New Year’s in China means a mass migration
LILOUCUN, China — Li Guangqiang rises early and pulls on his sharpest city clothes: dark jeans fashionably distressed, puffy down coat, black pouch slung over one shoulder. An outfit carefully chosen to announce: I am not a farmer or a villager. Not anymore.
Li’s journey will be long, and he has no time to lose. Heading out into the dry, dirty cold of a Beijing winter, he rolls his suitcase along frozen canals the shade of curdled milk, through the warren of alleyways where he and other migrants sleep in makeshift shelters of concrete block walls and corrugated tin roofs.
When the holidays are over, when he makes his way back to work on the construction of the new Microsoft site, his home will be gone, swept aside in booming Beijing’s tireless bouts of gentrification. But he’s not thinking about that now, because these are the dying days of the old lunar year.
Today Li will go home.
Figures loom out of the darkness and make their way up the worn steps of the bus station, lugging booty for seldom-seen families: gifts of clothes and food wrapped in auspicious red to ring in the Year of the Rabbit, boxes of cheap toys, sacks of grain hefted on broad shoulders. Li is one of many now.
This is the world’s largest human migration: Every year, millions of workers flee the big cities and industrial hubs en masse and retrace their steps to their home villages.
These precious days are the most eagerly awaited of the year: a rare chance for rest, and the coming together of families painfully split apart by economic necessity. Self-conscious spouses are reunited. Children peer shyly at parents they haven’t seen in a year. Men who are mocked and exploited in the slick cities puff out their chests and strut, get drunk on rice wine and lavish their hard-won cash on their families.
Many of the workers sleep outside train stations for days to get tickets, then stand packed tight as cattle in train carriages. Li opts for the relative comfort of the bus for the 12-hour trip to his village, about 700 kilometres south of Beijing in Shandong province.
In the drowsy din of the bus station, Li’s eyes dart anxiously from gate to gate, but he tries hard to appear nonchalant. The 38-year-old has been making the journey for 16 years, and tries to adopt the swagger of the big city.
“I used to get very excited,” he says, shrugging, “but now I go back and forth every year.”
Li’s bus is called, and he joins the crowd surging through the gate. They toss bags into the belly of the bus, scramble aboard and elbow their way down the aisles. Every seat is full, and almost all of the passengers are men.
The bus shudders to life and pulls onto the road. It rumbles south past shopping malls, gas stations, construction sites. The bus is filled with the click of cellphone cameras taking parting shots as Beijing falls away. “Turn on the heat,” the passengers beg. “No,” the driver replies. “It’s a waste of fuel.” The passengers do not insist. They’re used to shabby conditions and physical discomfort. Soon the bus is rocked by snores and coughs. Li doesn’t sleep; he just waits.
The landscape turns to mountains and thicker trees, then flattens out again into fields as darkness falls.
The county seat is gaudy with lights, the market stalls and supermarkets packed with shoppers from surrounding villages who’ve come to town to stock up on holiday delicacies and decorations. Everybody is a little more flush with cash at this time of the year.
Li is the first one off the bus. Early fireworks burst into pinwheels in the sky.
He snatches up his bag, pushes past the taxi drivers and finds his cousin waiting for him in a ramshackle silver van. They smile shyly, light cigarettes. They don’t embrace.
The van pulls out of the city, back into the darkness of a country night, on rough roads that slice through the winter-dry fields of wheat and corn.
Li’s house looks dark and abandoned. Last year’s faded wishes for prosperity and happiness, printed on red paper gone to pink, still cling to the metal gate.
He makes his way through the courtyard and onto the concrete floor of the sitting room, bonecold and bathed in thin sulfur light. A television flashes and flickers behind a cotton curtain. “Hey, come out here,” Li shouts gruffly. Ducking her head bashfully, his wife sweeps slowly through the curtains. She is only 39 but she looks older, much older, than her city-dwelling husband. She has pulled her hair neatly back from a face grown ruddy and chapped from the sun and wind. For her husband’s homecoming, she wears a padded cotton jacket printed with bright red swirls.
Li shoots his wife an impatient, unreadable look. She stands at his side uncertainly. Their 13-year-old son comes skittering over the threshold from the yard. Both father and son seem embarrassed to make eye contact, let alone touch; the boy stares at the floor and races in nervous circles around his father.
But the uneasy moment is broken, diluted in cries of welcome as neighbours pour in to greet Li. He has made it home at last. Nobody remembers just how Liloucun village came to be. There is a vague story, something about how a group of Li men moved here 300 years ago in search of wider tracts of fertile land for farming.
The name translates as Li house village, and the men who live here today all bear the surname Li. The exact relations are lost to time, but the villagers assume their blood is shared, and intermarriage is forbidden. Men remain in the village, choosing wives from elsewhere, and the village daughters marry out.
Today, Liloucun is home to 160 people, three
Thousands of travellers jam Beijing’s railway station, all heading back to their homes in the country for the holiday.
Top, Li Guangqiang, centre, is taking the bus back
to his home village. Above, Li wrestles with his 13-year-old son, Shenshun. Right, Li’s wife, Sun Fengzhi, says life is hard with her husband away
working in Beijing most of the time.