By Lena Price
Wang Zhongwei, a 49-year-old rice farmer from the Eastern Chinese village of Xiejiaqiao, can still remember when his family struggled to produce enough food for one meal a day. His 19-year-old-son Wang Yang, who grew up in the same village, never had to worry if he would have enough to eat. He can barely remember a time without the Internet.
“Our lives are very different,” Wang Yang said through an interpreter. “I never worked with my father in the field, and I don’t want to.”
Wang Zhongwei is a fifth-generation farmer. His father, who lives with him in the family’s seven-room house, took care of the same rice field more than 50 years ago.
But Wang Yang has no desire to take over the family business, despite his father’s wishes. He, like many of his contemporaries in China, wants to leave his village in search of a better job with greater economic possibilities in a big city. For now, he works at a local wrench factory less than a mile from the family home.
“I left this village last year to work at a light bulb factory, and I was very homesick,” Wang Yang said. “But eventually, I want to move to a bigger town nearby and open a clothing shop.”
More people than ever are leaving agricultural occupations in China’s rural areas to work in larger cities. According to the country’s 2010 census data, almost half of its 1.34 billion population lives in urban areas. The number jumped more than 10 percent from 2000, when 36 percent of Chinese people lived in cities.
Xiejiaqiao’s population has been about 800 since Wang Zhongwei was born in 1962. But he said the number of rice farmers in the village has steadily decreased since the mid 1980s. Farmers leave to open supermarkets or other small stores, where they can make more money.
Although he has seen many friends leave their farms to pursue business jobs, Wang Zhongwei never considered following them. He said he enjoys his work and getting to make his own decisions.
“I’m the master of my own life,” Wang Zhongwei said through an interpreter.
The family is able to grow enough rice for themselves on their 1,700 square-foot plot of land, and Wang Zhongwei grows pecans for extra money. Pecans are still one of the major sources of income for villagers in Xiejiaqiao, and the nuts bring in an average of about 10,000 RMB ($1,544) per capita annually.
Dai Jin Xiang, Wang Zhongwei’s mother who has not left Xiejiaqiao in 60 years, called the current family home “paradise.” She said she could not imagine a better life for herself than the one she has now.
Before the village government allowed farmers to set their own prices for their crops in 1983, she had a difficult life. “We used to have to pick grass and white plants off the mountain for food,” Dai said.
Dai is close with her grandson, but rarely tells him stories about the challenges she faced as a child. She said she wants a different life for him.
Wang Yang’s mother, Xu Xiao Feng, disagreed with his father’s wish for him to grow pecans and rice for a living. She said she wants him to continue his education and leave Xiejiaqiao.
Xu said she is proud of her older daughter who has already left the village to open a wholesale shoe store in nearby Hangzhou. Both of her children finished high school, while Xu and her husband only completed middle school.
“I greatly hope our son can go to the big city,” Xu said. “Some day we can sell our land or we can give it away, but for our children we want something more ambitious, bigger.”