Book review: How Migrant Labor Is Changing Rural China



Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. By Rachel Murphy. ISBN-100521005302   ISBN-13978-0521005302 Publication date October 7, 2002 Hard cover $ 14.50-72.50  Soft cover $ 8.74-11.92

by Ankit Kumar         13 December 2023

Rachel Murphy’s book, “How Migrant Labor Is Changing Rural China,” published by Cambridge University Press in 2002, provides a profound exploration of the transformative impact of labor migration on rural China. The central focus of the book is the migration of young individuals from rural areas to urban jobs, particularly along the coast. Currently, China’s urban areas are home to approximately 100 million migrants, a number that could triple over the next two decades, especially if these migrants settle permanently in cities and towns, bringing their families with them.

The book illuminates a crucial aspect of this migration phenomenon: what occurs in rural areas when migrants leave and return after a few years in urban centers. One significant factor shaping this migration pattern is China’s household registration system (hukou), leading most rural migrants to spend a few years in cities before returning to their villages or nearby market towns. Murphy’s research, based on extensive fieldwork in southern Jiangxi Province from 1997 to 2000, reveals the profound influence these returnees exert on life in their places of origin.

The book extensively delves into how migration affects income and expenditures in the migrants’ places of origin. While remittances from migrants working in cities significantly impact rural areas, the effects become even more pronounced when migrants return, often having amassed substantial resources. This influx of income, unsurprisingly, leads to significant income disparities within the villages and profoundly influences family dynamics. Particularly for women, migration offers a degree of independence from traditional roles, allowing them to explore opportunities beyond household confines.

Furthermore, migration influences consumption patterns, leading to investments in improved housing and conflicting influences on education spending. The book’s strength lies in its detailed exploration of these changes, combining qualitative narratives with quantitative analysis to enhance understanding. However, the reviewer suggests a potential enhancement: supplementing the ethnographic work with systematic statistical analysis using nationwide datasets, ensuring broader applicability of the conclusions.

Additionally, the book highlights the businesses initiated by returning migrants in their home villages and nearby towns. These enterprises not only provide income but also demonstrate the valuable knowledge migrants gain about running small businesses. The book thoroughly examines the interactions between these businesses and local governments, emphasizing the delicate balance between promotion and taxation.

In the meticulously crafted exploration of labor migration in rural China, Rachel Murphy delves deep into the heart of societal transformation. The chapters of her book, each a scholarly masterpiece, unveil the intricate web of values, goals, and resources guiding rural China through the labyrinth of labor migration. Chapter 1 lays the foundation, unraveling the essence of societal norms, individual aspirations, and the deployment of resources. It intricately depicts how migration and return become strategic pathways for social actors, emphasizing the symbiotic relationship between values, goals, and resources.

Chapter 2 magnificently zooms out to examine the historical backdrop, painting a vivid picture of China, Jiangxi, and the specific counties under scrutiny. Here, Murphy meticulously dissects the pre-liberation dynamics and post-reform state interventions, providing invaluable insights into the struggles of rural communities in their quest for resources amidst evolving structures.

Chapter 3 delves into the heart of social dynamics, meticulously analyzing migration’s impact on village inequalities and resource redistribution. It expertly captures the conflicts within households and villages, illuminating how even non-migrant individuals adapt their strategies in response, ultimately reshaping resource dynamics and rural inequalities.

In this chapter 4, the focus lies on how residents in Wanzai utilize migrationgenerated resources to enhance their material well-being and social engagement within both the village and the city. The analysis delves into the spending patterns of rural inhabitants, primarily channeling remittances towards common areas in the developing world: education, life-cycle objectives such as housing and marriage, and consumer goods. Scholars have extensively noted the inclination of villagers to allocate a significant portion of remittances and urban savings to these “nonproductive” goals, while comparatively allocating fewer funds to “productive” investments in agriculture and business.

The chapter simplifies the impact of remittance usage on rural development from two perspectives: structuralist and modernization approaches. According to structuralists, rural individuals are adaptable subjects whose values, life goals, and spending behaviors are influenced by compelling urban lifestyle imagery exhibited in billboards and shop windows. This “taste transfer” allegedly intensifies the reliance of traditional populations on imported items, thereby diminishing the market for locally produced goods. Structuralists argue that the assimilation of urban tastes transforms migrants into disciplined workers who rely on wages to fulfill their newfound consumer desires.


Chapter 5 explain how local government officials engage in intense competition with various social actors to gain control over the resources stemming from labor migration, especially in their endeavors to promote entrepreneurship among returning migrants. The term “local state” encompasses the governmental and Party bodies overseeing townships and their respective administrative villages. Evaluation of these local state cadres by the County Rural Work Office is based on their ability to enhance economic conditions within their regions. Tangible improvements, such as the establishment of new enterprises, enhanced town infrastructure, and augmented tax revenue, are crucial markers of success. Notably, in certain rural areas of China, local government actively encourages prosperous migrants to come back and establish businesses as a means to acquire additional resources for achieving their political and economic objectives. To entice migrants into investing locally, these officials leverage values like familial loyalty and affection for one’s homeland. They also provide incentives, including better access to local resources and opportunities for profitable resource deployment, in a bid to facilitate this returnee entrepreneurship.

Chapter 6 In this chapter, a detailed examination is conducted on the attributes of returnee enterprises and the entrepreneurs themselves. The chapter delves into the scale, types of business activities, and ownership structures of returnee enterprises. Smaller-scale businesses adopt a familial petty commodity mode of production, while larger-scale ones incorporate formalized management akin to urban factories. These returnee businesses predominantly operate in the manufacturing and service sectors, with only a few engaged in specialized agricultural production. Ownership structures vary, with returnees establishing private-sector entities and also acquiring or managing collective and state enterprises through contracts.

The analysis of entrepreneur characteristics provides insights into migrants’ resource acquisition both in cities and their hometowns, impacting the scale and strength of their post-return businesses. Factors such as duration of city residence, age upon return, educational attainment, and reasons for returning are scrutinized. While male returnee entrepreneurs dominate, the chapter offers a separate exploration of female returnees. Gender-specific considerations influence their decisions to return and shape the scale and nature of their businesses. Despite differing characteristics among returnees in south Jiangxi, they share a common aspiration observed in returnees worldwide: the desire for entrepreneurial independence, liberated from agricultural labor and employer control.

Chapter 7 artfully narrates the pivotal role played by returned entrepreneurs in local development. From economic investments to policy changes, Murphy masterfully captures their multifaceted impact on broader socioeconomic goals, illuminating their dynamic interactions with the local state.

Chapter 8 delves into the complexities of migrant returnees, shedding light on a less explored aspect of their experiences. While previous chapters focused on the successes of entrepreneurs, this section uncovers the challenges faced by individuals compelled to return home due to misfortune or family obligations. Migration exposes these returnees to new values and lifestyles, sometimes conflicting with traditional village norms, leading to frustration due to unattainable goals. However, the disruption isn’t entirely detrimental; some returnees find the city experience empowering, motivating them to challenge oppressive village values and social structures.

This returnee dynamic adds intricacies to the local state’s responsibilities, particularly in welfare, social stability, and family planning. Legislation, such as the household’s legal responsibility for members’ welfare, exists, but the local state must step in when constituents’ well-being or national policies’ integrity is jeopardized. Responses include providing welfare support, advocating for compensation owed to injured migrants from urban employers, discouraging city crimes through public awareness campaigns, and monitoring migrant women’s fertility. This chapter unveils the nuanced interplay between individual experiences, societal norms, and state obligations, offering a comprehensive understanding of the challenges faced by returnees and the multifaceted roles of the local state.

The profound exploration of rural-urban labor migration’s impact on China’s vast countryside is found in Chapter 9. The book meticulously dissects this monumental phenomenon, involving millions of lives, revealing a nuanced understanding beyond mere statistical figures. It emphasizes the active role individuals play in shaping and navigating the complex social and economic forces. Amidst macro-level analyses, the significance of individual human experiences takes center stage, offering a rich tapestry of qualitative data that unveils the intricate strategies guiding migration.

The narrative paints a multifaceted picture: while some directly benefit, others face heightened challenges. Yet, amidst these disparities, the overarching effect of migration emerges as transformative. It enriches rural lives by broadening perspectives, enhancing resource availability, and creating new pathways for achieving personal goals.

Crucially, the chapter challenges prevalent perceptions. Unlike common portrayals in Western literature and Chinese policy discussions that often view migration as an external process, this study contends otherwise. Migration and return, the chapter asserts, are natural extensions of existing diversification strategies deeply rooted within the values and resources inherent to the village. It sheds light on the underpinning role of pre-existing values like family loyalty and love for one’s native place, adapting seamlessly to the migration process. This adaptation becomes essential due to the vulnerability’s migrants face – socially, economically, and legally – in urban environments, necessitating the safety net provided by the rural household. Thus, the chapter underscores migration’s intrinsic connection with internal village dynamics, challenging conventional perspectives and presenting a profound reevaluation of the intricate interplay between human agency and societal change.

Rachel Murphy’s, “How Migrant Labor Is Changing Rural China,” transcends the realms of academic literature, offering a profound and empathetic portrayal of China’s rural transformation. With meticulous research, nuanced analysis, and a keen understanding of the human spirit, Murphy’s work stands as an indispensable beacon guiding scholars, policymakers, and readers alike through the complex landscape of labor migration in rural China. This book is not merely a scholarly endeavor; it is a testament to the resilience and adaptability of rural communities in the face of transformative change, making it an essential addition to the canon of migration studies.


Critical Evaluation: Murphy’s work stands out for its rich narrative and detailed ethnographic approach. By providing a granular view of the lives and choices of migrants, the book captures the essence of rural transformation in the wake of migration waves. However, some readers, especially those inclined toward quantitative analysis, might yearn for a more extensive integration of large-scale data to bolster the author’s qualitative insights.

Conclusion: How Migrant Labor Is Changing Rural China is an invaluable resource for scholars, policymakers, and anyone interested in understanding the intricate social fabric of rural China amidst rapid urbanization. Through nuanced storytelling and insightful observations, Rachel Murphy crafts a compelling narrative that not only informs but also engages readers, offering a glimpse into the transformative journey of millions of migrants shaping the destiny of their villages and towns.