Great migration China-style: where is our hometown? – 中国式大迁徙:何处安放我们的故乡 – English

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Southern Metropolitan Daily commentator: Zhang Tianpan

Each Chinese New Year (Spring Festival) is a collective pilgrimage home for Chinese intending on reuniting with their families. Though some of them must travel long distances and encounter all kinds of difficulties, their steps still irrepressibly take them home. This phenomenon is perhaps unique in the world. Chinese people’s dependence on their hometown is a marvel of Chinese culture that is hard to ignore. The most obvious sign of this is the innumerable quantity of poetry and literature that pertains to one’s hometown: “I look up and gaze at the moon, I look down and think of home”, “The closer to home the more timid I feel, not daring inquire about my family”, “The local accent hasn’t changed, but my hair is sparse and greying” etcetera. Thinking of home always comes with deep emotions, it’s nostalgia hitting one right between the eyes. In recent years, a more modern kind of nostalgia has emerged, along the lines of “everyone’s hometown is being overrun”.

During and after Spring Festival this year, a new wave of reflections and writings pertaining to the mixed emotions towards one’s hometown has risen again. At the same time, people faced disputes over the merits of big cities and small towns, no matter whether they were coming back from one or leaving for one. These situations also give those that have temporarily stopped work and are immersed in the New Year atmosphere a real prompt: What is the real connection between us and our hometown? Why is it that wherever you live, this becomes an unceasing topic of debate? When will Chinese style migration become stress-free? Where can we find our home?

Hometowns: Dead Homes

The poet Yujian in the unyielding 2011 article “Friends are the Final hometown”, which has been spread far and wide among circles of friends on Weixin, has resonated greatly with a lot of people this Spring Festival. In the article he says: My hometown no longer has my presence, it’s just a memory, the most active part of which is being taken care of by my friends. What my memory awakens is a feeling of presence, my native accent, past events, all kinds of details of my life, my personal history and experience. Nowadays, it’s only by having old friends that it’s possible to revive old memories. China has completely changed. Increasingly more skyscrapers and highways make this article unable to respond. However, old friends can’t be dispossessed. Many old friends still persist in “the highest place of abstract ideals”. What’s unavoidable is that when you have evil intent, it will make itself known: just as distance determines the stamina of a horse, so does time reveal a person’s true heart. Friends continue the legacy of one’s hometown by “following the etiquette” and “having a state of perfection”. Just like how Liu Guanzhang shows total devotion, practise what you preach, speak your mother tongue, and be ready at any moment to sacrifice oneself for friends.

In fact, Yujian has spoken forth the truth that many people have inside of them but haven’t explored. Actually, the many things people say to express their feelings for their hometown is essentially a weak medium. This gives rise to the expressed emotions such as “one’s close relatives are the sole homeland”, as the only real connection between one’s hometown and one’s innermost being. This also explains, in the course of this era’s modernisation and urbanisation, the connection between people and their hometown is actually already becoming progressively weaker. Close family and friends are like the thread that joins, becoming the final link or medium between those living far from home and their hometown. If these links or mediums are broken off, then many hometowns will perhaps become dead hometowns, forgotten and washed away.

This kind of real introspection, looking at social studies, maybe signifies even more. The famous late sociologist Fei Xiaotong in “Native China” said, “people are deeply attached to their local society, in which they were born, raised, and will die. Not only is the population pretty much stationary, but also the land that provides natural resources hardly changes. In this kind of environment that is indistinguishable from the unchanging Qin Dynasty, not only can individuals trust in their own experience, they can also in the same way trust their ancestry. All that an old farmer in his local society has come across is the changing of the four seasons, rather than the change of an era. Everything moves in an annual cycle. Our forebears’ plan for resolving life’s problems, as far as was possible would be to take a leaf out of their own books.”

However, up until now, this deep attachment to one’s native land, representative of Native China, has been thoroughly turned upside-down. The frequency that China’s population moves from place to place and it’s volume now stands at the world’s highest. Native places have started to be eroded away by the era, fading more day by day. They are no longer the holy lands that cannot become estranged. Rather, they have just become touristy scenic spots.

From the aspects of the frequency of population movement and migration, the model and logic of life in one’s hometown that Fei Xiaotong talks about have been severely undermined. In addition, as soon as this kind of symbol of Native China starts to degenerate, one’s “hometown”, this high level product of culture that entrusts the care of Native China, will accordingly wither. Behind the scenes of Native China, there is a kind of a demand for a traditional existence that pursues stability, predictability and safety.Year after year, it seems that in people’s hometowns, time is at a standstill. It’s very clear that in modern society where people move from place to place, everything has a temporary existence, changes, and is strange. It’s impossible to say what the most outstanding characteristic is. In the frantic pace of modern society, time is fleeting.

Nowadays, Native China’s medium, with the impoverishment of rural areas, has slowly retreated to small towns. However, the medium for mobile China is, without a doubt, consigned to big cities. Consequently, people are faced with a bewildering choice between Native China and mobile China. Is it better to have more a more traditional, Native China style of life, or is it better to have the modernised and urbanised lifestyle of mobile China? This causes many people to feel at a loss.

Small Towns and Big Cities

In the most recent issue of “Southerner’s Weekly”, the cover story is “Fleeing Back to Big Cities”. It says: After this year’s Spring Festival, the comparison and heated debate between big cities and small towns on the internet is uncharacteristically lively. No matter whether returning to or parting from big cities, the comparisons and decisions between big and small cities, as well as the resulting tides of people going back and forth, highlight the lack of security in the generation of those who make a living in the cities and the bewilderment of “having no roots”.

Two or three years ago, restricted to high housing costs, traffic congestion, environmental degradation etcetera, after enduring every kind of stress in both work and life in big cities, many young people either actively or passively chose to “flee the big cities”, forming a tide of people returning to their hometowns of second and third-tier small cities. (With China’s push for urbanisation, actually “small cities” more suitably should be called small towns, so the remainder of this article will use this term.) However, one or two years later, these people that “fled the big cities”, found that there were few work opportunities in their hometowns, income levels were low, people’s views were not in step with their own, they didn’t know how to get on etcetera. After feelings of disappointment and things not being in line with their own wishes, many people in fact chose to “flee back to the big cities”. As a stranger in one’s hometown, one unexpectedly feels that the big city that one fled, although a little trying, in fact has more freedom and opportunities, and one’s mood doesn’t feel suppressed like it is in one’s home in a small town. As a result, hometowns have become places that can’t be returned to.

Some people conclude: in big cities people strive for money, in small cities people strive for a good family. The “strife for money” in big cities and the “strife for a good family” of small cities embody two kinds of cultural forms and social properties. Striving for money is a property of modern society that has business and economics as its baton. Striving for a good family is a property of one’s native land that relies on one’s bloodlines. Cosy little places have the stability of Native China as their support. People in these societies are pretty familiar with each other and relationship networks are close-knit, with people who have grown up in them having a sense of security. Big cities are societies of strangers in which the price of having unavoidable stress when moving from place to place brings freedom and opportunity, but not a sense of security. One can clearly sense the disparity between rich and poor and the difference in hierarchy provoking oneself.

In small towns, people are limited to their original role, (social characters that have foundations established in the bloodline, heredity and other innate or physiological elements), whereas in big cities there are more opportunities to create one’s own (social characters that are obtained by one’s activity and hard work). This is also very close to the discrepancy “from status to contract” pointed out by 19th century British jurist Sir Henry James Sumner Maine in his masterpiece “Ancient Law”. The distinction between society in Native China and modern society is close to the difference between a “status society” and a “contract society”. It also reflects the process of the change from a natural economy (with a bartering system) to a commodity economy (market economy), and from the “rule of man” to a “rule of law”.

Most of the freedom and opportunity in big cities is a result of the liberalisation of people through the rule of law and a commodity economy (of course, there is also the oppression of those who strive for money). However, striving for a good family in small towns is bound by a natural economy (the main trait of local societies) and the rule of man (in which social relationships and bloodlines are relied on to distribute resources).

It’s very clear that small towns lie in the halfway ground between Local China and modern society, belonging to a strange society that is half local and half modern. In other words, small towns are actually at the same time enlarged versions of villages and shrunken versions of cities, concentrating both the traditions and modern era of China, resulting in the finest specimens in which to observe the modernisation of China. We can say that in small towns there is a “hybrid China”: having the material and hardware from modernisation, but also having the “disorderly structure” of a strong Local China that has the emphasis on knowing how to get on in the world. This allows those with superiority and resources (who have strived for a good family) to be exceptionally well off and comfortable. By means of their relationships they are able to maintain a good work plan, and also because of this they can enjoy the quality of life that is possible in big cities. Very quickly they surpass the middle class that have their own cars and homes, so much so that they become the “nouveau riche”, provoking jealously in others. However, for people who do no have these resources, it is difficult to find a foothold in the dark corners.

For people who are in big cities for longer lengths of time but completely lack resources to rely on, in comparison striving for money perhaps can be more readily accepted. At least with striving for money it’s still certainly possible to have a personal struggle within a fair competition. With the strife for a good family, which involves the coveting of already bestowed resources, is not in the least bit fair, it could be said. So, the pros and cons of big cities and small towns are essentially a comparison of the lifestyles of local society and modern society, as well as whether people can continue to exist within these two different kinds of societies. Big cities are not suitable for living in, small towns can be impossible to live in, and so mass migration inevitably becomes an everlasting problem in China.

“Chinese Style” Migration

Actually, no matter whether it’s a big city or a small town, each year the human spectacle of mass migration between a foreign town and a hometown occurs in China, and still it’s difficult amongst people to become integrated in a place. After struggling for many years, it’s still the embarrassment of people away from home that is the root cause of why they can’t migrate back and forth. Due to resource allocation and differences between the areas (city and countryside), even if one loves their hometown, one has no choice but to leave it to maintain one’s livelihood, and so one is unable to protect the origin of one’s hometown. In this era, the most clear and distinct reflection of individual destiny is that everyone must find their own unique style, no matter whether it’s emotional or logical. In this kind of heavy reality, one cannot but start to get anxious.

Before the reform was opened up to the outside world, taking the census register as the mark of a strict urban and rural binary mechanism, entire local societies were firmly isolated. After the reform was opened up to the outside world, city residents broke away from all jurisdiction of one’s workplace. Village residents also broke free of the irrational restriction of communes. From the crack in the urban and rural binary structure which was created by the census register, an unprecedented level of migration occurred in society. What’s special about Native China, which has more than 800 million farmers, is that along with the gradual reduction in restrictions on migration, after a large portion of the farming population entered the cities causing a transformation in city residents, their status transformed from purely traditional farmers to more modern “migrant workers” or “new city residents”. After the transformation in city residents caused by many second generation migrant workers, there was no longer a clear distinction between them and the original city residents, thus genuinely bringing about what Henri Mendras spoke of as the “the end of farmers”.

Although they settled in the cities, it was still difficult for them to put down roots there. “Moved plants die, but people who move survive”, however, Chinese style migration that had the household census system as it’s shackles frequently causes a kind of identity loss amongst it’s people. Taking the bulk of people who migrated from the villages to the cities and became workers as an example, from the first “blind influx” to “employed outsiders” or “migrant workers”, lying somewhere in between workers and farmers, from start to finish even the most basic blend of identity was impossible to assimilate, with them being akin to floating, rootless duckweed. In the 30 plus years since the opening up of the reform, we have already personally felt every kind of benefit that a mobile society has brought to society, but when specifically talking about individuals, these people that move from place to place never have any way of confirming their own status, thus bringing about an actual migration of liberty and a restriction to the optimisation of movement within society.

Looking back at how the movement of China’s population has changed, when combining effects of the objective needs of and the unwillingness to completely unleash a mobile population, step by step measures have successively appeared everywhere thus establishing certain thresholds. Strict rules have been set up regarding qualifications and individual skills and capabilities. There is also the possibility of land being released for new housing, in order to encourage a so-called reasonable movement. However, over a number of years, there have only been a very small section of people who have enjoyed this kind of policy. The vast majority of people have inadequate credentials, having no qualifications and no so-called skills, and so undertake lower-end jobs upon entering the cities. Although they devote themselves to the area in the same way as before, they can only linger at the edge of freely moving crowds. It’s difficult for them to take root in the cities, especially in the largest ones, as if they were just illusions.

Opportunity and development decide how people move. A moving population is the inevitable consequence of a developing society, being beneficial to the interaction of professionals and the allocation of the labour force as well as the balanced development of society. Rapid economic development inevitably produces a large population movement. America, Australia, as well as my native Hong Kong etcetera are all parts of the world in which there are large moving populations. Countries and regions which have the greatest frequencies of migrations of workers at the same time are places in which there is rapid economic development. Looking again from a sociological perspective, if a society lacks a population that is mobile on all skill levels then its composition will become rigid, the danger is that even a small disruption could at any time result in a collapse of its structure. Unimpeded population movements can promote the constant metabolism of a society’s structure.

However, regarding this kind of migration in China today, many parts have population movements only on certain skill levels, with people roughly on the same social stratum migrating, or perhaps changing jobs or professions. This maintains the current social structure, making it impossible to completely change one’s identity from a farmer to a city resident. Therefore, although those that enter the cities have freedom, it is only the freedom of one’s body, not the freedom of one’s rights. This is also the cause of the fundamental reason for China’s annual mass migration; the fact that it’s difficult to take root. After entering the 21st century, this has given China no choice but to maintain the tradition of begrudging leaving place where one has lived for a long time.

Within Chinese style mass migration, only those who are skilled can have a diverse experience. Also migration nowadays has a new problem created by the environment; “environment refugees”. City people fleeing towards small towns and villages are increasing, becoming “environmental migrants”. In this kind of situation, it’s not certain how to develop more small cities with the attributes of modern society, not just pertaining to people’s quality of life, but more to China’s future healthy development. Since China only depends on the cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, and also since there aren’t well-developed small towns everywhere, it simply has no future. In addition, it’s still best to go to big cities when seeking treatment for illnesses.

The full realization of free movement within society, breaks the shackles of the census register. On this basis, China’s current disparity between city and countryside is changing step by step, making small towns more like big cities in that one is able to have the same kind of opportunities and freedom there. Also, cities can open up and embrace its residents that have idled the time away for long periods. Chinese style mass migration could go down in history, with all skilled people able to find a place for themselves, and establish their own hometown or take a foreign place to be their own. One’s hometown is everywhere!

Date: {16 February 2014} Revision: {AA17} Version Name: {Southern Review} Manuscript Source: {Southern Metropolis Daily}

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French-Australian writer, educator, sinophile. Any question? Contact julien@marcopoloproject.org