The Left Behind: The Skipped-Generations of China’s Rural Poor
Industrialization and urbanization are changing rural Chinese families, causing parents to leave their children behind in the countryside to pursue work in the city. Photographer Clary Estes visited one such rural family over the course of a year to document the phenomenon of parentless children and childless parents.
Editor’s Note: While living in Japan for two years, American Clary Estes made repeated, month-long visits to the Huang family of YingPanXu in Jiangxi Province in the mountains of southeast China. Her resulting photo essay and article, based on her observations of and conversations with the Huangs, explore the impact of economic and social change through the experiences of one rural family. Estes has exhibited her work in five countries, holds a master’s degree in media photojournalism from the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, and from 2013-2015 held a fellowship to study documentary photography and video arts in East Asia. Her blog has additional photos from other documentary projects.
In the green and stone-grey speckled Luo Xiao Mountains in the Jiangxi Province of Southeastern China, you can always hear water flowing. It bubbles out of the sandy earth, flows down the mountain side, through bamboo stalks and rice paddies, alongside concrete and clay houses and shacks, and eventually into the dusty, uneven streets of the small, poor village of YingPanXu, making tiny rivers across the earth-red concrete tiles of the local elementary school where local children play. YingPanXu is a breathtaking mountain village and is the highest point in the Jiangxi Province.
An especially shy boy named Huang Juntao plays basketball with other local children just a few yards away. His younger cousin, an equally shy girl named Huang Junyan, looks on from the old wooden benches next to the school’s dormitory and waits for him to finish so that they can take the 25 minute walk up the mountain together to their home. Nestled into the hillside sits the crumbling façade of Huang family home. The house quietly deteriorates from use and age, and the slate roof occasionally slips down and falls to the ground. In the front yard, clothes hang from bamboo and wire rods and there is a small ditch running directly in front of the home filled with milky white and yellow water. Chickens cluck and scratch at the shiny, used candy and bread buns wrappers in the dirt. Despite the home’s humble exterior, it easily has the best view in town as it looks over the entire village and past the far off mountain ranges.
Huang Juntao and Huang Junyan are the oldest of their four other siblings and cousins, and are cared for by the two matriarchs of the house, Li XiaoWei and her elderly, but very strong mother-in-law and grandmother of the children, Zhu Huaxiang. The Huang family, like many rural Chinese families, is caught in the wake of China’s rapid industrialization, which traps them between their regional and traditional Chinese familial values and the ever-increasing need to make money to support the family. They are part of what people are calling the “Left Behind Generation.”
This left-behind phenomenon came from the outmigration of young people from their rural Chinese home villages to the city as a result of China’s increased industrialization and the subsequent greater financial opportunities in the city. Outmigration has left more elderly Chinese responsible for the care their grandchildren. Rural villages increasingly are populated with the very old and the very young, with few people 18-50 residing in the community. The change is happening so rapidly that traditional perceptions of the Chinese familial structure, as well as technology in the rural villages, are having a hard time keeping up. The result is a warped symbiosis of childcare, where the parents of children contribute to the family financially, and the grandparents of the children provide daily care and sustenance. The problem in this system becomes clear when you consider both a child’s emotional need to be with their parents, as well as the lifestyles of the rural poor. Still an agriculturally based society, it requires a considerable amount of agrarian labor. The changes have left generations of children who are growing up faster and having to effectively raise themselves and look to each other for consistent emotional care and support.
In the province of Jiangxi, where a there is a large Hakka ethnic group, Li XiaoWei and Zhu Huanxiang are the epitome of Hakka Chinese women: good housekeepers, excellent cooks, diligent farm workers and obedient wives. Hakka Chinese, which belong to the Han Chinese ethnic majority, are located largely in the southeastern region of China and still follow a traditional code of living and speak a distinct dialect of Chinese native to their village. Everyday, Li XiaoWei and Zhu Huangxiang prepare meals for their house of eight, climb the mountains one to two times a day to cut firewood to cook with and heat the family home, garden in the family plot, and take care of household chores. The grandmother, Zhu Huangxiang is a powerful presence in the home who, throughout her daughter-in-law’s third pregnancy, took on the brunt of the labor. Her nails are permanently cracked down the middle, and her hands are hard and calloused, but her body is strong. When she is home, her grandchildren, especially the youngest, cling to her and she commonly has one or two children on her hip. It is an added chore that she seems to take on with pleasure, despite a fatiguing full day of agrarian labor. The burden on Zhu Huangxiang has been much heavier lately since Li XiaoWei has been pregnant, but she bears her burden without complaint. When the men of the family are home, there is little to no requirement for them to contribute to the well being of the house. Rather, they serve as an authority figure to be cared for and listened to, making their visits that much harder on both women.
This level of authority became clear when I talked to Zhu Huangxiang about her life in YingPanXu, while her third son, Huang Shouqing, was living in the home. Covered in her squirming grandchildren she began to describe the hardships of her early life and her day-to-day activities now. “Just tell her life is good and that we’re all happy,” Huang Shouqing interjected. It was not long after that she quickly quieted down and left to care for her children. Zhu Huangxiang, despite running the house and caring for her six grandchildren, is still under the control of her four sons, and formerly her husband, Huang Jingming, when they are home. She is also at the financial mercy of what money the men can bring in to raise the children.
As of 2010, 13.26% of the population was above 60 years of age and another 8.87% of the population was above 65 years of age. That number is only expected to rise in the coming years as China’s population rapidly ages. With many of these elders living in poor rural villages, China is going headlong into what could become a childcare and economic crisis for families. This situation also creates a tenuous situation for many families who have no safety net for childcare if one of both child-rearing grandparents dies suddenly. In addition, the country’s still developing healthcare system, which is less established in rural areas and prioritizes direct payment over citizen care (i.e. if you don’t pay, you don’t get care), only exacerbates this issue. At times the system creates unforeseen financial burden on rural families who come upon unexpected medical emergencies. The country’s population continues to grow, and more legislation attempts to address the problem. One amendment requires that children visit their parents in the village or risk repercussions. Other laws attempt to address China’s increasing need to improve elder care in the country.
But the Huang family is relatively unique, in that Li XiaoWei is one of the very few young- to middle-aged adults still living in the rural village, a situation which arose more out of necessity than her own personal preference. “I would rather work in the city,” Li XiaoWei says. “The work is easier and the pay is better, but Zhu Huangxiang cannot take care of all these children by herself so I am forced to stay.” For a long time the Huangs negotiated a delicate financial balance. But when the family patriarch, Huang Jingming, died suddenly, the family was saddled with the extra expense of having to perform a traditional burial. This included feeding upwards of 80 mourners from the village, paying the ceremonialists for funeral rites, buying a coffin, and paying for all of the family members to come home. If this weren’t enough, Li XiaoWei had serious complications with her pregnancy just two months later that landed her in the hospital for a week and required extensive treatment to save her daughter, who was born one month prematurely. Despite loans from local neighbors and fundraisers held for them by regional volunteer groups, the Huang’s delicate economic state was broken and the family is still working to crawl out of debt.
This extra stress on the family requires Zhu Huangxiang and Li Xiao Wei to work harder to conserve money in the home, and it puts added pressure on Huang Jungtao and Huang Junyan to care for their siblings and cousin. Huang Juntao and Huang Junyan, like many left-behind children are growing up fast. In the still-patriarchal society of rural China, however, Huang Juntao has an edge. When, Huang Jingming was still alive, he clearly favored Huang Juntao, as he was the oldest male grandchild. As a result, he is nurtured more in the direction of education and is not required to take on many responsibilities outside of childcare in the family. Huang Junyan, on the other hand, has a very different story. She seems to age faster than any of her other siblings and frequently cries quietly in the corner for no apparent reason. The family at one point joked openly about selling her to me so that they would have one less mouth to feed and she could go abroad. Huang Junyan was visibly hurt. “She is not very smart,” her parents regularly say, “She still can’t write very well and her grades are not that good.” As a result, Huang Junyan has had a great deal of pressure put on her to care for her rowdy younger siblings while Li XiaoWei and Zhu Huangxiang are working during the day. This has created a palpable disorder in the house.
The more I work with the Huang family, the more it becomes clear that the left-behind phenomenon is holistic familial problem. It is not only creating a generation of parentless children in the village, it is creating a generation of childless parents in the city and grandparents who are doubled over with the burden of childcare in addition to basic rural survival very late in life. This issue is systemic in all of Chinese society, not just within the traditional familial systems found in the rural countryside. The problems are not simply economic, they are also related to the growing mental health issues in the country.
Left-behind elders are also the sign of a widening cultural mindset between the older and younger, more westernized, generations of China. Older generations prioritize marriage early on, but younger generations are more interested in pursuing career goals first. “I speak to my mother less and less now because every time we talk she badgers me about getting married and having children,” says Tang Zhur, a young professional in Beijing. This is in stark contrast to many of the low-income factory workers who are bound to the cities by financial and work restrictions. But the mindset of “leave the backward countryside” and find new life in the cities is becoming clearer.
The trend does not look as if it will stop anytime soon. “I was a left-behind child when I was young,” says, Zhou Na, a young professional in Ji’an China, “And now, as I work outside my hometown, I ignore my family most of the time… When I don’t have them in my heart and let them feel and know [that] they are in my heart, then I have left them behind.” This trend is supported by the Hukou — a family registration system that has made it very difficult and expensive to for parents to move children to the city to live with them.
After the family views Huang Jingming’s body for the last time, they don white cloth and caps to symbolize that they are in mourning.
Zhu Huangxiang is probably going to die in the rural countryside. Her death will spur questions about the future of the left-behind children in China: With this increasing outmigration to the cities, who will be left in the village? What will the rural villages look like in the next 20, 30 or 50 years, and what will happen to the rural traditions of China? With China’s growing importance in global development, how might their changes affect the rest of the world?