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Migrant workers depicted in rural Chinese literature

JI YA’NAN | 2021-04-01 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Some of the books mentioned in the article Photo: FILE 

In the 1990s, large quantities of migrant workers began to pour into cities. In 30 years, both their living circumstances and their values have changed. They captured attention from native-soil literature. Some authors of this genre have told the stories of migrant workers. These works have not only demonstrated how up-to-date rural Chinese writing can be, but also described the trajectory of contemporary culture by unraveling migrant workers’ values. 

Changing values 
To stay or not to stay? It is a question that all migrant workers ask themselves, thus making it an unavoidable subject in contemporary rural Chinese novels. This decision hinges on whether the value identification of each migrant worker has changed, and whether his/her individual values can be fully realized. Novelists of native-soil literature dug deep into the minds of migrant workers. They presented readers with a distinct contrast in value orientations between the younger and older generation of migrant workers. There are several reasons for this generational gap. 
First, the younger generation’s attachment to their hometowns is waning. Rootedness bonds migrant workers to their hometowns. For the older generation of rural residents, a hometown means not only the indispensable land that they live on, but also the final destination for their bodies and souls. Liu Chunsheng in The North Flowing River, Zhou Bo in Saving Father, and the big brother and sister-in-law in Story of the Elder Sister-in-law, are all examples of migrant workers with deep sentimental attachments to their land. To them, a hometown is so much more than a house to live in. It is the soil, the trees, the rivers, and mountains. It carries their joy and bittersweet memories. 
However, it is a different story for the younger generation. The absence of their parents, who went to cities for work, left them with unpleasant childhood memories. These “left-over children” grew up to become the next generation of migrants, who jumped into the hustle and bustle without looking back. Yearning to take root in cities, young migrant workers wish to spend their futures in a new setting. 
Take the main character in Jia Pingwa’s Broken Wings for example. This young girl, named Hu Dié, has to help her mother collect scrap in the city in order to make a living. Although her mother has grown accustomed to being called “rubbish,” Hu detests the nickname, and she sees herself as a city girl. In a desperate attempt to resist her rural identity, she buys an expensive pair of high-heels with the 500 yuan she and her mother have earned collecting waste. Paying no regard to her mother’s distress, Hu shouts indignantly: “Now I am a city girl!” This moment is not only an outcry from Hu, but also a declaration shared by countless other young people like her, yearning to break from their rural identities. 
Second, family expectations weigh heavier upon young migrants’ shoulders. As is reflected in the novels, the ever widening rural-urban gap has intensified both rural residents’ longing for an urban life and the elder generation’s expectations for the next generation. 
The older generation of migrant workers depicted in fiction were almost always filled with nostalgia. In order to better provide for their beloved families, the older generation of migrant workers were middle aged when they left their hometowns. For instance, Li Si in Wheat Field Above Wacheng City unswervingly identifies himself as a rural resident and is deeply fond of his hometown. Xu Ercui, a character in Minghui’s Christmas, wishes for nothing in life but for her daughter to attend a university and later become an urban citizen by marrying into an urban family. 
These expectations imply that homecomings are not welcomed, making the young neither willing nor able to go home. Having received a better education than their parents, the young carry the responsibility and hopes of their entire family. Labeled as “outsiders,” they are willing to, sometimes forced to, pursue another life away from home. 
This sense of “not belonging” works both-ways. Naturally, for urban citizens, rural migrants are the outsiders. Some examples are Xu Meina in Carriage of Jikuan, Ying Tao in I Got You a Bouquet of Red Flowers, Cui Xi in A Crop in the City and Minzhong in Leaving Liang Village. All of these characters are city dwellers that shoulder overwhelming burdens from home. To them, the cities they live in were both strange and familiar. However, to people back home, they are also outsiders. Years spent living in cities have watered down their sense of attachment to their hometowns, and distanced relationships with their folks. In a way, young migrants drift away from home both physically and mentally. After working in the city for years, Guo Yun in Birds Without a Nest found himself hoping to return home increasingly less when he says: “Why is the elder generation no longer down-to-earth?” 
It is also evident that the younger generation’s individual values are becoming clearer. Individual values refer to subjective views of how one identifies oneself and one’s own values under the influence of outside factors including society and other people. The older generation of migrants found themselves incompatible with urban values, and cities did not appreciate them either. Cities sheltered them without giving them the warmth of home. In contrast, the younger generation is eager to shake off their rural identities and realize their individual values in cities. This has prompted the new generation of rural migrants to identify themselves as “authentic urban people.” A case in point is Hu Dié, who has a habit of saying to the mirror: “City girl! City girl!” Rural female residents’ yearning for urban citizenship becomes not only connected to the appeal of urban culture but also self-awakening, where they gain consciousness of their own values. 
Struggle for identity 
Novelists have also noticed migrant workers’ desire for modernity, which was sometimes transformed into bewilderment while they desperately struggled against loneliness, a sense of rootlessness, and inferiority. 
Fang Guangdong and Zheng Lin, characters in The Yellow Mud Land and Leaving Liang Village, stay in big cities upon graduation. They have decent jobs but not a decent salary. The sharp contrast between their fancy workplaces and their shabby residences is hard to sustain, leading to a crisis of identity and making them feel inferior. Beijing Migratory Birds describes migrant workers as migrant birds, constantly moving between cities and villages without a sense of belonging. As a result, they are tempted by what cities have to offer while finding it hard to identify as part of it. 
Wen, a man without a college education in Leaving Liang Village, has unique feelings about the city where he lives, and he tries to integrate with great caution. Unfortunately, the city is a mirage for him and all his efforts have ended in futility. Hu Dié in Broken Wings is essentially different from the series of other female migrants described in this fictional genre: Ming Hui from Ming Hui’s Christmas, Xu Meina from Carriage of Jikuan, the second daughter from The Book of Shangtang, Feng from Going Home, and Qian Xiaohong from Northern Girls. She is confident, and she respects and loves herself and strives to become an urbanite. However, just like Ma Lanhua in Ma Lanhua’s Waiting, her efforts to change her identity are nothing more than a surface-level imitation of the clothing, posture, and even facial expressions of urban women. She is destined to fail, dragged into deeper confusion. 
Through a layered analysis of the circumstances of migrant workers in cities, authors of Chinese native-soil literature have managed to reveal their subjects’ deep confusion in searching for an identity. Migrant workers have attempted to integrate materially and culturally, but they have failed to truly transform themselves into urbanites, only ending up feeling more lost. 
Dreams confined by fate 
In their stories, authors of Chinese native-soil literature have created images of hardworking migrant workers relentlessly striving to improve their lives in cities, only to be constrained by a twist of fate. Min Zhong from Leaving Liang Village was born into a family that has made money by cheating, stealing, and arguing. Both angry and embarrassed about their shamelessness, indecency, and total lack of self-respect, he has rebelled to show his disgruntlement. He is seeking his own life, and yet so lost. 
“He is shameful about his family members taking pleasure in playing the fool. He refuses such brazen attitudes and undignified behaviors because that would demolish his principles and render his life an echo of theirs. He doesn’t want to tread their old path,” writes Liang Hong in Leaving Liang Village. Migrants like Min Zhong have to relentlessly fight for their dreams but can never overlook the worry that they will be somehow be assimilated back into their old lives. 
In Mulan’s City, Mulan’s mother Yao Shuiqin, who left to work in a city when her daughter was very young, finally divorced Mulan’s father, severing her ties with the family in the village. Mulan grows up and goes to the city, following in her mother’s footsteps. There Mulan meets Wang Xiaoshan, her husband, and gives birth to a son, Little Mao. She should have been satisfied, but she leaves them just like her mother. Mulan’s City is like a curse of fate, repeating the distressing loss of wife and mother in two generations. 
Liu Min from Breathing Out Loud thought he had integrated into the city, only to find himself disillusioned and agonized. The lasting anguish forces him into the wild to “breathe out loud.” 
Authors of Chinese native-soil literature have been remarkably successful in portraying migrant workers’ pursuit of modernity and success through hard work. However, their narratives are also highly homogenized and their understanding of modernity is insufficient. Their narration follows the same format, flooded with descriptions of suffering as a result of the author’s self-projection, thus failing to capture the full picture of migrant workers in the city. The lives of migrant workers are often taken as a means to reflect on urban culture and modernity, but a lack of a comprehensive understanding of modernity has made it difficult to rationally present modernity’s influence on this group. Nevertheless, as native-soil literature develops, authors will have more in-depth thoughts about modernity and migrant workers, creating new opportunities in this genre. 
Ji Ya’nan is from the Academic Journal for Central Plains Research at the Henan Academy of Social Sciences. 
Edited by WENG RONG