No Way Out: Lack of Education Traps China’s Rural Youth

New America Media, News Feature, Lisa Sangoi and Rian Dundon Posted: Jul 26, 2007

Photos by Rian Dundon.

Editor’s Note: China’s booming economy has spurred a massive village-to-city migration for its youth seeking a better life, but those without a college education find themselves forced to return home to the village. On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of China’s national college entrance exam, Lisa Sangoi and Rian Dundon chronicle the story of one such young man whose lack of college degree returns him to the family farm.

HUNAN PROVINCE, China -- Li Qiang’s wedding cost his parents what in rural Southern China amounts to no small fortune. They saved for years, his butcher father bleeding the money out of pigs and his own tired hands. And for 80,000 RMB ($10,000) they threw a three-day bash complete with live musicians, professional grade fireworks, the slaughtering of two fattened pigs and enough food, drink, and cigarettes to satiate 500 guests.

qiang carrying wife
Li Qiang carries his bride away from her family's home on the day of their marriage, outside Changsha, Hunan Province, China.

Once upon a time in a self-sufficient agrarian Chinese society, a family could hope for no better fortune than this. But Li is still a disappointment to his parents. The booming Chinese economy, with its double-digit growth, has opened doors for millions of young Chinese, but those like Li who never got a college education find themselves struggling to keep up with the competition. In fact, though thousands of his peers are following the Gold Rush into the cities, Li finds himself going against the tide -- making the long trek back to the village.

At 23, Li, the first-born son in his family, has tried to make a life for himself in two of the most promising cities for young men like him. Defeated by the long hours and low pay of his factory job, and unable to join his upwardly mobile peers without a college degree, his only choice may be to return to his village, only to face the prospect of leading a life much like his parents’.

Li Qiang's air of measured confidence is betrayed only by his eyes. Cautious and observant they speak of uncertainty and mischance. Like most young people from his village in rural Southern China, Li left home as soon as he could. High school graduation marked his departure to one of China’s booming mega cities where factory and construction work is plentiful and hard labor sells for cheap.

“At home, there isn’t anything to do. There isn’t any work for me,” Li says.

The Lis belong to the rural 60 percent of China's population, an underclass of people collectively labeled 'farmers,' now mostly forced to supplement vegetable sales with income from blue collar labor. Li’s parents were lucky to find their niche in the slaughtering business, and his family has managed a standard of life uncommon in the countryside. In many ways, the Lis are already successful.

"Although my parents have to work very hard as butchers, they do well,” Li says. In 1992, his family was the first in the village to change their mud house into a concrete house, he recounts. “We just bought a refrigerator this year. And sometimes we hire people to tend to the land so my mother need not do all the farming."

Still, Li’s parents put their hopes in their sons for a better life. Young migrants like Li could earn a city salary that allows them to supplement their family's income, a practice that is slowly building China’s countryside.

Born into the downward spiral of an agrarian economy, Li was presented with two choices upon high school graduation: pursuing further education or entering China's youthful mass of uneducated migrant workers. A preference for the mahjong table during his school years all but permanently ruled out the former choice.

qiang playing mahjong
Li Qiang (second from left) plays a game of mahjong with his family and hometown friends outside Changsha, Hunan Province, China.

Thus he made his pilgrimage to Shenzhen, the fabled city by the sea, where he was promised a factory job in a company owned by a successful former resident of his village. Working side by side with many of his former schoolmates piecing together bicycles, the illegal hours and grossly low salary did not bother most of Li’s co-workers.

"The factory owner wanted to improve our hometown's lot, send us out to earn money and live on our own. No one would complain because everyone was thankful to have a job," Li says. But to Li, the working conditions were intolerable. He returned home defeated by the factory's work demands and lack of advancement, its long hours and low pay.

Back home again and regretful of his lost education, Li was no longer willing to while away his hours playing mahjong. Once again he heeded the call of the city, this time heading to Changsha, Hunan's capital and cultural Mecca, just an hour away from the family farm.

In Changsha, he quickly found work with his cousin's electrical line installation company and moved into a dorm provided free for employees. After half a year of apprenticing Li was earning 1,800 RMB (about $232) per month. The money was better than before but still too little, he says, to send much home or to afford a comfortable lifestyle in the city.

But this did not stop him from enjoying, or trying to enjoy, some of the comforts of urbanity. On a recent birthday he invited six or seven of his friends from Changsha out for a dinner which alone cost him 500 RMB, almost a third of his monthly income. The meal was followed by a visit to one of Changsha's nicer hotels where they were escorted into a private karaoke room by one of Li's middle school classmates, now working as a high-class karaoke call girl. Li’s rather generous gestures represent more than just his wish to enjoy the city.

As his friend explained in confidence, for people like Li, hosting such parties, even if he could not afford it, is a matter of saving face. It would be a big embarrassment to Li’s family if their son, after moving to the city, could not enjoy its modern lifestyle now and then.

Unfortunately Li’s dorm style residence in the city and his inability to rent -- let alone buy his own apartment -- has put an expiration date on his life in Changsha.

Despite the recent advancements in China’s education system, the vast majority of young Chinese do not go to college and will face serious salary limitations because of it. While Li’s opportunities for social mobility far exceed those of his parents, his lack of higher education eventually forced him to return to the same village from which he set forth.

Soon, he was back in his village to marry a girl that he had met in elementary school. Li’s parents even built a new wing to their house for the newlyweds, following the Chinese tradition of living with the groom’s parents. Like many of his peers, Li will probably never be able to afford to raise a family in the city. When asked if he will ever return to the city to settle his family, Li responds as if his fate is sealed.

"I can't. My family has built an extra house for my new bride and our future children. They have already spent the money,” he explains. “Right now my brother is at university. After he finishes studying he definitely will not move back. I did not go to university so I must live in that house."

qiang and wife
Wedding portraits of Li Qiang and his bride hang on the walls of his parents house.

Li’s young and beautiful bride now lives at his family's house, ready to become a traditional Chinese housewife and mother. A local matchmaker arranged their marriage, and most of the courtship was conducted over the phone while the bride-to-be was away working in a coastal factory.

"Well, maybe there is a little fate in the story,” Li says. He says that he had seen his future bride in elementary school but did not see her for another 10 years. All he saw was a photo of the young woman. The couple hopes to have a baby this year, but Li is steadfast that his family's legacy of agrarian life will end with him.

What would he do if his children refuse to continue to college, much like he did as a young man? That scenario is something he cannot accept, Li says. "That is simply impossible."

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