The following essay was written by Huang Deng, an educated 46-year-old woman who married into a poor rural family. A PhD and currently the Deputy Director of Finance and Media at Guangdong University of Finance, Huang is also the daughter-in-law in a struggling country household. Her unique positioning and firsthand experience of life in two very different Chinas offers a somber reflection on the systemic disadvantages that plague people on one side of a widening urban-rural divide. CDT has translated the essay in full.
The Countryside Through a (PhD Educated) Rural Daughter-in-law’s Eyes
Although I’ve always been wary of writing about those on the lowest rungs of society, I’m worried their voices are now being silenced like never before. When a family’s children and grandchildren can no longer have their voices heard, just like their older brothers, their narratives will never come to light. There will be no one to bear witness to their grief. And because of this, their experiences will be lost to history forever.
I write all this today as a firsthand witness, as a daughter-in-law in a farming family. It’s an account of the fate I share with the people who happen to be my relatives.
1. A Family Touched by All of the Tentacles of Reality
I struggled with whether or not to write these words down for a long time. I first became aware of my older brother- and sister-in-law’s daily struggle for survival after I married into the family. All these years, life was a harsh, rugged reality for them, as if that was their unavoidable destiny. As someone on the outside, I always felt like writing their story down would be something of a violation. But now a member of the family, my intervention was inevitable. It became impossible for me to remain a completely objective bystander removed from the situation.
Our family has confronted and dealt with many trials over the years. Issues like rural elderly care, left-behind children, rural education, medical care—all of the issues affecting the prospects of the rural population that are commonly discussed by intellectuals and academics. My aim is to recount our situation from the point of view of a firsthand witness as much as possible, both to sort through my own personal feelings, and to provide a case study, in hopes of giving back to the village in some way.
My husband’s family is from a village in Xiaochang County, Hubei. In 2005, the first time I went back with him to their village for Spring Festival, the person who left the biggest impression on me was my sister-in-law. Sister-in-law was short. She had dark skin and an overall rough appearance. I even privately asked my boyfriend (at the time, now my husband), “I know Elder Brother isn’t exactly a heartthrob, but why marry such an ugly woman?” I later realized how horribly rude a question that was. To a poor village family (especially since Elder Brother had a hereditary disease that, I later found out, was the reason their father and second-eldest sister passed away early), finding a girl of appropriate age with which to start a family meant he was already extremely fortunate.
In reality, when it comes to village marriages, beauty and looks are incomparably less important than economics and family status. Sister-in-law didn’t come from a good family, either, but I don’t know the details. In the 10-plus years I’ve known her, she rarely went back to visit her side of the family, nor does she talk about them much. She’s a very outgoing person, simple, an open book. She was just a few years older than me, and we hit it off instantly. That first time I went to the village, we quickly felt close enough to hold hands.
My mother-in-law was about 75 at the time, still in good health. There was also my nephew, then 14, and niece, 12. Those years, Elder Brother and Sister-in-law were construction workers in Beijing. Fourth-sister and her husband worked with them, as well. Fourth-sister’s husband was a recruiter. He recruited many young and middle-aged laborers from back home. The setup worked well for him, people naturally trusted those from the same home town. And it worked out for those he recruited too, as they could earn a wage through the work he introduced.
I later learned Fourth-sister’s husband made a lot of money back then. In the late 90s, he even had the vision to buy land in Xiaogan City and build a four-story building there. Thinking back to that time, those were the family’s quietest, most peaceful days. My husband was still in school then, so he wasn’t able to give more economic support to the family. Since my mother-in-law was still in good health, she took up the big responsibility of looking after my niece and nephew. Approaching 80 years old, she was still feeding the chickens and cooking, doing all the household chores she could.
To maintain their livelihoods (children’s studies, maintaining relationships with those in the village, healthcare and other necessary family expenses), Elder Brother and Sister-in-law remained in Beijing at their work site throughout most of the year, only returning home a month or a couple weeks before Spring Festival every year, to help with preparations. That made niece and nephew “left-behind children,” raised by their grandma. But compared to a lot of the lonely children in similar situations, they weren’t too negatively affected psychologically, because they had their grandma’s love.
Things changed in 2008. Elder Brother and Sister-in-law had been working away from home for years, but they grew tired of constantly just scraping by year in and year out. At the same time, grandma and grandpa were already quite old, they could no longer handle the kids, who had entered their rebellious period. Sister-in-law decided to return home, both to take care of the elders, but also, more importantly, to keep the children under control. She also tended to the fields, fed the chickens, fed the pigs. We sent support money back on a regular basis. Everyone was healthy, and there were no big crises. At the end of the day, the family was still getting by.
And just like that, Elder Brother was left now the only one away from home. Physically, he never was a very healthy person, it certainly wasn’t appropriate for him to be doing physically taxing jobs like construction. But there was no way for him to earn an income back in the village. The kids were growing up, the elders getting very old. Pressure to make money was growing by the day, both for his children’s marriage prospects and to provide a good quality of life for the older generation.
The house the family lived in was built in 1998 with the financial help of my husband. There was a second floor, but it was basically an empty shelf. It wasn’t finished at all. People couldn’t even sleep up there when there were a lot of relatives home for holidays. But at least everyone was living well enough. As the kids grew older, it always seemed like things were looking up.
Every time Elder Brother heard we were planning to bring the kids back for winter or summer vacation, he’d always return to the village early, slaughter chickens and ducks, take his son with him on his motorbike to markets in the county seat and buy all sorts of cheap, silly toys for my son. Grandpa and Grandma were always elated, too. The whole family was together—the daughters that had married out of the family, and even the husband of Second-sister, who died young. Everyone got to experience the love and warmth of family. Fourth-sister and her family, who had been living in Beijing for so many years, were the only ones who seemed to rarely come home. But this stability didn’t last for long. Some unexpected issues came up that directly affected the direction of the whole family.
One issue was with Fourth-sister’s construction site. The government was behind on loan payments that Fourth-sister’s husband was responsible for. He was behind by a huge amount of money, and had no way to make payments. Their savings were completely devastated. Not long after, so were Elder Brother and Sister-in-law’s, earned through all those years of blood, sweat and tears away from home. (This money was virtually their entire life savings, nearly 100,000 yuan. They planned to use the money for their son to marry.) On top of that, Fourth-sister’s husband also owed a large amount of backpay to the workers on their project, and this debt couldn’t be avoided. When the situation was at its most dire, they even asked to borrow money from us.
I think it was the day before Spring Festival 2009. My husband received an urgent phone call from Fourth-sister’s husband. He told us someone was holding a knife to his neck, and that he had to pay a debt back that very day. He pleaded with us for help. He always gave me the the impression of being a pretty well-off guy—he wore clean, crisp, fashionable clothes, he had a manner about him of countryside success.
This was the first time he had reached out to us in years. Honestly, I didn’t want to lend him the money. For one, we didn’t have the extra funds on hand to help. We were preparing to make the first payment on our mortgage at the end of the year. Our financial situation was basically at its most strained point, as well. Secondly, they already owed Elder Brother and Sister-in-law nearly 100,000 yuan of their hard-earned money. I had my doubts over their ability to protect the basic interests of their relatives.
I explained my position to my husband. He didn’t say a word. Fourth-sister had no choice. She called us again begging for help. It was an emergency, there was nothing else she could do. We clearly didn’t have a choice, either. We swallowed our pride and asked to borrow money from a financially stable friend.
Even though she promised to pay us back in a few months, I knew it wasn’t up to her. We knew better than to ever expect that money back, and this proved to be correct. Years later, Fourth-sister’s family’s financial situation never improved. She didn’t dare come home for years, afraid she’d run into people who used to work with her husband wanting old wages paid. (It was only much later that I became aware of the true extent of the direct impact Fourth-sister’s family fate would have on our finances. Because they had no way to repay the money they owed to Elder Brother and Sister-in-law, Elder Brother was never able to save money again. With their son and daughter growing up, the burden of paying for things like marriages and starting a family all fell on our shoulders.)
My husband and I went to visit Fourth-sister and her husband in 2015, when I was studying in Beijing. They lived in a chaotic slum in Beijing, full of sewage, with garbage strewn about everywhere. They lived in two cramped rooms at the end of a winding alleyway. To avoid debtors, they had cut off all contact with the outside world for several years at that point. Fourth-sister’s husband didn’t dare return to his hometown, either. He was an only child, unable to even look after his own mother. Neither did he dare openly look for a job. They survived on money Fourth-sister earned washing dishes at a cafe. Their two daughters also made some money as tour guides. Their family was so well off back in the glory days of the 90s. I never would have imagined they’d one day be living like this, hiding in a dark corner, all because the government defaulted on the project payments.
The second issue was an even bigger blow. My husband’s youngest sister [Little Sister] left the family to become a Buddhist nun. Out of everyone in the family, Little Sister’s life was the most comfortable and happy. She was naturally pretty, and she had that classic Hubei girl can-do attitude. After completing junior high school, she went to work in Wuhan as a temporary worker in a factory. She met a formal employee there and they married. The two did very well financially because they got married early and bought a large house before prices reached 1,000 per square meter. Their daughter was smart and cute. Her husband eventually became a deputy director of the factory.
However, the truth is, other than my husband, Little Sister was shouldering a lot of the responsibility of supporting the family. All of the clothes and everyday items my nephew, niece, mother-in-law and father-in-law had, virtually all came from Little Sister, who brought the items to them from Wuhan. When Elder Brother and Sister-in-law were working for a few years in Wuhan, she took care of their housing. But these past few years, Little Sister started following Buddhism. She became a vegetarian. When she brought her children on vacation to Guangzhou where I was in the summer of 2012, she kept telling me about the benefits of vegetarianism.
Just a year later, in September 2013, my husband got an unexpected call from Elder Brother. He told us Little Sister had left the family to become a Buddhist nun. She even got a divorce, essentially ensuring herself no way to back out of her decision. From then on, she would be living the religious life. While I can understand her choice from a religious point of view, to be honest, I found her decision to let this burden fall on her family to be unacceptable.
Little Sister and I were born the same year. Her choice to leave the family for the religious life came precisely at the stage of life when one’s responsibilities to family are at their greatest: her husband was very busy with work; her daughter just began high school; her mother-in-law was very old, and her own parents were over 80. Her decision sent a shockwave through the whole family. In an attempt to convince her to return to secular life, my husband asked for leave from work and rushed overnight from Guangzhou to Wuhan, then from Wuhan to Anli, but was unsuccessful in the end. I could never look at her again, even at my mother-in-law’s funeral.
It continues to baffle the rest of the family to this day: why would someone who loved normal, secular life so much suddenly give it all up? (I only occasionally heard her speak about the complicated situation with her husband’s family, about the emotional abuse of her father-in-law, about her timid mother-in-law’s dependence on her, holding her and crying.) But she made her decision, and there was nothing the family could do.
The person most directly affected by Little Sister’s decision was her own daughter. An introvert to begin with, she became even more withdrawn. She only made it through the first year of high school, dropping out under social pressure. I have fond memories of that little girl at Spring Festival 2006, when the whole family was together. She was out picking vegetables, then joined her cousins running wildly through the fields, red bow swaying behind her head—a lovely sight. Out of all of those kids, she was the only one born in a big city—a beloved princess. I never would have thought that seven years later, she’d be the most pitiable out of all of them, all because her mother decided to leave and become a nun.
After her daughter, her mother was the next hardest hit. Her mother was never able to understand why she left for religious life. She mentioned it to anyone who came by the house. Mother-in-law’s once sturdy body gave way, rather suddenly, leaving her bedridden after a stroke and a fall. She wasn’t able to see her youngest daughter again before her passing. Father-in-law (stepfather) became slow of speech. Little Sister was his only biological child, her departure meant the loss of his biggest emotional investment. He spent his last days wandering aimlessly through the village, his ugly expression devoid of the joy of his past.
Fourth-sister’s bankruptcy and Little Sister’s entrance into religious life directly crushed two whole families, the effects of which then cascaded out to all the other siblings and their families—especially Elder Brother’s family, whose financial situation was tenuous to begin with. After five or six years his savings were completely exhausted, there was nothing left. Never again would everyone gather together like at that happy 2006 Spring Festival reunion. Little Sister used to help support the family financially, once she left, my family had to take on even more.
Though we tried to keep it hidden away in a dark corner, our family’s sadness was evident at every turn. Each time I’d go back to my mother-in-law’s house, I’d always hear about more depressing things talking to Elder Brother and his wife. In late 2013, their son eloped with a girl from the same county he met online. Elder Brother and Sister-in-law were elated. But soon after the girl joined the family, there was a lot of tension between her and Sister-in-law. She had an extremely eccentric personality. Later, we found out about her extremely rough upbringing.
We heard that after her mother gave birth to her, the county government forced her mother to undergo sterilization surgery. When she got home after the procedure, she became mentally ill. She was basically unable to care for her children. She would viciously beat people, tear up the clothes she was wearing, there was nothing anyone could do. The family locked her in a room. Everyone knew the tragedy was related to her surgery, but no one had the power to bring the truth to light. Instead, fate was allowed to take its toll on this ordinary farming family in the cruelest of ways.
I once asked my nephew’s wife, “Did you ever report the situation to the township government?” A blank expression showed on her face. She still hadn’t realized how much harm had been done to her life by that botched tubal ligation, she just explained that no one ever held her when she was small. I always talked about getting more information from her, to see if there was anything I could do to help protect her rights. But I later learned her mom had already passed, having never gotten over that mental illness. She was only in her forties.
Truthfully speaking, there’s nothing extraordinary about Elder Brother and Sister-in-law’s family. They’re ordinary farmers. They are some of the most honest, decent people. They have no extravagant expectations for their lives, never thought about how to acquire more capital through other means. Honest work is all they can do, and they do it in hopes of living a quiet, peaceful life.
But their situation is extremely common throughout the countryside. Stay in the village, and there’s no way to make money; go work elsewhere, and you might not even get your wage. But all those basic family expenses—children’s schooling and money for starting a family, housing construction and renovation, health care and end-of-life care for elderly—still remain. Although rural areas are exempt from agricultural taxes, compared with the rising costs of everything else, it’s really just a drop in the bucket.
One could say, there aren’t many ways through which China’s boundless hope and wealth can trickle down to them. But all of society’s ills seem to readily extend into these ordinary farmer’s homes: the government defaulting on loans; the spirituality crisis and the confusion it causes; the brutality and negligence of rural family planning practices and implementation. Any and all kinds of silent tragedies, from all directions, permeate the daily existence of these ordinary farmers. Their only option to deal with the pain, to resign to their fates.
2. A Family Without a Future
On July 13, 2015, my mother-in-law passed away after being bedridden for almost a year, ending her 86 years of misery.
Her funeral kept me busy, but it also left a hole in my heart. I felt that the tight knot that held our family together suddenly came undone. I didn’t spend much time living with my mother-in-law, but her kindness and generosity had often warmed my heart. There was no awkwardness or ill-feeling between us (she was more like a grandmother to me).
Every time we would come home, she would be beyond happy to see us—especially her little grandson. Shortly after he was born, she bought a lot of candy to share in celebration with the villagers. Whenever we mailed photos home she would share them with the old folks in the village. Her greatest wish was for her son to become a government official, an important one. In her mind, nothing improves a family’s fortune more than having children take up government positions. When it comes to resolving real issues for the family, her son and daughter-in-law, with their fancy PhD degrees, don’t even match a local official or construction manager.
My mother-in-law’s humble wish, along with the endless wear and tear of mishaps in life, made all her suffering and humiliation all the more evident. I know, there are many people like my husband who, born to a modest background, changed their lives through education and settled in the city. Burdened by their families, they even share some common characteristics in terms of their spirit and temperament—so much so that they are labeled “phoenix men,” and are often demeaned as non-marriage material by women from different social circles or better families.
I don’t deny any individual’s right to choose. It’s true that one has to deal with more issues marrying such a man, but this one-sided public opinion assuming itself on the moral high ground shows discrimination, helplessness, and indifference. It also shows how the urban-rural structure has dealt irreversibly bad cards to the peasants, and how such a divide affects generations and leads to irreconcilable differences. You could say that even if someone in the countryside were able to change their own course through education, they would still feel belittled and humiliated as long as they stay connected with their families. And these are the lucky ones we are talking about. How can you expect someone who stayed in their rural hometowns to fare any better?
It is what it is. When I calm down and give it some thought, I know that Elder Brother’s family didn’t have much of a future to look forward to.
First of all, inter-generational poverty has begun its course. In their prime years, Elder Brother and Sister-in-law left their kids behind to work in the city. Now my nephew and niece have grown up, are facing economic pressure, and will inevitably repeat their parents’ life, becoming a new generation of migrant workers. Elder Brother and Sister-in-law assumed the responsibility of looking after their grandchildren, just as my parents-in-law did.
My nephew got married in late 2013. To pay off his debt, he had to leave his wife shortly after the Chinese New Year to join the other migrant workers from his village to work as a bricklayer. When he was lucky he’d save up over 10,000 yuan a year; when he’s not, maybe he’d have to switch construction sites, and he’d have barely enough for a train ticket home. Compared to his parents’ generation, he is not nearly as frugal. Just like any urban youngster in his 20s, obsessed with smartphones and fancy clothes. The money he’s spent on these things could have supported his family for six months.
He’s thought about getting a job in a nearby town or opening up his own shop, but he doesn’t have the money or the skills to get started. On an objective note, there are hardly any circles of production in the rural area. More often than not, one has to break up the family structure in order to make a basic living. Therefore, there is a de facto cycle of getting married, having kids, becoming migrant workers, and producing left-behind children. For Elder Brother, the new challenge he faces is the possibility of having nowhere to turn to when he gets old. After all, none of his children were able to break out through education, while despite his hard work, he himself is only able to maintain the most basic existence, unable to save for retirement. Inter-generational poverty has become the destiny for this family.
Second, the effects of being left-behind children will start to manifest. My nephew and niece, the first generation of left-behind children, have grown up. My niece met someone online, got married at the age of 19 and became a mother at 20. Her husband is a local young man who is a year younger than her.
My niece was never mentally prepared for motherhood. Nor does she feel the responsibility of child-rearing. During her pregnancy, she maintained her old lifestyle, living off of instant noodles and sugary drinks, on her phone constantly. Noodle cups and empty bottles piled up near her bed. After giving birth, she didn’t even know where to buy cotton diapers.
One summer, I saw her with her less-than-one-year-old daughter. It was a hot day, and she left her daughter half-naked, covered in mud and dirt. I told her to get some cotton diapers, and she looked oblivious. Then she jovially told me how she started feeding her daughter popsicles when she was a few months old, and after a few days of diarrhea, the kid was now able to eat anything. But in fact, her daughter was constantly running an unexplained fever.
Compared to a new mom in the city, who is careful and meticulous, my niece surprised me with her ignorance and roughness. She is a kid, after all, a kid who became a mother at the age of 20. Her playful nature and the heavy burden of motherhood seem quite incongruous. I’ve asked her to buy some books or read about child-rearing online, and she looked at me with her young eyes and said, “I’m heading out next year. It’s the grandma’s job to look after the kid.”
My nephew isn’t faring any better. His wife, who lacked nurture and guidance from her own mother, doesn’t know how to be a mother herself. When the baby cries, she’d simply leave him in bed and completely ignore him or yell at him. She has hardly any patience, not to mention the calm that a reasonable mother should have. And because my nephew works in the city all year round, his wife spends most of her time with her mother-in-law. The two have their disagreements over trivial matters, which makes it even harder for her to care for the newborn.
You have to admit, unlike Elder Brother’s generation who were forced to become migrant workers, my nephew and niece are driven by very different mentalities. Although it’s true that they are still relatively poor, for many of these young mothers going out to work is their best excuse to avoid child-rearing responsibility. Because of how they grew up, they find child-rearing beyond cumbersome and miserable. How their own choices may hurt their children is simply not their concern.
Because they were not well cared for as children, it’s hard for these left-behind children to learn how to love. When they grow up and become parents, this lack of love won’t simply change, no divine power can compensate for that. The inter-generational poverty of love is the real issue of concern.
Compare that to the care and quality education given to a normal city dweller and you can’t deny that such this invisible gap is deepening the urban-rural divide. But on the other hand, because my nephew and niece have spent so much time working in the city they are also deeply affected by contemporary consumerism. They don’t differ from their urban counterparts in terms of benchmarks in clothing, marriage, housing, and daily lives.
My nephew didn’t make much money before getting married, but that didn’t stop him from getting new phones. (He met his wife on the internet, which gave Elder Brother and Sister-in-law solace.) For his wedding, he even hired a band and a motorcade, not to mention getting the “Big Three” gold jewelry popular in rural areas (necklace, earrings, and bracelet). The wedding wasn’t much different from any wedding in an urban, high-end hotel, the only real difference was that his family wasn’t wealthy. They didn’t put up a fight against the grandiose wedding, the betrothal gifts, the outfits for the bride. This was their only opportunity to shine in their otherwise dim life. And, the heavy debt incurred thereof became the starting point for a new family.
Third, the traditional village structure has lost its resilience. A weak economy has fastened the decline of traditional values and practices. Take caring for the elderly as an example. Even though for thousands of years, it has been the firmest belief among peasants that one shall raise children to provide for old age, such a simple wish has been greatly challenged by reality. Researcher He Xuefeng and his team revealed that in the rural areas of Hubei Province, many older people are committing suicide: “Our research center has found that the Two Lakes Plain (Dongting Lake and Jianghan Lake) and the surrounding areas have high suicide rates. The suicide rate among senior citizens in those areas, in particular, have greatly exceeded the average rate.” (“On peasants’ suicides and their types and reasons,” Huazhong University of Science and Technology Journal (Social Sciences) Vol.116.)
In his paper “Change of Inter-generational Relations and Elderly Suicide: An empirical study in Jingshan county, Hubei Province,” Chen Bofeng restated: “The high rates and percentages of elderly suicide and the fast increases thereof are indisputable facts. The cruelty of such a fact is shocking.” (Sociological Studies, Vol.4 2009) If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I could hardly believe the prevalence of such cruelty.
When my mother-in-law was sick, villagers would come by to visit. They’d talk about how the elderly in rural areas rarely get timely treatment when they get sick. (Sister-in-law looked after my mother-in-law every day with great care. She helped her turn over and changed her dressings. The whole village saluted her as the model daughter-in-law.) If the illness is terminal, death is often just a matter of time. Some elderlies would take their own lives so as not to burden their children. And some children, unable to bear such prolonged torture of caring for a terminally ill patient, would gradually feed the patient less food and starve them to death.
In his novel Mother, author Chen Yingsong, known for his portrayal of the underclass, offered a sobering and harsh account of such a reality. When I read this novel, I had those old folks in my mind. I could feel their calmness when nearing the end of their lives.
In their eyes, life doesn’t have much special meaning. To live, is to live in a lowly way, a numb way. Their happiness comes from basic instincts and from the inertia of life, and they see death as natural. In a village that has become quieter and more irrelevant as time goes by, such voiceless tragedy doesn’t stir up much emotion in people’s hearts.
The tragic and voiceless life of the miserable peasantry can hardly see any fundamental, overall transformation. Apart from keeping their stomachs full, years of glorious development have not allowed them to enjoy a dignity comparable to the overall strength of the country. The splendor of the big cities, the extravagance enjoyed by the urban wealthy, the high living of the successful—this all bears little resemblance to the miserable lives of those in the countryside of the same nation.
Finally, the village is facing an erosion of capitalism. Through government-business collusion, hot money is eyeing the last resource of the rural area—the land. On paper, the privatization of rural land is still in the debate stage; in reality, rural land is already being consolidated through capital. My husband’s village is located on a small hilly area without much scenery. A small river runs through the village providing basic irrigation.
But in recent years, some people came and closed off a big part of the land, and diverted the river into private ponds. They built pavilions and terraces for urbanites, modeled after the holiday resorts in developed areas and completely incompatible with the surrounding village. In fact, because the area lacked attractions, there weren’t many tourists to boost the economy. However, the diversion of the river is directly affecting the water supply; the farmland is occupied, and nobody can predict what will happen in the end. And, the villagers don’t seem to care. For the younger generation, like my nephew and niece, farming isn’t an option. The land being converted into resorts gives them an illusory sense of comfort.
If I didn’t marry my husband and experience all the daily affairs as a family member, if I hadn’t witnessed these unspeakable truths with my own eyes, I can hardly imagine the disadvantage facing a normal peasant in their life and struggles, nor would I know how far removed their lives are from the general trend of society. These real pains prompt me to ask: What exactly caused this family’s predicament? Why exactly do we give back to the countryside?
3. Why We Give Back to the Countryside
To be fair, even if I get into rational analysis, the prospects for Elder Brother’s family are still choked with gloom and despair. Yet every time we go back, Elder Brother and Sister-in-law still inspire relief and comfort with their outlook. They’re always short on money and Elder Brother suffers from a congenital illness, and yet they are much happier than us. Elder Brother never loses sleep, and Sister-in-law never bemoans their situation.
Even as her mother-in-law lay dying in bed, Sister-in-law did what had to be done without complaining. The stifled despair that usually accompanies the critically ill was nowhere to be found. The more they lived in peace and without desire, unaware of their plight, the more I felt their fate was a cruel one. I wondered why in this world must this be people’s fate. And for those in the family who’ve left and found success, giving back to the family has become nearly a natural, emotive choice.
When I think about giving back to the village with a cool head, no matter our country’s current economic might, rural families still do as they have always done: rely on one another for mutual aid. My parents’ generation did this, and my generation does this, too. On this point, I feel deep gratitude, etched forever into my heart.
I think of my parents. A half a lifetime ago, my father was a village teacher, a government position, and my mother was able, so our financial situation was just a bit better than everyone else’s. This obliged them to offer unlimited help to their relatives. In those decades, practically half of their energy was poured into dealing with their relatives.
“I’ve helped no one and troubled everyone” is how my mother sums up her own life. This is how she honestly feels about what she has done for both sides of the family for all those years. My entire impression of my childhood is of dad’s older half-brother sitting at home doing nothing, never going out the door without some money; or of my widowed uncle who went to Dad, his older brother, for help as a matter of course; or else of my mother’s sickly brother asking, shyly but firmly, for support; or Dad’s half-sister going to her parents at regular intervals to vent her grievances.
These relatives were kind, honest, and warm (when my dying aunt heard that Dad was coming to see her, she dragged herself to catch one of her hens for him to bring home for dinner). They never meant to bother their family or to freeload. It’s just that when they ran into trouble, their bitter village lives offered no exit. The help of their slightly-better-off siblings was their only way out. That was the fate of my father’s generation. Now, under the flag of Reform and Opening raised decades ago, the country has amassed great wealth, and no one in our family is without warmth or food. Yet, as new distresses arise, the situation facing my husband and me is nothing like what our parents dealt with.
In his essay “I Am a Peasant’s Son,” Mo Luo once lamented, “Every peasant hopes to change the family’s fortunes by sending their son to the city. But all this effort merely replicates that ‘duck and cover’ trope so popular in movies. What’s left behind is a flimsy set that collapses at the first blow. Of course, one’s death is inevitable. Even more powerless to save his drowning family, the escapee can do nothing but look at the sky and howl his grief.”
As the daughter-in-law of a rural family who lives among them, I can feel the helplessness of this anguish. My husband is like any rural kid who improves their lot by getting an education: the premise of city life is not to have a good time. Even paying for regular expenses feels like a crime to him. Born with the shadow of his family hanging over him, it shades his daily life. He doesn’t smoke or drink, or even have much of a social life. Hobbies are out of the question. His one indulgence is reading books. He leads what to others must seem a dull, simple life.
My husband is quiet by nature and doesn’t like to talk much. The quieter he is, the more I feel the painful, stifling weight his family exerts on him. He’s like a very lucky fish. Through his own hard work, he finally swam away from this hopeless family, but the good fortune of his escape can’t bring him inner happiness. The family he was born into casts its long shadow over him. As long as someone in the family is suffering, the one who got away can’t enjoy the ease and joy that ought to be his.
This pain that clings to him like flesh and blood will never let him forget the misfortune of his brothers and sisters. He is saddled with a mortgage and raising his children, but it is repaying the family he came from to which he feels duty-bound, never mind that it’s mostly his siblings back in the village who take care of their elderly parents. As a consequence, he silently accepts any request for financial help from anyone in the family. He would never even think to refuse.
After many years of marriage in the midst of this difficult economic situation, I often feel the heavy burden of my husband’s large family, at times a seemingly bottomless despair. But it’s the emotional anguish, not the financial ruin, that was hardest to take. There is a basic fact that I cannot avoid. If we didn’t care about them, if even the people closest to them turned a blind eye to their suffering, then who would reach their hand out to Elder Brother and Sister-in-law? Just the same, the ones who leave the village and gain a foothold in the city still face real, true hardship.
In the essay “What’s the 80s Generation To Do?” author Yang Qingxiang offers a meticulous analysis of the plight of intellectuals born in the 1980s, who escaped the countryside only to live a life of desperation and hard work in the cities. As for the 70s generation, their situation wasn’t quite as dire, according to Yang. But the 70s generation was only better off because they were able to buy housing just as housing prices were beginning to get out of control. They were fortunate enough to become “mortgage slaves,” but as they hit middle age and all the expected challenges that come with it, life and career pressures loomed as large as they would have otherwise. All they had were meager sums from already limited incomes to help their families back home. How much can a family’s fate really be changed with such scant resources?
The questions posed by Mo Luo 11 years ago remain unanswered: “What could best change the destiny of the people of the countryside? Should we rely on emergency policies, or does it require systemic sociopolitical reform? If farmers can’t access better educational resources; if they are not treated as so-called ‘citizens’ in a political framework based on equality; if they are unable to defend their rights in an open social system with their own voices and strength, then who could possibly guarantee that things will change for them? Who has the ability, the conscience, to be their savior?” (“I am a Farmer’s Son,” published in “Tianya” Issue 6, 2004) The day when we will get an answer to these questions remains out of sight.
That made me think of a certain group of people—those who made it to the cities through their own hard work. They were able to change their personal destiny, and therefore possess the power that comes with that. But the world’s temptations got to them, and they began walking the path of corruption. I think that for them, going from very limited resources to extreme material wealth after gaining access to opportunity, their desire for more will inevitably expand over time, because they truly understand the cruel truth about the difference one’s social status can make on their life. One author wrote the following regarding how members of this group of people truly think: “They work hard to take advantage of any opportunity that comes up, because they know that once this period of social stratification ends and society becomes rigid again, social mobility will become much more difficult.”
This really is the reality. If those who escape rural life aren’t able to change their family fate through their personal power, then change is impossible. I often saw abandoned homes in the village. When I asked about them, the answer was usually that the family had moved to the city and never returned. Where I was born, in Hunan, a whole family’s destiny could change simply because one of its members joined the military and became an officer. He’d leveraged all kinds of connections to get his brothers and sisters from both sides of the family out of the countryside. Even one brother-in-law, a 27-year-old who had not graduated from middle school, was able to join the army. And through family connections, a job was eventually arranged for him at the Public Security Bureau.
Compared to them, my husband and I barely contribute anything to our family. There are virtually no opportunities or resources that could fundamentally change things for our family. We have a niece that graduated college, but we weren’t even able to help her find a good job. Because my mother-in-law understood the importance of power, her biggest regret was that her son didn’t become a government official. In her mind, she always thought her son would be able to leverage his PhD into a visible government post. She didn’t know what the reality was for people in his demographic. Because of the guilt of being unable to help my relatives, I feel the structural challenges rural families face to changing their fates. Mo Luo’s feelings on this really resonated with me: “Farmers have paid a heavy price in this so-called ‘modernization’ process. I wouldn’t dare hope for my brothers and sisters in the countryside to be able to change their own situations through continuing modernization. Their destiny tomorrow will be as harsh as it was yesterday. With the situation being as it is—big government, small civil society—the only destiny for these disadvantaged people is to be used as humble stepping stones for the advantaged.”
Even though we help one another as much as we can, it’s not enough to change things because of how disadvantaged we are. At the governmental level, the best way to change things for families like Elder Brother’s is naturally through education. But the truth is, resources for rural education have withered to virtually nothing. My niece and nephew weren’t even able to complete middle school because of the poor conditions at their school.
My husband once counted the scholars in his cohort who had gone to college in the countryside. There were no fewer than seven or eight. But for our niece and nephew’s generation, if their parents weren’t able to send them to middle school in the county seat or in Xiaogan, odds would be against them even to test into high school. Even if conditions at rural school were just as good as those in the cities, these left-behind kids are still at an inherent disadvantage due to a lack of quality parenting.
In this family, all of society’s structural gaps are on display. To Elder Brother, Sister-in-law, my niece and nephew and their children, education no longer provides a viable means through which to change their lot in life, like it was for my husband. To the next generation, visions of escaping the countryside and living a simple, modest life in the city is like a mirage. Without promoting more sustainable development on a fundamental level, our loved ones, those people with whom we share a fate, are doomed to social destruction, doomed to be left in the dust, to struggle to survive, with no way to fight it, without even a whisper.
In conclusion, I want to say that although I’ve always been wary of writing about those at the bottom of society, I’m worried their voices are being silenced like never before. When the young people from families like Elder Brother’s can no longer have their voices heard, their narratives will never come to light. There will be no one to bear witness to their grief. And, because of this, their experiences will be lost to history forever. I write all this today as a first-hand witness, as a farming family’s daughter-in-law. It’s an account of the fate I share with these people, who just so happen to be my relatives.
Translation by Yakexi, Little Bluegill, and Anne Henochowicz