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Understanding and Teaching Migration in China

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Migration in China

In 2012, the Chinese Ministry of Railways created a new online ticketing system. Promising an end to long lines and frustrated customers, the program was intended to streamline operations and demonstrate China’s growing sophistication in the transportation industry. However, it was not prepared to handle the immense amount of traffic during New Year. On one day alone, the server took 1.4 billion hits. As a result, potential customers overwhelmed the online system, causing it to crash and become unusable, and many passengers were forced to use low-tech methods, such as paying a scalper or queuing up for hours at station ticketing windows.1

Each holiday season, Chinese make an estimated 3.2 billion passenger trips. Roughly ten times the demographic size of the United States, this annual traffic jam is one of the more visible reminders of China’s great urbanization revolution. Over the past thirty years, an estimated 160 million Chinese have left their rural homes and are now working in cities, primarily along the east coast. Each New Year, they clog the roads and rails as they make their way back home. Today, China has forty-five metropolitan areas of at least two million people and fourteen of at least five million. By comparison, the United States—which is nearly the same geographic size—has only about half as many such cities and a total population less than one-fourth the size of China’s.2 What is even more remarkable than the size of these urban areas is the speed with which they have come into existence. For instance, the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen had a population of roughly 30,000 in 1979. Today, it is home to approximately twelve million, a 40,000 percent increase in just over three decades. Though the spectacular growth of Shenzhen is not the norm in China, the country still has experienced remarkable urbanization in recent years.

Guangzhou Train Station at New Year’s. A sea of people crowd the train station platform.
e Guangzhou Train Station at New Year’s. Source: Mark’s China Blog at

Demographers are now describing China’s urbanization as the largest migration in the history of humankind. Yet it is insufficient for us as educators to simply shock and awe our students with numbers that are beyond their comprehension. The story of China’s great migration and urbanization becomes meaningful and instructive by emphasizing individuals and families. Only by sharing their histories and stories can this tale of demographic transformation make an impression on our students and aid in their understanding of China’s past, present, and future.

History of Migration and the Hukou

There is a long history of migration in China. At times, individuals moved for economic opportunity, landing in Hawai‘i’s sugarcane plantations, California’s railroad fields, or Malaysia’s tin mines. At other times, they left their homes in response to natural and man-made disasters. For example, during World War II, millions of Chinese fled from Japanese troops to the relative safety of Chongqing and other locales in China’s western provinces. Perhaps because of this migratory tradition, when the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, Mao Zedong and his associates quickly established a method for managing population flows. Known simply as the hukou system, it required each individual to carry papers indicating where he or she could live, work, attend school, or visit the hospital. Moving away from your registered village or city would be illegal. Furthermore, you would surrender access to land and all government-subsidized services by moving.

Until 1979, this system functioned as the government intended, though there was always tremendous disparity in resources between the rural and urban areas. With Deng Xiaoping’s liberalization of the economy, however, the government realized it had to relax the limitations on migration and allow for a more flexible and efficient labor pool to develop. Between 1980 and 1984, Beijing opened up “Special Economic Zones” (SEZs) in Shenzhen, Shantou, Zhuhai, and Xiamen. These quickly became magnets for foreign investment, as companies created factories producing goods for export. These factories, in turn, relied on cheap labor from the surrounding countryside. Although moving to the city was technically illegal, thousands and then millions of poor farmers did so, with the government’s tacit approval. Some rural families decided to hedge their bets, with fathers remaining at home to cultivate the fields while sending their young, unmarried daughters to work in urban factories. Predictably, the receiving municipalities quickly became teeming megacities, filled with individuals from the surrounding countryside and other parts of China.

With the success of these early SEZs, the government pushed forward greater economic liberalization, enabling most of China’s coastal cities to engage in manufacturing and international trade. Tianjin, Shanghai, Ningbo, Fuzhou, and other cities became major export centers shipping cheaply made products around the world. Eventually, interior cities also became immigrant destinations, with Lanzhou, Xi’an, Chengdu, Kunming, and other communities changing dramatically. By the 1990s, nearly every Chinese city hosted a sizable population of illegal workers from the countryside. Known as the “floating population,” these workers transformed their own lives, as well as the lives of the original urban dwellers. To keep up with these changes, city governments constructed new buildings, roads, and subway systems, which in turn required even more laborers from the countryside. While migrant men performed most construction jobs, their female counterparts worked in factories, retail outlets, or as nannies for upwardly mobile urban residents. Today, the China Daily estimates nine million of Shanghai’s twenty-three million residents are members of the illegal floating population.

Results of China’s Urban Migration

This massive rural-to-urban migration has fueled much of China’s economic growth of the past three decades. Based primarily on manufacturing and construction, China’s economy has grown at approximately 9.8 percent per year since 1979. This means that China’s gross domestic product (GDP) has been doubling every seven years, four months. Today, China has the second-largest economy in the world, though its per capita GDP is still only one-ninth the size of the United States’s. Such growth has lifted millions of Chinese out of poverty and has materially improved the quality of life for the vast majority of the population.

Not all results are easily quantifiable. For example, urban migration has radically restructured family relations and social norms. For most of the recent past, the typical Chinese migrant has been young and single. Parents allow their sons and daughters to travel to the city and earn a few extra dollars, with the hope that they will eventually return to the native village to get married and raise a grandchild. Upon arriving in the city, however, many of these young people feel liberated from the constraints of family expectations. Though their work hours are long and grueling, they do have limited opportunities for shopping, attending movies, and socializing with members of the same or opposite sex. Gradually, they are transforming sexual ethics, as more and more couples cohabitate beyond the watchful eyes of their parents at home. Furthermore, they are becoming financially independent from their extended family, which has implications for traditional generation roles and notions of filial piety.

Migration is transforming gender expectations in twenty-first-century China.While it is impossible to track population flows completely, it appears as though a large percentage of the floating population is female. Manufacturers in particular have expressed a preference for female workers, believing them to be more docile and less likely to agitate for higher wages. Parents have also appeared more willing to allow daughters to leave the countryside. Upon arriving in the city, these women find themselves associating with similar migrants from all across China, representing various regional dialect groups. They are forced to speak Mandarin, the lingua franca of the nation, and only have a few leisure hours to shop and explore their urban environment. Sons, by contrast, have a greater expectation for producing progeny and remaining on the family farmland. When men do migrate to the city, they often work on construction sites as part of all-male labor crews. They also tend to associate primarily with other men from their home village and spend less time interacting with the legal resident population. Consequently, male migrants fail to assimilate to the urban environment relative to their female counterparts. Not surprisingly, relations between male and female migrants are quite different from traditional norms. Having enjoyed a degree of economic and social independence, women are less likely to submit to patriarchal authority. Leslie Chang, author of the best-selling Factory Girls, has demonstrated the effect of migration on gender.3 The protagonists of her book are, for the most part, confident in their abilities and eager to expand their social and economic opportunities. Demanding in their selection of boyfriends, they move as frequently from relationship to relationship as they move from job to job.

This great demographic shift has also created a more inclusive “imagined community” than ever before. In the early twentieth century, Sun Yat-sen complained that the Chinese were like grains of sand, shifting in every directionwithout any sense of national unity.4 Instead, they organized themselves according to dialects, clans, and occupations. Today, by contrast, many of these traditional groupings are fading away. Instead, an individual is much more likely to interact with men and women from all parts of China. In Shenzhen, for instance, local dialects are almost unheard, as everyone communicates in Mandarin. As a result, there is a newly emerging sense of Chinese nationalism.

Ongoing Challenges

Of course, migration has resulted in numerous intractable societal challenges. Whereas the former rural-urban divide is less pronounced than before, there still exists a two-tiered society within China’s cities. Legal residents with the proper urban hukou have access to the best schools and hospitals, while the illegal migrants are segregated into low-cost housing units with very few social services. Employers are able to financially, and at times violently, exploit migrants, who have limited options for legal recourse. At the same time, residents with an urban hukou often blame the floating population for rising crime levels, pollution, and a breakdown of urban civility. Even the most energetic and talented migrants must deal with social prejudice, preventing them from advancing to their fullest potential.

The explosive growth of cities has led to the radical restructuring of the urban environment. For example, thirty years ago, Beijing was home to thousands of hutong neighborhoods. These neighborhoods consist of narrow pathways winding through dense complexes of courtyard homes. You can only find this unique housing style in Beijing. Today, developers have torn down the majority of these neighborhoods and replaced them with high-rise apartments and business complexes. While the new structures may be more convenient and agreeable to our modern sensibilities than the previous hutongs, a growing chorus of critics is now reminding us that we have irretrievably lost an important part of China’s physical and cultural heritage, and they are rallying to preserve the few hutong sections that remain.

Finally, migration has led to a sense of social displacement and alienation. Some have suggested that China’s social fabric has been torn beyond repair. For example, migrants are remaining in the cities for longer and longer periods. Many have no plans ever to return to their native village. While sojourning in the cities, they have married other migrants and birthed children. However, their living conditions are frequently not conducive to family life, and they often send their children back to their home village to be raised by grandparents. Huang Dongyan, one such migrant, recounted her experience visiting her own son during a New Year’s holiday break. The five-year-old child refused to play games with or even acknowledge his mother. As she fought back tears, Huang confessed, “I was a stranger to my son.”5

Teaching Migration in the Classroom

China’s recent history of migration holds great potential for classroom instruction. The tale of China’s migration wave is ultimately the story of millions of individuals. Shuanghai, for instance, works as a vegetable peddler at an open-air market. She starts her day at 3:00 a.m. buying vegetables wholesale and does not go home until 8:00 p.m., repeating the process 360 days each year. All day long, she argues with rich city shoppers, who assume she is trying to cheat them. By contrast, another immigrant woman works as a nanny in the relative comfort of another person’s home, caring for a spoiled child. She reluctantly admits that she knows and loves the child under her care more than her own child back in the home village. Still another, a man who wanders from street to street sharpening housewives’ knives for pennies a day, somehow socks away three-fourths of his income to send to his family in the countryside.6 Of course, not all stories are heart-wrenching tales of victimization. Liu Yuxia, a young woman working near the city of Shenzhen, taught herself English and got a job in the international trade department of a telephone factory.7 Sharing such stories humanizes China’s migration experience for our students.8

Another effective approach is to make comparisons between the situations in China and North America. The United States’ Industrial Revolution also included great migratory waves, including immigrants from Europe and elsewhere. The Great Migration, the movement of rural blacks from the Deep South to the industrial cities of the Rust Belt and the Northeast, also contained numerous similarities to the Chinese experience. Of course, we can better-understand the recent influx of illegal immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries in light of the Chinese experience, and vice versa. Just as the Chinese Government has been complicit in undermining the hukou system, so too has the United States Government turned a blind eye to illegal immigration in the name of economic necessity.

There are many unanswered questions regarding China’s floating population that can be used to spark classroom discussion. For instance, is China’s migratory pattern sustainable into the future? How long can the government maintain the hukou system while ignoring the millions of individuals violating it? Will there come a point at which labor demands encourage a reverse migration away from the east coast cities and back into the interior regions (similar to what has already happened in America’s Rust Belt)? What conditions or stimuli might trigger such a change?

Fortunately, there are numerous resources available to assist teachers in this process. BaFa BaFa, a simulation game developed to create culture shock within the classroom, mimics the effects of migration.9 Lixin Fan’s 2009 documentary, The Last Train Home, portrays a couple journeying home for the Chinese New Year to visit their child.10 The China Labour Bulletin has prepared an online, seventy-page document titled “Paying the Price for Development: The Children of Migrant Workers in China,” which includes numerous data sets with accompanying analysis.11 Eating Bitterness: Stories from the Frontlines of China’s Great Urban Migration by Michelle Dammon Loyalka looks at eight rural migrants and the challenges they face in the western city of Xi’an.12 Chang, author of Factory Girls, highlights the gendered component of migration by following the lives of a handful of adventurous and entrepreneurial young women.13 In short, there are many tools to employ in the classroom as you teach this fascinating chapter in human history.

Demographers describe China’s urbanization as the largest migration in the history of humankind. As teachers, it is our responsibility to put a human face on this process, highlighting the issues of economic advancement, displacement, and social transformation that are common across the human experience.


  1. Peter Ford, “China’s New Year: There Be dragons, But Not Enough Train Tickets,” Christian Science Monitor, last modified January 20, 2012,
  2. Wikipedia, s.v. “List of Urban Areas By Population” and “List of Countries By Population,” accessed June 14, 2014,;
  3. Leslie Chang, Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing Society (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2008), 264-266.
  4. Elizabeth Dale, “Scattered Sand: The History of Liberty in Sun Yat-sen’s Constitutional Theory.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Law and Society Association, Chicago, IL, May 27, 2010. Available at
  5. Deborah Jian Lee and Sushma Subramanian, “China’s Left Behind Children,” Foreign Policy, last modified May 1, 2012,
  6. Each of these stories can be found in Michelle Dammon Loyalka, Eating Bitterness: Stories from the Frontlines of China’s Great Urban Migration (California: University of California Press, 2012).
  7. Chang, Factory Girls.
  8. For a wonderful visual resource, see Lucas Schifres’s Faces of Made in China, a photographic account of individual Chinese migrants, at
  9. R. Garry Shirts, “BaFa BaFa: A Cross Cultural/Diversity/Inclusion Simulation,” Simulation Training Systems, last accessed July 14, 2014, 10. Last Train Home, directed by Lixin Fan (New York City, NY: Zeitgeist Films, 2010), DVD.
  10. Aris Chan, Paying the Price for Economic Development: The Children of Migrant Workers in China (Hong Kong: China Labour Bulletin, 2009).
  11. Loyalka, Eating Bitterness.
  12. Chang, Factory Girls.