Daughters’ dilemmas and the price of aspirations: Rural education migrants’ experiences in China

Research Highlighted:

Sier, W. (2020) (Open Access) Daughters’ dilemmas: the role of female university graduates in rural households in Hubei province, China. Gender, Place & Culture, DOI: 10.1080/0966369X.2020.1817873

Sier. W. (2020) The Price of Aspirations: Education Migrants’ Pursuit of Higher Education in Hubei Province, China. The European Journal of Development Research. DOI: 10.1057/s41287-020-00297-6

Dr Willy Sier, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Introduction

These two articles are both based on one year of fieldwork in Hubei province (2015-2016) in the context of research for a PhD-project with a focus on the increased educational participation of students from rural backgrounds in China’s higher education system. These articles in particular focus on the effects of educational expansion on gendered rural household dynamics (Daughters’s Dilemmas) and the way youth aspirations are rooted in structural (family) conditions (The Price of Aspirations). These articles both relate China’s educational expansion to the domain of the family.

Daughters’ dilemmas: the role of female university graduates in rural households in Hubei province, China.

This article, published open access in Gender, Place, and Culture, explores how higher education changes the role of rural daughters in the household. It shows that the contributions of university-educated daughters to rural households go far beyond what has been described in the literature on women in rural Chinese families. Decisions pertaining to the careers and marriages of highly educated daughters are shaped by the strategies of rural households aiming to establish independent households of brothers and sons. Drawing upon ethnographic research in Hubei province, this article sheds light onto the processes of intense negotiation underlying household strategies and articulates the dilemmas faced by female members of rural households after graduating from university. How can they best support their families while constructing a life they desire and without treading on dominant gender ideologies?

The article focuses on two cases. There is Julia, a very ambitious young woman who is determined to become successful enough to support her widowed mother and struggling brother. Julia rapidly changes jobs, always searching for a better opportunity. Julia’s mother does not agree with her daughter’s strategies, arguing that she would be better off if she focused on finding a husband. Julia works hard to prove her mother wrong, trying to make enough money to help her mother buy her brother’s “marriage house” and show her that she does not need a husband to take care of her. Misty’s case is very different, as she dreams of marrying into a family that can free her from the pressure of sustaining herself in the urban labour market. Having worked in a string of different jobs, Misty is tired of trying to make it on her own and therefore welcomes the marriage prospects introduced to her by her mother.

Analysing these cases, this article demonstrates how female university graduates from rural backgrounds navigate a social landscape in which their positions are shaped by their gender, educational achievements and rural status, as well as societal structures including marriage and labour markets. In the scholarly literature, Chinese daughters in rural households have long been discussed in the context of China’s tradition of patrilocal living and patrilinear family systems, which prescribes that young women marry into their husbands’ families. Scholars have argued that Chinese daughters keep closer ties with their natal families than is often assumed. This article has taken this argument to the next level by showing that the young women who become the first member of their families to enrol in universities provide crucial support for precariously positioned rural households, particularly in terms of financing the marriage of sons and brothers and facilitating their parents’ retirement.

The ethnographic data in this article have shed light on the intense negotiations, particularly between female members of the household, that bring about the reconfiguration of gendered household dynamics. The differences between the two cases remind us that female university graduates from rural backgrounds are not a homogeneous group. Whereas Julia works very hard to maintain her independence, Misty cannot wait to marry into a family with a strong foundation in the city. These cases, of course, represent two points on a much wider spectrum.

The Price of Aspirations: Education Migrants’ Pursuit of Higher Education in Hubei Province, China.

This article, published in the European Journal for Development Research, brings an analysis of the structural condition of China’s social transformation and higher education system into dialogue with a discussion about the goals Chinese rural youth aspire to achieve. It analyses in detail how one families’ choices in relation to their children’s education are rooted in changing land policies and how students’ rural status inhibits their success within the Chinese higher education system. It also presents research data gathered among rural high school students that shows how students’ awareness of the challenges faced by their parents shapes their motivations.

This article focuses on the strategy of Morning Sunshine’s family. It explores why Morning Sunshine, who has two older sister and one younger brother, was the only member of her family to attend high school and university, demonstrating the importance of considering the family’s economic circumstances. It also provides an ethnography of how rural-urban inequalities are reproduced in China’s system of higher education.

This article encourages critical thinking about China’s educational expansion and the role of higher education in the lives of rural youths. It puts forward stories that highlight the paradox between education as a social structure that offers hope and strengthens youth agency and a system that perpetuates and deepens rural–urban inequalities. Theoretically, this article suggests how a framework for understanding youth’s aspirations developed by Zipin et al (2015) in the context of Australia can be adjusted for the purpose of theorising youth aspirations in societies marked by rapid social transformation.

This article was published as part of a special issue titled Youth, Aspirations and the Life Course: Development and the social production of aspirations in young lives. This special issue was edited by Nicola Ansell, Peggy Froerer, and Roy Huijsmans.

Author Bio

Willy Sier is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam. Her PhD-research focused on rural university students in Wuhan and the role of China’s higher education system in the country’s rural-urban transformation. Currently, she works on a project on whiteness in China. To see her in action, please see her short film “Empty Home”. For a preview of her work on Covid-19, please see here. Willy can be contacted at w.m.sier@uva.nl and she tweets @WillySier.

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