Study and School in the Lives of Children in Migrant Families: A View from Rural Jiangxi, China

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Study and School in the Lives of Children in MigrantFamilies: A View from Rural Jiangxi, ChinaRachel MurphyABSTRACTMillions of children in China have been left behind in the countrysidewhile their parents work in distant places to support the social reproductionof their families. This article examines the role of study and schooling in thisprocess. The analysis shows that family strategies to pursue socio-economicmobility are intricately connected to state frameworks for providing support,and schools are central to this. This is because both family and state interestsin the attributes and prospects of the next generation converge in schools. Atthe same time, on a day-to-day basis, the labour of children in schools and thelabour of parents in the cities are intertwined. Specifically, by communicatingwith each other about study, and by focusing on the childs educational futureas the key purpose of their daily work, both children and parents carry outtheir obligations towards each other, while finding ways to cope with theemotional difficulties that protracted physical separation entails.INTRODUCTIONLingling was a nine-year-old whose parents had been working in a clothesfactory in the coastal city of Wenzhou for four years. Home for Linglingwas a village in Jiangxi province located in Chinas rice-belt interior. Thereshe lived with her nainai (paternal grandmother), yeye (paternal grandfa-ther), five-year-old cousin and three-year-old brother. Lingling knew thatthe following term she, like many fourth graders, would stay at school dur-ing the week: her grandparents wanted her to benefit from evening homeworkThe research for this article was funded by a British Academy Career Development Grant and anOxford University John Fell Fund Grant. The fieldwork was made possible by Professor Ran Tao(co-PI on the British Academy grant), Professor Chunhui Ye, Professor Guiyou Zhang, ProfessorShuangxi Xiao, Ms Ernan Cui, Ms Xiaoqian Kuang and Mr Jianping Song. An earlier version ofthe paper was presented at a Workshop on Population Dynamics in South and East Asia, BritishAcademy and Royal Society (2930 March 2012). The author is grateful for helpful commentsfrom the workshop participants, especially Anne Booth, Roy Huijsmans, Jonathan Rigg andBrenda Yeoh. She is also grateful for valuable feedback from John Harris, two anonymousreviewers and the journal editors.Development and Change 45(1): 2951. DOI: 10.1111/dech.12073C 2014 International Institute of Social Studies.Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and350 Main St., Malden, MA 02148, USA30 Rachel Murphysupervision and they also wanted to be spared the additional burden of ac-companying her to and from school each day. Lingling was not lookingforward to boarding because she knew that the food was not as good asnainais cooking and that nainai would not be there to heat water on thestove for bathing.Even so, Lingling would live at school without protest. She understood theimportance of study. She was reminded of this when her parents visited eachyear for Spring Festival. Linglings tears at the time of their departure wouldinvariably bring forth words of comfort such as: Study hard. Baba and mamaare working outside to raise you and support your studies. Additionally,weekly phone calls between Lingling and her parents focused largely onschool grades. Linglings guardian also made her acutely aware of the lifechoices that faced those who did not study diligently. Lingling explained:I will study hard because otherwise I will have to be a farmer when Igrow up. Farmers have to do lots of housework like nainai does, such asplanting vegetables, cooking and looking after younger brother and littlesister. Nainai told me this. In common with most children I met in Jiangxi,Lingling understood that it was necessary to du chu qu, literally to studyones way out of the countryside.The importance of childrens education in families migration strategiesin developing countries has been well documented. Many studies investi-gate how migrant parents investment in their childrens education and theiraspirations for their childrens future impact on the childrens academic per-formance. These studies present a mixed picture, showing that outcomes areaffected by such factors as the age and gender of the child, the gender of themigrant parent(s), the school system and the socio-cultural setting (Arguillasand Williams, 2010; Asis, 2006; Chen et al., 2009; Jampaklay, 2006; Kandaland Kao, 2001; Kuhn, 2006). By contrast, the Chinese language literaturepresents a pessimistic picture of the potential benefits of migration to chil-dren. It stresses that despite parents motivations for migrating (i.e. earningmoney to pay for their childrens education), the left-behind children exhibitpoor academic performance (Gong, 2005; Tao, 2009; Wan, 2009; Xie, 2009;Yao and Shi, 2009; Ye et al., 2005), high rates of truancy (Gong, 2005; Liand Song, 2009; Wang and Dai, 2009; Yang and Zhu, 2006) and emotionaland behavioural problems (Tan et al., 2009; Wan, 2009; Wang and Dai,2009; Yang, 2009).While these studies highlight important dimensions of the complex nexusbetween migration and childrens education, most of them sit within a left-behind paradigm. The left-behind paradigm is common in studies of migra-tion in developing countries where origin and destination binaries overlapwith assumptions about the characteristics of rural and urban places andpeople. Within this paradigm, the at-home family members are depictedas inhabiting a geographic and social space that is mostly separate fromthat of the migrants, while at the same time being subject to the impact ofoutflows of people and return flows of resources (see Archambault, 2010).School in the Lives of Children in Migrant Families 31Meanwhile, left-behind people, and left-behind children in particular, aretreated as passive and are even depicted as problems (Toyota et al., 2007).Research in the fields of both transnational family studies and childhoodstudies suggests that attention to childrens voices, experiences and agency,that is, their capacity for intentional action, can generate new insights. Specif-ically, scholars of transnational families highlight that the children are notleft behind in the sense of being abandoned. Rather they are raised froma distance by parents who send money and gifts, phone regularly and re-turn occasionally. Crucially, these scholars demonstrate that through suchactions the parents maintain ties that create single social fields within whichboth migrants and non-migrants, including children, think and act (Dreby,2010; Horton, 2008; Levitt and Glick Schiller, 2004; Parrenas, 2005). As thisarticle demonstrates, education is central to how the members of spatiallydivided families understand and practise their obligations towards each otherwithin these single social fields.The childhood studies literature also offers valuable perspectives throughits emphasis on the importance of the experiences and agency of children(Huijsmans, 2011; James et al., 1998; Prout and James, 1997). For instance,James et al. have pointed out that childrens lives take place in severalsignificant social spaces (James et al., 1998: 3758). If we extrapolate,children who live in migrant families experience the home or area oforigin not as one locality that exists in opposition to the destination area butrather as several places, including school, the guardians house and sites ofplay, all of which they actively negotiate. Among these places, school meritsspecial attention because, as scholars of childhood have argued,family iswhat its members do, a constantly continuing and changing practice, and aschildren go to and through school, that practice is organised around theirschooling (Connell et al., 1982: 78). It follows that an interplay betweenschool, family and class influences the kind of childhood that is available toa child and therefore his or her perceptions and choices (Connell et al., 1982;Field, 1995; James et al., 1998; Lareau, 2003; Stephens, 1995). Heeding theadvice from transnational family studies and childhood studies, the presentarticle explores how children, migrant parents and guardians arrange theirfamilies practices through schooling and elucidates how these practicesshape childrens experiences and agency.FAMILY, EDUCATION AND MIGRATIONWhile recognizing that childrens experiences and agency open up new av-enues for inquiry, some scholars of childhood have cautioned against over-celebrating this agency. Specifically, they recommend that researchers re-main mindful of how family regimes, education regimes, migration regimesand childrens age and gender intersect to circumscribe and influence thisagency (Huijsmans, 2011). The present section follows this guidance by32 Rachel Murphyconsidering how features of family, schooling and migration at national andlocal levels converge to shape the context within which children experienceand respond to family separation. In considering the ways in which familyregimes in rural China affect the circumstances of childrens agency, smallfamily size and intergenerational relations mediated through an idiom of fil-ial piety stand out. Of course, these affect most rural Chinese families butthey affect the members of migrant families in particular ways. Similarly, inconsidering the role of education regimes in shaping the circumstances ofchildrens agency it is necessary to acknowledge that study-related pressuresfeature in the lives of all school-age children, regardless of their parentsmigration status. However, crucially, children who grow up in migrant fam-ilies experience schooling and the associated pressures in relation to specificcircumstances.Studies on family regimes and parenting practices in modernized EastAsian societies, including in Chinas cities, have shown how, in recentdecades, children have benefited from increased parental investment in theireducation. On the one hand, smaller family size has enabled greater invest-ment per child. On the other hand, mounting social pressure to producesuccessful offspring has itself inflated the time and resource costs of raisingchildren, to the extent that parents limit themselves to one or two children,a dynamic that underpins record levels of low fertility in East Asia (Ander-son and Kohler, 2012; Caldwell and Caldwell, 2005). The social pressureto ensure that children attain high socio-economic status through educationhas been described by some commentators as education fever (Andersonand Kohler, 2012; Kipnis, 2011). In education-fever societies, children areraised by parents who actively participate in school-based projects to dis-cipline and prepare them for their future as productive workers and goodcitizens. Typically, the children attend after-school classes and study for longhours at the expense of rest and play (Field, 1995; Fong, 2004; Milwertz,1997; Stephens, 1995). Norma Field (1995) even proposes that the childrensstudy in such intensified child-raising regimes amounts to labour in that itinvolves purposeful disciplined effort. Her suggestion that the parents andchildren toil as a team for the future of the child is pertinent to this article.Analogous trends in family formation and child-raising have appeared inChinas rural areas (Hannum et al., 2009). Scholars note that with the ap-proval of their parents, primary school children stay in class till late or elsethey complete heavy loads of homework at home (Kipnis, 2011; Murphy,2004). These study-focused childhoods have come about in Chinas ruralareas through intersecting trends. In 1979 the state began to enforce strictfertility control policies (Greenhalgh and Winkler, 2005). From the mid-1980s onwards, the state also implemented mass compulsory education,which created incentives for smaller families independently of populationcontrol policies. In this environment, instead of realizing family aspirationsby having several children, parents realize them by having one or two chil-dren and investing more in their education (Greenhalgh and Winkler, 2005;School in the Lives of Children in Migrant Families 33Kipnis, 2011; Murphy, 2004). Even though primary and junior high schooleducation has been free since 2007, the annual fees for a senior high schoolstudent can amount to more than the annual income of a rural person, andthese costs need to be borne for three years. The expense of supporting astudent through university is even more onerous.For most rural parents, migrating to earn money for the childrens futurehas entailed leaving the children behind. For reference, the term left-behind children has conventionally been defined in Chinese official surveysas those children who do not live with either one or both of their parentsbecause the parents work outside their county (Duan and Wu, 2009). Eventhough reports based on such data do not always specify a minimum durationof parental absence in order for a child to be classified as left behind, itis common for such surveys to regard those individuals who have beenworking away for at least six months as migrants (Xiang, 2007). Accordingto a 2006 national population and fertility survey, nearly 44 million childrenaged between zero and fourteen were left behind by their migrant parents,an increase of 47.5 per cent on the figure for 2000. Of these left-behindchildren, half had a migrant father, 15 per cent had a migrant mother, and35 per cent had both parents working away (Duan and Wu, 2009).Principal features of Chinas social welfare system which underpin thecountrys migration regime explain why most migrants leave their childrenin the countryside. Firstly, municipal governments commonly use the house-hold registration or hukou system, a legacy from Chinas socialist planningpast, to limit the provisioning of public goods and services to rural outsiders.Poorly paid rural migrants and their children thereby face ongoing institu-tional exclusion from urban-based schooling, health care, housing and socialsecurity (Li and Li, 2010; Solinger, 1999). Secondly, the school curriculumvaries from province to province and even within some provinces, and asstudents must sit examinations for senior high and university entrance at theirregistered place of origin, those who transfer across school systems at keystages incur disadvantages (Xiang, 2007; Ye et al., 2005). Lastly, migrantsoften stay in factory dormitories or on construction sites and work over tenhours per day, six days per week, so their living and working conditions arenot conducive to family life.Over time, as successive generations of rural people have migrated, ed-ucation and migration have become increasingly intertwined with aspectsof family social reproduction, with implications for how parents raise theirchildren. This is illustrated by the Chinese sociologist Gong Hongliansstudy of a township in Jiangxi province, which also happens to be one of thefield sites for the present study. Gong compares the educational attitudes ofso-called first and second generation migrants. The first generation went towork in the Southern city of Shenzhen during the late 1980s when privatelabour and commodity markets had just re-emerged and hukou restrictionswere easing. Gong notes that the parents of these migrants had little educa-tion and wanted their children to work to earn as much money as possible34 Rachel Murphy(Gong, 2005). However, Gong further observes that the second generationwho had migrated during the late 1990s and early 2000s had a few moreyears of education and their own migration experience had taught them thateven though uneducated people could earn money, those with more educa-tion could enjoy better quality lives and higher social status (ibid.). Labourmigration has, therefore, intensified the effect of intergenerational differ-ences in propelling education fever because, as has been observed in otherEast Asian societies, parents want for their children what they never had forthemselves (Anderson and Kohler, 2012).Rural parents perception that those who have more education enjoy moresocio-economic mobility is supported by scholarly evidence. For instance,Hannum et al. state that by 2000, one additional year of education resultedin an average wage increase of 6.4 per cent (Hannum et al., 2010, cited inHansen, 2013). Moreover, a World Bank study reports that having a seniorhigh school graduate in a family virtually guarantees an escape from povertyfor that family (World Bank, 2009). For many rural families, however, theultimate purpose of a senior high school education is university entrance.Even though the prospects for rural students to gain admission to a firstor second tier university are slim, the expansion of the higher educationsector has nevertheless meant that most rural children can name either afellow villager or an alumnus from their school who has realized this dream,making it appear within the realms of the possible.The intertwining of education and migration in family social reproductioncan also be seen in how intergenerational obligations within families arechanging. Filial piety has been widely invoked in literature and moralitytextbooks to advocate a sense of intergenerational obligation both withinthe family and beyond. Children are encouraged to reflect on what theirparents and teachers have sacrificed for their education and to consider theappreciation and reciprocity that is required of them as sons and daughters,as well as citizens (Kipnis, 2009; Milwertz, 1997). Yet, while filial pietyis represented as a long-standing feature of Chinese familial culture, thecontent and expression of this ethic has been changing. As Kipnis (2011:149) explains: the reduction in the number of children in conjunction withthe expansion of the education system has encouraged parents to treat theirchildren as projects whose achievements are their own rather than solelyas sinks of reciprocal gift giving who repay parents with respect and old-agecare.Migration has contributed to this changing family dynamic by reinforcinggood parenthood norms that emphasize education and by constituting theparental sacrifice that both parents and children acknowledge in their rela-tionship with each other. Importantly, however, the use of sacrifice to givemeaning to migration is not unique to China. Scholars writing about othercultural settings note that the lens of sacrifice enables migrants to maintaintheir identities as caring parents, despite being physically separated fromtheir children (Carling et al., 2012; Dreby, 2010: 134; Horton, 2008). AsSchool in the Lives of Children in Migrant Families 35this article shows in the Chinese setting, for their part, childrens awarenessof their parents sacrifice is central to how they cope with separation, whilestudy is integral to how they honour the sacrifice.In many of Chinas rural counties, a further way that education and migra-tion have become intertwined is through the rise of rural boarding schools,a phenomenon which is also grounded in changes in family regimes. Theinitial impetus for building boarding schools was shrinking family size. Bythe mid-2000s the numbers of incoming students had declined to the pointthat villages were no longer able to support their own schools, so all butinfant grades were discontinued and non-infant grades were transferred tolarger schools located in townships. The amalgamation of students fromhigher grades enabled planners to consolidate resources and endow central-ized schools with superior equipment. The process of school consolidationhas meant, however, that large numbers of children must attend schools ata distance from their villages (Kipnis, 2011; Murphy, 2004). Even thoughthe boarding schools were not originally designed with the needs of migrantfamilies in mind, once they were in place, pedagogues and policy makerswere quick to see a role for them in dealing with the problem of left-behindchildren (Gong, 2005; Wan, 2009; Yao and Shi, 2009; Zhou, 2007). Schol-ars, many based in government think tanks, urged officials and educatorsat different administrative levels to expand and improve schools boardingfacilities (Tao, 2009; Wu et al., 2009; Xie, 2009; Yao and Shi, 2009; Zhang,2009). Such recommendations have corresponded with practice. In severalprovinces, authorities have expanded and humanized boarding facilities.Additionally, in 2007 and 2009 state subsidies were introduced to reduce andthen eliminate boarding costs for rural families. Inevitably, and regardlessof whether or not the children board during the week, school occupies a bigpart of their lives.RESEARCH SETTING AND METHODJiangxiThis article draws on qualitative data collected in 2010 and 2011 in Jiangxi,an agricultural province located in Chinas rice-belt interior. Of all Chinasprovinces, Jiangxi has the highest proportion of children that are left be-hind. According to figures from the 2006 national population and fertilitysurvey, in that year 34.7 per cent of children in Jiangxi province aged 014years were left behind, a proportion higher than the national average of16.5 per cent (Duan and Wu, 2009). Meanwhile, according to the JiangxiEducation Office, in June 2007, 26 per cent of the provinces primary schoolstudents and 23 per cent of middle school students were left behind (Chen,2007).36 Rachel MurphyThe fieldwork for this article was carried out in the primary and juniorhigh schools of four townships located in two counties. In these schoolsthe proportion of children labelled as left behind was much higher thanfor the provinces school-age population: 5070 per cent of students wereclassified as left behind. According to a 2010 multi-stage randomizedsurvey carried out in the fieldwork schools among 479 children in grades 4,6 and 8 (mostly with children aged 914), 67.43 per cent were left behind.Of the children in the overall sample, approximately half had two migrantparents. Approximately 12 per cent lived in families where only the fatherhad migrated while just over 4 per cent lived in families where only themother had migrated. The high proportion of left-behind children in thefieldwork counties reflects their highly migratory character.In the fieldwork schools, the incidence of boarding was also higher thanboth the national and Jiangxi average. According to the Chinese Ministryof Education, in 2011, nationwide 21.82 per cent of students in compulsoryeducation (typically aged 615) boarded, 10.89 per cent of primary schoolstudents boarded and 43.34 per cent of junior high school students boarded(MOE, 2012). I could not find directly comparable figures for Jiangxi. How-ever, according to a Jiangxi Provincial Education Office report, in 200730.66 per cent of left behind children aged 615 boarded (Chen, 2007). Bycontrast, in the primary schools that I visited, 3065 per cent of studentsboarded, with over half the boarders being left behind. In the junior highschools the proportion of boarders was more than 70 per cent of the studentbody, again with over half the boarders being left behind.The higher proportion of boarders was due to a mix of the political,demographic and geographical characteristics of the counties and townships.At the county level, an example of a political factor was the priority ofgovernments. Du (2009) identifies Jiangxi, Inner Mongolia, Sichuan, Shanxiand Henan as provinces where many county-level governments have beenespecially active in promoting boarding. Moreover, in the case of Jiangxi, theProvincial Education Office report already mentioned argued that there wasan urgent need for counties to expand boarding facilities to meet the needsof growing numbers of left-behind children (Chen, 2007). At the townshiplevel, the pace of school consolidation and local geography were furtherfactors affecting the prevalence of boarding. In one township the highergrade classes in the village primary schools were closed, while in another,mountainous terrain and a dam created transportation difficulties.InterviewsThe data on which this article is based were collected through in-depthsemi-structured interviews. Owing to the significance of adults in shap-ing the social worlds in which children live (Toren, 1993), backgroundinterviews were carried out with twelve teachers, while the main interviewsSchool in the Lives of Children in Migrant Families 37Table 1. Interview Sample: Migrant Family TypesBoth Parents Father-Only Mother-OnlyOut Out OutMatched interviews 17 5 2Unmatched interviews 16 3 1Interviews with children of returnees (indicatesthe migrant family type prior to return)6 1 2Interview with child living alone 1 0 0were carried out in matched sets with guardians as well as with the prin-cipal informants, the children. One matched set comprised interviews withtwenty-four left-behind children and their guardians, producing forty-eightseparate interviews. An additional interview was conducted with one left-behind child who lived alone. A further matched set comprised interviewswith eight children and their returnee parents, producing sixteen separateinterviews. An additional twenty left-behind children, one child of returneeparents, and eight guardians were interviewed, but not in matched sets. Thebreakdown of the different kinds of migrant families from which the in-terviewed children came is shown in Table 1. In total, therefore, fifty-fourchildren whose mothers and/or fathers were either current or previous mi-grants were interviewed. Most interviews were digitally recorded and thentranscribed in whole or part in English by the author.Of the children interviewed, just over 40 per cent of all parents workedin factories making items such as toys, clothes, electronics and plastics.A similar proportion was employed in informal sector activities includingcooking, cleaning and serving in restaurants, giving massages, mendingclothes, repairing cars, driving trucks and taxis, and working as securityguards. Approximately 8 per cent of migrant parents ran stalls. The remainderworked in construction. Prior to migrating, many parents earned their livingby combining farming with local off-farm work. The principal farmingactivities were double rice cropping, growing rape, tobacco and vegetables,and raising pigs and chickens. The principal off-farm activities includedworking on construction sites, in quarries, and in factories producing bricks,cement, fertilizer, wooden products, canned food, fireworks and other items.When interviewing the children, it was necessary to help them feel atease and several factors assisted with this. For many interviews, I wasaccompanied by one of two female Chinese college students who wereeducation majors aged in their early twenties. They introduced themselves tothe children as big sister. For some interviews I was accompanied insteadby an older woman from the provincial academy of social science whointroduced herself to the children as auntie. The presence of the researchassistants, the big sisters in particular, was valuable in bridging the distancethat existed between me as a mature-aged foreign researcher and the childrenas interviewees. Creating a relaxed atmosphere was also helped along by the38 Rachel Murphyflaws in my Chinese. These were commented on and joked about by somechildren and went some way towards levelling status inequalities. Finally,through playing Simon Says and other games with groups of children inthe classrooms and playground, I was seen to be approachable.Even though efforts were made to ensure that the interview was a com-fortable experience, interviewing the children nevertheless presented ethicalconsiderations (Woodhead and Faulkner, 1999). How to practise informedconsent was a particular challenge. As the research was facilitated by theschools, some children may have felt unable to decline interview requests,so we consciously gave them the latitude to manage their participation in theinterviews. Answers that seemed to be purposefully evasive or incompletewere not pursued. For instance, we interviewed a twelve-year-old boy whosegrandfather had explained that the boy knew about his parents divorce. Yetwhen the boy himself was interviewed, he spoke as though his parents weretogether. Therefore, we at no point alluded to his parents separation. Also,while the purpose of the interview was explained to each child, there waslikely to be variation in the capacity to understand this. In fact, severalchildren thought that I was a journalist.The use of an iterative process of inductive and deductive coding toexamine key themes in the individuals accounts of their actions, feelingsand experiences is well suited to exploring how they give meaning to theirlives (Miles and Huberman, 1994). The initial analysis of the interviewtranscripts was motivated by the research question: how do the childrenof migrants perceive and experience their lives as non-migrants? Yet, asthe coding progressed, it was study and school that recurred as the salienttheme in the childrens accounts of how they understood the purpose oftheir parents migration and how, on a day-to-day basis, they experiencedlife at home. For this reason, the research question was revised to focuson how study and schooling shape the practices of migrant families andmediate childrens experiences of and responses to growing up in them.While it cannot be ruled out that the school setting of the interviews mayhave affected the content of the childrens replies and therefore the analysis,it is likely that interviewing the children at home would have yielded a similaremphasis on study. Study arose in response to questions that were about dailylife and migration rather than about education. Additionally, the influenceof education fever has been documented for other rural communities inChina (Kipnis, 2011).The data analysis that follows has been structured along three overlappingdimensions. These are (1) childrens understanding of the purpose of parentalmigration; (2) childrens understanding of migrants work as bitter; and(3) childrens understanding of school as the place where they work to fulfiltheir obligations to their parents but also find relief from lifes pressures.Cumulatively these themes elucidate the centrality of study and schooling inhow children and parents affirm their relationship with each other and how,School in the Lives of Children in Migrant Families 39through a concern with study, they give meaning to the emotional difficultiesthat long-term physical separation involves.HOW STUDY SHAPES CHILDRENS LIVES IN TRANSLOCAL FAMILIESThe Purpose of Parental MigrationMost children I met in rural Jiangxi explained to me that their parents hadmigrated for their education. In Chinese, the colloquial term for workingoutside is dagong, which suggests the commodification of labour. Dagongstands in contrast to another word for work, gongzuo, which implies re-spectability and entitlements to social security. Regardless of whether oneor both parents had migrated, all the children I interviewed had been toldrepeatedly by the migrants and other family members that their parents hadgone to dagong so that they could study and later find gongzuo or properwork.Parents initial departure was the first time that many children receiveda clear message that their studies were of such vital importance that theirparents were migrating. One third of the children were old enough at thetime of their parents first departure to recall this event. Of these children,over half remembered that their parents had referred to their studies in theirparting words. The account of Ouyang, a twelve-year-old boy, echoes acommon experience. He explained:I was in first grade and getting ready to go to school. I saw that they were packing thingsand asked them what they were doing. They said that they were preparing to dagong. I askedthem, What about me when you are gone?. They said: We will send you to your [maternal]grandmothers house to study. I was very sad and said dont go. They said: We are goingout to earn money for you to let you study. I thought: They are doing this all for me. Icried.Even in situations where parents avoided directly telling their children thatthey were migrating, study was nevertheless inferred by the children to bethe principal reason for their parents departure. For instance, thirteen-year-old Shenyi recalled that his mother, a widow, had tricked him at the time ofher departure by saying that she was going to his maternal grandmothers, amemory that even now caused him to cry. Even so, Shenyi consoled himselfthat his mother remitted money for his school fees and that his diligence instudying made her happy.Another occasion on which the importance of study was emphasized tochildren was when their parents were preparing to return to the city afterbrief visits home, usually at Chinese New Year. Most children said that theirparting conversations with parents referred to study. For example, eleven-year-old Hongli explained that at her mothers most recent departure: I said:Mama, I will study hard but you must promise to come back soon. Thenmama said: I will come back soon but you must promise to study hard.40 Rachel MurphyStudy also featured when other family members comforted the children uponthe departure of their parents. Guardians would say: Dont cry. Your parentsare out earning money for you so you can study. Some children explainedthat their guardians thought that their parents earning money for their futurewas so obviously good that their crying was unjustified. For instance, eleven-year-old Jinhong said that if nainai saw her cry she would scold her saying:Your parents are out earning money for you. There is nothing for you tocry about. Similarly, children were reminded about the centrality of theirstudies to their parents migration when guardians or siblings tried to easetheir sadness at missing them. For instance, Cuili, a twelve-year-old girlexplained:It is not good at all that my parents are outside because there is no one to take care of me.Sometimes I say to my older sister: Why have they still not returned? I really miss them.Then my sister says: Dont worry. Study hard. They are earning money. Dont disappointthem. My parents really endure hardship. I will study hard.Further such reminders came with weekly or fortnightly phone calls. In thesurvey, of 323 left-behind children in the fieldwork schools, 269 identifiedstudy as the main topic that they talked about with their migrant parentson the phone, making it the top-ranking topic.1 In the interviews, somechildren offered more detail about how they experienced their parents carethrough phone conversations. For instance, Lixing, a thirteen-year-old girlsaid: They call once a week. They tell me to finish my homework and studyhard. I say I know . . . My mother tells me not to watch television. I obeyher because I know that my mother is working outside for money to supportmy studies. Zhangting, a thirteen-year-old girl likewise explained:When my parents were at home they could help me with washing clothes and homework. Iwas happy when they were with me. They cared for me every day. Now they care for me bytelephone. They tell me to study hard. They say study hard and find a good job, and in thefuture look after baba and mama.Cuilis experience was similar. She told me that her parents had caredfor her when she had visited them in Shenzhen but that after her return tothe countryside they could no longer care for her directly. She said: Nowthey can only call me. They ask about exams and tell me to be sure notto catch cold, study hard and do not miss us all the time when you are atschool. They fear this will influence my studies. Parents also referred tostudy when their children said on the phone that they missed them. Forexample, Lingling told me: I miss baba and mama a lot. I phone them whenI miss them. I say: Baba is your health good?. They say to me studyhard. Zhanglin, a thirteen-year-old boy, explained: When I miss them Isend text messages saying I miss you. I use yeyes mobile. They reply1. The breakdown of other responses to the survey question about the main topic of phoneconversations is: other family members, 210; health, 186; parents life outside, 54; localhappenings, 26; feelings, 30; future plans, 10; other, 2. Multiple responses were permitted.School in the Lives of Children in Migrant Families 41saying study hard. Yet for some children who felt that their grades wereinadequate, the emphasis on study actually made them reluctant to talk withtheir parents. Some guardians recounted how children had thrown down thephone or hidden when called to speak with their migrant parents. Meanwhile,some children explained that conversations with their parents about studyintensified their feelings of unhappiness.Phone calls were especially important for maintaining the parentchildrelationship in families where the parents had been physically absent sincethe child was young. The role of study in maintaining the parentchild rela-tionship on the phone could be seen in a fifty-eight-year-old grandmothersaccount of how she coaxed her ten-year-old grandson:When he was little he was unfamiliar with them and unwilling to talk with them on the phone.But now that he is older and a little more obedient I told him that when his parents phone heis to receive the call. I told him that if he doesnt receive the call then they wont give him themoney that they earn outside. Then when he is older he wont have money to study . . . Nowhe understands and will receive their calls . . . . Now he asks, Baba, when will you return?Will you buy me this or that?.Even though the boys and girls I interviewed both saw study to be the mainpurpose of their parents migration, there were nevertheless some genderdifferences in how they related to their parents through study. More girls thanboys interpreted parents phone inquiries and advice about study to be a formof parental care. This may reflect the tendency in rural Chinese society tosocialize girls to be dependent, relationally-oriented and focused on familylife and to socialize boys to be independent (Chen and Liu, 2012). Bycontrast, guardians and childrens accounts of an unwillingness to receivephone calls pertained more to boys than to girls. This may be because, as hasbeen noted for other cultural contexts and other types of family separation,boys are more inclined than girls to express their emotional hurt in overtways (McLanahan and Sandefur, 1994). A final difference pertains to theunequal status of sons and daughters in rural Chinese society. Several girlsobserved that parents or grandparents gave their brothers or male cousinsa larger share of food treats and sided with them in quarrels. These girlsdeclared that they would study hard, get good jobs and bring credit to theirfamilies. For some girls, therefore, a resolve to study diligently may havebeen influenced by their perception that they needed to work hard to earnthe adults respect.Childrens Understanding of DagongIt was not only the childrens understanding of the purpose of their parentsmigration, but also their understanding of their parents experience of labourmigration that had implications for how they viewed study in their daily life.The children learned from listening to adults, seeing their parents on returnvisits, or observing their parents lives when they visited them during school42 Rachel Murphyholidays that dagong was bitter and that they needed to study to avoidthis fate themselves. These childrens understanding of their migrant parentslives differed from those that scholars have observed of children livingin transnational families. Specifically, scholars have noted that childrenliving in transnational families often have only a faint understanding oftheir migrant parents living and working conditions and mistakenly thinkthat their lives are comfortable (Dreby, 2010: 11, 156), even luxurious acircumstance that can enhance their sense of abandonment (Schmalzbauer,2008).Owing at least in part to their perception that their migrant parents lives aredifficult, most children I met in rural Jiangxi had clear alternatives to dagongin mind. This was the case for Ouyang whose father made baseball bats andwhose mother made water bottles. He explained: I dont want to dagongbecause it is bitterly exhausting. I want to be a software engineer. There isa computer at home. Uncle arranged it when he returned last year. Ouyangwas typical in that his alternatives to dagong were shaped by influences fromschool, television and returned migrants.A further way that the older children came to understand that dagongwas bitter was from perceiving that their migrant parents health was ailing.Some children talked about hearing the tiredness in their parents voices onthe telephone. Other children learned about the ill health of their parentsfrom events recounted to them by telephone. For instance, fourteen-year-oldHeqin explained:When baba was working he had to be rushed to the hospital and they found that his kidneyswere not good . . . . keeping working makes it worse. [Her eyes fill with tears.] This summermy older cousin will take me to visit them. I will take stinky tofu, peanuts and medicine forkidney stones.Q: What do you think dagong is like?I think a boss is there, dry, while baba and mamas sweat drips non-stop.Another way that children learned about the harshness of dagong wasby noticing the physical deterioration of their parents on their return vis-its. Shenyi, the boy whose father had died, said: dagong is bitterly ex-hausting. The last time my mother returned she was very thin and hercomplexion was dark and rough. She didnt look well. Her appearancehad changed a lot. He then cried. Wangdie, a twelve-year-old girl whosemother had recently returned, said: If I can get into university then I wontdagong. Dagong is exhausting. Mama told me this. When baba returned,my mother cooked eggs for him, then he gave them to us, but mama said tous: Dont eat them. Leave them for Baba. He is bitterly tired from workingoutside.For some older children, visits to see their parents during the schoolholidays was another occasion when they perceived the austerity of theirparents lives as migrant workers. For instance, Cuili said:School in the Lives of Children in Migrant Families 43Their life out is not good . . . I know this because the last time I visited, each time my motherwould not take much food herself and would give extra to us. . . . I will not dagong becauseIve already told my parents that I will pass the exam for university. They told me: Yourstudy is not for us, it is for you. You do not want to be like us, dagong is tiring, dagong isexhausting.Fourteen-year-old Meilin similarly explained: My parents said that theydagong to let me study. Dagong is exhausting. Every day there is overtimetill late. When they come back to the room their eyes are red.The Bitterness of Dagong in One-Parent Migrant FamiliesFor children whose fathers had migrated, awareness of a further dimension ofthe bitterness wrought by dagong was their observation that their motherslives at home were also bitter. Twelve-year-old Wang Bin told me thathis mother experienced even more hardship than his father, who was aconstruction worker. During the busy farming season, Wang Bins mothertypically rose at 3 am to farm 5 mu of land and then transplanted seedlingsfor other families till 8 or 9 pm.2 Even though children such as Wang Binappreciated their fathers work, witnessing their mothers daily hardshipstrengthened their affection for their mothers as well as a sense of obligationto be good and study hard.However, among the children who were from mother-only migrant house-holds a similar dynamic was not observed. These childrens focus was onlyon the bitterness endured by the migrant mother. The fathers of two in-terviewed children had physical disabilities which prevented them fromundertaking heavy labour. Their circumstances resonate with a more gen-eral observation that in rural China mother-only migrant households tendto have inherent vulnerabilities that cause them to pursue labour allocationstrategies which run counter to traditional gender roles (Duan and Wu, 2009;Wen and Lin, 2012). In a third case, the father was a village accountant whoengaged in small-scale trading. According to his eleven-year-old daughter,her mother sacrificed much for her and her sister while her father enjoyedan easy life.Inner ConflictsEven though the children who talked with me generally accepted the work-study logic of the parent-children toiling team and felt that the hardshipsincurred by their parents required diligent study on their part, some wereconflicted about aspects of this arrangement. For several children, this am-bivalence arose on account of tensions between their recognition of the2. 1 mu = 0.667 hectares44 Rachel Murphyimportance of dagong for their educational aspirations on the one hand andthe deep effect that separation from their parents had on them on the other.For instance, thirteen-year-old Zhanglin said that he missed his parents andwanted them to return but then he later said that he would prefer themto stay out because he was better able to concentrate on his studies whenthey were not around. Eleven-year-old Zhaobin said that he felt sad whenhis parents went back to the city after visits home and he would often askthem on the phone to return. Yet when they did eventually return, he toldthem to go out again to continue earning money for his future universityfees.Conflicting feelings were less pronounced in the attitude of three girlstowards their fathers migration. The girls mothers had been migrants them-selves for several years before returning from the city without their husbands.These girls all stressed the material benefits of their fathers migration whilebeing emphatic that they wanted their mothers to stay at home. For instance,ten-year-old Fengmai said that she missed her father but she did not feel sadwhen he had gone back to the city because: only if he earns money do wehave food, and if he does not dagong then we have no food. Wangdiesfather had returned at Spring Festival but by June had still not re-migrated.Both Wangdie and her mother wanted him to go out again as soon as pos-sible. Wangdie said: It is better that he is out so that he can earn money.When I was young nainai raised me. Mama returned a few years ago. Beingat home alone is not good. If a parent is home the child receives more love.But I think that one parent should be out to earn money.The girls positive evaluations of their fathers migration echoes researchfindings from other societies, namely, that even though children may feeldistanced from their migrant fathers they nevertheless see them as reliablyfulfilling their role as breadwinner. At the same time, the mothers sustain theroutine aspects of the childrens life and both the mother and other relativesprovide sufficient emotional support to compensate for the fathers absence(Asis, 2006; Dreby, 2010: 80; Parrenas, 2005).For some older children, conflicting feelings arose because even thoughthey accepted the importance of study, they had come to doubt that theirown grades would be good enough for them to avoid dagong. For instance,thirteen-year-old Xiaorong explained that when she told her parents abouther low class ranking she felt as though she was useless. She said thatshe would have no choice but to follow her parents to Shenzhen to dagong.Thirteen-year-old Junbin similarly felt that his grades were not good. Hesaid that he was waiting for a year when he would be old enough to migrate.He said that school now held little interest for him and that only the internetcafe alleviated his boredom. These teenagers regretted that the study routewas closed to them. The few whose grades were poor but who neverthelessfelt optimistic were those whose parents either worked in a trade or wereself-employed and who had reassured them that learning a skill such as me-chanics or computers would still enable them to find a job. Such optimisticSchool in the Lives of Children in Migrant Families 45teenagers were, however, rare. As Hansen explains: The job would be lesssecure than the jobs one could get with an academic education; it wouldprobably pay less; and it would not bring face or social status to thefamily (Hansen, 2013: 172). Moreover, the quality of vocational trainingavailable to rural students is mostly inadequate (Hansen, 2013; Kipnis,2011).School in Childrens Life at HomeEven though school gives structure to the week for all in-school children(James et al., 1998: 41), it was particularly significant in the lives of thechildren whose parents had migrated. These children had to shoulder school-based problems such as performing badly in tests or quarrelling with class-mates without a parent nearby to turn to for comfort or guidance. A fewchildren said that they contacted their migrant parents at such times. Forinstance, fourteen-year-old Meilin said that she wrote to her mother whenpoor grades caused her to feel hopeless. A few other children phoned theirparents when they encountered problems. For instance, one ten-year-old boywho had been bullied by an older boy at school had told his mother, who thenasked his aunt and cousin to keep an eye on him. However, many childrendid not talk with either parents or guardians about problems they eitherfelt distanced from them or did not want to worry them. An exception waschildren who were at home with their mothers. These children said that theyliked being able to talk with their mothers, although even these children wereconcerned not to add too much to their mothers worries.School also underpinned childrens feelings of attachment to the ruralhome. This was because schools were familiar environments that had rou-tines, and classmates provided companionship. The value that a few olderchildren found in staying at home despite missing their parents could beseen in their decision to remain in the countryside, even though their par-ents had suggested that they finish their studies in the city. Twelve-year-oldYuquans account resembled that of several other older children. She ex-plained:I visited my parents place when I was in fourth grade . . . and went last year for one month.My parents worked all day and they came back when I was already asleep. I was in theroom by myself watching television, reading and sleeping. Sometimes they took me to thesupermarket . . . I didnt want to leave them because we had some happy times together. ButI am unfamiliar with that place. It is better for me to study here so that I am freer. I can playwith my classmates and hang out with family members. My parents asked me if I wanted tostudy in the city. I said that I didnt because my parents are at work all day and also the cityschool fees are expensive. I cried when my parents went out again after Spring Festival, Iwas broken-hearted. My grandparents comforted me saying: Study hard, your parents haveto go out for your future studies.46 Rachel MurphySchool also offered children time out from certain challenging homesituations that had arisen through the outmigration of parents. For instance,for some children school provided reprieve from living with an elderlyperson who was a generation removed and who in many cases needed helpin daily life. Fourteen-year-old Heqin explained:Living with yeye I am independent and look after myself. Yeye is in poor health, he is eighty-eight. My parents are not here to look after me. I cook, wash clothes, clean and buy medicinefor yeye. I have lived at school for two years. In the beginning it was unfamiliar. I like livingat school but I also like to return home. Yeye loves me and I like to see what he is doing. Butthen I like to go back to school again. I miss my classmates and games, especially jump rope.For a minority of children, school also provided some relief from themonotony of living alone. This was the case for Yingtong. He talked abouthow after the death of his grandfather his life at the weekend had no patternto it. This was similarly true for eleven-year-old Meiying who lived in amud house next door to her step-mother. Meiyings teacher said that athome Meiying washed her own clothes, and cooked and ate alone. Meiyingwas reluctant to talk about life at home. However, she said that she lookedforward to school because she liked the lessons and her teachers sometimespraised her.Yet even though the children found value in many aspects of school, mostof those who boarded at school during the week were happy to return to theguardians home for the weekend. The guardians home offered better livingconditions and a sense of family warmth that softened the more austere andisolating dimensions of a work-centred childhood. For ten-year-old Wujun,the care of his grandparents helped him cope with school. He explained:The food at school is not good. And there is no hot water so I go home towash . . . My dorm mates sometimes fight. Then I stand outside and tell theteacher. I look forward to returning home on the weekend. Yeye and nainaicare for me. They give me good food. For Ouyang, school and grandparentsboth contributed to a meaningful life at home. He explained:With time I got used to my parents being out. Living with my grandparents is nearly the sameas living with my parents. I have lived at school for almost a year now. In the beginning Iwas not used to it because my grandmother was not there to look after me. I like collectiveliving and having many companions. But sometimes I miss home and then I hide under myquilt.Two girls were fortunate that their mothers had returned from the cities forthe explicit purpose of caring for them at the weekends. Wangdies mothersaid: Nainai is no longer here so I must stay . . . I cook good food for her athome and give her dried food to take to school because sometimes she is notfull. The teachers cannot care for so many students properly. For her part,Wangdie liked to go home at the weekend to sleep in her own room in theirnewly built house and tell her mother about the weeks events.School in the Lives of Children in Migrant Families 47CONCLUSIONA transnational family literature has shown that children whose parents havemigrated are not left behind in a figurative sense because they hold pivotalpositions in their spatially dispersed families (Dreby, 2010; Olwig, 1999;Parrenas 2005). This article has extended this insight by examining the roleof study as a core domain of activity through which this pivotal positionis expressed. Certainly, in many countries childrens education is centralto both migrants endeavours and childrens participation in the familysshared migration project. However, the ways in which this plays out inpractice varies across socio-cultural and economic settings. This article hasexamined how the interaction of family, education and migration regimes attranslocal and local levels has shaped the ways in which people do familyin parts of rural China (Nelson, 2006 cited in Dreby, 2010: 146). It has shownthat in rural counties in Jiangxi province, a dramatic fall in family size andmigrants experiences of urban labour markets have interacted with extantparenthood norms to intensify rural parents aspirations for their childrenseducational success. Indeed, in many respects, these rural parents hardwork in urban labour markets approximates urban middle class parentsmore personalized use of time and money to inculcate high educationalaspirations in their children and to try to create the conditions conducive totheir future educational success.The children I met in rural Jiangxi had learnt through everyday communi-cations that they were obligated to honour their parents sacrifice of dagongby studying hard. The children were told repeatedly by their guardians,parents and siblings that education was the main reason for their parentsabsence. They were reminded of the importance of study in phone conver-sations with migrant parents. Additionally, advice to study hard was thecomfort that family members offered to children whenever they expressedsadness on account of their parents absence. By this logic, the more bitterthe parents dagong experience, the greater their sacrifice, and the deeper thechildrens awareness of their parents sacrifice, the greater their obligationto be filial. At the same time, the childrens awareness of the bitterness ofdagong fed into a strong desire to escape the drudgery of being a migrantworker, a desire which increased their appreciation of their parents sacrificeand intensified an unwillingness to disappoint them. Hence, both parents andchildren internalized and reproduced the education fever that bound them intoiling teams and gave meaning to their toil.School and study also provided the children with ways to cope with thepressures that parental absence and high academic expectations placed onthem. Notably, in school, the children were able to use concrete actions tostrive for good grades and thereby maintain a connection with their migrantparent whilst at the same time distracting themselves from feelings of loss.School life also gave children reprieve from difficult home situations thatcould arise because of their parents outmigration, for instance, living with48 Rachel Murphyinfirm grandparents. For some children whose grades were poor, schools andstudy were less helpful in enabling them to live fulfilled lives within spa-tially dispersed families. Some of these children felt that they were failuresand had let their parents down. They therefore avoided communication withtheir parents, disengaged from study and reconciled themselves to a futureof dagong. The situation of these children suggests that even though par-ents aspirations are beneficial for their childrens educational success (Han-num et al., 2009), exceedingly high expectations can demotivate children,alienate them from their parents, and intensify the strains that parental ab-sence already places on the parentchild bond.A rich literature has long demonstrated that bargains underpin cooperationbetween migrants and other family members, with much of this researchpertaining to the migrants obligations to remit money in exchange for therural families prior provision of support and subsequent provision of asafety net (Stark, 1991). The findings presented in this article affirm theimportance of implicit contracts in underpinning how family members, bothmigrants and non-migrants, participate in labour migration. However, theanalysis also joins that of others in demonstrating the value of moving beyondfamily economic bargaining models of migration. Specifically, this articlehas considered the ways in which migration contributes to reconfiguring theobjectives and the cultural and social meanings of intergenerational bargains,its role in obligating children to honour their side of these bargains, and theprofound implications that these bargains have for how the children ofmigrants live on a day-to-day basis.The analysis above has tried to remedy a lack of research into how left-behind children live active and meaningful lives at home. At the sametime, in teasing out how reciprocal influences among family, educationand migration regimes have shaped the substance of both childhood andchildrens priorities in rural Jiangxi, it has also cast light on the tremendousmental burdens that the children shoulder and the price that they have to payboth emotionally and in terms of life chances if they opt out of the parentchild team bargain. The article, therefore, affirms the empirical, analyticaland ethical value of examining the experiences and purposeful actions ofleft-behind children. At the same time, it lends weight to the caution issuedby some scholars to guard against an uncritical celebration of childrensagency, and their argument that this needs to be tempered by analysis of theinteracting dynamics that affect their relationships and the choices availableto them.Inevitably, the findings in this article are based on the situation in aparticular socio-cultural, economic and political environment. They are alsoinformed by a cross section of voices heard at a given point in time. Thereis, therefore, need for research in settings where different family, educationand migration regimes prevail as well as for studies that follow children overtime. 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(2007) Brief Discussion of Making Boarding Schools the Second Home of Left-Behind Children, Jichu Jiaoyu Yanjiu [Research into Basic Education] 7: 1516 (in Chinese).Rachel Murphy is lecturer in the Sociology of China at St Antonys College,University of Oxford, 62 Woodstock Road, Oxford, OX2 6JF, UK ( Her research interests are urbanization andlabour migration, and sex ratio imbalances and gender inequalities in China.