Scattered Sand: The Story of China's Rural Migrants
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Each year, 200 million workers from China’s vast rural interior travel between cities and provinces in search of employment: the largest human migration in history. This indispensable army of labour accounts for half of China’s GDP, but is an unorganized workforce—’scattered sand’, in Chinese parlance—and the most marginalized and impoverished group of workers in the country.
For two years, the award-winning journalist Hsiao-Hung Pai traveled across China visiting labourers on Olympic construction sites, in the coal mines and brick kilns of the Yellow River region, and at the factories of the Pearl River Delta. She witnessed the outcome of the 2009 riots in the Muslim province of Xinjiang; saw towns in rubble more than a year after the colossal earthquake in Sichuan; and was reunited with long-lost relatives, estranged since her mother’s family fled for Taiwan during the Civil War. Scattered Sand is the result of her travels: a finely wrought portrait of those left behind by China’s dramatic social and economic advances.
‘What are you doing over there?’ said an aggressive male voice behind me. I turned round and saw two police officers. Knowing what this could mean and certainly not wanting to lose my photographs, I pretended that I knew nothing about the site that I was photographing. ‘What is this?’ I asked innocently. They were fooled. Another mindless tourist. ‘It is just a collapsed building. Please leave. There is nothing here for you to tour around,’ one of them said, waving his hand to invite my
next to the bottom bunks, so we ate our snacks in bed and started to read. Our Sichuanese cabin mate, Zhang, introduced himself. He had worked in Taiyuan but now lived in Chengdu. As we passed the barren fields of impoverished Shaanxi province, on the way to Shanxi, Zhang gradually told his story. ‘Years ago, I was a coal miner in Taiyuan,’ he said. ‘Have you heard much about mining work?’ I told him I’d read a piece of ‘labour literature’ (dagong wenxue, stories written by workers) called ‘A
relative of his had left Henan for Shaanxi to work in a mine near Xian, the provincial capital. There were no other options around and he needed to bring in an income for his parents. He sent money home regularly, every month, for eight months. Then one day, his parents received news from the recruiter, who came from their village, that there had been an explosion in the mine and their son had been killed. He gave no details. The parents were devastated. But being so far away from Shaanxi and
and whether he had made friends. Year after year, they communicated only by phone, and in the end, the calls no longer consoled him. Lan didn’t appear happy. She looked exhausted. After all, she had raised their daughter all on her own. She seemed subdued, and kept quiet when she led me into the sitting room. I looked for a place to sit down, but there were no chairs or sofas, just two beds. The sitting room was bare. The place didn’t look like a family home. Possibly she had not had time to buy
self-confidence; they were comfortable sharing memories of the past. They described how China’s social upheavals had transformed their lives, from the land reforms in the 1940s to the economic reforms since the late 1970s. Over a span of sixty years, they had gone from descendants of landowners to migrant proletarians to urban middle class. Xia saw nothing wrong or regrettable in her mother’s decision not to go to Taiwan with the family. Her mother, on the contrary, still dwelled on these