Left-behind experiences and the formation of gender division of labor: an empirical study based on fieldwork at sites of origin and destination for migrant workers


(1.Department of Sociology, Tsinghua University)

【Abstract】Based on the fieldwork conducted at sites of origin and destination for migrants in southern China, this article found that left-behind experiences led to the formation of gender division of labor. Left-behind girls are forced to participate in extensive reproductive labor, while left-behind boys indulge themselves in leisure activities. The gender division of labor between left-behind children is caused by intervention from both left-behind grandparents and migrant parents in the context of the family reconfiguration. Labor migration transfers the burden of labor reproduction to family members who are left-behind, and reconstructs gender power relations of the migrant family, defining the reproductive labor as women’s labor. This finding highlights that through the intersection of the migrant labor regime and patriarchal migrant family, left-behind experiences advance and shape the gender-based labor habits and attitudes in childhood, preparing the foundation of further gender division of labor when the younger generation becomes the new generation of migrant workers.

【Keywords】 left-behind experiences; labor system; gender power; reproduction labor; new generation of migrant worker;


Download this article


    [1]. (1) Out of academic routine, names of persons and names of place in the article are anonymous. The new generation of migrant workers in the article refers to migrants workers who were born in 1980 and after with agricultural household registration. [^Back]

    [2]. (2) The number of left-behind and migrant children is large, reaching 61.02 million and 35.81 million in 2010 respectively (Duan, 2013a, 2013b). Left-behind and migrant life change alternately in different time periods, and they are in essence the same social group instead of two groups (Tan, 2011). The proportion of these children who achieved social mobility through education was limited and most of them became the new generation of migrant workers (Li, 2014; Xiong, 2015). [^Back]

    [3]. (3) The new generation of migrant workers accounted for 49.9% of all migrant workers with the total number of 118 million (Migrant Population Division of National Health and Family Planning Commission, 2013) [^Back]

    [4]. (4) See statistics in Fig. 1 of the article. [^Back]

    [5]. (5) Diaries on the work of left-behind children cited in the article of Han (2009) were all recorded by left-behind girls. In the article of Ren and Zhang, the labor of left-behind children was mainly undertaken by a 16-year-old left-behind girl who was a senior student in a junior high school, and among workers peeling shrimp in a local factory, 80% of them were children, and 95% of the children were girls. [^Back]

    [6]. (6) Intersectional analysis is the most important theoretical breakthrough in gender sociology in the U.S. since 1980s. It originated from studies on minority females and later developed into an analytical method of systematically examining the construction of complicated governing model on structural forces such as gender, race and class in a specific process and institutional environment. See review by Su (2016) for details. [^Back]

    [7]. (7) Although many migrant workers of Xibian Village worked in Shenzhen and surrounding industrial areas, their working places were scattered. Therefore, subjects investigated by the author in J Industrial Area could not correspond to them. [^Back]

    [8]. (8) The article believed that the short reunion of left-behind children to their parents’ working places during vacations is also a part of their left-behind experiences (in a broad sense). [^Back]

    [9]. (9) The stipulation is lower the law (that is, the overtime pay at weekends should be twice that of weekdays), but it is common in small factories in J Industrial Area. [^Back]

    [10]. (10) A vice headmaster of a town junior high school in Xibian Village told me that the entrance rate of this school to key senior high school was under 10% during all these years. [^Back]

    [11]. (11) The data in this study were collected in 2015, including samples of 1200 new generation of migrant workers in Beijing. [^Back]

    [12]. (12) For example, the patriarchal tradition in rural areas of northeast China was under sharp impact of communist reform and marketization. Since the end of last century, households with only one girl appeared in some villages (Yan, 2017) and the total fertility rate in this area was 0.891 in 2010 (Yin, 2013). [^Back]


    Cai, H. Economic Research Journal (经济研究), (4) (2010).

    Cai, H. Open Times (开放时代), (9) (2010).

    Chang, H. & Dong, X. World Economic Papers (世界经济文汇), (4) (2009).

    Duan, C., Lyu, L., Guo, J. et al. Population Journal (人口学刊), (3) (2013a).

    Duan, C., Lyu, L., Wang, Z. et al. South China Population (南方人口), (4) (2013b).

    Guo, S. Youth Studies (青年研究), (5) (2006).

    Migrant Population Division of National Health and Family Planning Commission. Report of China’s Migrant Population Development 2013 (中国流动人口发展报告2013). Beijing: China Population Press, (2013).

    Han, Y. Journal of China Agriculture University Social Sciences (中国农业大学学报社会科学版), (4) (2009).

    Huang, B. Sociological Studies (社会学研究), (2) (2014).

    Huang, B. Journal of China Agriculture University Social Sciences (中国农业大学学报社会科学版), (4) (2015).

    Jin, Y. Jiangsu Social Sciences (江苏社会科学), (2) (2009).

    Jin, Y. Social Sciences in China (中国社会科学), (4) (2010).

    Jiang, L. Jianghai Academic Journal (江海学刊), (4) (2011).

    Li, C. Sociological Studies (社会学研究), (2) (2014).

    Li, G. Journal of Chinese Women’s University (中华女子学院学报), (2) (2011).

    Li, Q., Sun, B. & Li, R. Chinese Rural Economy (中国农村经济), (10) (2014).

    Li, T. China Youth Daily (中国青年报), (2015-8-11).

    Liang, H. Population Research (人口研究), (4) (2011).

    Qin, H. Exploration and Free Views (探索与争鸣), (2) (2014).

    Research Group of Department of Sociology, Tsinghua University. in Shen, Y. (ed.) Tsinghua Sociological Review No. 6 (清华社会学评论). Beijing: Social Sciences Academic Press (China), (2013a).

    Research Group of Department of Sociology, Tsinghua University. in Shen, Y. (ed.) Tsinghua Sociological Review No. 6 (清华社会学评论). Beijing: Social Sciences Academic Press (China), (2013b).

    Ren, Y. & Zhang, S. Open Times (开放时代), (6) (2015).

    Shen, Y. Market, Class and Society: Critical Issues on Sociology of Transformation (市场, 阶级与社会——转型社会学的关键议题). Beijing: Social Sciences Academic Press, (2007).

    Su, Y. Sociological Studies (社会学研究), (4) (2016).

    Tan, S. Social Sciences in China (中国社会科学), (1) (2011).

    Wang, J. & Huang, B. Chinese Journal of Sociology (社会), (5) (2014).

    Wang, T., Wang, F., Tang, Y. et al. Social Sciences in China (中国社会科学), (2) (2015).

    Xie, D. South China Population (南方人口), (3) (2016).

    Yan, B. Academic Forum (学术论坛), (9) (2014).

    Yan, H. 读书, (7) (2005).

    Yan, Y. Private Life under Socialism: Love, Intimacy, and Family Change in a Chinese Village, 1949–1999. Gong, X. (trans.) Shanghai: Shanghai People’s Publishing House, (2017).

    Yin, W. Yao, Y. & Li, F. Social Sciences in China (中国社会科学), (6) (2013).

    Zhang, Y. 流动与瓦解: 中国农村的演变及其动力. Beijing: China Social Sciences Press, (2012).

    Burawoy, Michael 1976, “The Functions and Reproductions of Migrant Labor: Comparative Material from Southern Africa and the United States.” American Journal of Sociology 81(5).

    Chuang, Julia 2016, “Factory Girls after the Factory: Female Return Migration in Rural China.” Gender & Society 30(3).

    Davin, Delia 2005, “Women and Migration in Contemporary China.” China Report 41(1).

    Fan, Cindy 2003, “Rural-Urban Migration and Gender Division of Labor in Transitional China.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 27(1).

    Goodburn, Charlotte 2015, “Migrant Girls in Shenzhen: Gender, Education and the Urbanization of Aspiration.” The China Quarterly 222.

    Lee, Ching Kwan 2016, “Precarization or Empowerment? Reflections on Recent Labor Unrest in China.” The Journal of Asian Studies 75(2).

    Pun, Ngai & Huilin Lu 2010, “Unfinished Proletarianization: Self, Anger, and Class Action among the Second Generation of Peasant-Workers in Present-Day China.” Modern China 36(5).

    Zhou, Minhui, Rachel Murphy & Ran Tao 2014, “Effects of Parents’ Migration on the Education of Children Left Behind in Rural China.” Population and Development Review 40(2).

This Article


CN: 11-1100/C

Vol 34, No. 02, Pages 123-146+244-245

March 2019


Article Outline


  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Structural perspective and left-behind experiences
  • 3 Fieldwork and sources of materials
  • 4 Gender labor division in labor transfer, gender power and left-behind experiences
  • 5 Discussion
  • 6 Conclusion
  • Footnote