The Floating Population: A Study of Migration in Shaxi Valley

Julie Perng, SIT Study Abroad

China: Yunnan Province - Language and Cultures


From the years of AD 618-907, a great empire ruled over significant social change and a flourishing period of Chinese art and literature. Merchants, clerks, and government officials came to Chang’an, the capitol, from India, Persia, Arabia, Syria, Korea, and Japan (“Tang Dynasty,” 2000). This dynasty’s territory and success surpassed that of the Han Dynasty (BC 206-AD 220), and revived the famous trade route, the Silk Road.

Originating during the Tang Dynasty was a trade route less famous, the “Silk Road of Southwest China,” winding through Yunnan and Sichuan to Tibet and India. This road was known as the Ancient Tea and Horse Caravan, and its horse caravans would travel an extremely important route between China and the West, exchanging goods as well as culture. A major bulk of it crossed fifty-one rivers, crawled over twenty-five rope and iron bridges, and went over seventy-eight mountains over 3000 meters high. The entire route, however, would contain history far surpassing the physical challenges (Yang, 2004).

One of the valleys the route wound through was a village named Shaxi, tucked around the beautiful He Hui River. Inhabited by mainly the Bai minority people, the village was a major stopping point along the Caravan road, its bustling Sideng market square dating back to a thousand years ago. Throughout the years, it survived constant changing of rulers vying for its physical resources. Yet Shaxi faced one of its most major challenges with the coming of the People’s Liberation Army, which destroyed many cultural and religious sites, distributed land to the peasants, and took excesses such as the horses and mules (Katzen, 2002).

Since then, the people of Shaxi have worked to recover as government support and interest has, until recently, waned. Located in Jianchuan county of Dali Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan, it is a breathtaking area of 22,411 people (see Appendix A) that is representative of many rural villages in China. As a student who came to this village through the School for International Training for a scheduled rural experience, I was immediately touched by the stretches of agronomy, the hilliness of the surroundings, the calm atmosphere, and most of all, by the people. I wanted to know their history, their culture, their lives, their hardships. And I wanted to know, most of all, what drove certain people to leave their wonderful home.

I came back two weeks later knowing next to nothing (after changing my Independent Study Project idea twice) to study migration issues, and left having eaten lunch with development students and workers as a “special guest expert” of Shaxi. Though I do not claim to know a great deal about this village and its migration phenomenon, I do know for certain that it is an extremely special place, and that many of my former theories about its economy have been proven wrong time and again.

In the course of my research, I interviewed many people whose stories and opinions are interspersed throughout this paper. For the most part, they will be unnamed except for a footnote at the bottom. However, there were three households that I spent long amounts of time with, and their help was not only phenomenal but their stories representative of what I saw in Shaxi as a whole. For purposes of reader comfort, I will include just the name of the “head” of the household except when identifying specific family members.

Li Ba Sheng,34, has a wife and two daughters, six and 12. Li Ba Sheng was born in Ximen village and his wife in Sideng; his family now lives in Sideng. He used to leave Shaxi for work when other relatives lived at his house, but he chooses not to anymore because then his two children would have only their mother to care for them. He performs odd jobs, and as recently as a year ago, he made money for himself by buying and selling at the marketplace, opening a restaurant, and more. His wife has two sisters, one in Kunming and one in Shenzhen.

Luo Tai Niu, 38, has three children, the oldest of whom is 15 and currently in Kunming participating in Special Olympics. Luo Tai Niu was born in Sideng and moved to Bei Nong after her husband’s death ten years ago. She makes money from raising pigs and selling them, selling some of her farmed goods (she has 3 mu’s of land, most of which provides food for her family), and some odd jobs.

Xiao Bai Gui, ¬¬41, has a wife and two daughters, 15 and 16. They have lived in Sideng their whole lives, and have about seven mu’s of land because Xiao Bai Gui’s older sister’s family, which owns a hotel, does not need to use their fields. Xiao Bai Gui has had a bike repair shop since 1985, training himself after graduating from high school.

The first part of this paper is an introduction to Shaxi’s history, development, economy, agriculture, the famous market, and way of life. The second part will then address education, migration’s role in Shaxi, and the younger and older generations. The third and final section will address culture, one of many factors that affect and are affected by migration rates. It will also discuss the benefits and drawbacks to migration, and how people think Shaxi can best be developed. I hope to take the reader through what I learned, and some of the ideas I rejected. After all, the past can be summed up into four paragraphs, for it is the present and future that may turn out to be the lesson to learn from.