Interview with Dr. Lena Kaufmann: A socio-technical perspective on farmland and rural-urban migration in contemporary China

Interview: Jelena Große-Bley

Lena Kaufmann is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Zurich, where she is a research associate in both the Department of History and the Department of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies. Trained as an anthropologist and sinologist in Rome, Berlin, and Shanghai, she holds a PhD in social anthropology from the University of Zurich. She spent four years in China and has conducted extensive research on Chinese migration in urban and rural settings. Her current research project focuses on Swiss-Chinese entanglements in digital infrastructures.

In July 2021, Jelena Große-Bley spoke to Lena Kaufmann about her new book Rural-Urban Migration and Agro-Technological Change in Post-Reform China (Amsterdam University Press, 2021, available open access).


JGB: Your recently published monograph is an inquiry into rural-urban migration in contemporary China in which you focus on the rural side of the story. You had been working on the urban side prior to your PhD work. What inspired you to take a more integrated look at rural-urban migrants and the – as you call it – predicaments that they face in their places of origin in the countryside?

LK: I started researching migration in urban areas when I was studying in Shanghai for my master’s degree. At the time, I looked at migration skills of rural-urban migrants, mainly from Anhui, who came to work in street-side restaurants or take up other occupations. What sparked my interest in the countryside was when some of my interlocutors took me along on their annual trip back home to rural Anhui. During this trip, I had the chance to visit two places because I was hosted by a huge family that lived across different villages. Being there, it really struck me that you cannot understand migration in China if you don’t take the countryside into consideration.

What stuck out to me was that rural-urban migrants kept maintaining their rice fields, despite years away from the village while working in big cities like Shanghai. It made me wonder how they dealt with this situation of being away while still maintaining their fields. I wanted to understand the challenges linked to this maintenance of fields, which still function as an important safety net for many rural-urban migrants in precarious urban jobs.


JGB: In the book, the reader is taken to many places, but most importantly Green Water Village in Hunan Province. Tell us a little bit about this place and your interlocutors there.

LK: First, let me say a few words about how I switched field sites. Originally, I planned to go back to rural Anhui for the next Chinese New Year to continue my research. But I was a little late in arranging the trip, and everything was completely booked out. I did not manage to get my hands on any tickets. Then a colleague I had been working with in Beijing, who had heard I was interested in rice farming and migration, invited me to her hometown. Her parents were working as rice farmers, and it was easier to get tickets to Hunan, so I switched field sites and was hosted by her extended family. Being there, I encountered much better research conditions. People let me move around and talk to others freely, and I also had much better access to local sources more generally. That’s when I decided to continue my research in that place.

Thinking of Green Water Village, the image that comes to mind is it sitting in the middle of rice fields. Rice plays a crucial role in the local economy, and rice fields really are everywhere you look. I met my colleague in Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province, and she took me to the village. The village is not easy to get to, and I would likely not have found it by myself. When I first arrived in Green Water Village, what also stood out to me was how empty it was. We arrived a little before Chinese New Year, so we witnessed how the depleted village slowly filled up with returnees from the cities. They had dressed up for the occasion in what they thought of as urban and modern clothing styles. And suddenly, the village was full of people.

To me, you can find everything about rural-urban migration reflected in the material life of the village. For example, on the fields, you really see a reflection of the migration movements when people move away from more labour-intensive rice and switch to other crops. Or, if you look at the houses, you see the migrant remittances that flow back to them as investments. So when I walked through the village, I found it striking how you can tell the whole migration story from the material aspects around you.

Green Water Village, Copyright: Lena Kaufmann.

JGB: At the centre of your research are knowledge and skills around farming. Specifically, you focus on what your interlocutors call ‘doing paddy rice.’ Why did paddy fields and the practices around them stick out to you? And could you tell us about the approaches you used to make the often tacit and taken-for-granted aspects of ‘doing paddy rice’ more tangible?

LK: Paddy fields came into focus after I visited Anhui. Growing rice is very labour intensive, which really posed a puzzle for me. How do rural-urban migrants strategically deal with the upkeep of these labour-intensive farming practices? With this puzzle in the back of my mind, I later went to Hunan. Here, rice fields and farming technologies were everywhere. And the more I looked into it, fields and farming technologies continued to stand out as playing crucial roles in migration strategies.

Making tacit knowledge more tangible is indeed a challenging methodological question. I did participant observation as an outsider since I did not grow up with rice farming, nor did I have any of the required skills. When I tried to imitate what my interlocutors were doing, I realized the challenges one would face without their knowledge and skills. At almost every step of the process, I realized how much I was missing. For instance, you have to use a windmill to filter the rice before eating it. You have to turn it in the right way. This is similar to the threshing machine as well. You have to operate it with your foot by stepping on it in the right rhythm. I tried both and failed to do it properly. That was a great way to render the required skills and knowledge visible to me.

Also, if you notice gender divisions in labour and start inquiring about them, you also find out more about who knows what – or who is supposed to know and do what. Other sources that I also found useful to work with were farming proverbs. They are one way to render knowledge into teaching material verbally. I also looked a lot at the materials themselves, such as the fields and the technologies, to understand the techniques and socio-technical logics behind them.

Furthermore, apart from my rural interlocutors, I interviewed one urban couple. I included them because they were sent down to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. They were sent down from Shanghai and suddenly had to plant rice in Jiangxi Province, even though they had never done anything like it before. They told me a lot about their difficulties starting out with farming, including the physical aspects and the hardship of growing rice.

Paddy fields, Copyright: Zhou Yuemei, with permission.

JGB: You suggest paddy fields as a socio-material interface to understand the community of practice of rural-urban migrants and those ‘left behind.’ Can you give us an example of how this notion of socio-material interface was fruitful to make sense of something you encountered during fieldwork?

LK: I think that mechanization is a key point here. There is such a close and multi-causal relationship between mechanization and migration. On the one hand, people migrate, and then there is a lack of labour available at home, so you need machines or other technologies to replace them. It is logical to switch to machines in this situation, but this is often so expensive that people in the countryside can hardly afford to do so. Actually, only the migrants earn enough money to send remittances to those who stayed in the villages, enabling the use of machines. In a way, you can see the rural-urban migrants applying their skills in the city to take care of the fields from afar.


JGB: In your book, you mention the widespread stigmatized perception of rural populations and rural migrants in the cities. You describe your approach as a way to show the agency of your interlocutors and the projects they pursue in making a ‘good life.’ What is the special role of land in these projects in the Chinese context, and why does it persist?

LK: The special role of land is connected to the policy setting in China. In a way, the hukou system, though it is being abolished step-by-step, binds people to the countryside. If we look at big cities, such as Shanghai, Guangzhou or Beijing, they still prevent most migrants from permanently settling there. Rural-urban migrants, therefore, need to keep relying on their fields. In fact, the welfare system itself is based on land playing the role of a safety net for the rural population.

While specific to China, it is not a unique case. There are also other contexts in which the maintenance of fields continues to play a role for migrants, for example in migration between Mexico and the United States. But in China, we are looking at internal migration, which to some extent makes keeping the connection easier since you don’t have to cross an official border.

Copyright: Zhou Yuemei, with permission.

JGB: You mention in your conclusion that you stayed in touch with your interlocutors since ending your fieldwork in 2011. A lot has likely changed in your field site by now, for example the progressing reform of land markets. Does land continue to play a pivotal role in this context?

LK: Land is still crucial and continues to serve the function of an important safety net. But you also find, especially in the younger generation, that people aspire to migrate away permanently. When they settle permanently in the city, the importance of the farmland in their places of origin is reduced. On the other hand, however, you find many cases throughout China of urbanization or industrialization in the countryside where people lose access to their land or where real estate companies want to make use of land. From this angle, we have really seen an increase in the value of land. And people are very aware of this situation. At least in my field site, people really try to maintain contact with their land in order not to lose it, as was the case in other parts of China.


JGB: Your book has been available open access for a while now, and you have also shared it with a wider audience through various presentations. What has surprised you in how audiences have reacted to your work?

LK: I was positively surprised that the issue of land, which I think remains crucial to peoples’ livelihoods, did really resonate with a lot of people from very different fields of study. Even broader public and non-scholarly audiences seemed to connect to the challenge of migration and maintaining land resources.


JGB: What is a core point that you hope readers will take away from your book?

LK: My general aim in this book is to highlight the knowledge and skills that people need to have – and that they do have – to maintain land resources. If you look at the discourses around peasants in China, you will notice that they are usually very negative. Peasants are often portrayed as backward and passive. My approach in this book is to not victimize people, though without denying the indeed very difficult circumstances that many people are in. But they also have a certain agency that is expressed in mundane, everyday activities such as farming. People do not need to show open resistance to have agency. Sometimes they also very much act in line with what is expected of them from the state. But still, with their actions they pursue their own projects, such as finding a marriage partner, raising funds to build a house or investing in their children’s education. The main takeaway for readers, I hope, is the agency and knowledge of rural-urban migrants and those ‘left behind’ in the countryside that goes into their projects. More generally, such a focus on the material world and the knowledge and skills of migrants and those ‘left behind’ really helps us to better understand migration phenomena and migrant-home relationships.

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