Back in 2015, I conducted fieldwork in two factories in central and eastern China. One, a garment factory, only employed female migrant workers. The other, a chemical equipment factory, only employed male migrants. During my study, I was struck by how male workers talked about their families with great openness and depth.
China has around 280 million migrant workers, most of whom are men. But we rarely hear about these men’s family relationships. Discussions of women rural migrant workers tend to emphasize their gender and seek to explain how their roles as wives and mothers shape their migration patterns and work experience in the cities. However, we know little about the reverse side of the coin for migrant fathers and husbands.
By limiting our scope, we perpetuate the stereotype that the role of men — especially working-class men — is to be breadwinners. Constrained by this assumption, we seldom try to understand the complex emotions and choices that inform the experiences of male migrants and influence their families.
Before marriage, both male and female rural migrant workers tend to migrate across the whole country, chasing good times or better job opportunities. Once married, however, they usually settle down in one place, ideally living together with their spouses. Male migrants expressed feelings of becoming more serious, hardworking, and responsible after getting married. Zhou Jiawan, a 30-year-old welder in a chemical equipment factory in central China’s Hunan province, shared with me how his general mindset and outlook on migratory patterns changed once he became a married man.
“I came to this factory in 2007, the same year I got married,” Zhou told me. “Since then, I’ve no longer run from one province to another. Once you’re married, you think about different things.” I asked what he thought about both before and after he tied the knot. Zhou looked at me with a surprised expression, as if he did not believe that I could ask such an obvious question. “Before getting married, I thought about having fun! Now? I think about my family!”
Almost all married male workers talked about money as a major concern when discussing their job options and family situations. This financial imperative made the male workers more prone to work longer and harder in the factory, more willing to accept overtime, and more likely to stick it out in a position they didn’t like. Li Zhansi, a 35-year-old welder from the city of Lianyungang in eastern China’s Jiangsu province, summed up this mentality for me: “Nowadays, employers prefer hiring married people who are older and more mature, because they are more thorough in thinking about things. They won’t leave without figuring out the next step. Young single people won’t think about it so much, because they only need to feed themselves and have no family to worry about.”
We must remain wary of assigning fixed gender roles to these men, however. First, migrant workers’ economic disadvantages often mean that both husband and wife must work to survive. Bringing money home thus represents a more equal partnership than one in which the husband alone plays the breadwinner. Second, we need to place these men’s economic considerations alongside the deep sentiments they attach to their families, especially as they frequently live far from their loved ones.
Qian Hongbin, a 34-year-old electrician from Xuzhou, also in Jiangsu province, was quick to remind me of the isolation many families face when he learned that I was in the factory to study rural migrant workers’ lifestyles. “See my co-worker there?” He pointed to another male electrician working on a machine. “His daughter is hundreds of miles away. You need to write that down — it’s a significant social phenomenon in today’s China!” Even though Qian’s own situation was not quite as bleak, he was no less emotional when his thoughts turned to his own daughter. “My wife is here, so I have brought my daughter here, too,” he said. “I just can’t bear leaving my daughter alone in the countryside, missing her mom and dad.”
Given that migrant workers usually come from disadvantaged backgrounds, raising a child in the city is costly in terms of child care and education. Qian thus needed to work harder to make more money, partially to live up to the masculine image as a provider, and partially because of his love for his daughter and his desire to keep the family together.
Married male migrants also recognized the importance of preserving their long-term health for their families. This actually led some of them to give up high-paying but dangerous jobs after marriage in favor of safer jobs that paid less. Chu Dongsheng, a 28-year-old male welder from central China’s Hubei province, had joined the factory only two months before I started my fieldwork. “I’ve been under a lot of pressure recently,” he told me. “My wife and I just bought a new apartment. My wages for last month are almost gone after paying for the mortgage.”
“I used to work on a construction site,” Chu continued with a nostalgic tone. “I was hardworking and loyal, so the project manager really liked me and took me everywhere. The job paid very well, so I never worried about money. But once I got married, I had to quit the job, because construction is too dangerous for a married man. I’ve never worked in a factory before, so I’m not used to the rules at all. I also don’t have any [transferable] skills, so I only get a basic wage, which is nowhere near enough,” he said with a deep sigh.
The expectation of having children changed the outlook of many male migrants I spoke with. Most had children within a year or two of marriage, given the cultural preference for early union and childbearing in rural China. Not unlike the urban parents I know, married migrant workers were especially concerned about two things regarding their children: education and marriage. We need to situate the rural migrant workers’ emphasis on education in the context of China’s unique education system, especially the gaokao, which was perceived by the rural migrant workers I encountered as a great equalizer in Chinese society.
Tellingly, even though most workers were highly underprivileged, they didn’t necessarily see elite universities as beyond the reach of their children. They thus worked hard to support their children’s education financially. Male workers frequently asked me how much my college education cost and then estimated the amount of money they would need to save for their kids.
Making sure their children had enough money to get married constituted another major concern among the migrant workers I met, especially those with sons. In urban China, it is quite normal for the bridegroom and his family to purchase an apartment or house for the new couple to live in. The rural population, too, is picking up on this trend. Many women in the countryside now expect their future husbands to provide them with an urban apartment and are no longer satisfied with new houses built in the villages. As Gao Huiquan, a 37-year-old welder, complained to me: “In my hometown, no matter how well you build your house in the village, when your son is ready to get married, the bride and her family always ask you whether you have an apartment in the city. Girls nowadays are very practical. It won’t do not to have an apartment!”
Of the workers who had to leave their children in the countryside in the care of their older parents or their wives, many expressed strong feelings of guilt and worked all the more diligently to compensate for their absence. The difficult separation gave added motivation to some male migrants, who felt they had to make up for their lack of fatherly involvement in their children’s lives.
When we study the work experience of rural migrants, we tend to pay attention to families only in connection with female workers, ignoring the families of male migrant workers. The assumption is that women cannot separate work and family, while men can. But the fact is that male migrant workers do prioritize their thoughts around their wives and children, showing deep emotion and concern for their loved ones’ well-being. This preoccupation influences where men work, how hard they work, and the motivations that sustain their work. Without attending to male workers’ considerations of family, we miss out a large component of their experience. Understanding the love they have for their families also puts a human face on their all-too-often silent existence as severely exploited laborers in China’s cities.
Editors: Lu Hongyong and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A girl kisses her father’s cheek at a railway station as she prepares to return to her hometown, Guangzhou, Guangdong province, Aug. 27, 2011. Benjamin Houston/VCG)