Study and School in the Lives of Children in Migrant Families: A View from Rural Jiangxi, China

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  • Study and School in the Lives of Children in MigrantFamilies: A View from Rural Jiangxi, China

    Rachel Murphy


    Millions of children in China have been left behind in the countrysidewhile their parents work in distant places to support the social reproductionof their families. This article examines the role of study and schooling in thisprocess. The analysis shows that family strategies to pursue socio-economicmobility are intricately connected to state frameworks for providing support,and schools are central to this. This is because both family and state interestsin the attributes and prospects of the next generation converge in schools. Atthe same time, on a day-to-day basis, the labour of children in schools and thelabour of parents in the cities are intertwined. Specifically, by communicatingwith each other about study, and by focusing on the childs educational futureas the key purpose of their daily work, both children and parents carry outtheir obligations towards each other, while finding ways to cope with theemotional difficulties that protracted physical separation entails.


    Lingling was a nine-year-old whose parents had been working in a clothesfactory in the coastal city of Wenzhou for four years. Home for Linglingwas a village in Jiangxi province located in Chinas rice-belt interior. Thereshe lived with her nainai (paternal grandmother), yeye (paternal grandfa-ther), five-year-old cousin and three-year-old brother. Lingling knew thatthe following term she, like many fourth graders, would stay at school dur-ing the week: her grandparents wanted her to benefit from evening homework

    The research for this article was funded by a British Academy Career Development Grant and anOxford University John Fell Fund Grant. The fieldwork was made possible by Professor Ran Tao(co-PI on the British Academy grant), Professor Chunhui Ye, Professor Guiyou Zhang, ProfessorShuangxi Xiao, Ms Ernan Cui, Ms Xiaoqian Kuang and Mr Jianping Song. An earlier version ofthe paper was presented at a Workshop on Population Dynamics in South and East Asia, BritishAcademy and Royal Society (2930 March 2012). The author is grateful for helpful commentsfrom the workshop participants, especially Anne Booth, Roy Huijsmans, Jonathan Rigg andBrenda Yeoh. She is also grateful for valuable feedback from John Harris, two anonymousreviewers and the journal editors.

    Development and Change 45(1): 2951. DOI: 10.1111/dech.12073C 2014 International Institute of Social Studies.Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and350 Main St., Malden, MA 02148, USA

  • 30 Rachel Murphy

    supervision and they also wanted to be spared the additional burden of ac-companying her to and from school each day. Lingling was not lookingforward to boarding because she knew that the food was not as good asnainais cooking and that nainai would not be there to heat water on thestove for bathing.

    Even so, Lingling would live at school without protest. She understood theimportance of study. She was reminded of this when her parents visited eachyear for Spring Festival. Linglings tears at the time of their departure wouldinvariably bring forth words of comfort such as: Study hard. Baba and mamaare working outside to raise you and support your studies. Additionally,weekly phone calls between Lingling and her parents focused largely onschool grades. Linglings guardian also made her acutely aware of the lifechoices that faced those who did not study diligently. Lingling explained:I will study hard because otherwise I will have to be a farmer when Igrow up. Farmers have to do lots of housework like nainai does, such asplanting vegetables, cooking and looking after younger brother and littlesister. Nainai told me this. In common with most children I met in Jiangxi,Lingling understood that it was necessary to du chu qu, literally to studyones way out of the countryside.

    The importance of childrens education in families migration strategiesin developing countries has been well documented. Many studies investi-gate how migrant parents investment in their childrens education and theiraspirations for their childrens future impact on the childrens academic per-formance. These studies present a mixed picture, showing that outcomes areaffected by such factors as the age and gender of the child, the gender of themigrant parent(s), the school system and the socio-cultural setting (Arguillasand Williams, 2010; Asis, 2006; Chen et al., 2009; Jampaklay, 2006; Kandaland Kao, 2001; Kuhn, 2006). By contrast, the Chinese language literaturepresents a pessimistic picture of the potential benefits of migration to chil-dren. It stresses that despite parents motivations for migrating (i.e. earningmoney to pay for their childrens education), the left-behind children exhibitpoor academic performance (Gong, 2005; Tao, 2009; Wan, 2009; Xie, 2009;Yao and Shi, 2009; Ye et al., 2005), high rates of truancy (Gong, 2005; Liand Song, 2009; Wang and Dai, 2009; Yang and Zhu, 2006) and emotionaland behavioural problems (Tan et al., 2009; Wan, 2009; Wang and Dai,2009; Yang, 2009).

    While these studies highlight important dimensions of the complex nexusbetween migration and childrens education, most of them sit within a left-behind paradigm. The left-behind paradigm is common in studies of migra-tion in developing countries where origin and destination binaries overlapwith assumptions about the characteristics of rural and urban places andpeople. Within this paradigm, the at-home family members are depictedas inhabiting a geographic and social space that is mostly separate fromthat of the migrants, while at the same time being subject to the impact ofoutflows of people and return flows of resources (see Archambault, 2010).

  • School in the Lives of Children in Migrant Families 31

    Meanwhile, left-behind people, and left-behind children in particular, aretreated as passive and are even depicted as problems (Toyota et al., 2007).

    Research in the fields of both transnational family studies and childhoodstudies suggests that attention to childrens voices, experiences and agency,that is, their capacity for intentional action, can generate new insights. Specif-ically, scholars of transnational families highlight that the children are notleft behind in the sense of being abandoned. Rather they are raised froma distance by parents who send money and gifts, phone regularly and re-turn occasionally. Crucially, these scholars demonstrate that through suchactions the parents maintain ties that create single social fields within whichboth migrants and non-migrants, including children, think and act (Dreby,2010; Horton, 2008; Levitt and Glick Schiller, 2004; Parrenas, 2005). As thisarticle demonstrates, education is central to how the members of spatiallydivided families understand and practise their obligations towards each otherwithin these single social fields.

    The childhood studies literature also offers valuable perspectives throughits emphasis on the importance of the experiences and agency of children(Huijsmans, 2011; James et al., 1998; Prout and James, 1997). For instance,James et al. have pointed out that childrens lives take place in severalsignificant social spaces (James et al., 1998: 3758). If we extrapolate,children who live in migrant families experience the home or area oforigin not as one locality that exists in opposition to the destination area butrather as several places, including school, the guardians house and sites ofplay, all of which they actively negotiate. Among these places, school meritsspecial attention because, as scholars of childhood have argued,family iswhat its members do, a constantly continuing and changing practice, and aschildren go to and through school, that practice is organised around theirschooling (Connell et al., 1982: 78). It follows that an interplay betweenschool, family and class influences the kind of childhood that is available toa child and therefore his or her perceptions and choices (Connell et al., 1982;Field, 1995; James et al., 1998; Lareau, 2003; Stephens, 1995). Heeding theadvice from transnational family studies and childhood studies, the presentarticle explores how children, migrant parents and guardians arrange theirfamilies practices through schooling and elucidates how these practicesshape childrens experiences and agency.


    While recognizing that childrens experiences and agency open up new av-enues for inquiry, some scholars of childhood have cautioned against over-celebrating this agency. Specifically, they recommend that researchers re-main mindful of how family regimes, education regimes, migration regimesand childrens age and gender intersect to circumscribe and influence thisagency (Huijsmans, 2011). The present section follows this guidance by

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    considering how features of family, schooling and migration at national andlocal levels converge to shape the context within which children experienceand respond to family separation. In considering the ways in which familyregimes in rural China affect the circumstances of childrens agency, smallfamily size and intergenerational relations mediated through an idiom of fil-ial piety stand out. Of course, these affect most rural Chinese families butthey affect the members of migrant families in particular ways. Similarly, inconsidering the role of education regimes in shaping the circumstances ofchildrens agency it is necessary to acknowledge that study-related pressuresfeature in the lives of all school-age children, regardless of their parentsmigration status. However, crucially, children who grow up in migrant fam-ilies experience schooling and the associated pressures in relation to specificcircumstances.

    Studies on family regimes and parenting practices in modernized EastAsian societies, including in Chinas cities, have shown how, in recentdecades, children have benefited from increased parental investment in theireducation. On the one hand, smaller family size has enabled greater invest-ment per child. On the other hand, mounting social pressure to producesuccessful offspring has itself inflated the time and resource costs of raisingchildren, to the extent that parents limit themselves to one or two children,a dynamic that underpins record levels of low fertility in East Asia (Ander-son and Kohler, 2012; Caldwell and Caldwell, 2005). The social pressureto ensure that children attain high socio-economic status through educationhas been described by some commentators as education fever (Andersonand Kohler, 2012; Kipnis, 2011). In education-fever societies, children areraised by parents who actively participate in school-based projects to dis-cipline and prepare them for their future as productive workers and goodcitizens. Typically, the children attend after-school classes and study for longhours at the expense of rest and play (Field, 1995; Fong, 2004; Milwertz,1997; Stephens, 1995). Norma Field (1995) even proposes that the childrensstudy in such intensified child-raising regimes amounts to labour in that itinvolves purposeful disciplined effort. Her suggestion that the parents andchildren toil as a team for the future of the child is pertinent to this article.

    Analogous trends in family formation and child-raising have appeared inChinas rural areas (Hannum et al., 2009). Scholars note that with the ap-proval of their parents, primary school children stay in class till late or elsethey complete heavy loads of homework at home (Kipnis, 2011; Murphy,2004). These study-focused childhoods have come about in Chinas ruralareas through intersecting trends. In 1979 the state began to enforce strictfertility control policies (Greenhalgh and Winkler, 2005). From the mid-1980s onwards, the state also implemented mass compulsory education,which created incentives for smaller families independently of populationcontrol policies. In this environment, instead of realizing family aspirationsby having several children, parents realize them by having one or two chil-dren and investing more in their education (Greenhalgh and Winkler, 2005;

  • School in the Lives of Children in Migrant Families 33

    Kipnis, 2011; Murphy, 2004). Even though primary and junior high schooleducation has been free since 2007, the annual fees for a senior high schoolstudent can amount to more than the annual income of a rural person, andthese costs need to be borne for three years. The expense of supporting astudent through university is even more onerous.

    For most rural parents, migrating to earn money for the childrens futurehas entailed leaving the children behind. For reference, the term left-behind children has conventionally been defined in Chinese official surveysas those children who do not live with either one or both of their parentsbecause the parents work outside their county (Duan and Wu, 2009). Eventhough reports based on such data do not always specify a minimum durationof parental absence in order for a child to be classified as left behind, itis common for such surveys to regard those individuals who have beenworking away for at least six months as migrants (Xiang, 2007). Accordingto a 2006 national population and fertility survey, nearly 44 million childrenaged between zero and fourteen were left behind by their migrant parents,an increase of 47.5 per cent on the figure for 2000. Of these left-behindchildren, half had a migrant father, 15 per cent had a migrant mother, and35 per cent had both parents working away (Duan and Wu, 2009).

    Principal features of Chinas social welfare system which underpin thecountrys migration regime explain why most migrants leave their childrenin the countryside. Firstly, municipal governments commonly use the house-hold registration or hukou system, a legacy from Chinas socialist planningpast, to limit the provisioning of public goods and services to rural outsiders.Poorly paid rural migrants and their children thereby face ongoing institu-tional exclusion from urban-based schooling, health care, housing and socialsecurity (Li and Li, 2010; Solinger, 1999). Secondly, the school curriculumvaries from province to province and even within some provinces, and asstudents must sit examinations for senior high and university entrance at theirregistered place of origin, those who transfer across school systems at keystages incur disadvantages (Xiang, 2007; Ye et al., 2005). Lastly, migrantsoften stay in factory dormitories or on construction sites and work over tenhours per day, six days per week, so their living and working conditions arenot conducive to family life.

    Over time, as successive generations of rural people have migrated, ed-ucation and migration have become increasingly intertwined with aspectsof family social reproduction, with implications for how parents raise theirchildren. This is illustrated by the Chinese sociologist Gong Hongliansstudy of a township in Jiangxi province, which also happens to be one of thefield...


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