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Rural Chinese Leave Home in Search of a Better Life

Doug Beach for NPR

Some 200 million farmers have left behind their families and fields to forge a living in China's booming cities. The phenomenon has been described as the biggest internal migration in the history of the world.

Wu Dexiu is one of these migrants. She and her husband, Tang Qiqing, left their village in Anhui province nine years ago to make money in Shanghai. Their two daughters stayed behind and live with their grandparents.

Wu cleans houses for a living. Her income in the city is five times higher than it would be in the countryside.

"I don't mind working a bit harder to earn money," she says. "I want my children to have whatever city children have. I'll buy them whatever they ask for. I haven't yet bought them MP3 players, mobile phones or a computer, but I want to."

But a recent trip home during a holiday illustrates just how difficult Wu's life is.

Wu's daughters, Tang Deyun, 14, and Tang Shanshan, 19, are proud of her. But they also remember how they didn't want their mother to leave -- and how difficult it was when she did.

"We cried," says Tang Deyun. "We were very sad."

Wang Jinan and Tang Zhenkun, Wu's mother-in-law and father-in-law, have been looking after their two granddaughters. It's a common arrangement here; almost half the village has gone to the cities to find work.

The family wishes Wu and her husband could return home. But the reality, they say, is that the family would have no money if the couple didn't work in the city.

The happiness of the family's reunion masks months of hard toil and separation. The countryside is becoming a place for the very old or the very young, and no one in the Tang family wants their children to grow up to be farmers.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Beijing Correspondent Louisa Lim is currently attending the University of Michigan as a Knight-Wallace Fellow. She will return to her regular role in 2014.