Rural Migrant Men in Urban China: Masculinity and Compromise

By Yinni Peng

Mass rural-urban migration has been sustained in China for over three decades. According to data provided by the National Bureau of Statistics of the People’s Republic of China, the number of rural-urban migrants reached 281.71 million in 2016. Rural-urban migration has not only contributed a vast amount of cheap labor to China’s rapid economic development and urbanization in past decades but has also dramatically shaped the lives of migrants and their left-behind family members in rural China.

In the current discussion of rural-urban migration and families in post-reform China, most of the attention has been paid to left-behind children and migrant women. How migration impacts rural migrant men’s family life and gender identity remains an understudied issue. To enrich the discussion of migration and masculinity, Susanne Choi and I coauthored a book entitled Masculine Compromise: Migration, Family, and Gender in China that explores the reconstruction of masculinity of rural-urban migrant men in South China. Drawing on in-depth interviews with 192 rural migrant men in Shenzhen, Dongguan, and Guangzhou in Guangdong Province, we delineated how these men interpreted and negotiated their gender and family roles as lovers, husbands, fathers, and sons in an intersectional structure of gender, class, and the rural-urban divide in China.

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Despite being internal migrants, these rural-urban migrant men face structural barriers to employment and social welfare in their urban destinations under China’s household registration (hukou) system. Since the 1950s, China has used the household registration system to differentiate, and sometimes even segregate, its rural and urban populations. Inherited from one’s parents, one’s hukou status determines his/her access and entitlement to public resources and social welfare. When millions of rural people migrate to urban China, the majority find it hard to obtain urban hukou in their destination cities, and their rural hukou constrains them from accessing urban public resources and social welfare. As a result, most rural-urban migrants are stuck in the secondary labor market in urban China and must take on dirty, difficult, or dangerous jobs undesirable to urban residents. Long working hours, meager salaries, and limited access to social welfare not only make rural-urban migrants an economically marginalized group in urban China but also force them to leave their dependent family members behind in their rural hometowns. Their rural origin also makes them second-class citizens who are discriminated against by urban residents in their cities.

In rural China, patriarchy grants rural men power and authority in both the public and private spheres. They dominate economic activities, control various resources, and usually hold authority as the head of the household. Although rural-urban migration enables these rural men to earn more economic resources for their families, their socioeconomic inferiority and marginalization in urban destinations puts their masculinity in crisis. Migration exposes these rural men to a hegemonic urban discourse of masculinity that emphasizes men’s economic success and professional knowledge or skills. Compared with their urban counterparts, rural-urban migrant men have limited socioeconomic resources to play the role of a romantic lover via generous consumption or the role of a good husband/father who is able to provide his family with good economic support.

 Meanwhile, the discrepancy between rural patriarchal tradition and modernized urban ideologies of gender and family causes struggles, dilemmas, and tensions in their multiple family relations. In their romantic relationships, young migrant men have to strike a balance between their romantic desire for an urbanized lover with whom they share an emotional intimacy and spiritual communication and their parents’ preference for a filial local wife. In their conjugal relationships, rural migrant men have to negotiate with their wives about post-marital residence, the labor division of housework and childcare, and the allocation of family resources. In their parent-child relationships, they struggle between their paternal breadwinning duty and the emotional turmoil caused by their long-term separation from their left-behind children. They are also caught in the dilemma of being a responsible father/husband who provides for his nuclear family via migration and being a filial son who takes care of his elderly parents in rural China.

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Rural-urban migrant men use their masculine promise as a strategy to reconstruct their gender identity and deal with the discrepancy between the cultural ideal of men and their socioeconomic reality in a migratory context. They yield to their parents’ wish for a filial, local daughter-in-law; they participate in housework and childcare, either actively or selectively, and emphasize that they are helping their wives and making the major decisions in their families; they use material compensation and telecommunication to win their left-behind children’s hearts from afar; and they collaborate with their left-behind siblings on elderly care and redefine the meaning of filial piety by emphasizing their obedience to their parents. By making compromises, rural migrant men argue that they are sacrificing for the collective interest of the whole family or to maintain its happiness or harmony. Although they are not as economically successful as urban men, they reconstruct their masculine identity as good, honorable men by emphasizing their efforts to work hard and sacrifice for their families. Their tactical compromises in different family relations make some substantive contributions to the maintenance of their migrant families yet result in no ideological awakening on gender equality. Their masculine compromise is a pragmatic solution to structural constraints or oppression rather than an ideological challenge to or transformation of patriarchy.

Yinni Peng is Assistant Professor in Sociology at Hong Kong Baptist University. Her research interests include gender, family, migration, labor politics, and social media. She is the coauthor of Masculine Compromise: Migration, Family, and Gender in China (2016; University of California Press).

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