In many rural parts of China, children are left in villages to be looked after by grandparents or other relatives while their parents work in the cities. They are not able to join their parents either because the parents are too busy with their jobs, or because in many cases they lack the the hukou — residency permit — and other paperwork needed to live in urban areas and gain access to services like schools and health services China has more than 60 million of these “left behind” children and nearly 3.4 percent of them live by themselves, according to a 2013 report by the All-China Women’s Federation [Source: AFP, June 12, 2015; Ben Blanchard, Reuters, June 12, 2015]

Often the only time the children see their parents is when they return home over Chinese New Year holiday and even then often the parents don’t make it home because they are required to work at their factory or construction site. One “left-behind” child — a 14-year-old girl who lived alone for a year after her father left for a construction job — told the Los Angeles Times, “My parents are away making money so I can have a better life. But I don’t care about living a better life. I just want them to be home at my side.”

In China, one in five children live in rural villages without their parents according to the All China Women's Federation. The percentage is even higher in central and western China, where the economy is less developed and the adults have to seek jobs in the cities. It is reckoned that more than 40 percent of the children in Guizhou are left-behind by either one or both of their parents. [Source: Sun Yuanqing, China Daily, December 11, 2014]

William Wan wrote in the Washington Post, “In recent years, the plight of “left-behind children” has attracted growing attention. Chinese experts warn of psychological and emotional problems among kids raised apart from their parents. Such children often do worse at school than their peers. Studies have suggested that they develop increased tendencies toward suicide and alcohol abuse. Most left behind children "are the offspring of peasants who have flocked to cities in one of the largest migrations in human history. For three decades, the migrants’ cheap labor has fueled China’s rise as an economic juggernaut. But the city workers are so squeezed by high costs and long hours that many send their children to live with elderly relatives in the countryside. Source: William Wan, Washington Post, December 20, 2013 ^|^]

Good Websites and Sources: Busy Kids ; Precious Children PBS piece Young People ; Sheyla’s News blog / ; Human Trafficking Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery in China International Labor Organization

Example of China’s Left-Behind Children

Children of migrant workers who live in villages and rarely see their parents often do poorly in school; and have discipline and psychological problems. One school principal told the Los Angeles Times, “Most of these students tend to become antisocial and introverted. But in times of conflict, they tend to explode and react in violent extremes.” A school counselor said, “These children are so sad. They have to learn early to fend for themselves. There’s one family where the grandparents are taking care of four children from three of their sons. All of them are away at work. At best they can make sure the kids are clothed and fed. But they can’t fill the emotional emptiness.”

Reporting from Zhuzhou, a city of Hunan Province,William Wan wrote in the Washington Post, “Regulars of the Jianba barbershop in this southern city recently found it shuttered, with a curious note taped to the door. Dear customers, I got a call from my daughter yesterday. I have been away from her so long, she doesn’t even know how to call me ‘Daddy’ anymore . . . . I beg you for a week off to visit my family. The letter, photographed by a passerby, was posted on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter and quickly went viral. It reflected a growing angst in this country over “left-behind children.” [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, December 20, 2013 ^|^]

“The barber who posted the note, Wu Hongwei, and his wife, Wang Yuan, had left their daughter with her grandparents in a remote village when she was 9 months old. The couple thought the 340-mile distance was a challenge they could overcome. Every day, they phoned and told the little girl that “Mommy loves you” and “Daddy misses you.” They taped photos of themselves on the concrete walls of her room at her grandparents’ house. But after almost two years, they have come to a stark realization. “We are complete strangers to her,” Wu said. ^|^

“Many people who saw the note online left comments bemoaning the brutal nature of China’s modern economy. “To make a living, people have paid too much,” one said. “I burst into tears because I see myself in them,” another said.

Chinese Parents Decide to Leave Their Child Behind

William Wan wrote in the Washington Post, “Wu, 24, left the tiny village of Zhaishi in the craggy mountains of Hunan Province eight years ago. Staying would have meant back-breaking labor for just $3 a day — when work could be found. The tall, lanky young man bought a bus ticket to the city of Zhangzhou, where his uncle took him on as an unpaid barber’s apprentice. Wu then moved to Zhuzhou, where he got a job pulling in $500 a month. It was in that city that Wu met Wang, a woman with an infectious laugh. Wang’s friends called her “Baozi,” or steamed bun, because of her chubby cheeks. The barber wooed her with his guitar and folk songs. And, for a while, life in the city seemed full of possibilities for the newlyweds. They had their daughter, Beibei, in 2011. [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, December 20, 2013 ^|^]

“To take care of the baby, Wang, 33, quit her job selling cellphones. Her husband worked extra hours, cutting hair from morning to 11 p.m. At first, they managed to get by. They kept up the $100-a-month rent. Like many migrant workers, Wu had to help support his peasant parents; $170 a month went to them.But then their baby was weaned and needed formula — an expensive product in China, where parents distrust cheap---local brands, which often turn out to be tainted. Even average-quality Chinese baby formula sold for at least $100 a month, a fifth of the couple’s monthly income. “There was no choice. We both needed to keep working,” said Wang, whose parents were too sick to help. ^|^

“So, in May 2012, the couple made the journey to Wu’s village — a grueling 14-hour trip via bus, two trains and a motorcycle — and gave the baby to his parents. It seemed like an obvious solution. Almost every young couple from Wu’s village had done the same so they could keep their city jobs. It even allowed Wu and Wang to put aside a little money toward their dream of opening their own barbershop. The couple comforted themselves with the notion that Beibei might be better off in the countryside. “We don’t want her to endure the pressures of the city life, to think always of material things,” Wang said. “We want her to be happy.” ^|^

“In cities, migrant children face problems as well; they are often barred from public schools and medical care unless their parents have residency permits. And city folk often discriminate against the rural families, regarding them as crass and uneducated. “The countryside has been good for Beibei,” her grandmother Yang Peiyun, 51, said on a recent day in their village. “The food here is clean. The air is not polluted like in the city.” But, she added, “there is no future for her in the village. There is nothing here but mountains.” ^|^

Chinese Parents Become Strangers to Their Left-Behind Child

William Wan wrote in the Washington Post, “The first few months without Beibei were excruciating. “I went to sleep hugging the little outfits she left behind,” Wang said. “I cried constantly.” Her husband, a quiet man, focused on his job, finishing each $2.45 haircut so he could send money home. Three months after dropping off their daughter, the couple returned to the village, eager to visit. As soon as they walked through the door, Beibei hid from them. “Whenever we tried to hug her, she screamed and clung to Grandma,” Wang recalled. [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, December 20, 2013 ^|^]

“At one point, the couple asked their daughter to point out Mom and Dad. She ran to the photos on the wall, not to them. Around her parents, Beibei, a playful girl who often spends her days singing to the mountains, grew painfully quiet. She didn’t understand her mother’s Chinese, having learned the ethnic dialect of the village. The few words the little girl could say, Wang couldn’t make out. “She loves Grandma the most,” said Wang, who has tried not to feel envious. “When she’s hurt, she runs to her.” ^|^

“During the trip, the couple went to a nearby town and bought toys and sweet steamed buns to try to win Beibei over. To hold her, they waited until her grandmother lulled Beibei to sleep, then sneaked into bed and replaced the older woman’s arms around their daughter with their own. “Those few hours at night,” Wang said, “were precious.” By the end of their second visit, last December, they had finally taught their daughter to say “Mom” and “Dad.” “But the way she says ‘Mama,’ it’s nothing more than a name to her,” Wang said recently. “There is a person named Mama, but it has no meaning.” ^|^

“Then, one day this past fall, Beibei’s grandparents called Wu and Wang to tell them how some relatives — a newly married couple — had visited, bringing presents for Beibei. When the little girl saw the young couple bearing toys and sweets, she called them “Mom” and “Dad.” “It cut us deeply,” Wang said. Wu and his wife had finally pooled enough money to open their barbershop in a closetlike space off a city road. But when they heard the story, they decided to head for the village. On their way out, they hastily stuck the note on the door. ‘It’s not too late’

Life of Left-Behind Children

Reporting from Anlong, Guizhou province, Sun Yuanqing wrote in the China Daily, “ Yang Zhengxing is 13. Like many of his peers in the mountainous county of Wanfenghu in Guizhou province in Southwest China, he looks much younger than his age because of malnutrition. His mother left the family when he was 4, and his father works as a construction worker in Zhejiang province, some 25 hours' train ride from home, and returns only once a year. Yang lives with a younger brother and his grandparents who are both in their 70s. Despite his small frame, Yang is considered a major labor source in the family. He toils in the corn field with his grandfather and takes care of his brother. [Source:Sun Yuanqing, China Daily, December 11, 2014 ~]

“Diaries of China's Left-behind Children, a collection of the diaries of the "left-behind children" in Wanfenghu, reveals the inner lives of these young people. "People tend to have a stereotype about left-behind children, seeing them as pitiful kids who live in poverty and isolation. People think all they need is something to eat and wear. But they are so much more than that," says Yang Yuansong, initiator and compiler of the book. With 220 diary entries, 12 letters to parents and 21 pictures by 26 children with an average age of 9, the book tells of their joy and sorrow, strengths and fragility. ~

“There are 74 students in the primary school Yang works at, and 44, or 60 percent, are "left-behind children". Many of these students, cut off from their parents and the outside world, have difficulties communicating with others and lack confidence. In 2010, a severe drought hit Guizhou. Yang did not take much notice at first as the school had a water cellar. But Yang Haijiao, a sixth-grade student, began to ask for leave every Tuesday and Thursday. She later explained to Yang that she had to fetch water from a place far from home on those days. Her parents were migrant workers in Guangdong province, and she lived with her younger brother and sister and a sick grandmother, making her the only person in the family able to carry water. ~

“Yang Haijiao wrote in her diaries about how hard it was for her to carry the 25-kilogram water bucket, how she was injured on the way back but held back her tears because she didn't want her grandmother to worry and how she struggled to hold the family together while her parents were away. A Miao ethnic child, she did not learn to write in Mandarin until the fourth grade.” ~

Four 'Left Behind' Children Kill Themselves in Remote Southwest China

In 2015, four "left behind" children — one boy and three girls aged from five to 13 who were left alone at home in Bijie in Guizhou province — died after drinking pesticide in what appeared to be a suicide. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has ordered an investigation into the case after he heard what happened, saying he was "extremely concerned". “In 2012, five homeless children in the same city died of carbon monoxide poisoning after lighting a fire while seeking shelter in a rubbish bin.[Source: Ben Blanchard, Reuters, June 12, 2015]

Ben Blanchard of Reuters wrote:“State television said that the eldest boy, Zhang Qigang, left a letter saying "this has been planned for a long time, and today it is the time to go". The Bijie government said that it had begun an investigation and that several officials had already been punished. Yang Qian, the Communist Party secretary of Tiankan Township in Bijie City, and Chen Mingfu, the township head, had both been sacked and criminal charges may be brought, it added. State media said that the father of the four children worked outside of the province, while the mother was also not around. They had to live on 700 yuan ($112) a month their father sent them, had dropped out of school and lived off corn their father had planted last year.

AFP reported: “The mother of four children spoke of her regret as she returned home, state media reported. “Ren Xifen had a "grim, tear-filled reunion" with the siblings — a 13-year-old boy and his younger sisters. "I did not shoulder my responsibility for them," 32-year-old Ren said, as she returned to see their bodies at the family home in Bijie. “"I had to come back for a final look at them," she added.

“The children were found by a villager while struggling with convulsions after taking the poison. They died soon after and police believe it was suicide, in a case highlighting the plight of rural children left behind by their parents who travel to the cities in search of work. Ren told Xinhua she had not contacted her children since leaving home in March last year to work at a toy factory in the southern province of Guangdong.

“She left after a "long and bitter dispute" with her husband Zhang Fangqi, the report said, adding that the father left the village in March, leaving his children behind. Ren said she had not returned to see the children as she feared beatings from her husband. She also described her only son as "very lovable" and said he was diligent. "I am illiterate and cannot even write my own name. I wanted them to perform well in school, unlike me, living a hard life," she said. "In the case of Ren's family, no grandparents were still alive to watch the children," Xinhua said.

Bringing a Chinese Left-Behind Child to the City

William Wan wrote in the Washington Post, “Several weeks ago, as winter approached, the couple asked Beibei’s grandmother to take her to the city for a visit. As the little girl walked up the apartment stairs, holding her father’s hand, she frowned and asked, “Whose home is this?” “This is Beibei’s home,” her parents told her, but she shook her head. That night, when Wang tried to lie down with her, Beibei objected. Running to her grandmother, she cried out: “I don’t want Mom.” [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, December 20, 2013 ^|^]

“Recalling those words the next day, Wang wiped away tears as she stood outside their barbershop. “I want so much to teach her the real meaning of a mother,” she said. “A mother is the one who gives birth to you. She is the one who teaches you to walk and talk and sing. A mother watches as you grow up. She is the person closest to you.” ^|^ “Wang and Wu have since started planning to bring their daughter to the city permanently. They haven’t figured out how to overcome the financial hurdles, but they have set a deadline: the beginning of February, after the Chinese New Year. “We missed so many things already, like her first step and first words,” Wang said. “But she’s still young. It’s not too late for her to learn what it really means to have a mother.” ^|^

Under China's hukou, or residence registration system, migrant workers are not entitled to the same social benefits as city dwellers, including the right to enroll their children in free public schools. In Beijing, many migrant children attend unregulated "migrant schools," where tuition is high despite often underqualified teachers and overcrowded classrooms. "We'll take her wherever she can get a basic education," one migrant told the Los Angeles Times. "I don't want my daughter to work in a kitchen her whole life." [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times, November 6, 2011]

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “Though the quality of education they offer may be questionable, private schools are often the only option for the children of low-skilled migrant laborers, who for the most part are ineligible for the free public education available to legal Beijing residents.The challenges become even more heart-rending after middle school, when the children of migrants must either return to their parents’ hometown for high school “and thus live separated from their parents “or drop out. “It’s a cruel, unfair system that stops people from pursuing their dreams,” said Song Yingquan, a researcher at the Rural Education Action Project, an advocacy group. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times August 29, 2011]

Chinese Children Left Behind by Parents Working Overseas

Reporting from Guanqi village in Fujian province, He Na and Hu Meidong wrote in the China Daily, “Olsen Huang was born in New York in July, 2011. His parents are both busy working and don't have time to look after him, so his grandparents took him in when he was sent to the village aged just 100 days. There are many small foreigners living there, according to the village head Li Xiaoming - and he should know, his 1-year-old nephew, Li Youwen, is one of them. "He's my brother's son. My brother went to the United States five years ago. The boy was born in New York, but my brother works at a restaurant in a southern state," said Li Xiaoming. "The boy was sent to Guantou when he was eight months old. For the past four months, he has cried heavily at night and we know he's looking for his mom." [Source: He Na and Hu Meidong, China Daily, December 26, 2012 /*]

“Currently, more than 2,000 overseas-born children, known in China as "left-behind" kids, live with grandparents or relatives in Guantou. "Almost every family here has some one working overseas. Although their footsteps cover more than 30 countries, most have gone to the US, Canada and Japan," said Lin Xiuzhu, president of Guantou Overseas Chinese Kindergarten, the largest in the town, where more than 90 percent of the students are foreign nationals. Other regions in Fujian, such as Mawei district in Fuzhou, Fuqing city, Changle city and Luoyuan county are also playing host to kids born to Chinese parents overseas. Around 20,000 children with US nationality live in Fuzhou, said Zheng Qi, president of the Fukien Benevolent Association of America, quoted in the Fuzhou Evening News. If you include those holding other nationalities, the number could be as high as 60,000, he said. Guangdong province and a number of other costal regions are experiencing the same thing. Enping in Guangdong has acquired the nickname "Little United Nations" because of the number of children born overseas. /*\

“Large-scale emigration means that the population of Guantou is mainly composed of elders and children. Most young people in the town hail from Sichuan province. "Because most Chinese living overseas do manual work, in restaurants and suchlike, or run their own small businesses, the heavy workload makes the task of taking care of small children impossible, irrespective of whether they have been granted foreign nationality," said Lin Xiuzhu. In addition, many countries have strict child-care regulations. If parents are perceived to be failing their kids and are reported, they run the risk of having their children taken into care. Some parents could even be imprisoned. Many young couples see no alternative but to send their kids back to their parents when they are only a few months old. The kids are often taken abroad again aged 4 or 5 to attend elementary school. "Although we have plenty of students, we see kids leave and go abroad every month. Kids generally leave China aged 5, because their US passports are only valid for five years. However, when they arrive here they are at a good age to learn a new language; the earlier they come here, the easier it is for them to integrate," according to Lin Xiuzhu. /*\

Relation Between Chinese Parents Working Overseas and Their Left-Behind Kids

Reporting from Guanqi village in Fujian province, He Na and Hu Meidong wrote in the China Daily, “Lin Dandan, Olsen's mother, saw him off at the airport last year. However, the boy was too young to remember that his mom was the one crying like a baby. Since then, at 11 am every day, Liu Huizhen, Olsen's grandmother, ensures he is sitting in front of the computer, ready for a video chat with his mother when she gets home after her day's work. "We have a video chat almost every day. Seeing Olsen's cute face and the little changes as he grows is the best time in my day," said Lin Dandan. Although Olsen's grandmother has told him repeatedly that the two people in the computer are his mom and dad, the length of their separation means the little boy has little interest in the people waving to him on the screen and trying to attract his attention. However, practice makes perfect, and with lots of practice the penny seems to have finally dropped. Even though Olsen still doesn't fully understand, he always points at the computer when people ask him where his parents are. [Source: He Na and Hu Meidong, China Daily, December 26, 2012 /*]

“Huang Hui, Olsen's father, went to the US in 2002 and now works as a chef in New York. He was granted US nationality last year, but Lin Dandan, who joined her husband in 2008 and works as a waitress, is still waiting. She works more than 10 hours a day and earns $2,500 a month. She's pregnant again, so to save money the couple lead a thrifty life, but they still provide for Olsen. In addition to sending him baby formula and diapers, they often mail clothing and toys. "We can't be with him, so we just want to give him gifts to compensate for that," Lin Dandan said. "My daughter hasn't been home for five years. She often cries when we are having a video chat and says it's because she misses us and Olsen. But I know she has a hard life overseas," said her mother. /*\

“Olsen's case is far from unique, according to Lin Rufeng, a teacher at Guantou Overseas Chinese kindergarten. Even kindergarten kids aged 4 or 5 will say "computer" when people ask about their parents. "They have a wealthy life compared with the local kids. Some of their clothes and toys are better than those of kids living in cities, but they are short of their parents' love," she said. The children often display a special interest in younger, rather than older, people, and have a marked attachment to teachers, compared with kids that live with their parents. They are very easily satisfied; a simple hug makes them so happy, according to the teacher. "So, in addition to teaching, irrespective of whether we are single or married, we try to behave like mothers and show these kids greater care and more attention," she said.” /*\

Image Sources:

Text Sources: 1) Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China , edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, ~; 3) Ethnic China *\; 4) \=/; 5), the Chinese government news site | New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

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