Since the beginning of the reform period in the 1980s, millions of rural Chinese have left the countryside for opportunities in the city. According to the 2020 national census, China’s “floating population” — defined as people who have been away from their registered place of residence for more than six months — has risen to more than 375 million, or over one quarter of the total population. This mass migration has completely reversed China’s rural-urban population balance. At the time of the first national census in 1953, nearly 87% of the population was rural. By the end of 2020, the rural share of population had decreased to about 36%.
As a result of urbanization, the abandonment of rural fields, and the diversion of rural land for industrial purposes, the total area sown with rice in China decreased by nearly 13% between 1978 and 2020; the total area sown with wheat declined by almost 20% over the same period. In spite of this, the use of new farming technologies has allowed grain yields to rise. This increase in agricultural production has been achieved without the emergence of large-scale farms in much of the country. More than 70% of Chinese farms are small-scale family operations, with an average size of about half a hectare typically dispersed over several small plots.
Migration is inevitable for many rural households, as parents find they can no longer feed their families and support their children’s education through farming alone. However, the conditions for rural-to-urban migrants — who commonly work in the low-paid manufacturing, construction, and service sectors — are often harsh and uncertain. Meanwhile, China’s hukou system of household registration makes settling permanently in big metropolises with relatively generous services and welfare schemes, such as Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou, nearly impossible for most migrants. Their fields, guaranteed to them by their rural hukou, are their fallback: If migrant workers lose their jobs or get old or sick, they commonly return to the countryside and engage in farming as a safety net.
For fields to retain this function, however, someone needs to stay and care for them. Paddy fields, in particular, need constant attention to maintain their soil quality. So how do migrant families manage the conflicting needs of migrating and preserving their fields?
One of the most important strategies has been the adoption of labor-saving technologies, often with the support of local governments. The use of such technologies dates to the 1960s and ’70s. While this decade is better known for the disasters of the Cultural Revolution, it also marked the start of the Chinese Green Revolution — the systematic industrialization of agricultural production through higher-yield crops, chemical fertilizers, mechanization, and other technologies.
In the early 1980s, with the de-collectivization of Chinese agriculture, farmers went back to farming in household units. Families were allocated the individual use rights to collectively owned land and allowed to make individual production decisions. This, combined with a rising population and the use of more productive industrial farming technologies introduced by the Green Revolution, released millions of farmers in China from their land and induced them to migrate.
But the relationship between mechanization and migration is not as simple as it may seem. Although migrant families increasingly feel pressure to use new labor-saving solutions like combine harvesters — and their urban incomes allow them to afford the costs of mechanization — many farmers do not view the use of new technologies in agriculture as an all-or-nothing proposition.
Mechanic harvesting undoubtedly saves farmers considerable time and labor. A combine harvester only needs about 10 minutes to harvest a one-mu plot (about 0.067 hectares). Only one person is needed to run the machine, while a second person walks behind it to put the rice into bags. In contrast, it would take four people roughly an entire day to harvest the same area manually with sickles.
Nevertheless, not everybody is willing or able to bear the costs of renting a combine harvester. As Zhou, a migrant from the central Hunan province, explained, the costs of capital input for harvesting, pesticides, and fertilizer can eat up about 20% of a rural household’s income, which he already considered barely enough for subsistence.
In light of this, many farmers combine mechanized harvesting services with more conventional ones, like using manual sickles. Not only is using a sickle much cheaper, but sickles are also more appropriate for small, muddy, or mountainous plots that are not suitable for machine harvesting. This also makes them more attractive to many migrant families, as the family members who stay behind typically cultivate smaller plots.
There are other advantages to conventional farming methods. In contrast to a combine harvester, which cuts only the grains, sickles allow farmers to harvest the straw together with the grain. Rice straws can be used in house construction, to make sleeping mats, as flooring in oxen and pig barns, and to make items such as hats, brooms, or ropes. Meanwhile, leaving rice straw in the field and simply burning it there has the unwanted side effect of killing the frogs in the fields, which are key to pest management.
Despite these considerations, the villagers I spoke with generally valued mechanization. They perceived combine harvesters and other machines positively as “modern.” Moreover, they appreciated that the machines saved them time and energy. Others noted how machines have “freed the labor force” and enabled people to migrate for work.
Thus, while farmers continue to use manual techniques, most families have incorporated mechanization as part of their strategy for upkeeping agricultural production after the outmigration of household members. From the perspective of the villagers, mechanization helps them to cope with their predicament.
There are side-effects of mechanization. For example, only certain rice varieties are suitable for mechanized harvesting, and many traditional varieties that villagers use for local specialties or in rituals cannot be harvested mechanically. Using harvesting machines thus implies the renunciation of an important aspect of local identity. Moreover, it shifts the gendered divisions and valuation of labor. While harvesting with a sickle was and is performed across age and gender boundaries, combine harvesters are operated exclusively by men. Consequently, male harvesting work is valued higher than female harvesting work.
Similar trends have occurred elsewhere in the world. What makes the Chinese situation distinct compared to other countries is the unprecedented speed and scope with which farming has been industrialized and large shares of the population have transitioned from rural to urban lives. So far, farmers have managed to strike a balance between rural outmigration and keeping their farms running.
For the farmers themselves, however, this usually means living in split households and not seeing some of their core family members for months or even years. An increasing number of younger villagers is not willing to put up with this lifestyle. In contrast to the first generations of migrants, who were certain to return to the countryside, many younger people envision a permanent life in the city alongside their families. The current balance is therefore highly delicate.
To protect the identities of her research participants, the author has given them all pseudonyms.
Editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.
(Header image: Farmers dig ditches and fertilize their fields in Langzhong, Sichuan ptovince, Feb. 22, 2021. Wang Yugui/VCG)