It’s no secret that Chinese parents value education. It’s not uncommon for those with financial means to spend big on homes in better education districts, expensive private schools, or after-school tutoring classes.
But while parents’ level of commitment to their children might not vary across the economic and social spectrum, their practical ability to afford spiraling educational costs does. This burden is especially hard to bear in the country’s vast countryside, where it’s common for both parents to work in faraway cities for higher salaries. However, since these jobs leave them little time to care for kids and are frequently unstable, rural parents often decide to leave their kids behind to be cared for by their aged and often ill-equipped grandparents. These absent parental figures, along with the poor quality of many rural schools, have contributed to the nation’s yawning rural-urban education divide, which has so far frustrated all government attempts at finding a solution.
But not all rural parents accept the inevitability of poor schools and left-behind children. It’s become increasingly common for rural families to enroll their children in urban, closer-to-home school systems in smaller cities and for one parent — usually the mom — to quit their job, rent an apartment close to their kid’s school, and devote themselves full time to caring for their child’s every need, usually while the other parent works elsewhere. Known in China as peidu, this practice essentially amounts to sacrificing one parent’s potential income in a long-term gamble on their child’s future. The risks are high — and for rural families, the financial pressures caused by the lost income are sometimes unbearable — but if it works and the child in question tests into a good university, it can change the entire family’s fortunes.
In order to better understand this phenomenon, I conducted fieldwork in 2017 in an impoverished county in the northwestern province of Gansu. Despite having earned the official designation of “national-level poverty-stricken county,” the area has attracted notice for the success of its students, a surprising number of whom go on to earn doctorate degrees. Residents embrace this reputation, framing their success as a result of their “three hardships mentality”: teachers teach through hardship, students study through hardship, and parents work through hardship.
According to the local education bureau, the county seat is home to thousands of rural parents who are there solely to take care of their school-age children. While local schools have dormitories for students from the countryside, many parents prefer to provide for and watch over their children themselves. They rent apartments near campus and spend their days cooking for their kids, cleaning their rooms, and doing their laundry — freeing the latter to focus on their studies. Some take up this work as soon as their child enters kindergarten and continue until the kid has graduated from high school.
These parents, most of them from farming villages, are betting on education as a way to break the cycle of poverty. Life in rural China is backbreaking and unyielding, and few locals want their children to follow in their footsteps and toil in the soil or work menial jobs for little pay. A university degree is seen as a ticket to more stable, high-paying work.
Dang — to protect the privacy of the people I interviewed, I agreed to refer to them only by their surnames — is a 47-year-old mother of two from a village about 30 kilometers from the county seat. Her son and daughter both attend middle school in town, however, so she rents a nearby house and cares for them full time. In a good year, her family could only ever earn 10,000 yuan ($1,500) farming, and while her husband found a job that pays double that, it’s located in a different county. Dang dropped out after second grade, and her husband after fifth. They don’t want the same life for their kids. “My husband, with no skills, gets up at 6:00 a.m. and works until midnight or 1:00 a.m.,” she told me. “It’s hard work, and he doesn’t eat well. I want [my kids] to find good jobs — something stable — and not experience so much suffering.”
Given what’s at stake, parents like Dang hope their children can spend all their time and energy focused on class and are willing to sacrifice their own earning power in the hopes that it will make a difference. In the immediate future, however, this places a significant strain on family finances. Not only do families lose an important source of income, they also have to pay school fees — high school is not compulsory in China — rent an apartment, and cover any other incidental costs that crop up, which can include greasing a few palms to get their kids into better urban schools, despite their rural backgrounds.
Before she gave birth, 32-year-old Shao worked full time in the neighboring Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Back then, she and her husband were able to save 20,000 yuan a year. But since her eldest child started kindergarten in 2013, she’s devoted herself to taking care of her kids in the county seat. Her husband works in a neighboring town, and their family is now entirely dependent on his meager salary — almost all of which goes toward their children’s schooling. They have no savings.
Peidu can be just as taxing mentally as it is financially. By risking so much on their children’s education, peidu parents’ self-worth becomes linked to their kids’ academic fortunes. And if their children don’t perform well, parents often blame themselves.
The result is a life spent walking on eggshells. Liu, whose eldest son successfully tested into university in 2015 and whose youngest son was still in high school when I met her, spent years following the same routine: In addition to daily tasks such as cooking and cleaning, she would silence her cellphone at noon to avoid disturbing her sons’ lunch break. After 9:40 p.m., she spoke only in a whisper, so the two boys could do their homework without distractions. She lived in fear of her children’s failure, as much for her own sake as for theirs. “If it doesn’t work out, people will gossip,” she told me. “[They’ll say,] ‘You transferred them to the city, but the results were no good,’ and so we’ll lose face.”
The consequences of failure reach far beyond embarrassment. A child who fails the nation’s college entrance examination can leave rural peidu families in a state of despair. After almost two decades of sacrifice, they’re left with no savings and with no hope of a brighter future.
The sad thing is, failure is not an uncommon outcome. Due to the poor economic and educational resources rural families have access to, all they can hope for is to play a weak hand well. There are a few winners, but even more runners-up, making education an extremely risky investment. Both the national and local governments have poured money into rural education in recent years, but the country lacks a clear, focused plan for addressing the underlying problems. In the the absence of such a plan, peidu will continue to be a risk many rural families feel they have no choice but to take.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A mother takes her children home from school in Jinchang, Gansu province, Oct. 8, 2013. Cao Zhizheng/VCG)