Yang Xiaojun’s world runs from the bamboo groves on the mountainside to the last of the rice paddies that stretch into the valley. At six years old, he can do what he likes and answers to nobody. With his younger brother Yang Dousheng and a gang of friends, he roams his domain from border to border whenever he feels like it. No one stops him from ripping his clothes in the brush or splashing in the mud after a rainfall. He lives up to his nickname, Little General; the other children are his brothers-in-arms. Together they own the place.
Every novelty is a game, every object a toy. A heap of rubble is a hillock to climb and jump off. A spare tyre is a chariot, a bamboo shoot a spear, a twig a cudgel. A stone bench is a victory podium, or an obstacle course, or a drawing board. Every day Xiaojun is given two yuan of spending money (30 cents), left for him by his grandfather in the morning. It’s a princely sum in an economy of sweets that cost one mao (2 cents) each, which are then bartered or shared, their wrappers littering the ground. In the daytime, this sugar-fuelled army of children runs free with no supervision. There are barely any adults in sight.
The boys’ absent parents have an almost mythical status, existing mostly in the stories their grandparents tell them, alongside ancient heroes and the Monkey King. When asked where their mothers and fathers are, the children reply with the names of faraway provinces: Guangdong, Zhejiang, Fujian. Sometimes the response is just chuqule, “they went out”, a common euphemism for migrant workers. The words are all but meaningless to a six-year-old, and those other provinces could as well be on the Moon. In the eyes of Yang Xiaojun, the known universe ends around the bend of the only road into town, outside the village of Paimo among the mountains of Guizhou where he was born.
Xiaojun and his peers have been orphaned by progress. Their parents left long ago, to earn money in the factory towns whose growth China’s economic boom has fuelled. The children mostly do not go with them, because child care is unaffordable and, in order to control the effects of urbanisation, the government restricts migrant kids’ access to city schools. Instead they are left under the care of their grandparents, who exercise little control. It’s a common story. You could throw a stone in the Chinese countryside and hit a village populated by the young and the elderly, where the bulk of working-age adults have gone to the cities to earn a living. Their sons and daughters are called “left-behind children”.
According to a UNICEF estimate, 29m children in China have lost both parents to a distant job, and 61m – nearly as many as there are people in Britain or children in America – have lost one. For a long time the authorities have not been inclined to sympathise with the bind in which economic reality and hukou (household registration) rules put migrant parents. “Some irresponsible parents give birth to children but leave them behind uncared for, seriously harming their physical and mental health,” the vice-minister of civil affairs, Zou Ming, has said. But earlier this year, China’s State Council acknowledged the extent of the problem and announced proposals to alleviate it, by providing child welfare in the country and incentives for parents to bring their children to the cities.
That move was triggered by some grim consequences of this trend. Last summer in Guizhou province, one of China’s poorest, four left-behind siblings aged five to 14 living in squalid conditions killed themselves by drinking pesticide. According to state media they left a note: “Thanks for your kindness. I know you mean well for us, but we should go now.” Three years earlier, in nearby Bijie, five street boys died from charcoal poisoning after crawling inside a rubbish bin and lighting a fire to keep warm.
Paimo is in the south-east of the province, a less downtrodden but poor rural area home to the ethnic minorities of Miao and Dong. This is the beginning of the famous karst topography of southern China – the landscape is not quite as dramatic as the “tooth mountains” of Guilin, but shows the first signs of dental jutting. Every reclaimable inch of hillside is carpeted by rice terraces, clogged with rainwater up to the edge of the next drop: infinity paddies. In summer it rains almost nightly, and the valley echoes with thunder. Dragonflies buzz, insects crawl. Dawn comes in a “sea of clouds”, to borrow the poetic Chinese phrase, with mist clinging to the horizon.
Two hours’ drive from the nearest town, Paimo is built of wooden houses with tiled roofs scattered by the sides of a U-bend that wraps around the mountain. Muddy tracks fork up and down the slope, past fields and more homes hidden in the foliage. There are 450-odd households in the village by most residents’ count. On paper some 2,000 people live there – almost all surnamed Yang – but the general consensus is that half of them are gone. Paimo could literally be translated as “unarranged”. Were the moniker deliberate, it could not be more apt: there is a discarded feel to a village in which most inhabitants are over 60 or under eight.
I spent six days in Paimo, and there are few places in China where I have felt more welcome. Because it is remote and in an “autonomous ethnic zone”, the village is in many ways a self-sufficient, enclosed society; adults leave for the rest of China, but the rest of China largely leaves it alone. Farmers in Paimo grow everything they eat, and need little more. Most meals are rice with fried vegetables, or bamboo shoots dunked in homemade chilli paste. A special treat is a slaughtered pig, a river fish or a bucket of spiral-shell snails that live in the rice paddies. A bowl of clear rice wine, brewed in almost every home, keeps the evening chill away (and perks some up at breakfast too).
The mountain provides hidden luxuries too: homegrown tobacco, and pipes to smoke it in whittled from lengths of wild bamboo, with clay bowls fixed on one end sold for one and a half yuan at the sweet shop. You can find wild raspberries and Chinese leaf mustard in the bush, if you know where to look, and indigo plants too, from which a deep-blue dye is extracted and used to make batiks on loom-spun cloth – a Miao minority tradition, although most villagers buy their dye and cloth from the town now. The Miao are an ethnic group best known in China for their colourful ceremonial dress but with a culture more than cloth-deep, and Paimo is instantly identifiable as a Miao village by the blue headwear of its elderly women.
This is the kingdom where Xiaojun and the other little generals rule. When I arrived, they were shy around a tall foreigner their parents’ age. But I had sweets in my pockets – evidently no one had warned them not to accept treats from strangers – and by the second day I was the main attraction. By the third, my novelty had worn off and I almost felt like one of the pack as I followed them about. There were six snot-nosed boys whom I got to know well: Yang Xiaojun and his little brother Dousheng (minorities in China have long been allowed two children), Yang Chengliang and Chengjin who lived in the house below, Yang Hao and Li Haifo, the son of my hosts who were putting the photographer and me up under their rafters.
Outside school, they occupy themselves in whatever new distractions can expand to fill their days. One Saturday morning saw them climbing the highest hilltop to swing from a tree like monkeys, sliding down a mound of building materials next to an animal sty under construction and dipping their forearms into the water of a rice paddy to see how high the mud reached. A favourite game, their own invention, is to clap their hands as close to a miniature deck of cards as possible, trying to flip over cards which can then be played to beat lower-value cards until one of them has the whole deck. They go back to their grandparents’ homes for hot meals twice a day, but otherwise the village is theirs.
These children’s lives are more “Huckleberry Finn” or “Just William” than “Lord of the Flies”. While I was there, they didn’t pick on each other or split into rival hierarchies. They were a band of equals, sharing their pleasures and their pain. When one fell or banged his knee and started to cry, the others pulled together to help. That was only natural, as there were no grown-ups to do it for them. While getting their names straight, I asked who was whose brother. “He’s my brother,” Xiaojun replied, pointing to a kid who was quite definitely not. “And he’s my brother,” jabbing at another and laughing a throaty squeal. Soon they were all pointing at each other and repeating it. It was just another game, but it felt like the truth.
Yang Peihua’s world is his paddy. At 61, Xiaojun’s grandfather still works the land every day. He rises before first light, and feeds the bird he keeps in a cage over the wooden balcony. Then he lets his water buffalo out of its shack and leads it down a slippery mud slope to the field, next to a folk-religion shrine of feathers, wet incense and liquor bowls. There he slips out of his plastic sandals and gets in behind the ox, wearing purple shorts, an old yellow T-shirt and one sock on his right foot, tied around his ankle with a length of string. He rummages in the mud for the metal plough, eh-ing and ah-ing at the hulking beast to get it moving. Together they draw lines around the field for hours, loosening the stubborn earth until it’s time to return home and prepare lunch for his grandsons, before trekking back down again for the afternoon’s labour.
Like virtually everyone else in the village, Peihua is a subsistence farmer. Anything left over to sell barely covers the cost of household necessities and medicine. His family has been in Paimo for five generations, and he has lived through much of China’s turbulent history. (“The Cultural Revolution was the most bitter time,” he said while sucking on his long bamboo pipe. “It’s much better now.”) But by the time his eldest son, Yang Chenggui, grew up, every able-bodied young adult in the village had left to work, mostly in factories near the coast where wages were so much higher. Chenggui went with them, 12 years ago.
Six years later he came back with a wife, Luo Honglan, who gave birth to Xiaojun in his family home, and Dousheng followed two years after that. Then husband and wife returned to the factory, and the grandparents have been raising the two children ever since. When Xiaojun and Dousheng were small enough Yang Peihua’s wife, Zhang Xiuyin, carried them in a cloth backpack dyed in the traditional batik style – an accessory every grandmother in the village owns. When both grandparents were working in the fields, they would take the kids along with the buffalo.
Mementoes of their son Chenggui linger in the house. A faded yellow school certificate from 1997. A picture of him holding the children tight, at the Chinese new year when the parents come home for a two- to three-week visit. Two toy cars, one red, one yellow – the gifts he and his wife left behind. “We didn’t want him to go,” Peihua told me bluntly, “but if he didn’t go he could make no money, and life is more expensive now.”
Whenever I asked anyone what they thought about the situation of left-behind children, the answer was always the same: “What can we do?” It’s a common refrain in China – mei banfa, literally “there’s no way”. Everyone says it, from Beijing taxi drivers to stressed office workers. In Paimo, it was practically the village motto. The cost of living is increasing while the price of rice is the same: “What can we do?” The batik centre is too remote for buyers to come: “What can we do?” These children will grow up without parents: “What can we do?”
The consensus is that left-behind children would be worse off if their parents were with them in the village, and by many measures that is right. There simply isn’t enough of a living to be made in Paimo to support them. Some parents look for work nearer, in the town of Danzhai next to the new motorway exit down the mountain. It’s a development zone (“Fight poverty, become well off at the same pace” reads one sign by a construction site) with official investment intended to urbanise the wider area, but even small-business ownership or a construction job there brings lower wages than the factories.
There is still no meaningful help from the government. My host, Yang Xuelan, said she had heard about state programmes that were supposed to support left-behind children, but “not a penny has made it here to the village”. After the first tragedy in Bijie in 2012, when the five boys died trying to keep warm in a trash bin, the city government allocated a special fund of 60m yuan ($9m) to address the crisis and keep track of all children on the streets. After the pesticide-drinking scandal in 2015, independent observers couldn’t find any trace of how those funds had been properly used.
Charities are better at providing aid. One (unregistered) NGO in the provincial capital of Guiyang, which delivers food and clothing to poor families across the province, was kicked out of Bijie by local officials for drawing attention to the plight of its left-behind children. The founder, who asks to remain anonymous, told me that the central government “isn’t neglecting the problem, but their aid is always given to those with power in the region.” As to the children themselves, he said the “biggest problem is their security and their education” but also the potential “negative influence on their personality” from growing up without parents.
After talking we went out for dinner with some of his friends from other local NGOs, including a charity that sends urban teachers to the countryside, and from the Communist Youth League that, as their representative enthusiastically told me, “guides young people’s thought”. When the conversation turned back to left-behind children, they talked among themselves. The founder I had interviewed earlier said: “In fact there’s no way for us to really help the left-behind children. The best thing is to help them be together with their parents. But we can’t make the parents go back to the village, and it’s not possible for the children to go to the cities with the parents. What can we do?”
Paimo is large enough to have its own primary school – two buildings and a yard with a slide and two basketball hoops that look over the southern paddies. The tiled inner courtyard walls are painted with images of happy families. Every morning from Monday to Friday, rows of young students stand in the yard, performing dance-like exercise routines, while tinny music pipes through speakers. One of the songs had for a chorus the rather heartbreaking line, “Mummy and Daddy hug me”, as the children wrapped their arms around their own bodies and swivelled their shoulders.
There are 59 children in the three grades of primary school, and about the same number in the attached kindergarten. Most will go on to middle school in the township of Yangwu on the edge of Danzhai, for a further six years of free and technically compulsory education. But in practice many drop out, and less than half of rural middle-school graduates continue to high school. The stumbling block for most rural children, even those with parents around, is access to good teachers and resources, without which most of them don’t stand a chance of getting into a good high school, let alone university. So they go to the factories, like their mothers and fathers.
I was sitting with Xiaojun and Dousheng on a Sunday morning when their parents phoned home. The call came through on Peihua’s mobile (an ancient brand, V*WAL, with only one saved number) and with excruciating slowness he found the button to take it, in speaker mode so he could hear clearly. After talking in the Miao dialect, he passed the phone to Xiaojun, who answered his parents in monosyllabic Mandarin.
“Are you being good?” Xiaojun’s mother asked.
“Yes,” Xiaojun said, ghostly quiet.
“Do you have money? Mama and Baba will give you some.”
“En” – uh huh.
“I’ll give you 100 yuan at the new year.”
“Mama and Baba will come back at the new year,” Chenggui cut in.
“Baba loves you.”
When he had hung up, Xiaojun and Dousheng went back into a corner of their balcony that looks over the village. Yang Peihua’s bird chirped in its cage. The two children played with the yellow and red toy cars in silence.
Yang Chenggui’s world is the table and iron in front of him on the fifth floor of a building in which he makes ladies’ underpants for a living. The factory town of Gurao, on the eastern coast of Guangdong, two provinces east of Guizhou, is the self-proclaimed “underwear capital” of China, although I’ve heard of a few. It is one of several towns in a wider industrial hub that connects three cities (Jieyang, Chaozhou and Shantou, collectively known as Chaoshan): far enough south for palm trees to line the streets, close enough to the sea for the chow mein to include chunks of squid.
On leaving Paimo I travelled to Gurao, and two days after leaving Xiaojun and Dousheng I was meeting the parents. It was their monthly day off, and the first thing they asked was if I had any photos of their children. They played the video message I had taken of Xiaojun twice over, then went through all of my other photos from the village, before taking out their smartphones and showing me reams of their own from each return visit. I recognised one as the same photo tacked to the wooden wall of their home in Paimo: a proud father with arms wrapped around his sons.
Chenggui, now 30, left Paimo in 2004, when he was 18. He worked in a steel factory in Shenzhen for two years, earning 700 yuan ($106) a month. Then he found his current line of work in Gurao, where he has been for almost ten years, his wages rising from 1,000 yuan a month to 4,000 yuan currently. In 2008 he married Luo Honglan, who comes from another village down the valley, and they returned to Gurao together to put aside as much as they can. The bus from Gurao to Danzhai every new year takes 24 hours and costs 400 yuan; it is among the few special expenses they allow themselves, living in a small apartment dominated by their laundry and a ceiling fan.
Both are employed by Julin Spotless Underwear Factory in the kind of apartment-block workshop that has driven China’s phenomenal export economy. They work from 8.30am to 10pm every day, with one day and two half-days off a month. All five floors are crammed with flimsy tables and red plastic stools, where Chenggui and Honglan iron elastic onto cheap coloured underwear for the domestic market. Their boss is a 23-year-old native of Guangdong whose family has been in the underwear business for a decade. He poured us tea in his office, one wall of which is covered with a poster of a sexy woman in J-Green lingerie – another client. The hours are crushing but the working conditions aren’t too bad; Chenggui’s main complaint is the sticky summer heat.
It is all for the children, he and Honglan kept telling me, as if they felt the need to justify why their family was separated. Every few months they send home a portion of their wages, which buy clothes, medicine and other necessities for Xiaojun and Dousheng. The biggest expense is kindergarten, which costs 1,500 yuan per child each term. When Dousheng fell sick at four months old with a blood disease, the medical costs came to 20,000 yuan and completely wiped out their savings. They could not both earn if the children were there with them, so they see no alternative to leaving them behind.
All the same, as parents they are worried sick. They know that the children in Paimo run wild, and constantly fear a tumble, a broken bone or worse. There are poisonous snakes in the mountain forests. Above all, they hear horror stories about gangs of kidnappers who abduct children and sell them on the adoption market – a well-documented phenomenon in China. But their fears are not just imagined ones. “We’re frightened that it will have some psychological impact on them,” Chenggui said. “We want to be there while our children grow up, but there isn’t enough money.”
“It’s very painful,” added Honglan. “When we go back [to Paimo] every year, spending time with them, everyone is very happy. But when we leave and take the bus back here, I cry silently every time…Whenever I see a child with his mother, walking on the street, I think that my own child doesn’t have a mother to play with. It’s hard to bear.”
Every country that makes the journey from poverty to prosperity experiences social dislocation on the way, but China’s transition is happening astonishingly fast. It is also being choreographed by a Communist government which, while keen to mitigate the negative side-effects of development, is ultimately focused on minimising the risk of social disruption.
When future generations in China look back at the transformation of their economy in the early 21st century, they will surely be glad that their country made the journey, just as few in the West would turn back the clock to before the Industrial Revolution. But the costs to current generations, to such as Chenggui, Honglan, Xiaojun, Dousheng and all the rest of China’s divided families, are high.
“My heart is empty,” Chenggui said, before I left. “But what can we do?”