China’s “Left-Behind Children”: Not everyone comes home for New Year.

China’s “Left-Behind Children”: Not everyone comes home for New Year.

Xue Meng’s parents are not coming home for Chinese New Year this time. The last time she saw them was a year ago, when they came home to spent the New Year with her. I was there. I remember we were having lunch when Xue Meng came jumping in our courtyard screaming “爸妈回来啦 回来啦!” (“Mom and dad are back home!”). She was so happy and excited; I actually just got the “Mom” and “Dad” part in-between all the screaming and giggling.

Today Jin told me her parents won’t be able to come back this year. They work in a factory somewhere near Shenzhen. I don’t know the reason why they won’t be able to go home this year, but I know for sure that Xue Meng is devastated. The only time she sees her parents is during New Year. In Jin’s village, just in our street, I know three families personally who have left their children behind and went to bigger cities to find work and earn a living. It is heart-breaking…

It seems, that is the dark side of China’s economic boom. Over the years a huge number of low-skill jobs have been created in coastal provinces, attracting hundreds of millions of laborers to move to the big cities.

According to a report by the All-China Women’s Federation there are 61 million children living in rural China without their parents. For me this number is shocking. Most of these children see their parents once a year (some lucky ones maybe twice a year).

 chinese kids playing

But why? What parent can leave their own children behind?

It is a tough decision, and I imagine every single mother and father feels heartbroken to leave their baby behind. Most of the children usually stay with their paternal grandparents, in many cases only months after they were born.

The choice is mostly forced on the young parents. With the low salaries they get as farmers many have no other way but migrate into one of the booming Chinese cities. Usually living costs in big cities are so high that bringing their children with them could prove disastrous given the parents low salary.

Jin also told me that there are more obstacles for migrant workers and their children in urban areas: For example China’s hukou, or household registration, system. It is linked to every person’s hometown, which means social benefits such as health care and free education are just available where they were born. If they decide to take their children to the city and enroll them in one of the urban schools they have to pay extremely high tuition. Jin told me that some public schools in urban cities simply refuse to take migrant children.

Plus many city people look down on migrant workers and their children, often regarding them as uneducated.

 chinese kid throwing stones

Faced with all these difficulties, what choice do they have left? Relocating with their children is an unrealistic option. So many parents chose to leave their children with their grandparents.

I know for a fact that most of these grandparents take loving care of their grandchildren. They love them more than anything. But mostly the grandparents are also farmers, and have to do heavy farm work every day from morning till evening. I know that Xue Meng’s grandmother works on the field every day. She has one field assigned next to Jin’s parents, so sometimes before lunch time we would drive up there to get her. When Xue Meng comes from school at 12, her grandmother prepares lunch for her. After everyone ate, her grandmother and my parents-in-law would go back to the fields. Xue Meng has no one to help her with her homework. Even if her grandmother would want to help her, she couldn’t. She never learned how to write and just speaks a dialect. Xue Meng loves to learn new things. I taught her a lot of English words.

chinese kid in garden

It is very sad to know that Xue Meng is not the only child growing up with parents being far away. No matter how much her Grandmother loves her, sometimes it is just very hard on her. I also realised that many grandparents usually just take care of the physical health of their grandchildren, making sure they have enough to eat and wear, and less to their character and morality. Xue Meng is still young, just seven, but I know two boys in the neighborhood who also grew up mostly taking care of themselves with parents working in Shanghai. They are right in their puberty and having lost all respect for people around them. This rebellious phase might be coincidence and might have nothing to do with the fact that they grew up without parents, but I got to think… if you never have a strong guidance in form of your mother or your father, the psychological effects can be very bad.


Source: The Wall Street Journal

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Imagine out of five children in rural China, one grows up without parents. Some of them don’t recognize their own mother or father when they come home once a year for Chinese New Year.

I found this video about “China’s Left Behind Children”. It did make me cry… really touching and sad reality.

I just cannot dare to imagine how hard it must be to bear those years of painful separation.

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Anna Z. is a freelance illustrator and portrait artist in her late 20s, with a passion for Martial Arts and Chinese culture, and is the creator of Lost Panda, a blog to China and Art. Together with her husband, a Chinese national, she writes about daily life in rural China, focusing on cultural and social differences and the joys (and sometimes difficulties) as an intercultural couple. Apart from China related topics, she publishes her artwork, photography, art material reviews and tutorials to help more people discover their creative side. She is fluent in German, English and Mandarin Chinese.

12 thoughts on “China’s “Left-Behind Children”: Not everyone comes home for New Year.

  1. This is such a great post! It really put the life of some Chinese kids in perspective, and it is definitely a wake up call for us “poor kids who had a parent who went on a business trip every now and then”. I can not imagine the pain the parents must feel, even though they do it for the family it must be so hard to leave their kids behind. When my family and I lived in Bceijing, we had a housekeeper, well we had 3 different throughout the time we lived there. And 2 of them had left their children behind and was working for the expats families earning money. The first one who worked with us, was such a cute young lady, she spoke perfect English and had a daughter in her hometown. She was working very hard, and sent money back to her parents and daughter every month, until suddenly she realized she was pregnant with her second child, which was a “no no” because she was one of the people who had to follow the 1 child policy. She had to go back to her hometown, give birth the baby, secretly, the child is not registered in any papers in China, and will most likely never be able to go to school or university. She had to quit her job obviously, but she was always giving my mum messages, giving us photos of her new born, so so cute.. of course as she had to quit her job, and now had 2 kids, and a husband who was in another city working she had very little money, so for every chinese new year my family would send her some money, and even now, today I consider her as a part of my family..

    It really breaks my heart seeing how many kids who have to grow up without their parents, and I hope and pray for that Xue Meng gets to see her parents again soon!

    • That is really kind of your family to help that woman. There should be more people like you giving a helping hand. Sometimes it doesn’t not even have to be money, just care and love helps as well :)

      • I know , I have seen many families not help them , and just push them around and not giving them any days off, I think it’s terrible. Love & support is all they need ~

  2. I have to thank you for the efforts you’ve put in penning this blog. I am hoping to see the same high-grade blog posts by you later on as well. In fact, your creative writing abilities has encouraged me to get my own blog now ;)

  3. It is a very sad situation indeed. It is not only hard on the child but it must be also very difficult for the parents to leave their child behind. I know several examples here in Taiwan where the parents work in the city and return home on the weekends to care for and spend time with their child. Fortunately, Taiwan is a very small island and travel from one place to another is a few hours, not a few days. However, some of my foreign friends and I recently talked about the behavioral differences between children who grew up with their parents vs. grandparents. We noticed that the majority of children living with their parents have a greater work ethic, are more focused, and more mannerly.

    BTW, the second picture in the post is just beautiful. Enjoyed reading this article! I hope Xue Meng enjoys her time with family and friends this Chinese New Year and sees her parents soon!

  4. Very timely post, Anna. Thanks for highlighting this issue, as I think it’s something most Westerners don’t know about and are shocked to hear about. There is a good documentary about this issue called “Last Train Home” ( If you haven’t seen it, you should. It’s heartbreaking, but also illustrates some of the many reasons why parents have to leave their kids behind in their home villages.

  5. P.S. I also wanted to mention that even for the parents who don’t leave their children behind, it’s still a fact that many grandparents are raising Chinese kids these days. For example, one local woman I know who owns her own shop has to work 7 days a week, 11 hours a day (as does her husband) to provide for their family. This woman has a two year old daughter who is taken care of by her mother-in-law.

    • True. I have written a post about ‘Grandsons’. Grandparents taking care of their grandchildren when the parents cannot manage ist totally fine. But I have met so many Chinese women in Niuji (and other place), who don’t even want to take care of their own child. It is absolutely ok for them to give the child away to the grandparents (especially if it’s a girl). And it’s socially excepted. Most grandparents would literally force you to give your own child to them. Telling you all kinds of reasons why you are incapable of taking care of your own child -.-

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