Family | China

“Millions of children live apart from their parents”

Chinese migrant workers are often denied official residency. Many parents leave their children behind in the villages. Photographer Tami Xiang visited some of them. A conversation

Xiang Peng, seven years old, is in first class. His parents work in Guangzhou, a journey of 24 hours and 16 minutes by train from their hometown of Wanzhou. In the last six years, they have seen each other six times, each time for five to seven days during Chinese New Year.

For her series “Family Portrait”, photographer Tami Xiang visited the village of MaTou in the Chinese metropolitan region of Chongqing between 2014 and 2018. Her photo montages combine portraits of parents working far from home (right) with portraits of their children, many of whom are raised by their grandparents (left). Train tickets as well as the journey times between the parents’ workplaces and their home villages are shown in the middle. The textured structure of the pictures recalls the local tradition of weaving bamboo mats.

Interview by Ruben Donsbach.

Tami Xiang, you were the fourth child in your family, born in 1982 at a time when the one-child policy was still in place in China. What did that mean for your parents?

I was the fourth child and “unplanned”, as it was called back then. If the first child was a girl, you were allowed to try for a boy after seven years but that wasn’t the case in my family as my parents already had a son - my brother, who is 15 years older than me.

The story is actually rather dramatic, because my mother had to constantly move and hide during her pregnancy. She was even followed across several provinces by members of the local child-planning committee. It was winter and sometimes my mother was forced to hide in snowy forests in sub-zero temperatures in order to escape the authorities.

What would have happened if your mother had been caught?

They would have tried to kill me by forcing my mother to have an abortion.

That’s unbelievable.

I think those events have deeply affected me subconsciously and are still with me today. Many women in our neighbourhood underwent forced abortions during those years. It’s estimated that while the one-child policy was in place, hundreds of millions of children were lost. My aunt, my mother's sister, even had to abort a child very late in her pregnancy. Of all the unplanned children in my village, I’m the only survivor.

"I was considered an illegal child. That is why state officials came and took everything my parents owned"

Where did your parents find the strength to fight so hard for you?

I’ve talked to my mother about this quite often over the years, but strangely enough, I’ve never asked her that question. My simple explanation is that my mother is a very strong character. When she wants something, she does everything in her power to make it happen.

What happened after you were born?

I was considered illegal. Under the laws of hukou, the Chinese residential-control system, my parents weren’t allowed to register me. State officials came and took everything my parents owned: animals, pigs, cows and a lot of valuables. In addition, my family had to pay a fine of 400 renminbi which was more than my father earned in a year. They confiscated our land too. That was very hard for my parents.

How did your parents deal with the situation?

My father left us to work as a migrant labourer and only returned when there was a harvest in the region. He was a worker and a kind of magician, a medium, you could say. That’s another story, but let me just say that my mother believes he scared away the evil spirits in a kind of ceremony and that's one of the reasons I survived. I always wanted to write about that story, but something stopped me. It's hard to explain it logically.


An old woman and an old man are standing on the left hand part of this photo mosaic. Behind them stands a young man, wearing glasses and a yellow jacket. In the middle strip there are tickets. On the right half of the photo mosaic is a middle-aged Chinese couple.

Wan Jun, 22, has just graduated from university. His parents work in Wuchang, 11 hours and seven minutes away from their hometown, Wanzhou. In the last 14 years, they have only visited five times, for five to ten days each time – for example, to apply for official documents

So your father was mostly absent during your childhood?

Oh yes, absolutely. He had to be.

How did you feel at that time?

I was lucky that my mother and other members of the family were still around to look after me. When my father did come home, he wouldn’t even know what class I was in. One of my clearest memories is that he used to buy bananas for me, which were really hard to get at that time. When I came home from school, I’d rush up the stairs and look for them in our secret hiding place. And there they were.

But the phenomenon of these children who are left behind has not left you?

No, because later I understood that in China millions of children were, and are, left behind by their working parents – an estimated sixty million plus in the whole of China. Most of them of them live with their grandparents. Among them is the child of my brother and sister-in-law. They only come back to visit every couple of years, maybe three or four times in the last 15 years. Imagine that.

"The hukou system is the core of the social injustice we see in China today"

For me, that’s very difficult to comprehend. My son is turning one next week. Some of the children you photographed were his age when their parents left to find work in urban centres far removed from their home villages.

In addition to those sixty million children, there’s believed to be another thirty million so-called “floating children”. These are children who have moved to the city with their parents but don’t have the same rights as their peers.

Does the hukou system you mentioned have anything to do with it?

That’s the core of the social injustice we see in China today. There is a rural hukou and an urban hukou, and each of the two systems have vastly different impacts on people's lives. It’s a two-class system that permeates our society and determines who has access to good education, health care and social services - and who doesn’t. Urban hukou offers all these benefits.

But if you come from a village, you’d need to buy a house in a city to gain that status, and that’s far too expensive for most people. Once you have this status though, your pension will be much higher later on, even if you move back to the countryside.

How has this system affected you?

All my life, people from the city have made me feel inferior. They looked at me, they saw what I wore, how I spoke, how I behaved, and they knew I was not one of them. That's a common experience in my generation. I had no self-confidence back then. I didn't know which books were being talked about in school because my parents didn't have money for a library. So I had to adapt, as do so many of the left-behind children.

How do you feel about your parents in this respect?

I am simply very grateful to them. They gave me the freedom to grow and change. They helped me realise my dreams, even though their own lives were hard. They even sent me to university, which was extraordinary. In fact, my brother was the first boy in our village to study and I was the first girl. Friends of mine were not even allowed to attend secondary school in a nearby town. Their parents sent them straight to work in the factories or in the fields.

Was your photo project about the children left behind a way of coming to terms with your own experiences?

In a way, yes. After I took some of the portraits, I showed them to former neighbours in my village. One day a grandmother looked at the pictures and said, "If only the families could be together in one picture!" That was very emotional for me and it inspired me to make a montage of the portraits and the train ticket for the route between the home village and the workplace. Most parents come back at most once a year during Chinese New Year, and even then, only for a few days.

On the left hand part of this mosaic are an old woman and an old man, in front of them stands a young child with colorful pants and thick jacket. On the middle strip there are tickets. On the right stands a middle-aged Chinese couple, both in dark outerwear.

Zhou Fangya, six years old, goes to kindergarten. Her parents work in Shenzhen, 27 hours and one minute by train from her hometown of Wanzhou. In the last five years, she has only seen her parents four times, for five to seven days each time, during Chinese New Year


The parents send money to support their children and grandparents. But what are the psychological effects of the separation on the children?

I think the worst feeling is loneliness. During another project, I asked children to draw their feelings. Many drew their families, but separately, like in my photos. When I asked them what they dreamed of and what they wished for their families, most of them said they just wished their parents would come back.

I had to break off many of the interviews because the children got upset and started to cry, which I didn't want. In general, these children have received a poorer education and live unhealthier lives than their peers in the cities. This is because their grandparents may be loving, but many of them didn’t go to school themselves. They are farmers and have only worked all their lives.

Do you think that these children may later have problems moving to the city, that maybe they’ll suffer a repetition of the same limitations and traumas their grandparents suffered after events such as the Cultural Revolution?

Definitely. Most grandparents are very old, maybe 70 or 80 years old. The children they look after have a distorted idea of the modern world. Parental love is something that can’t be replaced. It’s something of emotional rather than material worth.

This is perhaps too personal a question, but are you a mother or would you like to have children of your own?

I could imagine having children in Australia, where I live and study today. But I have to admit that my history is something of a burden. I still suffer from the circumstances of my birth. I would want to talk to my children about it, but at the same time I wouldn’t want to overwhelm them. You know, when I was young, I had to walk to primary school, 90 minutes there and 90 minutes back.

"Today I’m working on my doctoral thesis at a foreign university as the first person from my village"

As a child?

Yes. In secondary school, I had to do the same, walking up to four hours a day. But what was worse was that I was made to feel like I was lower than low. Not even from the bottom. I was unplanned, I was nothing. I didn't even have a hukou. That is very difficult to deal with as a child. How am I supposed to explain that to my children?

Is there a particular memory of your parents that you hold dear to this day?  

Yes, I think so. When I was trying to get a place at university, it was really a once-in-a-lifetime thing. In China, you rarely get a second chance. I was under a lot of pressure. But my mother came to me and told me not to worry. She said, "If it doesn't work out, there are other options" and "Don't get depressed". That helped me a lot. Today I’m working on my doctoral thesis at a foreign university. I’m the first person from my village to do that.  I’m a survivor and I’ll be forever grateful to my parents for their love and support.


An old woman and an old man are standing on the left hand part of this photo mosaic, , in front of them a boy and a smaller girl. The middle strip shows tickets. On the right stands a man and a woman. All of them are wearing winter clothes.

Xie Lingling, seven years old, is in first class and Xie Xiangfei, 10 years old, is in third class. Their parents work in Guangzhou, 24 hours and 16 minutes by train from their hometown of Wanzhou. In the last seven years, they have only seen their parents six times, for five to 10 days each time during Chinese New Year