Down From the Mountains

With their parents at work far away, the children of the Wang family are raising themselves

At 14 years old, Wang Ying doesn’t want to be a mother. She scowls darkly as her younger brother and sister squabble in the corner while she does the housework. But she grudgingly cleans up after them and cooks them a potato stew, which they eat with rice crouched together on the mud floor of their farmhouse. The house is perched right on the edge of a steep valley, so that when the rainstorms roll in across the mountains, you can sometimes look out the front door and see nothing at all. When the rains stop, the mists left hanging in the pine forests would be beautiful if they didn’t deepen the feeling of being on a boat lost at sea.

But Wang Ying has never seen the sea. Liangshan, the area where they live, sits between the barren peaks of the Himalayas and the flat, fertile Sichuan basin with its teaming cities and 100 million inhabitants. Liangshan is the biggest “autonomous prefecture” for the Yi people, an 8-million strong ethnic group scattered across southwestern China and the borderlands of neighboring countries. It is also one of China’s poorest regions. For generations, Wang Ying’s family farmed the sandy slopes for potatoes and the numbing peppercorns the Sichuanese boil in their fiery hotpots. But you can’t raise children selling peppercorns in today’s China. And that is why Wang Ying’s parents left.


“I think a family being together is more important than anything,” Wang Ying says, almost whispering. “But if I told them that, I don’t think they’d listen to me.”

The three siblings are among an estimated 9 million so-called “left-behind children” currently living in the Chinese countryside without their parents, a 2016 survey by the Ministry of Civil Affairs found, adding that around 90 percent of such children are cared for by grandparents, while around 4 percent live by themselves. The Wang siblings live in the dormitory of their small local school during the week, and on weekends make the hour’s walk along a mountain path back to their farmhouse. Their maternal grandparents live a 40-minute walk away along that same path, but they have younger grandchildren and crops to tend to. Their grandmother sometimes helps them with the farming, but Wang Ying is often left to care for her younger siblings.

Max Duncan for ChinaFile

Wang Bing stands by the door of her family’s farmhouse in Liangshan, July 2016.

I met the siblings in the spring of 2016 and, after contacting their parents, followed the family in its different worlds over several visits throughout that summer. While the Wang children’s experience in certain ways is more extreme than that of the vast majority of left-behind kids, the psychological pressures they face are widespread. Southwest China is one of the areas with the highest numbers of left-behind children, where deeper poverty, fewer opportunities, and longer distances from major employment hubs pushes parents further away for longer. Leaving children behind is something people do in order to keep up with a changing society, and for ethnic minorities, many of whom already live on the periphery, this task is that much harder.

Large numbers of left-behind children have existed in China since the economic reforms that started four decades ago first drew farmers to new economic zones mushrooming along the coast. But only in recent years has the plight of such children come to the forefront of public consciousness after several tragedies, including the suicide of four unsupervised siblings in 2015 in Guizhou province. More generally, evidence suggests that the absence of parents has had a profound effect on several generations of rural children.

“We know that not living with your parents has a detrimental effect on children’s development,” says Ron Pouwels, head of Child Protection for UNICEF China. “It can lead to psychological problems, it can lead to behavioral problems. We know that they tend to do less well in school, and all these things of course have an impact on the later adult life of children.”

Balancing school with her responsibility weighs heavily on Wang Ying. Her pretty 12-year-old sister has a mischievous streak and delights in winding up their brother, a spindly and hyperactive 8-year-old prone to tantrums. Sometimes to let off steam he storms around the courtyard as the Monkey King, wielding a bamboo pole until Wang Ying finally bellows at him. After a year at school, he rarely communicates in full sentences, and has a recurring cough which the family believes stems from pneumonia as a toddler.

“I’m the only one who’s grown up, and my brother and sister need me to look after them,” Wang Ying complains. “When they don’t do what I tell them, I miss my Mom and Dad. And when the farm work is too hard for me, I miss my Mom and Dad. And sometimes the teacher tells me off when I don’t know the answer. Then I miss my Mom and Dad,” she says, shielding her tears behind a hand. When her parents call on the phone, Wang Ying refuses to speak to them.

“We see that in many families it’s often the older girl that has to take care of the siblings,” says Pouwels, of UNICEF. “If they live alone, or even when they live with grandparents, it falls on the shoulders of the older girl. It can stop girls reaching their potential because they cannot give 100 percent attention to school as they would like to. It probably will have an impact on their results, and it could potentially lead to a dropout.”

A cruel irony is that experts increasingly feel that the absence of parents could harm a child’s economic potential even more than the deeper poverty they would endure on a lower family income.

“It’s really best for a child to grow up in a family,” says Wang Zhenyao, a former official with China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs. “Life might be poorer, but there are great benefits to the child’s development. Now the children might have more money, they don’t lack food or clothing, but the psychological pressure on them can be very great.”

* * *

The siblings don’t know what their parents do, only that they went to work in a place called Guangzhou. In fact, the pair live in Huizhou, another sprawling metropolis in the Pearl River Delta, about 50 miles from Guangzhou.

For an 11-hour day, their mother Jiajia and father Quhere earn U.S.$15 each, and they try to keep costs down by living in a single room with no air conditioning even in summer heat of up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius). Like many Yi workers, they are illiterate and speak almost no Mandarin.

Wages have risen sharply in China in recent years in response to greater demands from workers faced with rising living costs. Factories keen to keep costs down are employing workers from ethnic minorities and remote areas who are more prepared to work hard for wages that many Han Chinese contemporaries now shun. There are now an estimated 300,000 Yi workers in the Pearl River Delta region, and to cater to a growing and sometimes bewildered Yi workforce, a network of labor agents has sprung up to ferry large groups of the workers between Liangshan and the Pearl River Delta, negotiate with factories, and organize accommodation.

This is how Wang Ying’s parents ended up in Huizhou. They first started going out in search of work several years ago, first her father and later her mother, often for shorter term agricultural and manual jobs. They then started working full time in Guangdong province around a year and a half ago, both returning for the Yi lunar New Year and Jiajia for the peppercorn harvest. For Jiajia, the choice between providing for her family materially and emotionally wasn’t an easy one to make. Primary education across rural China is technically free in the area where you were born, but the family says the cost of school supplies, food, and dormitory accommodation works out to more than U.S.$200 for each of her children per semester. Their annual harvest of Sichuan peppercorns would just about cover those costs for half a year, so the appeal of earning that much in under a month of factory work is obvious.

It would have been all but impossible to bring the children with them. The high cost of raising multiple children in a city is exacerbated by China’s household registration system, or “hukou,” which essentially links access to social services like free education and subsidized healthcare to the place where you were born. Transferring a hukou from a rural area to a high-demand urban area like Huizhou can be complex and expensive, if possible at all. But without it, often the only option is to pay to study at one of the many private schools that have sprung up to accommodate migrant children. Authorities are making it easier to transfer a hukou to some cities as part of a coordinated urbanization push, but policies differ by area. In any case, a couple that speaks no Mandarin Chinese and has little education would struggle to handle such a process in a place so foreign to them.

Premier Li Keqiang has spoken of his concern for left-behind children, and his government has ordered the Ministry of Civil Affairs to lead the creation of a stronger support system, but as yet the system is far from comprehensive in remote areas. In 2016, the ministry issued a directive for social workers to provide services to left-behind children, and it announced that absent parents who fail to meet conditions for appropriate care of children would be “punished.” With few sources of income in mountainous areas, the choices for such parents are stark.

* * *

The flames twinkling like fireflies through the dusky mountains each summer signal the arrival of the Torch Festival, the Yi’s biggest annual celebration.

Each year, the three siblings pass the festival and much of the summer holidays with their paternal grandparents, who live in a more remote part of Liangshan, five hours away by bus and on foot. The presence of their grandparents, their two other brothers who attend school in another area, and a tumbling rabble of young cousins goes some way to compensate for their parents’ absence. As night falls, the children scamper through the sloping fields, brushing the crops with burning torches made from bundles of slender branches, in a ritual traditionally used to kill pests.

Across Liangshan, the festival draws crowds to natural mountain amphitheaters where they whoop at fights between bulls and horse racing, and attend ceremonies by suni and bimo, Yi shamans and priests. Han Chinese tourists increasingly join the throng, and bustle to photograph beauty pageants of young women weighed down by impossible hats of towering silver—an image now well known across the country.

Max Duncan for ChinaFile

Beauty contest participants rest between rounds at a Torch Festival celebration, July 2016.

But the celebration of the beauty of Yi culture belies a perception held by some in China of the Yi as backward, or too stubborn to help themselves out of poverty despite investment in the region. A string of Chinese media reports in recent years have highlighted extreme poverty, a serious HIV problem, and young students scaling perilous cliffs to get to school.

The Liangshan government says on its website that in 2016 it handed out over 940 million renminbi (U.S.$140 million) in income assistance to its poorest residents, and yet parts of the region have seemingly improved little. The proportion of children who continue study past the compulsory nine years of primary education is less than half the national average.

Figures fail the complexity of the reality. In Liangshan, they say that as the Han move from the mountains to the city, the Yi move further down the mountain. This family is faithful to the trope, but in the transition, life has become ever more complicated.

The children’s father and paternal grandparents originally hail from an extremely remote area, and have little education or familiarity with the intricacies of China’s bureaucracy. The grandparents decided to move to a lower valley in another part of Liangshan that appeared better connected, where the family would be closer to a town and decent schools. The children and their parents followed, but found that to transfer their hukou to their new home would cost 5,000 renminbi per person in administration fees—a small fortune for such a family—essentially blocking the children from the local primary school without paying steep fees. A road that had been built up the side of their new valley collapsed in heavy rains, leaving them over two hours walk from the nearest transportation. The occasional electricity the grandparents now enjoy is generated by one small solar panel, and when it is overcast, they go without. There’s little to power anyway except a solitary light bulb and a mobile phone, in a country where over 99 percent of households now have a television. Faced with the challenge of transferring their hukou and their remote location, the parents turned to the maternal grandparents, whose connections helped to get the children into a school near them instead. So the three children and their parents moved to a rented farmhouse a 40-minute walk from them, on the side of yet another valley. From there, the parents left to work in Guangdong.

* * *

For the family, the end of the summer means two things: the peppercorn harvest, and the new school year. Worried about the children, Jiajia has decided in advance to return home for the foreseeable future, taking with her the money they have saved, and leaving her husband to keep on earning.

One car, two minivans, 30 hours on a coach full of other Yi workers, a three-hour local bus ride, and a two-hour walk later, she finds the children and their cousins on a hillside above the paternal grandparents’ house where they have stayed since the Torch Festival.

Wang Ying goes quickly to greet her mother and unloads the basket from her back. But she soon seems conflicted as to how to respond to this new presence and speaks little. Tensions become more apparent as the family settles back to the realities of farming life that same afternoon. Relieved that she won’t have to take care of her younger siblings or the chores as much, Wang Ying is quite happy to slack off while her mother toils, and regresses into an unfamiliar childishness. She becomes standoffish and cold when her mother, surprised by her children’s unruly behavior, scolds her roughly for “sitting around all day.” On another occasion, when her mother asks her to dig some potatoes, Wang Ying slams down a book she was reading in protest.

“If a parent is gone much of the year, [the child] can find it very difficult to attach themselves,” says Pouwels of UNICEF. “On the one hand you want to attach yourself to the parent but at the same time you feel you can’t make the attachment too strong because the person will leave again.”

And that is a very real possibility. The future is far from clear for a poor family living on one income, and their mother may go back out to work if they can’t make ends meet. What’s more, in many ways the family will continue to be disjointed, unable to live under one roof with the children of different ages studying in different schools.

Amidst so much uncertainty, Wang Ying is clear about one thing: she refuses to live like this forever. She plans to study as far as she can and earn enough to buy an apartment in a city, though she’s not sure which one yet. An education will give her choices her parents never had, and a profoundly different relationship with her country, further from its margins. She can leave the farming to her ancestors, and perhaps her own children, if she has them, will be able to live with her.

The reporting and production of this film were supported in part by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

The PBS NewsHour broadcast a version of this report about children left behind in the Chinese countryside by parents working in wealthier cities.