you can look at the children in Qixin village. Zhao Ai is nine, but is so short he appears three years younger. He eats nothing between leaving home at 6.30am — for a two-hour trek down the mountain to Ruiyuan primary school — and returning at 5pm. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, October 2, 2011]

In 2010, Shanghai took the top spot in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)'s international rankings for reading, maths and science in state schools. Meanwhile, at Zhao's primary, the big educational challenge is "no food", says headteacher Xu Zuhua. Malnutrition stunts her pupils' growth and hampers their concentration. "Even though we are developing, it feels like urban areas are running while we are strolling," says Zhou Liude, who oversees Ruiyuan and nearby schools.

The government has sought to invest in rural areas, and the benefits of growth are spreading. In the towns around Qixin you see stores with gleaming yellow motorbikes and adverts for 3G and coffee. But these remain unimaginable luxuries for families like Zhao's, who survive on basic farming and wages sent home by relatives working in cities. Their poverty is disguised by development: the further away from the road people live, the poorer they are — and the worse their children's grades — says Ruiyuan's headteacher.

Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; People’s Daily article

Daily Life of Rural Poor in China

In the poorest areas, people have no running water or electricity. They use digging sticks to plow their fields and irrigate they land with water carried in buckets fastened to either end of yoke-like shoulder poles and have to walk more than 20 miles on dirt paths to reach the nearest dirt road. Their dream is replacing their rickety stone and log shacks for small brick homes.

Many poor peasants in China subsist off bread and shrimp paste or boiled turnips and eat meat only once a month, and that often is dog or cat. Children go barefoot and use discarded syringes for water guns. Many people are so poor that they decorate their houses with empty Coca-Cola cans, have never heard of electricity, let alone have it, and sell the blood of their children to buy fertilizer.

Some people have nothing. The New York Times did an interview with a peasant in a poor village north of the Yellow River in Shandong province. The peasant was asked how often he had meat or eggs? "Never," she said. Is her 14-year-old daughter in school? "No." Does her 8-year-old some have any toys "None."

Despite being for poor, rural families until recently were required to turn over about half their harvest to the government as tax, leaving just enough grain to feed their families and enough to barter for shrimp paste to flavor their food.

Some rural poor earn money by doing things like laboring on highway crews or carrying bricks in a brick klin. For many the easiest way to make money is selling blood for around $12. But because people have contacted AIDS, hepatitis and other disease from tainted blood, selling blood is no longer widely practiced, denying the rural poor of a way to make money.

Rural Problems in China

Excessive taxation, local corruption and declining services are problems faced by many people in the countryside. In their book “Will the Boat Sink the Water: The Life of China’s Peasants” Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao describe a village chief who murdered a man who tried to audit villages books; a township leader that forced peasants to grow mulberry trees so he could get rich from selling the seeds; and a Communist Party boss who called in armed troops to put down a tax revolt.

Many villagers have hacking coughs and respiratory ailments as result of being exposed to indoor cooking fires. They avoid going to the doctor because they can't afford the $5 visits.

Some receive very little government support. One woman who lived in a mud hut in Ningxia province and tried to raise seven children with her husband on an income of $120 a year told Newsweek, "We get no government services, no medical care. If I want birth control I have leave here and buy it myself."

Riots by angry farmers have occurred in many different places. The government now fears that a major revolt is more likely to come from the countryside than in the cities. See Taxes, Local Government, Government; See Land Seizures, Agriculture, Economics

Money Problems for Rural People in China

Rural people enjoyed benefits in the early stage of the Deng reforms when peasant were released from the communes but suffered in the 1990s and 2000s as the emphasis of the economic reforms switched to the cities

The annual income of people living in Shanghai is around 18,000 yuan while those living in agricultural areas around the city is 7,000 yuan. Six percent of elderly people in rural areas receive a pension compared to 60 percent in the big cities. Teachers and health workers in rural areas go unpaid for months and are forced to seek bribes to survive.

The incomes of farmers rose dramatically during the early years of the Deng reforms, but recently their incomes have leveled off or dropped. In many cases the poverty situation is getting worse for villagers and the income gap between them and urban people is widening. Ability to make money often depends on access to non farm jobs.

While incomes have stagnated costs for basic things like health care and education have risen out of reach. The cost of treating the most basic health problem is often more than people earn in a year.The annual cost of $250 to send a child to high school is either beyond a family’s reach or enough to drive them deep into debt. Unlike urban Chinese, peasants are not entitled to government benefits such as health care and unemployment payments. What is more the cost of food, fertilizer and seeds has risen so that farmers are earning even less than they did. In some places earning are declining by around 5 percent a year.

Rural Wealth Gap near ‘Danger’ Level

China’s countryside is facing a widening wealth gap as hundreds of millions of residents abandon farming for better paid work in cities, a report said, warning rural inequality was approaching “danger” levels. AFP reported: The Centre for Chinese Rural Studies said inequality in rural areas was growing given the difference in incomes between those who farmed and those who flocked to cities as migrant workers. “The difference in rural residents’ income is getting bigger and pressure on living expenses is increasing,” the centre said in a statement reported in state media today. [Source: AFP, August 22, 2012 ==]

“China’s growing wealth gap is a major concern for authorities keen to avoid public discontent that could lead to social unrest in the rapidly developing country of 1.3 billion people. The centre, which has links to the state, estimated the Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality, was 0.3949 for rural residents last year, nearing what it called the “danger” level of 0.40, the statement said. The commonly used Gini coefficient measure varies between 0 – reflecting complete equality – and 1, which indicates complete inequality. China has not released a Gini coefficient for the country as a whole for more than a decade, amid worries over the widening income gap. An official said in January that data on high income groups was incomplete to explain why the government had again failed to issue the statistic for 2011. == “Rural residents who work as migrant labourers in cities earn twice as much as those who farm for a living, the official Xinhua news agency quoted the centre as saying, but gave no figures. Although most migrant workers live in cities for most of the year, they are officially registered as rural residents. As a result, incomes as a whole for rural households were rising sharply, with average cash income jumping more than 14 percent to around 38,894 yuan (US$6,174) last year, the Xinhua report said. Deng Dacai, deputy head of the centre, said the Gini coefficient for all of China was likely “well above” 0.40, Xinhua reported. The government-backed Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimated China’s Gini coefficient at nearly 0.47 in 2005. ==

A survey released in July 2013 by Peking University survey found showed a vast difference between earners in top-tier coastal cities and those in interior provinces. Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times:“Average annual income for a family in 2012 was 13,000 renminbi, or about $2,100. When broken down by geography, the survey results showed that the average amount in Shanghai was just over 29,000 renminbi, or $4,700, while the average in Gansu Province, in northwest China, was just 11,400 renminbi, or just under $2,000. Average family income in urban areas was about 16,500 renminbi, or $2,600, while it was 10,000 renminbi, or $1,600, in rural areas.” [Source: New York Times, July 19, 2013]

A study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found that the urban-rural wealth divide had grown 26 percent between 1997 and 2012 and 68 percent between 1985 and 2012. In 2011, year, rural dwellers had an average annual disposable income of around $1,030 , according to China's National Bureau of Statistics, compared to $3,242 for their urban counterparts. "Hu Jintao did not do much [to stop the] gap increasing," Mark Wang, a University of Melbourne scholar and expert in rural China, told The Telegraph. "The gap is still huge and people feel angry. It's very dangerous for China. People expect [incoming president] Xi Jinping to fix the problem." [Source:Tom Phillips, The Telegraph, November 12, 2012 ]

Tom Phillips wrote in The Telegraph, “The wealth gap is immediately clear in Guizhou province, where politicians pushing the relocation scheme say some 11.5 million people live below the poverty line, with around two million in "chronic poverty". Outside the airport in its capital, Guiyang, a white-gloved chauffeur ushers a woman and her shopping bags into a black Rolls-Royce.

Help for Rural Poor in China

In recent years the government has promised to more to help to rural people. Government assistance for the poor includes rural anti-poverty projects, new drinking water systems and incentives for investments in poor provinces. Nobel-Prize winner Muhammad Yunis was invited to China for a trial of his “micro credit” system. See Farmers.

In an attempt to reduce the number of people migrating from the countryside to the cities, governments have put more funds into rural development for things like village schools, clinics, and sewers. In some places craft and weaving schools have been set up for young men and women to give them a basic education and teach them skills they can use in their villages. Even so, there are so many village and rural communities out there that these programs affect a relatively small number of people.

Perhaps the biggest help to villagers is the $45 billion sent back to relatives from migrant workers who left the villages. Without this money many villages would die.

See Taxes, Government; Improvements for Farmers, Agriculture, Economics; Electricity, Energy, Public Services

The Chinese economist Hu Angang has called for large amounts of money to be spent in the countryside in what some Western analysts call "a Chinese New Deal." In regard to talk about investments in the poorer provinces, local people often say, "the thunder is huge, but the raindrops are tiny."

Undermining the ability of rural poor to help themselves are government policies that require them to grow grain when they could make more money growing fruits and vegetables and policies that restrict the migration to the cities. Some of programs end up cheating villagers. Some farmers surrendered their land for reforestation programs that promised $65 a year for the rest of their life but ended up receiving nothing,.

Chinese Village Drained by Migrant Labor

Describing a village in Shandong Province, a 12-hour bus ride from Beijing, Megan Stack and Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Nobody remembers just how Liloucun village came to be. There is a vague story, something about how a group of Li men moved here 300 years ago in search of wider tracts of fertile land for farming. The name translates as "Li house village," and the men who live here today all bear the surname Li. The exact relations are lost to time, but the villagers assume their blood is shared, and intermarriage is forbidden. Men remain in the village, choosing wives from elsewhere, and the village daughters marry out. [Source: Megan K. Stack and Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, February 20, 2011]

“Today, Liloucun is home to 160 people, three computers and a single car...There are two main roads; at their intersection are two general stores, a fertilizer shop and a small restaurant. There is no running water, and the town got electricity only a decade back. Most of the money comes from migrant workers. About 40 percent of the villagers leave home to join China's urban workforce.”

“The migrants' salaries have bought bricks and lumber to replace the grass and mud once used to build homes. People proudly show off their televisions, washing machines and refrigerators; everybody knows who has what, and how much it cost. The price is paid in absence. Most of the year, these hamlets are ghostly, drained of the young and fit.”

For two week Chinese New Year holiday “the village looks like its old self. Couples get married, taking advantage of the luck of a new year and the presence of migrating relatives. Roving holiday markets spill from one village to the next, peddling live fish, dried lotus, pigs' heads, hand-pounded sesame oil, mountains of fireworks.”

Village Family Fractured Absent Migrant Father

Li Guangqiang works on the construction of the new Microsoft site in Beijing. His children in his home village in Shandong Province have grown up without him. Megan Stack and Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “He seems uneasy around them, scoffs that their mother gave them names that are embarrassingly rural. His son, Shengshun, has been acting out. He skips school, runs off with his friends. To the fury of his teacher, who threatened to ban him from school, he dyed his hair bright red. His grades are terrible; in a few years, he'll probably follow his father's example and migrate to a big city. [Source: Megan K. Stack and Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, February 20, 2011]

“Now he trails after his father, hurls himself at the older man, who brushes the boy away. He manages to lure his father into a wrestling match, but it doesn't last long. As for 15-year-old Yingying, she is tall and dreamy. She earns better grades than her brother, and helps her mother in the kitchen. She pines for adventure, of becoming a factory girl someplace bustling and distant.” "I always think outside is better than my village," she says.

‘sun Fengzhi is mincing goat fat for the stew, banging it over and over with a shining cleaver. She married Li more than 13 years ago, when she was 26. She has hardly seen him since. It's cold in the kitchen; her breath hangs in front of her mouth, and the fat is freezing. Her thick, strong fingers ache from the work. With her husband out of earshot in the yard, Sun describes a melancholy family life.” "He went away and I had to take care of everything," she says quietly. "It was really difficult for me. I had to take care of the kids myself. I used to hold them so long my arms were in pain. I had to be their father and their mother."

‘since coming home, her husband has shared his son's bed, not his wife's. He has spent a lot of time visiting his friends, driving around in his cousin's van. He wears his nice city clothes, and although his family speaks to him in local dialect, he stubbornly replies in the Mandarin of Beijing....While Sun is telling her storey one of the neighbor women slips out to warn Li: Your wife is criticizing you to outsiders!...Li bursts into the room. "Stop complaining so much!" he yells at his wife, who cringes and shrinks from him. Their son joins in, echoing his father's orders: “Stop complaining!” Sun drops her reddened eyes and turns her attention to the goat stew.”

“On the wardrobe, in pride of place, hangs a picture of Sun and three other women. They stand in factory smocks, smiling shyly at the camera. She looks younger and prettier, but the photo is only 2 years old. That year, Sun tried her hand as a migrant worker. She left her children with her parents and found a job at a DVD component factory in Qingdao. Those days were happy. But her son grew unruly; nobody could control him. After six months, Sun returned to the village.

Li is sullen. His efforts to portray a family life unscathed by his gaping absence have fallen apart. "I guess you can tell, since my wife just says whatever comes into her head, that we don't have a very good relationship," he says grimly. Still they try to put on a happy face. A few days later, the whole family travels two miles down the road to visit Sun's village. "I don't go to her village very often," Li says. "It's something I have to do."

Children in Chinese Villages Emptied by Migrant Labor

Migration rates exploded over the last two decades as residents left their fading villages in droves to seek jobs in the cities. The left-behind children are the fallout of a rapid dissolution of traditional Chinese values in the rush for economic opportunity and growth, and a vivid reminder of how routine migration has become in the country's lifestyle.

Describing a remote village in Anhui Province,Megan Stack and Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “This is a village of empty rooms, children left behind and frail grandparents who struggle to hold it all together. Most of the able-bodied adults have left the hamlet of rutted, muddy roads and drought-withered fields of corn. House after house, the same family tale is repeated: The parents have migrated to the big cities for work; their young children stay with grandparents, great-grandparents or any other relatives who can shelter and feed them. At the age of 10 or so, when the youngsters are considered old enough, many move into packed boardinghouses attached to their public schools. [Source: Megan K. Stack, Los Angeles Times, September 30, 2010]

“A generation of left-behind children is growing up in China. Researchers estimate that at least 58 million — nearly a quarter of the nation's children and almost a third of its rural children — are growing up without one or both of their parents, who have migrated in search of work. More than half of those were left by both parents. The youngsters face psychological and emotional challenges; many struggle to keep up with their lessons and end up abandoning school in their teens to join their parents on the road, researchers say.”

"Their education is always lagging behind," Nie Mao, author of "Hurt Village," a book on the fate of the separated children, told the Los Angeles Times. "Their safety is always compromised because they are far from their parents. Their future is not clear. "This is a social problem in China and, as a society, we have to find a solution," Nie said. Bringing their children along means paying city school costs, sheltering them despite their own dubious living arrangements, and keeping them supervised during long work shifts. Chinese children are entitled to nine years of free public education but must pay steep fines to enroll in schools outside the town or village where their residence is registered.”

"People choose to be separate from their children because they don't have any other choice," Shi Zhengxin, secretary general of the China Social Assistance Foundation, told the Los Angeles Times . Despite the hardships, Shi urges parents to try to keep their children with them. Most of them will eventually end up migrating anyway, he says, so they might as well get used to urban life. "If they get left behind, they grow up into the second generation of migrant workers," he said. "They'll still have to come to the city to work, and it will take them much longer to adjust and learn how to live here."

“There is general unease, among government officials and the intelligentsia, about the plight of the left-behind children and the fraying of the Chinese family, which traditionally prized togethernesss and intensive parenting,” Stack and Demick wrote . “The government has created migrant schools, and this year launched a program that gave children the chance to travel to the city to spend summer holidays with their parents. But the migrant schools are notoriously inferior to the mainstream public schools, and so far just one trainload of children has gone to Beijing for a reunion with their parents.

Grandparents Raising Children in Chinese Village Drained by Migrant Labor

“At 77, Cai Zhongying is the matriarch of a nearly empty homestead,” Megan Stack and Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “From a mud road where scraggy dogs roam, the cluster of family homes looks almost splendid: a string of buildings adorned with turquoise trim and statues of birds perched on curled rooftops, still being built piece by piece with wages from Cai's faraway children. Inside, the rooms are mostly bare. Her children and the grandchildren who left have spent much of their money, scraped together during shifts in far-flung urban factories, to build the rooms. The cash to furnish them will have to come later. They come home once a year, if they can earn the fare and get the time off.” [Source: Megan K. Stack, Los Angeles Times, September 30, 2010]

“For years, people here tried to stay ahead of hunger as subsistence farmers. There is a coal mine nearby, but only a few villagers have been lucky enough to land jobs there. For the rest, there's the road. Villagers go south and east, to the massive coastal cities of skyscrapers and suburban factories, or to bigger coal mines in more prosperous towns. To Shanghai, Pinghu or Xuzhou.”

“It's the job of Cai, along with her 78-year-old husband, to keep an eye on the houses and raise the younger children until they are old enough to work. The couple had six children, with hopes of being cared for in their old age. Instead they are locked into perpetual parenthood, raising waves of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. These days, they are tending to two youngsters, ages 4 and 6, plus fields of vegetables and a pomegranate orchard in the mountains.”

"My husband just cries sometimes because the little boy is always clinging to his neck and climbing all over him," Cai told the Los Angeles Times. "And my husband is exhausted." Still, it is an improvement from recent years, when the couple had as many as six small children under their roof. Back then, they struggled to find enough food for everyone. Bitter arguments would erupt at mealtimes. "The whole scene was a mess," Cai said. "Some of them really needed to be taken away to be with their parents. Thinking about it now, I want to cry."

As noon rolled around, Cai's husband, Li Jiachen, arranged their 6-year-old great-granddaughter on the rear rack of his bicycle and pedaled her home from school for a lunch break. Li's is a farmer's face, weathered with deep ruts; his pants were smeared with mud. He sat, lighted a cigarette and began to cry as he described the choices his family has faced. "When I was raising my grandchildren, I could only provide them with food, nothing more," he said sorrowfully. "And then when they were 15, they all left to go work." At other moments, Li and Cai are more sanguine. The children have never known their parents well enough to miss them, they say, shrugging. And anyway, there is nothing unusual in their circumstances. Most of their neighbors are also grandparents raising the younger generation.

“The family has faced worse,” Stack and Demick wrote. “Years past, when the harvest was particularly thin, Cai was reduced to begging in order to feed her children. That seems like a long time ago now. And like the other villagers, the family regards the en masse exit from the village as a double-edged sword. For all the emotional turmoil of shattered families, there is a new gleam of prosperity on the landscape.The dirt roads are littered with construction materials: Bricks, roofing tile and cement. Old-style houses, built from rocks bound together with a paste made from ashes, are regarded as evidence that the household's migrants haven't done their part.

Inside their home, Cai's great-granddaughter hides from visitors in the double bed she shares with her great-grandparents. There is another bed nearby, the mattress still sheathed in plastic from the factory. On the label, a Western-looking woman reclines dreamily under a nonsensical English slogan: "Salubrious endless imagination you life." Nobody sleeps there."It's my son's," explains Li. Then the family turns to examine in silence the newly bought bed.

Village Culture Disappearing in China

Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times, “Across China, cultural traditions like the Lei family’s music are under threat. Rapid urbanization means village life, the bedrock of Chinese culture, is rapidly disappearing, and with it, traditions and history. “Chinese culture has traditionally been rural-based,” says Feng Jicai, a well-known author and scholar. “Once the villages are gone, the culture is gone.” That is happening at a stunning rate. In 2000, China had 3.7 million villages, according to research by Tianjin University. By 2010, that figure had dropped to 2.6 million, a loss of about 300 villages a day. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times, February 1, 2014 ++]

“For decades, leaving the land was voluntary, as people moved to the cities for jobs. In the past few years, the shift has accelerated as governments have pushed urbanization, often leaving villagers with no choice but to move. China’s top leadership has equated urbanization with modernization and economic growth. Local governments are also promoting it, seeing the sale of rural land rights as a way to compensate for a weak tax base. Evicting residents and selling long-term leases to developers has become a favored method for local governments to balance budgets and local officials to line their pockets. Numerous local officials are under investigation for corruption linked to rural land sales. Destroying villages and their culture also reveals deeper biases. A common insult in China is to call someone a farmer, a word equated with backwardness and ignorance, while the most valued cultural traditions are elite practices like landscape painting, calligraphy and court music. ++

But in recent years, Chinese scholars have begun to recognize the countryside’s vast cultural heritage. A mammoth government project has cataloged roughly 9,700 examples nationwide of “intangible cultural heritage,” fragile traditions like songs, dances, rituals, martial arts, cuisines and theater. About 80 percent of them are rural. In the past few years, for example, Mr. Feng has documented the destruction of 36 villages in Nanxian, a county on Tianjin’s outskirts, home to a famous center of woodblock printing. “You don’t know if it will survive or not because when they’re in their new homes they’re scattered,” he said. “The knowledge isn’t concentrated anymore and isn’t transmitted to a new generation.” ++

Chinese Village Musicians Lose Their Village

Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times, “Once or twice a week, a dozen amateur musicians meet under a highway overpass on the outskirts of Beijing, carting with them drums, cymbals and the collective memory of their destroyed village. They set up quickly, then play music that is almost never heard anymore, not even here, where the steady drone of cars muffles the lyrics of love and betrayal, heroic deeds and kingdoms lost. The musicians used to live in Lei Family Bridge, a village of about 300 households near the overpass. In 2009, the village was torn down to build a golf course and residents were scattered among several housing projects, some a dozen miles away. Now, the musicians meet once a week under the bridge. But the distances mean the number of participants is dwindling. Young people, especially, do not have the time. “I want to keep this going,” said Lei Peng, 27, who inherited leadership of the group from his grandfather. “When we play our music, I think of my grandfather. When we play, he lives.”[Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times, February 1, 2014 ++]

“Mr. Lei said that keeping their village life intact would have helped most. “It was really comfortable in the old village,” he said back in his new home, a small two-bedroom apartment high up in an apartment block a half-hour drive away. “We had a thousand square meters and rented out rooms to migrants from other provinces. Lots of buses stopped nearby, and we could get into the city easily.” ++

“Like all rural residents, the Leis and their neighbors never owned their land; all land in China belongs to the state. So when the plans were announced to build the golf course, they had little choice but to move. “No one protested,” he said. “We knew we didn’t have a choice. You have to just go with the flow.” Everyone got free apartments and $50,000 to $100,000 in compensation. Strangely, however, the golf course has never been built, and the village still lies in ruins. No one here can figure out if this is because the development was illegal, or perhaps part of a corrupt land deal that is under investigation. Such information is not public, so villagers can only speculate. Mostly, they try to forget. “I try not to think about these things too much,” Mr. Lei said. “Instead, I try to focus on the music and keeping it alive.” ++

Disintegration of Chinese Village Life

Joe Zhang wrote in New York Times, “The peaceful and idyllic village I grew up in, like many of China’s rural towns, has been brought to ruins by the breakdown of traditional social norms that followed decades of failed policies and neglect by the state...China’s traditional social fabric has become shredded — and the disintegration is most obvious in the countryside, where families are falling apart, crime is soaring and the environment is killing people. Many villagers who were happy to have the state retreat from their private lives in recent decades are now crying for government intervention. Something has to be done to rebuild China’s languishing village life. [Source: Joe Zhang, New York Times, November 28, 2014 ]

“The state of my family’s home village of Jingmen, Hubei Province, is common across China. Its roads are no longer usable as they have not been maintained for over a decade. The community buildings have been torn down; the last time I was there I only saw dust and broken tiles all around. Rural families are suffering. The suicide rate in the countryside is three times as high as in the cities, according to reports from 2011. My uncle, who had been living in a makeshift shack after his grown children kicked him out of their house, hanged himself four years ago, never having recovered from the death of his wife two years earlier.

It is common for both parents to leave their small children at home in the village while they go to work in factories elsewhere. Some 60 million children suffer this fate; most are left in the care of their grandparents, but more than 3 percent — millions of children — are left to live on their own. Children who stay behind often have to cope with loneliness (not many have siblings) and helplessness. Some reports say that sexual abuse of left-behind children is on the rise. In many cases, men go to jobs in the cities while their wives stay behind with the children in the village. They get to see each other only a few days a year. Distance, emotional stress and financial frustration tear families apart. According to the journal Learning Weekly, China’s rural divorce rate surged fourfold between 1979 and 2009. Lianhe Zaobao, a Singapore-based newspaper, and numerous government publications have reported that many parts of rural China have become anarchic, with rising crime rates and election fraud.

“Beijing’s effort to decentralize the country’s governance over the past few decades has played a major role in this social decay. The elections of village heads are often rigged and corruption is rampant. The retreat of the state has left a dangerous power vacuum, and many villagers have been left to fend for themselves. There is a lot of talk of mafia-like groups wielding power behind the scenes.

Rising Crime and School Drop Out Rates in Chinese Villages

Joe Zhang wrote in New York Times, “Crime, rare in the Communist era, is increasing. Statistics are hard to come by — even the police do not publish them. In the countryside, only the most extreme crimes get reported, but even some horrific cases are ignored. Several years ago, my cousin was almost beaten to death by a fellow villager and his relatives in a conflict over an extramarital affair. My sister reported the brutality to the police but they never followed up. [Source: Joe Zhang, New York Times, November 28, 2014 ]

“In the old days, officials at the village and townships had the mandate and resources to mediate disputes, including domestic violence. The police would patrol even the most remote villages. Today the police seem to stay in cities, and village heads don’t have the resources to intervene in social issues. The abolition of an “agriculture tax” about a decade ago has added to the budget constraints of local governments.

“Meanwhile, increasing numbers of rural children are dropping out of school. One study suggests there are at least 20 million school dropouts in rural areas, or 1 in 10 young villagers. The primary school that I attended in the 1970s was dismembered a decade ago, due to dwindling numbers of students. As a result, young kids in the village have to travel along more than five miles of mud roads each day to go to school.

Reasons for the Disintegration of Chinese Village Life

Joe Zhang wrote in New York Times, “The period of renaissance in the countryside ended in the mid-to-late 1990s. Reckless growth of bank credit powered by the central bank’s printing press caused years of double-digit inflation that quickly eroded the incomes in the countryside and helped widen gaps between rural villages and the cities. Average monthly wages in the cities surged from a few hundred yuan two decades ago to about 4,000 yuan ($650) today, while incomes in the countryside lagged far behind. [Source: Joe Zhang, New York Times, November 28, 2014 ]

“More important, following the government’s privatization of state housing, urban housing prices grew exponentially, five-to-six-fold in many cases, while the value of rural homes rose little by comparison. Too many rural residents have missed out on China’s property boom, contributing to the wealth gap between the cities and the countryside.

“Local governments have done little to help. As more and more farmers flocked to factories in coastal cities, layers of local government were neglected and decayed. Factories eventually emerged in towns near rural villages, sucking the lakes dry and poisoning the rivers and the air. Experts estimate China has more than 450 cancer villages, towns where cancer cases cluster at much higher than average rates. Villagers have paid a steep price. Some residents of my village have died of unknown ills in their 40s and 50s.

Children in Sichuan Descend Down an 800-Meter Cliff to Get to School

Children as young as six from a village in Sichuan province have to scale a huge rockface using rickety ladders to get to school. The Guardian reported: Authorities in south-west China have vowed to come to the aid of an isolated mountain village after photographs emerged showing the petrifying journey its children are forced to make to get to school. To attend class, backpack-carrying pupils from Atuler village in Sichuan province must take on an 800-meter rock face, scrambling down rickety ladders and clawing their way over bare rocks as they go. [Source: Tom Phillips, The Guardian, May 27, 2016]

“Images of their terrifying and potentially deadly 90-minute descent went viral on the Chinese internet after they were published in a Beijing newspaper. There are 17 vine ladders on the 800-meter-high way home, but the most dangerous part is a path on the cliff without a vine ladder. The photographs were taken by Chen Jie, an award-winning Beijing News photographer. Chen used his WeChat account to describe the moment he first witnessed the village’s 15 school children, aged between six and 15, scaling the cliff. “There is no doubt I was shocked by the scene I saw in front of me,” he wrote, adding that he hoped his photographs could help change the village’s “painful reality”.

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.

Last updated July 2022

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