The Rat People: A Journey through Beijing's Forbidden Underground

The Rat People: A Journey through Beijing's Forbidden Underground


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In a relatively short amount of time, China has become the second largest economy in the world and is soon poised to overtake the US. In 1978, when China introduced its economic reforms, its GDP was $214 billion; in 2019, it is estimated to increase to $14 trillion. But the country’s rapid growth was achieved on the backs and shoulders of its workforce, many of whom were peasant farmers turned into the mingong, urban migrant workers, celebrated by Mao and credited with helping China achieve its economic miracle. Now, a million of them and their descendants live underground in Beijing under inhuman conditions, where there is no light or water and little sanitation.

Author Patrick Saint-Paul spent two years living among the “rat people” (shizu) of Beijing, in a network of deep tunnels and 20,000 former bomb shelters built during the Cold War. The mingong come to Beijing from all parts of the country, in search of jobs and a better life, but they are unable to afford their own homes on their meager salaries. For them, China’s dream of prosperity for all is a bitter fallacy.

In The Rat People, Saint-Paul brings the individual stories of the shizu to life, creating a shocking cautionary tale about the lengths to which people will go in search of a better life, and the human cost paid in service to the modern economy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781551528038
Publisher: Arsenal Pulp Press, Limited
Publication date: 05/19/2020
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Patrick Saint-Paul has been a correspondent in China for the French newspaper Le Figaro since 2013. Over his career he has also covered assignments in Sierra Leone (which won him the Jean Marin Prize for War Correspondents in 2000), Liberia, Sudan, Côte d'Ivoire, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Germany, as well as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Rat People is his first book.

David Homel is a writer, journalist, filmmaker, and translator, and the author of seven novels. He has translated many French-language books into English and is a two-time recipient of the Governor General's Literary Award for Translation.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter Six: Abandoned Children

“When the ship begins to sink,

the rats are the first to leave.”

— Dostoevsky

Physically, nothing would bring them together. Yet each time I go through the enormous Beijing Xi Zhan, the West train station, I think of the one on Friedrichstrasse in Berlin. With its 20 platforms from which the bullet trains depart, along with the more traditional gut-shakers, the endless waiting rooms, the cafés and businesses, Beijing Xi incarnates the outsized dimensions of the monster stations in China. The one on Friedrichstrasse is on a human scale in comparison. But like Beijing Xi, the former “Tränenpalast,” or Palace of Tears, located next to the Berlin station, the former terminal and border post for people moving between East and West Germany, was the scene of many heart-rending separations. The “Westies” returned to the Free World without knowing when they would see their brothers, cousins, or parents again, stuck back in the East.

One day, as we were waiting at Beijing Xi, I told a local friend that after Reunification, Germany opened the Stasi files (the East German political surveillance machine). Everyone could consult their status and discover who among their close friends and family had spied on them. My friend was incredulous; she couldn’t believe me.

“We’ll never see that in China,” she insisted. “The regime is nowhere near giving up. There are 1.3 billion of us, with an obsessive bureaucracy. Can you imagine the thousands of kilometers of archives people would have to dig through? If one day we ever change our political system, we’ll just have to turn our backs on the past and not demand that justice be done. Otherwise, we’d lapse into chaos and no one wants that kind of disorder in China. With so great a population it would be a catastrophe, completely out of control.”

Tired of waiting for the day when things would open up, my friend ran out of patience. She immigrated to Canada a year after I came to Beijing.
Her words return to me every time I go through the Beijing Xi station. With their rough packs on their backs, their improvised picnics, the buying frenzy that hits them when they see the many products, from the most useful to the most fantastic, that are available in a big urban center like Beijing, the passengers returning to the provinces remind me of other travelers I have seen. With my memories of my stay in Berlin, I can’t help thinking of the East Germans who came to discover the great West Berlin department stores like KaDeWe. The relative poverty of the province dwellers and their rough country clothes stand out in Beijing’s prosperity. Two worlds cohabit in China as well: the privileged city folk and the country mice.

That Sunday evening at Beijing Xi, the parents accompanied their daughter, who was returning to her boarding school in Hengshui, in the southern reaches of Hebei province, some 275 kilometers (170 miles) away. In Western countries, often it is the well-off students who study in chic private schools. In Beijing, it’s the other way around. Separated from their parents, the children of mingong head for boarding schools in their home province, since their hukou won’t allow them to register at a public school in the big city. While middle-class parents are spending fortunes on tutors and private lessons, to bump up their children’s grades and provide them with the best possible future, the mingong are fighting for their children’s right to go to school at all. The rat people are making tremendous sacrifices. It’s a matter, sometimes, of life and death.

Wearing her school uniform, a blue and white suit, Pei Xiaotong, ten years old, waves goodbye to her parents with a grim smile, after her five days in Beijing. In her school, 90% of the students are mingong children. The schedules have been arranged so that the children whose parents have the means to buy a ticket can join them several times a year in Beijing for five-day periods. Xiaotong has been making the trip to see her parents for five years now, though they have never gotten used to the long separations, and they have trouble holding back their tears. They sell vegetables at the market, working from 5 am to 10 pm, every day. Even when Xiaotong comes visiting, they have hardly time for her.

“Technically, we can sign our children up for school in Beijing,” says Pei Yong, her father, watching the train pull away. Big and well built, with the hands of a boxer, his jeans pulled up over his hips and held in place with a belt, slouching in his black vinyl jacket, he has the build of a man who wouldn’t let anything stand in his way. But he bends to the system’s rules.

“But in reality, public school is not for us. They want seven different documents, including one that says we own an apartment here, and have a contract for our job. Of course that’s impossible for us. With what I make, no way I can buy an apartment in this city. At first my daughter didn’t want to leave. She thought we were trying to abandon her. Finally I convinced her that her school could open the doors of a university here and give her some kind of future.”

The law requires nine years of obligatory, free schooling, and so the bigger cities over the last years have allowed migrants to send their children to school, even without hukou, but they demand a plethora of administrative documents. In 2014, Beijing launched the “Five Document System,” wherein parents had to submit five different papers, such as proof of residence and employment. That was meant to keep 30% of migrant students out of the school system. Some districts set up supplementary demands: both parents had to reside and work in the neighborhood around the school, excluding migrants who make long trips from one urban center to the next for their work. Some authorities require certificates of payment of health insurance and deeds proving ownership of property. Other parents, when they show up with the papers, are told that their child will not be accepted anyway. According to the liberal newspaper Nanfang Zhoumo, restrictions aimed at migrants to the capital keep tens of thousands of Chinese children out of school. Official statistics, which tend to minimize the phenomenon, estimate at 140,000 the number of children excluded from public education of Beijing.

The Party is aware of the problem, and has declared its determination to extend greater rights to its bottom-dog citizens. But at the same time, China decided in 2015 to “strictly” limit the population size of big urban centers and direct migrants toward mid-sized cities, for which the authorities promised to grant 100 million resident permits by 2020. Local Party authorities decided to level off the capital’s population by limiting it to 23 million in the same year. But many experts don’t think Beijing’s population needs to be limited. The real problem is that China has underinvested in education. Today, Beijing has only a thousand primary schools, compared to 1,800 in 2000, whereas in the meantime, the population has jumped by 60%. Of course, any number of private institutions have sprung up to fill the gap. But since they are not part of the official education system, many of them are not accredited to send their students to university entrance exams. And those schools that do have accreditation have the same admission standards as public schools.

According to figures put forward by the Beijing Youth Daily, several thousand children living in Beijing, the offspring of mingong, are going to boarding schools in Hebei. Despite the solitude and their problems adapting, they are actually the lucky ones. Most mingong who inhabit the Beijing undergrounds don’t have the means to send their children to these schools. The vast majority leave them behind in their home villages. The All-China Women’s Federation (ACWF) estimates that more than 61 million abandoned children were living in the countryside, looked after by grandparents or others, in 2013. Caught in the greatest wave of migration in human history, their parents headed for the big cities in search of work. A professor of demography at People’s University in Beijing, Duan Chengrong, who participated in the ACWF study, believes that, today, the number of children stands between 65 and 66 million, whereas the number of mingong has reached some 270 million. He bases his projections on the last national census in 2010.

When classes are over for the day, only a few grandparents make the trip to the Tangxi public school. In this distant village in Jiangxi province, one of the poorest in the People’s Republic, most pupils are liushou ertong, “left-behind children,” now that their parents have gone looking for work in the country’s big cities. Like the millions of children left behind across rural China, the pupils of this small Tangxi outpost impatiently count the days until New Year. Finally, after months of separation, they will be reunited with their parents.

Squatting on the ground of an alleyway lined with rundown houses made of brick and gray tile, dressed in rags, his face streaked with dirt, nine-year-old Xiaohai watches a friend play on his phone as he chews on grilled chicken feet in a plastic bag. He has come back from school on his own and stopped along the way to play.

“My grandparents work in the fields,” he says, pointing to a distant hut, a spot of gray in the midst of the rice paddies, brown in the winter and crisscrossed by muddy footpaths.

When it comes to homework, his illiterate grandparents aren’t much use.

“I get along on my own. That’s the way it is,” he murmurs, his eyes glued to the screen of the phone, scratching away at his runny nose with his black fingernails.

Exhausted by years of labor, his substitute mother and father, both nearly 70 years old, provide the strict minimum for Xiaohai: a roof, a bed, meals, and a little affection. For the rest, he is on his own while they work. His parents look after his material needs. Every month, they send the small amounts of money they are able to put aside. He sees them once a year at most, sometimes once every other year.

“This year, they promised they would come to the village for New Year.” The celebration follows the lunar calendar, and usually takes place in February. “Last year, they couldn’t find train tickets.”

Hardened by the long separations, Xiaohai claims to be totally indifferent to whether they come or not.

“It means nothing,” he says, but soon he admits he misses his parents, and often thinks of them with tears in his eyes.

He can’t remember what city they live in, nor how they are earning a living. The boy knows only that they are working in a factory, too far away to return more than once a year.

“I write them letters with the school,” he tells us. “But they don’t always write back. Sometimes they call, but not too often. This year they forgot my birthday.”

His parents never ask how he is doing at school, and they have no contact with the teachers.

The liushou ertong have been sacrificed on the altar of Chinese economic growth, which has increased at a phenomenal rate. They have come to represent some 37.7% of the young rural population and 22% of all children in the country. Most are being raised by their grandparents or other close family members. Another group, some 5% according to ACWF estimates, are completely on their own and live on money sent by their parents. All along the road that passes through a series of small villages, from Tangxi to Yichun, the closest town of any size, 70 kilometers (45 miles) distant, children play with stones on the dirt roads. Some of them, when they get too exhausted, sleep by the side of the road, with big trucks rolling at top speed right past their heads. Separated from their parents at birth, the liushou ertong wander through childhood and adolescence with no one to look after their health, be it physical, emotional, or psychological.

“These children have no structure nor schedule,” explains Yi Zhibing, the former director of a kindergarten for abandoned children in Yichun, who has gone back to being a teacher in one of the villages. “They run along the roads and play there until they drop from exhaustion. Some are hit by cars. Others drown in the ponds.”

He may look like a cop, solidly built beneath his washed-out jeans and thick leather parka, but Yi Zhibing is afraid what the neighbors might say. To be seen with a foreigner is risky business. He leads us away from his house, to a deserted road, to describe the daily life of these children, chain-smoking all the while. Soon our car is filled with a thick gray cloud. The smoke and the sheer brutality of his stories has my head spinning, and I can barely keep up.

The media report regularly on these tragedies. In 2015, the death of four children had all China in lamentations. The letter found by the body of the oldest child, all of them abandoned by migrant parents, proved it was suicide: they had died after swallowing pesticides.

“Thank you for your kindness. I know you wanted to do good for us. But it is time to leave now,” the letter ran. “I vowed I would not live past 15,” the oldest wrote. “I am now 14. I dream of death, but the dream never comes true. Today, it must finally become reality.”

The bodies of the four children, a boy and three girls between five and 14 years old, were discovered in a house in a small village in the Bijie region, in Guizhou province, known for its poverty. According to the investigation, they had lived alone there since 2014. Their father left the village to look for work elsewhere and sent back 700 yuan a month as his way of looking after the family. Their mother left as well, to Guangdong province, the country’s industrial heartland, after a fight with the father; she had reported domestic violence during the episode. Since then, the children had been feeding themselves off a corn crop that their father had planted, and they had left school long ago.
The mother of the four Bijie victims, Ren Xifen, 32 years old, returned from Guangdong, where she was working in a toy factory, to attend the funeral.
“I didn’t take my responsibilities,” she admitted, after viewing the bodies of her children before cremation. She left them after a fight with her husband, explaining that she didn’t “have the strength to go back home. I really did abandon them,” Ren said, regretfully. “I’m illiterate. I can’t even write my name. I wanted them to do good at school, not like I did, so their lives wouldn’t be so hard. All I want to do now is go where they went.”
Many parent associations deplore the fact that the government has not organized a system of boarding schools to take care of mingong children abandoned in the villages, while their parents live like rats in the country’s gleaming metropolises.

A veritable wave of criticism poured down via social media. Despite the censors employed to erase sensitive information that might appear on line, the Communist Party is unable to dampen the anger when such deaths occur.

“Abandoned children are the ones sacrificed to runaway urbanization. The State invests too much in big public schools that serve only the privileged, and not enough in the rural areas. This is extreme exploitation and injustice for the peasants,” wrote Feng Dou Zhong on the Weibo social media site.
“The hukou system created this tragedy. What parents don’t love their children? Who wants to be separated from their children and have to go work elsewhere?” wondered Yuan Yuan Er on Weibo.

The Premier of the State Council Li Keqiang took over the dossier and ordered an inquiry, judging that the People’s Republic could not “let such a tragedy happen again.”

In 2013, the case of five boys, cousins aged nine to 13, who died in a garbage container in Guizhou province, the southwest part of the country, disgusted the nation and attracted attention to the sad fate of the liushou ertong. The children died from carbon monoxide poisoning. In the heart of winter, in search of shelter, they climbed into the large wheeled container and lit a fire inside to keep warm. Their parents had left in search of work in the coastal regions, the industrial heart of the country where the thirst for laborers seems to be insatiable. Without an adult to look after them during their short existences, they became street children.

In 2009, a boy and a girl drowned in a nearby village after falling into a well. In a similar tragedy, a boy, in the care of his grandfather, died after eating rat poison. Consumed by guilt, the man committed suicide shortly after. The associations point out that many abandoned children die in such circumstances every year. But since there are no official statistics about the number of deaths, the public hears only about the most striking cases picked up by the media and social networks.

The psychological impact caused by separation is rarely discussed. Fifteen percent of left-behind children suffer from mental disorders, and nearly 50% are affected by psychological problems, notably depression and anxiety, but also behavioral issues as a result of feelings of inferiority and lack of self-confidence. According to statistics from the Chinese Ministry of Justice, 70% of juvenile delinquents are left-behind children. Rural areas are populated by at least 20 million children who have dropped out of school and have no training – one young villager in ten. And nearly 70% left-behind children are unable to understand what is being discussed in the classroom, according to government figures. A good number of them turn to alcohol and drugs, while others become gamers and end up prisoners of cybercafés. A boy of 15 living on his own broke into an apartment and killed the owner for 300 yuan. He told police he needed money to pay for his internet connection. Meanwhile, his father was doing low paying odd jobs in Canton.

The little village of Tangxi will be forever marked by the tragedy of May 6, 2012. That day, five children from the Wang family – Yubo, age 6, Yizu and Xinman, 10, and Baoting and Baolan, 11 – died by drowning after they jumped into a pond to escape the stifling heat. They did not know how to swim. Years later, the memory of that tragic day is still as painful for Wang Jiushou and his wife Li Xixiu, in their mid-seventies, who were looking after their eight grandchildren.

In front of the door of their modest house, her frail body on a bamboo stool, Li Xixiu wipes her tears on the back of her sleeve. Her husband, chain-smoking cigarettes rolled from yellowish paper, puffs away and sobs. His eyes stare into space from a face like old parchment, wearing a blue cap as old as the earth and a thread-bare jacket. He says the same words over and over again. “I still can’t believe I lost my grandchildren that way.”
The woman next door makes a gesture with her hand; the grandfather has lost his mind. Duoyou and I are a little ashamed at having come and stirred up bad memories. Suddenly, we just want to get back in the car and leave the grandparents alone with their pain. But Li Xixiu cares nothing for our scruples. In a sea of uninterrupted words, she makes her confession, as if trying to exorcise her sorrow. Lucid, but tormented by guilt, she doesn’t seem to notice her husband’s state. The day of the tragedy, she was the first to hear the children calling for help. Immediately, she had a bad feeling, and rushed to the pond. She didn’t know how to swim either. She called her husband to get help in the village. Wang begged the neighbors to come and lend a hand, but without success.

“All the young people have left the village. When something like that happens, there’s no one around to help,” he murmurs. “You are alone, alone, alone…”

With no other choice, she called a taxi as the children screamed for help in the brackish water. She went to the next village for help, and when she returned with two young men, it was too late to save her grandchildren. The story has left her emotionally and physically exhausted. She takes her small round face in her hands, and her tears flow. Finally, she catches her breath and tells us, “We work hard and we see to the meals and take the children to school. But we can’t keep an eye on them all the time. It is too much for us. We are just too old to raise children.”
She agrees that her two sons had no other option than to leave their children in her care, and go look for work in the coastal regions. They went to Shenzen, the great metropolis in the south, the pioneer of the economic opening launched by Deng Xioaping at the end of the 1970s, located across from Hong Kong, nearly 800 kilometers (500 miles) south of their village.

“My sons did what all the young people in the village have done. They went to make a living so their children wouldn’t starve to death. Here, besides growing rice and potatoes, or making colza oil, there’s nothing. The companies don’t come here, to these mountains, far from everything,” she says, shaking her head.

As if it were a misfortune, Li Xixiu explains that her sons had only girls at first. They continued having children until they finally got boys because “according to tradition, you have to have boys.” Even as they knew they didn’t have the means to take care of them. Then the bureaucratic steam roller started moving with the implacable harshness it is known for. Her sons had violated the one-child policy, and more than once. They were fined an astronomical amount, the equivalent of ten years’ salary.

Before the tragedy, the bureaucrats harassed us almost every day, trying to make us pay,” Li Xixiu says, anger in her voice. “One day they showed up with workers who started smashing the house with sledge hammers. They warned us they would tear down the place. But we couldn’t pay them what we didn’t have. Because we have nothing. The fine was simply impossible to pay.”

Since the tragic event that attracted national and international media attention, the authorities have left the family in peace. But the fine has not been officially suspended, nor canceled. The bureaucrats could come storming back at any time, based on a local enforcement order. Despite President Xi Jinping’s promise to reform the country so it will be governed “according to law,” arbitrary decisions are made at every level. After the children’s deaths, Wang Guangjun, the second son who lost his two little girls, moved to Yichun with his wife, where he and his brother found work in construction. The couple took back their surviving child.

“Luckily, we still have a son left. We will never go and work in some other city, no matter how hard things are. Now the most important thing is to be with him,” the man swears, still living with the regret.

The grandmother Li Xixiu adds, “Children are always better off with their parents. They won’t listen to us. They’d rather go and play with their friends than do their homework. Their parents can discipline them and pay attention to their school work.”

Chased by a rooster flapping its wings, a flock of chickens pecks at crumbs on the floor of the main room, a rough concrete slab. The dining room table is surrounded by a good dozen chairs. But big family meals are a thing of the past.

“Stay and have lunch with us, the house is so empty,” Li Xixiu offers.

She throws some vegetables and pieces of chicken into a wok, adding chili and other spices, and mixing everything together with chopsticks. The rice, prepared in an electric cook-pot from another century, is ready. But my stomach contracts. I am not hungry, and neither is Duoyou. We make an attempt at the food as politely as possible, as the grandmother and her husband devour the contents of their plates. Their appetite is frightening to see. I am overwhelmed by their hunger that has pursued them for decades. Eating, surviving, has become an obsession for them, wiping away anything else. I note down one last sentence, then decide it is time to be on our way.

“Our sons aren’t angry with us, but we don’t see them very often anymore,” Li Xixiu says sadly. “The grandchildren call us a few times a week to say they miss us.”

At the Tangxi school, the district principal points out that 70% of the children in the system live without their parents.

“The biggest problem is the lack of love,” he says. “We try to make up for it by sending the teachers to visit the students at home on a regular basis with some small gifts. We help them write to their parents. And we try and stay in contact with the parents to let them know how their children are doing.”

Tipped off by the school, the secretary of the district Communist Party joins the conversation. The subject of children who have died is deemed “sensitive” by the local authorities. Duoyou and I sense that our incognito visit to the village is over. Normally, Party officials arrive with an escort of police who demand that we show permission from the central government or local authorities, a clear impossibility. Chinese administration has unequaled talent when it comes to burying journalists’ requests concerning sensitive subjects. After checking passports and papers, the police normally chose between two options: taking us to the nearest airport, or accompanying us in a manner so ostentatious that no one will dare say a word to us, or even look our way. But this time we get lucky. The Party secretary came on his own. After asking for the usual mountain of authorizations that we don’t have, he agrees to talk.

“Since the tragedy happened, everyone has realized that children are the future of the family and the country,” the local official states, once we have promised we will protect his identity.

He takes off his glasses, sighs, slides them into the pocket of his white shirt, then stands up, slapping the hem of his pants to get the dust off. I keep my notebook under wraps so he will trust us. But he seems to have cut the conversation short, and Duoyou and I are afraid he will end up sabotaging what remains of our stay in the region. We wait and see. Then suddenly he sits down again.

“Luckily, everything has become simpler thanks to today’s means of communication,” he goes on, as if his hesitations never existed. “We have a major program to create jobs by attracting business to the Yichun region. Families that are able to make a salary of 4000 yuan a month in the big urban centers further away now prefer to move closer, and live in mid-sized cities. The families are happy with a salary of 3000 yuan so they can see their children more often, or live with them.”

After thinking hard, the Party official cannot name a single company intending to move to Yichun.

“It’s not easy attracting business and creating employment here,” he concedes. “In the village, all the people of working age have left. Only children and old folks are left.”

Yi Zhibing, the former director of the liushou ertong kindergarten, throws up his arms in despair, dispersing a thick cloud of smoke.

“Just talk! They don’t do anything for the kids,” he says angrily. “All the public schools are concerned with is the quality of the teaching. But the reality is this: left-behind children are on their own. In the 30 years I’ve been doing this job, I never got a single call from one of their parents, even when a kid was sick. The grandparents feed them, but that’s all. When they hit adolescence, the kids go to the cybercafé and fall under all sorts of bad influences. Their parents send enough money to see to their needs, but the boys waste it, they steal and find all kinds of schemes to make more money. The girls fall in love too soon and ruin their lives. We have a false value in this society: parents are supposed to sacrifice their children for the sake of money. Where is the profit if the kids are kept out of school, if they’re unhappy or grow up to be good-for-nothings and delinquents?”
In the People’s Republic, 50% of the population are living in cities, and that figure will rise to 70% in the coming decades. Jobs are not about to return to the countryside.

The feeling of abandonment pushes some children to run away, taking the train illegally to the city in hopes of finding their parents. For left-behind children, seeing their parents is a luxury. The cases of kids between seven and 14 who have been caught and sent home by the police are countless. Suicide is frequent among these young runaways.

In January 2014, Xiao Lin went to school to pick up his report card by himself. Most of his classmates were accompanied by their parents. Lin was nine years old. His mother and father divorced and left the village of Sige, in Anhui province, shortly after he was born. That day, he seemed disappointed by his grades. His mother called that evening to tell him she wouldn’t be coming for New Year, a few weeks later. Over dinner, he was quiet. No one under his roof suspected he would take his life a few hours later by hanging himself with a rope in the bathroom. He left no word.

Lin was exactly 30 days old when his father left him. It was his mother’s turn a few months later. His parents never came to pick up a single report card, according to Yang Qinglin, the school principal. They never attended a single parent-teacher meeting and rarely phoned him, which contributed to the boy’s feeling of insecurity. After his suicide, his father wasn’t sure about going to the funeral. He didn’t want to leave his job for fear of losing it.

“Lin had more discipline than other pupils, because he knew he would have no one to defend him if he ever caused trouble at school,” Yang remembers.

At the end of December 2013, another event caught on-line attention. It started with a strange little note stuck on the locked door of the Jianba, a hair salon in Zhuzhou in southern China. The note surprised the regular customers of the place.

“Dear Friends. I received a phone call from my daughter yesterday. I have been away from her too long. She has forgotten how to call me Papa. I beg you for one week’s break to spend with my family.”

A passer-by took a picture of the message and posted it on Weibo.

Wu Hongwei, the coiffeur who taped the note to the door, and his wife Wang Yuan, had abandoned their daughter with her grandparents in a distant village 540 kilometers (335 miles) from Zhuzhou, when she was nine months old. Their story was told by numerous Chinese media outlets. The couple described how they suffered from having missed their daughter’s first words and first steps, never thinking they would be away so long. At first everything went well for them, and their new life in the city seemed full of promise. Wu had left his village of Zhaishi in the Hunan mountains at age 24. Had he stayed, he would have worked for the miserable salary of $2.25 US a day. He climbed on a bus with his uncle and headed for Zhangzhou, where he found a spot as an apprentice coiffeur, for no remuneration at all.

A few years later, he settled in Zhuzhou. There, he charmed Wang with folksongs he played on his guitar. Their daughter Beibei was born in 2011. Wang left her job selling cell phones to take care of the baby. Meanwhile, Wu worked like the devil, from morning until 11 at night to try and compensate for the loss of a second salary. Then came a cruel blow when the pediatrician informed them that their daughter absolutely needed powdered baby formula. This was around the time of the poisoned milk scandal due to melamine, which killed more than 300 newborns across China. Everyone was afraid of buying contaminated powdered milk. The couple spent $110 US a month, a fifth of their salary, to provide quality formula for their child. That was the end of their plan for Wu to leave his job and join his wife and daughter in the village. He was forced to go back to work in the city.

The couple did everything in their power to maintain the connection. As often as they could, they made the 14-hour trip by train, bus, and motorcycle to spend time with their daughter. Wu had only one thought in mind: to try and cut as many people’s hair at $2.25 US a head to pay for the round trips and send money to his parents. The couple called their daughter every day to tell her how much they loved her. They taped photos of themselves on the concrete walls of her bedroom, in her grandparents’ house. Wang cried at night when she smelled the scent of her daughter’s pajamas that had gotten too small, and that she had brought back with her.

“We told ourselves that, after all, she wouldn’t have to face the pressures of living in the city, and that we had turned to the same solution most adults use when they have to leave and work elsewhere,” Wang remembers.

Then there was one visit to the village that proved to be an ordeal. When they tried to hold Beibei in their arms, she ran away, calling for her grandmother. When the couple asked her who her mother and father were, she disappeared into her room and pointed to the photos on the wall, not making the connection between them and the two adults standing there. She had been raised in the village dialect, and couldn’t understand her mother. The couple showered gifts on the girl, but when evening came, she wanted to sleep in her grandmother’s arms. The couple replaced the older woman only once their daughter was fast asleep.

“Those few hours were precious,” Wu says. “But for Beibei, ‘Papa’ and ‘Mama’ didn’t mean anything anymore. They were sounds that had no emotion behind them.”

“I wanted so much to teach her what it means to be a mother,” Wang adds. “I wanted her to understand that the mother gives birth to the child, and shows her how to talk, walk, and sing. A mother watches her child grow up. She is the human being closest to her.”

After those events, Wang and Wu wanted to have their daughter come and live in the city permanently. But their underground rat-hole, urban pollution, the pressure-filled life, and low-quality food convinced them she would be better off in the country. They send for her as often as possible to share moments of their city life. But they decided to wait for her to grow up a little more, and for their economic situation to improve, so they could offer her a decent place to live where she could stay full time.

“It’s complicated,” Wang admits. “But I haven’t given up on teaching her the real meaning of the word ‘mother’ one day.”

Lost in the midst of a forest of giant bamboo, surrounded by fields of cotton and corn on one side, and on the other terraced green hills where orchards grow, stands the little village of Huaixi, Tangxi’s neighbor. Eighty percent of the inhabitants of his bucolic hamlet, where you might expect to see Heidi wandering by, are children living without their parents. We spent two whole days there without seeing a single adult. At first sight, the place seems to offer nothing to the passing traveler. A flock of grandmothers, sitting on brightly colored, low plastic chairs in front of the grocery, sips tea and gossips. Each time we came by, they fell silent, better to observe us. Visitors are rare in Huaixi. A foreigner with white skin is an absolute curiosity.
“It’s the first time we’ve ever seen a laowai around here,” one of the women announces proudly. She is wearing the village costume: gray pants and a worn blue shirt. “Where do you come from?”

The atmosphere is a little heavy, and I try to make a joke. Maybe I will manage to lighten up the proceedings.

“I come from Africa,” I tell them.

Not a good idea. The women look at one another in disbelief.

“Try and guess,” I say.

“Don’t you think he looks like an American?” one of them asks, squinting at me through little round glasses perched on her nose.

“Not at all, he’s too little,” another declares, her flowered dress not quite matching her imitation pinks Crocs.

“He could be German,” a third guesses, scratching her hair dyed jade black, the favorite color of Chinese women of all social classes.

“Not big enough,” the second one repeats.

“I saw a documentary about Norway on CCTV, and I can guarantee that he looks like a Norwegian,” a fourth woman declares.

For the good ladies, I am Norwegian, though none of them has ever heard of the place outside of the assiduous TV-watcher with a taste for public television. I can’t convince them that I’m French. Faguoren to them is a joke, I’m either too blond or too big or not romantic enough. They are just as doubtful as to my supposed credentials as a sociologist. Sharper when it comes to what foreigners do for a living, they immediately sniff out the journalist in me.

“Ah, you’ve come for the liushou ertong!” the first grandmother exclaims. “Well, you’re in luck. We’re waiting for the bell to take the kids for lunch.”
I start to ease up a little. The ice has been broken. One of those Chinese miracles has just occurred. The old woman is ready to talk. And when people who have been around the block in China decide to open up, they can say just about anything.

“All of us are raising our grandchildren,” she adds. “It’s no fun. I’m 70 years old and I work in the fields all day. The only break is when I wait for the two boys at noon. When I come home exhausted after my day, the kids make me run a race. I’m not young enough to fight with them so they’ll do their lessons. I tell them they’ll end up at the factory like their parents. They couldn’t care less. Their grandfather has even less patience than me.”
The bell sounds. The women get up stiffly.

“It’s been like this since the 1980s,” says Ren Jiqing, a 57-year-old grandfather, sitting on his electric scooter in front of the school entrance, waiting for his granddaughter to show up. “It’s normal to be an abandoned child. Of course the kids complain about growing up without their parents. But if they don’t know how to swallow bitterness, they’ll never get anywhere in life.”

His granddaughter Mei Lun, age 11, comes out, wearing her classic school uniform, a white and blue jacket. Playing with her long pigtail, she doesn’t agree with Ren Jiqing.

“Only rich kids live with their parents. They’re lucky, their parents don’t have to go far away to work and they see them all the time. They’re easy to spot. They have the best clothes,” she adds in a quiet voice, admitting she cries several times a week when she thinks of her parents.

“The parents send us 4,000 or 5,000 yuan a year to cover school tuition, and buy food and clothes,” Ren Jiqing explains. “In the city, the cost of living is much higher. Rent, food, tuition, clothes. They couldn’t live with their children. They don’t have a choice. Anyway, going to school in a city would do nothing for Mei Lun. She’s not much of a student. More like horse-tiger, horse-tiger.”

The Chinese expression denotes mediocrity. A craftsman who makes objects and furniture out of bamboo, Ren Jiqing is as straightforward in his judgment as a Chinese people can be. Manipulating the art of circumlocution and dissimulation to keep from offending someone because of their opinions about daily life, they can still be harsh when they want to be. Still, Mei Lun, who wears a hangdog look, is third in her class, an honorable position.

“Her grades are all right for a little school in a nowhere village in our province,” he declares. “But imagine where she’d place in a school with a better level. She’d be lost.”

He admits he didn’t hang around in a classroom very long, and that he can’t help her with her homework. Like most of her classmates, Mei Lun gets along on her own.

A dozen students in white jackets and running shoes gather around us by the exit, while younger kids slip past me, then break out giggling as they run. Their favorite game is comparing their feet to mine. They might as well have come face to face with a unicorn, they are that intrigued and surprised. A little boy ventures a question. “Do all laowai have feet this big? How do you walk? You must be handicapped!” Uproarious laughter greets his comment.

Among the 15 pupils I count, only one girl is being raised by one of her parents. Fang, another girl of 13, tells me she lives with her grandparents who are over 70. They haven’t come to the school. She is holding her little sister by the hand so she can’t escape.

“I take care of her,” she says, pulling at her hair cut like a boy’s. “My grandparents can’t. They’re too old.”

Her parents have gone to work further south, in the province of Fujian. She knows nothing of what they do, or how they live. She talks to them on the phone four or five times a month. But their short conversations touch on only routine subjects such as her lessons, her grades, and advice to help out her grandparents. Every morning, Fang gets up at six and looks after breakfast: a bowl of soup with noodles and vegetables. At noon, her grandmother has lunch ready when she comes back with her little sister. In the evening, after school, she runs errands, then prepares the vegetables for dinner. After, she cleans up and keeps an eye on her sister’s homework. Only then can Fang see to her own lessons. She assumes these responsibilities, a crushing burden for a child her age, without complaint. Though she bursts into tears once she turns off the light in the evening, in bed. Though she doesn’t know why.

“I see my parents once a year,” she says. “For New Year, the best time of all. A month ahead of time, I’m so happy I can’t sleep. I miss my father the most. We’re very close. He’s the best father in the world.”

Table of Contents

Introduction to English-Language Edition

Chapter 1: Wandering Rats in the Kingdom of Mercantile Decadence

Chapter 2: Obstacle Course

Chapter 3: A Sewer Rat in the Human World

Chapter 4: Retirement in Julong Garden

Chapter 5: Chinese Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Chapter 6: Abandoned Children

Chapter 7: Youth Denied

Chapter 8: The Mingong, Empire Builders

Chapter 9: A Night with the Rats

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