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Family dynamics after migration in post-Mao rural China

During the Chinese New Year, I visited a village in Hubei with Silk, a young migrant worker from the countryside with whom I had become friends in the faraway city of Shenzhen.[1] I soon learned that the only person still living at her family home in Hubei, waiting for everyone to come back for the holidays, was her grandmother. Silk’s parents, who like Silk herself had been working outside of the village, arrived home a week earlier than us. Her siblings (a younger sister and brother) planned to arrive a week later, also from Shenzhen.

As I came to learn, the grandmother was usually quiet and seldom said anything. She never participated in games of mah-jong with Silk, Silk’s mother and their neighbours. Even though the neighbours invited her to play, she just stood by the table and watched. Once the neighbours had gone home she would sometimes play mah-jong with her grandchild, Silk’s cousin (who is around 10 years old), and with his friends, children from neighbouring families.

She worked almost all the time. She swept the floor, cooked, washed clothes and dusted the house. Sometimes she also did heavy labour: splitting firewood and shovelling snow. She was the oldest person in the family but I did not see her exercising authority. She was polite and somewhat reserved. She was the one in charge of making the famous Hubei ‘salted fishes’. But she just got on with these activities on her own without ever asking Silk or her siblings to help, although Silk did sometimes help her. She never judged anything that happened in the family, so far as I could tell. When Silk’s mother made comments (sometimes negative) about Silk’s friends, Silk’s grandmother just listened.

One day Silk went out to meet some friends. I did not go with her but stayed in the house, where Silk’s grandmother was the only other person present. She cooked lunch and called me over to eat. She put food from many different dishes in my bowl but she herself just ate plain rice. I could not accept so much kindness. I understood she was trying to show her best hospitality but I declined and said, ‘You are too polite. I don’t deserve it.’ Then, she suddenly began to talk to me; I had never before heard Silk’s grandmother talk so much. She said she was like me. When she married into this village, she said, she did not know anyone. Her natal family was very far away. She could not go home very often. It seemed that my arrival had reminded her of her experiences when she had first come to this village. Like her, I could not speak the local dialect. I often slipped and fell in the snow because where I come from it rarely snows. I was not used to the food so I ate very little. I did not know anyone in the village and my social network there was entirely based on my status as Silk’s friend. Silk’s grandmother observed all this and had probably experienced similar things herself when she was 20 years old. The main difference was that I would leave after three weeks but she had stayed for her whole life. She still acted with politeness and was still quiet after living here for 50 years, and having ended up with three sons (a fact that should, at least in theory, have significantly elevated her status), a daughter, several grandchildren and a new house. She reminded me of the traditional image of Chinese women.

According to this image, women growing up under Chinese patriarchy were ‘firmly rejected’ by their natal families (Wolf 1972: 217) because ultimately they would have to ‘marry out’. By definition, new brides were forced to leave their familiar environment (their natal villages) upon marriage and live with strangers – that is, in the community and with the families of their husbands. This dramatic change typically caused a woman considerable anxiety. As Wolf suggests, a woman in this position also effectively ‘begins to prepare for her old age almost from the day her first son is born’, i.e. she has to build a secure position for herself from a starting point of insecurity (Wolf 1972: 215). Later on, when her son gets married, a new anxiety may arise because she fears that her son’s new wife will effectively monopolise him and move him away from his mother:

She fears she may be returned to the loneliness that marked her early years of married life, to that desolate period when she was firmly rejected by her natal family and not yet accepted by her husband’s family (Wolf 1972: 217).

Indeed, the psychological issues imposed on women like Silk’s grandmother in this traditional system  – loneliness, insecurity, anxiety – may well have prevented them from ever forming a firm sense of belonging to the place where they lived, no matter how long they were there.

Today in Silk’s generation, however, everything seems to have changed. In many senses, young married women are not ‘outsiders’ to their husband’s families any more, and indeed they often play a central part in household affairs. They may be highly particular about their prospective husband’s personality and career, about the characteristics of their prospective parents-in-law, about the community where they will live after marriage, and about the size of their new house (Yan 2003). Even very traditional practices such as dowry and bridewealth have come to serve new purposes, it seems, reinforcing the bargaining power of young women. But it is not only at the point of marriage and afterwards that this power shift can be seen, the argument goes. Migrating out for work – as many young women now do – seemingly also makes them highly respected in their natal families and communities in a way that their grandmothers’ generation could never have imagined. Today, it is said, traditional practices that placed Chinese women in an insecure and anxious position have become matters of negotiation in the light of changing social conditions.

Silk certainly did seem to enjoy an elevated status in her natal family. But she was also clearly determined to escape from her hometown. Whereas women were traditionally rejected by their natal families, now the situation seems almost reversed, as evidenced by the rather dramatic gestures I saw Silk make towards her own family. Her behaviour also seemed to confirm what previous research has shown about China’s ‘new generation migrant workers’, both male and female: they are typically indifferent towards their hometowns, in some respects, and often want to distance themselves from it and all that it stands for. From this perspective, Silk’s stance is significant both from a gender perspective and also irrespective of gender: she seems like the prototype of the modernity-oriented new generation migrant worker.

But does the evidence suggest that gender inequality has, in fact, been eradicated or even reversed in rural China as a consequence of migration? Is there evidence of what Yunxiang Yan refers to as ‘girl power’? In this paper, I will argue that the participation of unmarried young women in waged labour away from home does indeed raise their status in their natal families, at least at first glance. However, this change may be temporary and primarily symbolic. It arguably does not challenge the core of the patriarchal structure, and it may even reinforce it. The power that rural girls hold in their natal families – temporarily – results from them stepping into the vacuum left by absent male authorities: that is, when their parents are away and thus fail to be role models in the wake of migration, and when their brothers, assuming they have them, are too young to shoulder major family responsibilities. When male figures have returned or have grown up, I will argue, the power of women will often be handed back over to men. Knowing this to be the case, the best option for young women may well be for them to embrace marriage, for reasons I discuss more fully below.

Theoretical discussion

Before coming back to the story of Silk and her family, let me set the scene with a discussion of some of the literatures that are directly relevant to my concerns. China’s recent wave of rural to urban migration has had many social consequences, not least of which is its impact on family and gender dynamics in rural households. Although a good deal of research has focused on these consequences, not as much attention has been paid to ‘the internal dynamics of family life and [to] the lived experiences of the individual’ within it (Yan 2011:205). My own research is mainly about female migrant workers from the countryside. How do household dynamics influence these women’s experiences of work migration? When sons and daughters both participate in migration for wage labour, what impact does this have on gender relationships in the family? Does order of birth have important consequences in such cases?

In what follows, I will focus on these and other questions in relation to conflicts I observed between the precepts of the market economy and the moral economy in China today. What emerged most critically in my discussions, interviews and observations in the field were issues focused around siblings. Certainly, the standard moral economy found in rural Chinese communities applies different ideas about household contributions and property rights to grown-up sons and grown-up daughters. This customary moral standard has been challenged by the invasion of the market economy, by the privatisation of household property, and by the growth of the associated mentality of individual property rights. This causes implicit, and often explicit, tensions between siblings, especially between elder sisters and their younger brothers. As my ethnography will show, this has significant consequences for relationships between female migrant workers and their families and hometowns.

Female migration and returned migrants

Since women have generally been assumed to be more submissive than men, and are mostly less expensive to hire than men, they have often found employment in factories around the world (e.g. see Wolf 1992, Pun 1999, Freeman 2000, Pun 2005). Large numbers of women have also migrated away from their home countries as care workers, maid or nurses (e.g. see Beneria 2008), on the assumption that women are ‘natural carers’ (Gardner 2002). Such women, leaving their families, may pave the way for other family members to migrate abroad. All of this contributes to what has been termed the ‘feminisation of migration’.

It also raises some inevitable questions. What happens if women take over traditional male roles as breadwinners? When women become breadwinners within households it contradicts traditional expectations, in many contexts, and both husband and wife may have to adjust to a new reality. Intriguingly, as ethnographic research shows, when conflict comes as a result of women holding economic power, the ones to be blamed are often the women themselves: i.e. no matter how much money they bring back home, they may be blamed for not fulfilling their obligations as wives, not attending to their children’s needs, etc. (Hondagneu-Sotelo and Avila 2000, Jacka 2006). It is often women, rather than men, who are asked to resolve the inconsistencies between norms and realities (Gardner 2002, Lukose 2005).

In the case of China, female migrant workers may find their status as women under question, even under threat. In one account, when women returned to their hometowns after a few years working in town, their husbands beat them in order to reconfirm their masculinity and to firm up their status as the head of the family (Jacka 2006). Ambitious female migrant workers may be laughed at and called ‘man-like woman’ or ‘lesbian’, and find themselves stigmatized by gossip (Pun 2005). These cases find an echo in Wu’s argument that traditional discourses – e.g. the idea that ‘a woman should focus on her family’ – are actually re-emerging as China’s ‘state feminism’ has been withdrawn in the economic reform era (Wu 2009). These discourses are newly imposed in various ways on female migrant workers, arguably as a way of propping up the collapsing myth of male dominance (cf. Moore 1988). We should bear in mind that migration, while making women ‘independent economic actors’, may simultaneously construct them as ‘dependent family members’ (Curran, Shafer et al. 2006).

In Rachel Murphy’s research (2002), she describes how ‘the dominance of patriarchal values in the “home community”’ may result in only a small proportion of women returnees becoming entrepreneurs. Since marriage patterns under Chinese patriarchal values are virilocal and exogamous, they eventually will become part of somebody else’s home (Murphy 2002: 169). Their home community, in other words, is no longer their home community. Women’s work as migrants also prepares them for this leaving, i.e. it enables them to earn money to augment their dowries (Murphy 2002: 113), or to support their parents and male siblings before they ‘marry out’ (Murphy 2002: 169). As Murphy also emphasizes, migrants’ sense of belonging is largely achieved through eventually building a house and marrying, which ‘counterbalances their precarious existence in the cities’ (Murphy 2002: 103).

In short, female migration may cause a significant crack or dislocation in the gender logic and kinship structure that has been practiced in China for centuries. The crack challenges the reasoning of ordinary people, forcing them to adjust to new situations and even calling for new solutions. Family dynamics may be stirred up. New economic practices may change each family member’s bargaining power and also reformulate the collective decision-making process. It complicates the motives and reasoning of social actor’s decisions by adding new layers of thinking, possible strategies and new calculations. However, most research to date on such topics has been done in relation to women’s marital families. We know relatively little about how migration by unmarried women changes their natal family dynamics. This paper attempts to fill the gap by exploring these women in relation to the local moral economy and property rights.

The moral economy, privatisation and property rights

Moral economy, in James Scott’s definition, is a popular or folk view of what is just (Scott 1977) – something that peasants develop on their own. This is not always in conflict with official ideologies, he suggests, but it may be so. For example, popular religions ‘contain almost always the seeds of an alternative symbolic universe’ (Scott 1977: 33). This moral economy may persist in spite of socio-economic changes. In the case of China, for example, Thaxton (1983) argues that the Chinese Communist party succeeded only by accepting the moral economy of peasants.

In the traditional Chinese moral economy, it might be said that economic practices are not primarily about profit, but rather about relationship maintenance. Susanne Brandtstädter (2003) argues along these lines based on her research in Meidao, a fishing village in southern Fujian. Therefore, such practices can often seem ‘irrational’ and will only be understood by taking emotions and a wide range of social and cultural factors into account. This is true of property relations as well. And here, the patriarchal system – built on virilocal residence – clearly puts women at a disadvantage. Thanks to marriage, such women are viewed as ‘water spilled on the ground’ by their natal families, and they are eventually going to be dependent on their husbands and their sons.[2]

Traditionally, the man is the head of the family, and descent principles require that family property is transmitted to sons. Daughters leave their natal families with a certain amount of dowry, the ‘property’ that her natal family gives to her and her husband’s family. In this system, of course, property is held by the family as a whole. Everyone’s labour contribution is for the collective and the benefits are redistributed to the sons via the head of the family – but women were always placed at the margins of this resource distribution. It is worth noting that although women were not the direct owners of family property in China, they might sometimes be the managers of it, controlling money and other assets for the extended family or for their own nuclear families. But we should not confuse women as managers with women as owners.

In short, daughters in traditional Chinese society had practically no property rights. Although the dowry she brought to marriage could be seen as a part of the household property that ‘belongs’ to a woman, this is entirely different from inheritance rights. In China, as McCreery argues, ‘rights to inherit have been legally defined, while rights to dowry have not … the size of the dowry was up to the men who controlled the family’s property’ (McCreery 1976: 173). As a result, in a society where women do not inherit, their status is significantly lower than that of men (Yalman 1967: 172–79, cited in McCreery 1976: 163).

Obviously, the revolution changed everything, and in the socialist era the benefits of labour accrued to larger collectives, such as the communes. However, the traditions did not totally fade away. They have often been interwoven with imposed Communist values and hidden in the background of a new synthesis (Diamant 2000; Walder 1986). Then, after the post-Mao economic “opening up”, the market-based privatisation of property eventually came to most rural communities. As the literature shows, however, privatisation in post-socialist societies is a very complicated and multi-layered process. In many cases, this process can actually reveal the resilience of deeply rooted traditions. In this sense, the property concepts we find after post-socialist privatisation do not just simply arrive with the market economy, to be imposed on society. Rather, new ideas about property mix with, rather than replacing, pre-existing notions. ‘Mixed’ property concepts are then applied by different social actors in different contexts. Sometimes, even for the same social actor, property concepts can change a great deal according to the situation.

This is certainly true in relation to the migrant workers’ cases that I became familiar with during fieldwork. Property rights mean different things at different stages of migration. At the beginning, decisions about migration for wage labour, especially for prospective female migrant workers, are typically taken by and for the family as a whole. Without much consideration for the individual’s interest, the main goal is to improve the family’s financial situation: in traditional terms, to add to the estate. At this stage, property rights (specifically, the right to income earned from waged labour) belong to the family. As time goes by, however, the family situation typically improves and of course young migrant workers start to grow up; then their wages may belong more to the individual than to the family. We could say that at the beginning property (income) belongs to family as a whole, it is owned collectively. I would refer to this as the ‘patriarchal familial property concept’. But later, the property (income) may belong to the individual, as we would expect in a market economy.

The ‘patriarchal familial property concept’ is built on a reciprocal circle with males in the centre and females attached to the periphery. The descent ideology of Chinese patriarchy puts male family members at the core: it is they who link to the past and who are bound to the future, forming an eternal vertical family line. Apart from this vertical line, of course, there is a horizontal line, including the wife and the relations that extend from her. Since males form the core of the structure, females can only be attached to a male member of the family in order to get into the circle. Only through a male ‘agent’ do female family members get a voice, make decisions and gain resources. Against this background, even though women are holding power in the family, they typically hold it in an indirect or informal way, working ‘behind the scenes’ through husbands, brothers, or sons.

Obviously, one of the significant effects of female labour migration has been to make cracks in this gender logic that has functioned and been reinforced for centuries. Female migrant workers are both ‘independent economic actors’ and ‘dependent family members’ in the migration process. They have to abide by market rules, inevitably, but the impact of the powerful patriarchal structure and familism also has to be taken into account. Still, the process of migration can challenge traditional patterns and calls for new solutions based on new circumstances. The bargaining power of family members, including women, has changed. This adds new complications to the social process of family life, adding new layers of strategic calculation for the individuals engaged in it.

Son preference, the cycle of yang, and children left behind

The traditional system of reciprocal obligations found between parents and their children (and especially their male children) has been characterised by Stafford as the cycle of yang (Stafford 1995; Stafford 2000). When parents make sacrifices for their children, they can look forward to a future ‘payback’ from these children. Parent-child reciprocity along these lines is basically common sense or ‘ordinary knowledge’ for most children, even before they enter school. And the social world they are embedded in, including the schools they attend, generally ‘support[s] enthusiastically the moral basis of this reciprocity’ (Stafford 1995: 78). The cycle of yang normally entails ‘a whole series of complex transactions in food and money’ (Stafford 1995: 78) that lead to children being heavily obligated to repay their parents’ support in later life (Stafford 1995: 86-7). This expectation of reciprocity is closely related to the son preference we find still today in rural China.

When I was preparing my research proposal, before I went to carry out fieldwork in China, I was expecting to find either: 1) a society that lacks sibling relationships because of the ‘one-child policy’ or 2) if there were sibling relationships, the only possible form to be found would be with an elder sister and a much younger brother. This is because the birth policy generally allows a rural couple who have a daughter as their first child to have a second child five to eight years later. After collecting more kinship data in the factory, however, and also via my experience in the village in Hubei, I found that very of few of the families I was learning about actually had only one child. It is indeed quite common for a family to have several older daughters and a much younger son. The parents will keep on having children until they get the son they desire.

China’s imbalanced sex ratio and the phenomenon of its ‘missing women’ has drawn a great deal of attention (Coale and Banister 1994, Banister 2004, Cai and William 2005, Ebenstein 2010). Why does son preference still exist, even after the structure of social and economic life has changed so dramatically? There are many possible contributing factors to the strong desire to have at least one son in the family (see Das Gupta et al. 2003, Murphy et al. 2011, Almond et al. 2013), even if norms of son preference are not as prevalent as they were in the past. However, on the basis of my fieldwork and also what has been described in the existing literature, I would like to focus on two factors.

The first relates to ideas about desirable masculine traits. The criteria used to measure masculinity, according to the informants I met in the factory, are the ability to drink large quantities of alcohol (men will often ask each other how much spirit they can drink) and virility (specifically, questions are asked about how many children a man has). Producing many children is a potent way to express one’s manhood. The sex of the children is also important. ‘The more sons you have, the more masculine you are perceived to be,’ an informant from Henan told me.

Second, owing to the lack of social security, even in today’s China, villagers see having sons as the way to secure their life in old age (see Ebenstein & Leung 2010, Zhang 2011). Again, bringing Stafford’s concept of the cycle of yang into the discussion may help us better understand the family dynamics, property rights and son preference in these rural villages. ‘The cycle of yang’ means the ideal relationship between parents and children, mainly via male heirs although not exclusively: parents nurse and care for children when they are young; male children have obligations to repay parents’ favours when they are old. This has high moral connotations, but is also the basis of the – more practically oriented – pattern of yanger fanglao (‘bringing up children for the purpose of being looked after in old age’). To have as many children as possible and then retain their loyalty so as to sustain your life after retirement is still a common aspiration in rural society. Due to the lack of a good social security and pension system in China, this practice is still crucial and influential for many villagers.

With reference to its gender connotation, the prevailing (traditional) economic logic behind this is that, to ensure a good life during old age, sons are a better investment than daughters because sons always remain family members while daughters will not (at least in formal terms) – because, again, daughters will marry out one day. Obviously the valuation of daughters has changed in many respects in modern China but this underlying idea remains influential. Forming a reciprocal relationship between parent and child, which customary moral discourse recognises and supports, is the key strategy to handle the lack of social security: in reality, villagers, including women, may feel that they must have a son in order to be full participants in the cycle of yang.

Actually, one observed tendency in recent years is for more and more women to ‘marry near to their village’ in order to ‘demonstrate continuing loyalty to their parents’ (Murphy 2002: 169). In the reform era, the state’s policies have arguably created more room for married women to build informal ties with their natal family than was the case in the Mao era. The market enables women to work outside their village and run private business with their natal families (Zhang 2009: 21). In addition, more and more children are raised by their grandparents while their parents are absent during their childhood (Silverstein and Cong 2013). All of this reflects changes to family dynamics after migration. However, other research suggests that the adjustments that are made to family life are basically practical – while the norms remain the same. Aged parents should be cared for by their sons, even if the daughter’s contribution is increased (Cong and Silverstein 2012). Murphy, Tao & Lu (2009) also argue that even with socioeconomic change, and women’s increased opportunities for wage labour, social-cultural determinants continue to strongly shape son preference in rural China.

The case of Silk and her family

Silk, the eldest child in her family, was one of rural China’s many liushou ertong, i.e. “children left behind”.  She was effectively raised by her grandmother in the countryside after both her parents left home in order to earn money. But then Silk herself left home when she was 14 years old, not too long after she had dropped out of junior high school. She first went to Shanghai and then to Shenzhen, following in her cousin Ling’s footsteps. It was because of the remittances that Silk sent home (with Ling’s husband arranging the bank transactions) that Silk’s sister and brother were able to stay in school and graduate from senior high school (although they failed to get into university). Thus, through Silk’s dagong, working for a wage, the financial situation of her family gradually improved. Drawing on her considerable guanxi (“social connections”), she also arranged the financing of her family’s new house. When we visited her home town at Chinese New Year, we walked an hour through the snow to catch the bus to the nearest town in order to do the family’s New Year shopping – all to be paid out of her wages.

Basically, Silk seemed to have voluntarily stepped up to take responsibility for family matters. She seemed to be happy to do all of these things. However, she was not very happy when people asked about her plans for marriage. She was 24, the age when girls normally get married. Silk told me, with a rather complicated eye expression and a short sigh, ‘I never think of myself’ – meaning not only that she did all these things for her family but also that she never saved her wages for her own dowry. ‘It’s time to do that,’ she added.

Silk enjoyed a high status in front of her parents – she is basically the public representative of her natal family – and seemingly also in front of her siblings. However, at other times, it seemed that her siblings did not show her much respect. More than once, I saw Silk try to teach and guide her siblings but they, especially her younger brother, were unwilling to accept this. During our stay, Silk fought with her younger brother several times. He not only responded to Silk’s lectures with angry retorts but even lectured her back, for instance telling her that she should stop spending so much money on her mobile phone.

Interestingly, when such quarrels with her siblings occurred, her parents went to ask Silk’s forgiveness on behalf of them. One day, Silk had a serious argument with her brother. She cried and refused to eat lunch or dinner. Her parents stood by the door and apologised to her for her brother’s ‘childish behaviour’ again and again. They said, ‘Please forgive him, after all he is still a child.’ They urged me to persuade Silk to forgive her brother or at least eat something for her own good. On that particular occasion, I felt that Silk’s parents’ attitude towards her was less like parents talking to their daughter and more as if they were begging a benefactor of the household on behalf of their son.

The elder sister steps into the vacuum

Some readers may find it surprising that Silk’s contribution to the family should carry such weight, given that everyone else in this family (her parents and her siblings) is also engaged in wage labour. This relates back to the fact that Silk was the first to go outside – which in turn relates back to birth order. I should note that Silk’s family reflects the sibling configuration common in many rural families: i.e. because of birth control regulations such families often end up with one or more elder sisters and one little brother. However, the role of the first female child in such a family is typically different from her siblings.

According to the life histories I collected during fieldwork, most families had experienced a dramatic change in their financial situation in recent years, from being very poor to being reasonably well off. The young workers often use the term hen qiong (very poor) to describe the past financial situation of their family and the term hai keyi (not bad) to describe their current situation. Correspondingly, the financial difficulties of the household were normally at their most severe during the childhood of the first child. As in Silk’s case, the financial pressures on the family were then reduced somewhat when the parents, and later the first child, left for dagong, which meant that subsequent siblings were born in a period when the family’s financial circumstances were less strained.[3] In this socio-economic and cultural context, the first child was not only (unlike his or her siblings) likely to be a ‘child left behind’ but also most likely to be sent out to work in the interests of the household. The family strategy was to send the first child to dagong in order to earn money to support her siblings (likely to include at least one boy) and give them a better life.

In addition to their labour contribution for the benefit of the household’s finance, it was already the case – before China’s internal migration ‘took off’– that the first child customarily had to shoulder more responsibilities than his or her siblings. They functioned as ‘spare parents’ in the division of labour within the family, and were treated as a ‘mini-adults’ rather than as children. If their parents were absent from the family, they became the de facto parents of their siblings. It is sometimes said: zhangxiong rufu zhangjie rumu – ‘The eldest brother is like a father; the eldest sister is like a mother.’ Most migrant workers I interviewed, especially the elder brothers and sisters, took these implicit rules for granted and practised them in their own lives. Thus, when Silk persisted in trying to lecture her siblings and give them orders, it probably reflected her attempt to fulfil her responsibility as the ‘spare parent’ – in some cases, when she believed her own parents had failed to fulfil their duties.

According to my informants, the first children also seemingly gain some (psychological) compensation from their siblings’ achievements, knowing that they have fulfilled their responsibilities according to the household’s decision that they should make money to enable their younger siblings to carry on with schooling. This echoes precisely the typical attitude of Chinese parents. According to Vanessa Fong, Chinese parents are willing to endure any hardship to secure their children’s success. Silk told me how she had cried bitterly when her siblings decided they were going to give up schooling after high school graduation and leave for work migration just as she had done. At that moment, she felt that what she had done over all those years in order to pay for their education had been in vain. She felt that she no longer knew why she had bothered to do it and found it hard to accept that her own sacrifice had simply ended up with her siblings leading the same sort of life as she had. She felt ‘incompetent/powerless’ (meili) and was disappointed.

Traditionally, of course, it would be parents who made sacrifices in order to raise their children. Today, it is often the first child (especially if the first child is a daughter) who makes personal sacrifices in order to help raise her siblings. Silk and Ling, both the eldest in their respective families, would often say with a sigh, ‘Women mei nage tiaojian [we didn’t enjoy such (good) conditions before]’. They would lecture their siblings ‘Nimen tiaojian hao [the conditions you live in are better (than we had)]’ in order to urge them to study harder and make their sacrifices worthwhile. The younger siblings were in turn expected to do their best to achieve academic success and satisfy their elder brother’s/sister’s hopes, without consideration of their own personal preferences. This situation of rural-born children parallels that described by Fong for the singletons born in urban areas under the ‘one-child policy,’ who are forced to live out their parents’ dreams, internalising their parents’ hopes into their own aspirations. When parental authority collapses in the rural household, the elder sister seems to step into the vacuum.

Broken cycles of reciprocity

Traditionally, when parents made sacrifices for their children, they could look forward to a future ‘payback’ of some kind from their children (normally their male children), according to the logic of the cycle of yang which governed reciprocal ties between generations. Today, however, when it is the first child (and especially if this is a daughter) who makes personal sacrifices in order to help raise siblings, there is no cultural system of ‘balanced’ reciprocal obligations between sisters and brothers – and thus no guarantee that the sacrifices of today’s elder siblings (again, especially sisters) will be paid back in the future.

After ten years of dagong in the city, Silk had definitely made a significant financial contribution to her natal household. Her role in the household had changed so that she had become the chief provider – her income was higher than anybody else’s and her social networks (a crucial resource in China for navigating life) were much more extensive. As I observed, her parents depended on her in many aspects of life, both large (such as when they needed a loan from her) and small (such as when she showed them how to assemble a gas stove). There was an implicit consensus between her parents and Silk herself that she deserved more respect and power within the household because she shouldered more responsibilities than other family members. Notably, she acted as the ‘public representative’ on the Chinese New Year visits to other families. Silk apparently wields greater bargaining power in her natal household; her influence appears to have grown in proportion to the financial contributions that she made. She thus seems to exemplify what Yunxiang Yan has observed, that the power within the household has shifted from the parents’ generation to the younger generation. This is how the situation appears at first sight: Silk would seem to embody the rise of ‘youth power’.

However, this was in her natal family, not in her marital family, and in the end she really cannot argue with patriarchal custom: ultimately she is still only temporarily a member of her natal family. Silk and her family members all seemingly hold this inevitable fact in mind: Silk will marry out of her natal family and belong to another one. Although the sacrifices she has made for her natal family deserve respect and gratitude, she will still ultimately not be ‘one of our family’. The other side of ‘marrying out’ and leaving the natal family is that caring for her parents in the future is, for the daughter, typically more optional, a matter of her choice, to ‘decide’ if she wants to provide a ‘limited form of yang’, i.e. support for her parents. In the parents’ reasoning, daughters are not bound by reciprocal obligation and thus, from the perspective of seeking guaranteed care in old age, relying on a daughter’s sentiments and good will – whether she will choose to support them in their retirement years – is clearly not as secure as relying on a son’s obligations.

For these reasons, the shifts in power within Silk’s household can be seen as temporary and largely symbolic. The respect she was given by her parents might even be seen as a compensation for her unrequited sacrifices – sacrifices that cannot be seen as investments for her own future (unlike the sacrifices of parents for the children). She acts as ‘regent’, one might say, waiting for her younger brother to grow up and take his rightful place. One day, she will finally have to hand her power back to the first male child, who is the real heir and new master of the family.

Young women in between the market economy and the moral economy

When I was sent by Silk’s parents to persuade her to eat after she had the big quarrel with her brother and has locked herself in her room (as described above), Silk sighed and said to me:

I feel so heart-broken. I did it all for my brother. I don’t have the right to inherit property. The house is his. I don’t even save money for my own dowry. He treats me like I am nothing, like I am nobody to him.

At that moment, I somehow felt that Silk – not unlike her grandmother, the ‘married-in’ woman – was very anxious about the question ‘Where do I belong?’ After two generations, the society of China has undoubtedly changed a great deal. But Silk, a female peasant, seemed destined to repeat her grandmother’s path in some respects.

Young unmarried women like Silk are caught in between the market economy that they work in and the local moral economy where their families are embedded. But they are also at an in-between moment in their lives. Will they stay in the city or return ‘home’? The tensions between eldest daughters and younger (male) siblings – and the response of their parents to these – are about far more than minor sibling quarrels. Rather, the property rights of the household are implicit here as tough and touchy issues among siblings and within families.

Silk could potentially make property claims in terms of both the market economy and the moral economy. The household property has been accrued largely as the result of Silk’s contributions, her wages, labour and sacrifice. Thus, it could be argued, following market principles of individual property rights, the property should belong to Silk herself. At the very least, she could claim partial ownership, as she contributed a share of the property from her wages. Equally, in the short term anyway, judging by traditional principles of renqing (human sentiment/sympathy), the elder sister in this case should hold some bargaining power on the basis of her contribution to the household, especially providing for her siblings.

However, according to customary practices of descent and inheritance, all the properties should basically pass to Silk’s brother rather than to Silk herself. In the longer term it is sons who command greater bargaining power – although on the face of it they are enjoying the free fruits of their elder sister’s labour – because under the traditional understanding of family obligations and consequent property rights, they will bear the burden of providing for their parents’ old age. When Silk says of her brother, ‘He treats me like I am nothing, like I am nobody to him [wo sheme dou bushi]’ in a sense she is correct – not that he has no feelings/sentiments for her but that in the moral economy of the village she has no formal relation of reciprocal obligations with him.

Daughters who reach a certain age are reminded by everyone that they will not belong to their home town and natal family for much longer. Villagers, as parents of young migrant workers, clearly feel unease arising from the conflicting reasoning about property rights for siblings of different genders. They cannot rely on ‘folk theory’ to guide them. They express their unease in many ways and through a range of emotions, such as anxiety (e.g. parents worrying that their daughter is not yet married and pushing her to get married as soon as possible), guilt (parents feeling that they have not fulfilled their responsibility as good parents when making their daughters sacrifice so much), concern (relatives repeatedly asking an unmarried daughter when she will get married) and love (feeling that because they love their daughter they have to arrange her future life for her). Although there is significant pressure on young Chinese people of both sexes to resolve questions about their marriage plans, this is especially true with unmarried eldest sisters. The collective social expectation is that these young women will – and should – ‘marry out’, and this fact is invested with much emotion, concern and love, as well as some anxiety and guilt. The household dynamics reflect and play out these tensions – all of which focus on the eldest daughter.

Unmarried young women thus feel much anxiety about the uncertainty of belonging nowhere. They are in effect rejected by their natal family but have not yet found a future spouse. At the same time, it seems that it is the eldest daughter’s task to relieve everyone else of these emotional burdens, to resolve the tensions of the household.

The ‘solution’: marrying out and marrying up

Actually, it seems that many unmarried migrant young women, including Silk and her friends, do not really want to change their current life. It is not necessarily in their personal interest to marry out soon and face another cycle of uncertainty. Unlike women in previous generations, male guardianship is not the main way in which women now secure their livelihood. They can support themselves financially. They often enjoy a degree of respect and power in their natal household. If they could choose, marriage would probably not be their preferred option at this moment. However, although they may delay marriage, their natal household has, in effect, already taken the collective decision that they will be married out soon in order to resolve the tension within the household. Although probably not consciously reasoning in this way, and while often claiming to make a ‘free choice’, these young women still ultimately decide to follow the household collective decision and give up other possible choices (such as remaining single and/or asking to be given a share of the household property). This is probably because they do not know how to ignore or reject the expectations of their parents’ generation. The tensions within the household, transformed and expressed in the form of parental expectations, pressure them to get married – out and up – as soon as possible.

For their own part, after so many years of self-sacrificing, these young women may want to receive some compensation from their future husband’s family for the sacrifices they have made on behalf of their own natal family. Therefore, they too want to marry up. Typically they want to marry a rich man with high social status, preferably born in the city, or a migrant in the city with good chances for permanent residence. A man of this kind can help a woman escape the countryside permanently and, in effect, offer his wife a modern identity. This allows some sort of solution, bowing to parental pressure but also pursuing their own dreams (albeit in a limited way). Although often expressing some reluctance to marry, at the same time they will expend a great deal of energy (including the energy of refusing potential partners proffered by their parents) on arranging the best possible outcome. Reflecting the rise in youth power, a young woman today will often negotiate the bridewealth and interview the prospective matches very carefully and may even ally herself with her future husband to bargain for more bridewealth from his parents (her parents-in-law) in order to secure a better life. However, it should be emphasised that this reasoning is what their community has taught them. It is as if, when elder sisters ‘marry up’, the unfair treatment they have received – in supporting their parents and brothers for many years – can be made right. Perhaps the ‘best’ solution of all is to find a prospective marriage partner in the city who is one’s old laoxiang – i.e. a stranger from the same native place in the countryside – but one who has also made a success of himself. At the same time, then, this would deal with the distrust that dagongmei, working girls, typically feel towards people in the city.

Silk herself had refused one of her primary school classmates as a potential marriage partner because, even though she thought he was a ‘good guy’, she said she would never marry a young man coming from the same background as herself. This would not offer her an escape route or a way of changing her identity. At the same time, to marry someone from a totally different background would be too frightening. The perfect match for Silk, it therefore seemed, was a young man called Million. Million is Silk’s laoxiang, 27 years old. He grew up in the adjacent village and is also not as well educated as most dagongzai (young male wage workers). He left home to work in Dongguan in south China when he was 18. Starting as a basic worker, he has now become a ‘boss’ (at least that’s what Silk told me, although I later learned that his company appears to have only himself as both boss and sole employee). He sells precision instruments to factories and has earned enough money to buy a Toyota car. When we paid a visit to his village in Hubei during the Chinese New Year, we were given a lift in Million’s car. We could all see that Million takes very good care of Silk. However, the reality is that Million has a girlfriend already and it is not Silk. This makes their relationship ambiguous. The main reasons that Silk considers Million an ideal match is that he is rich and successful but with a similar background to her own. Like her, he is not well educated, which Silk thought would provide a good basis for mutual understanding. Silk once turned down a potential date because the man had a Master’s degree, saying, ‘Tai yao yuan le [he is too far away].’ In addition, Million is her laoxiang. It might seem confusing that Silk rejected her neighbour as a future husband but sees Million as ideal. The difference is that being a – successful – laoxiang is an advantage. Million is in a position to choose where he and his wife will live after marriage and, at the same time, his background is familiar to Silk. His habits are easier for her to predict and control. Generally, it largely reduces the risks Silk has to take. She said:

I don’t want to marry a man from another province because today society is so turbulent. Who knows who is a liar? If he is my laoxiang, if he gets up to something I can figure out what the story is [ta zemeyang, keyi dating dedao].

Will Silk’s dream come true? Even if it does, her future has become dependent on marriage. As young female workers often said to me, ‘I don’t know where I will live in the future. It depends on my future husband.’

Conclusion: change but also absorption

While a good deal of research has focused on the attitude of China’s new generation migrants to their home towns, and how it may differ (or not) from that of previous generations, I am stressing that their sense of belonging and identity will be gender specific. More specifically, it will depend on a combination of gender and birth order.

In discussing household dynamics, I have shown not only some of the underlying reasons for tensions between parents, elder sisters and younger brothers – which are ultimately related to a clash between the market economy and the local moral economy with respect to property – but also how this translates into conflicting emotions (anxieties, guilt, unease, resentment) for the parties involved. The ‘tensions’ are thus both metaphorical/logical in relation to the two systems, and real emotions borne by individuals. It seems that it becomes the eldest daughter’s task to relieve everyone else of these emotional burdens, to resolve the tensions of the household. Thus it can well be asked, to what extent have today’s young women benefited in the long term from the rise of youth power? The decline in the authority of the elders and the rise of youth power in the household might benefit the bride of a younger brother but not his unmarried sisters.

Certainly, home town and family/local networks function as a support system to ease the risks of living modern urban lifestyles for new generation migrant workers just as they did for previous generations – as Murphy notes, a link to home town ‘increases [migrants’] income and minimises their risks’. However the underlying ‘son preference’ throws a further light on attitudes towards the hukou system of household registration. Although this system is structurally biased against the young migrants who wish to travel to work in city, it is actually perceived by migrant workers as acceptable. While the hukou system means migrant workers do not benefit from urban social security, they can find the necessary interim support from their rural families. Because ‘the wage sector escapes the burden of providing the welfare needed by migrants’, in effect it is their home town that must shoulder ‘the burden of reproducing’ the migrants’ labour power. Indeed, migrant workers even expressed pity for the urbanites who are forced to work very hard in order to maintain daily survival. Evidently, as this article has shown, both male and female new generation migrant workers maintain and enhance links to their home towns in ways that challenge the conventional wisdom about differences between generations of migrants. It might be debated whether this reflects traditional peasant views about ancestral land, an ‘enduring attachment to the soil’ or whether, on the contrary, it shows a ‘modern’ rational calculation balancing risk and security, especially in light of the lack of social security for rural people under the hukou system.

My point here, however, is that the actual experience of this ‘rural advantage’ may be very different for young women and men. Generally speaking, young female workers, like Silk, enjoy only a short term eligibility to enjoy the benefit of this ‘ultimate’ security; the so-called ‘rural advantage’ is essentially a male advantage. Migrating away from home for male workers is in some senses less risky than for female workers leaving their hometown. Most important, the possibility of returning home is vastly more secure – and promoted by the community – for males than for females. We can thus say that migration is a dynamic gendering process in which negotiation happens between traditional principles and market principles. Young men and young women perceive the market in specific, and different, ways.

As I have been suggesting, the conflict between the moral economy and market economy creates tensions for siblings within the household – and the elder sister is generally felt to be the one with the responsibility for sorting out this tension. To resolve the tension, collective social expectations urge young women, once they have reached a certain age, to marry out and (ideally) up. This will solve everyone’s problems, as they see it. The community does not care if this means pushing a young woman into another cycle of uncertainty after her years of sacrifice for the benefit of the household as a whole.


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  1. [1]The data in this article was collected through participant observation fieldwork. I spent twelve months in China (October 2007-October 2008), primarily in an electronics factory in Shenzhen’s Special Economic Zone. As described in this article, my roommate in the factory dormitory, Silk, took me to her hometown in Hubei province during the Chinese New Year for three weeks. I observed her daily life there and interviewed her family members, some of her other relatives, and some of her classmates. These opportunities to understand her hometown in detail gave me insights that were confirmed by my interactions, both formal and informal, with other factory workers I met during my project. I have changed all personal names in this article order to protect the anonymity of my informants.
  2. [2]Note that even though they were ultimately ‘firmly rejected’ by them, married daughters still often maintained good relations with their natal families. Support of various kinds from her natal family was often the most powerful weapon married woman had against adversities in her husband’s family (Judd 1989).
  3. [3]However, note that this may only represent the situation of the informants I met in 2007–08. For those born in the early 1980s, their ‘growing up period’ was just squeezed in between the eras of what might be called ‘poor China’ and ‘rich China’. For those born in the later 1980s, in other words, their growing up period happened under more prosperous circumstances.

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