Happy Days

Li and her mother in Li’s bedroom. Photo by author.

We met in Wuhan in 2015. Li was a recent university graduate who worked for Foxconn factory as a project manager. I was a PhD student researching rural-urban student mobility. Within weeks of meeting each other, Li and I made our first of several trips to Jingmen city, where her parents lived. Jingmen city, located 250 kilometers northwest of Wuhan, is an important node for rural-urban student migration. Li’s parents, deeply familiar with developments in that part of Hubei province, were knowledgeable interlocutors. Sitting down for dinner on plastic stools around a round fold-out table in their 2-bedroom flat after they returned from their jobs in a cotton factory and a warehouse, they spurred me on to ask research-related questions. “You still have things you want to ask us? Don’t be shy, go get your notebook!” Despite their unquestionable fatigue after a long day’s work, they spared no effort when responding to my questions about histories of mobility, current living and labour conditions, and dreams for the future.

When plates were empty and stories were told, father washed the dishes, and we—Li, her mother, and me—retreated into the bedroom to stretch out on the bed and talk for hours about Li’s future. At what age should she get married? Would it be a problem if she got married later? What if she first wanted to travel or even spend some time working abroad? What type of man should she marry? Was it important how much she liked him or should she “be realistic” and think practically?

Looking at this picture seven years after it was taken, I still remember the love in that room. Despite that mother and daughter sometimes disagreed about the answers to the marriage-related questions, they shared the same baseline: I want what is good for you. When Li looked at the picture again at my request, she sighed: “It reminds me of the time we spent together in my home, when I was single, and my mother wasn’t yet injured. Such happy days…” Li referred to her mother having had an accident in the cotton-factory in April 2017, when she broke her hip as the result of being knocked over by a trolley. This accident marked the start of a very tumultuous period in Li’s life. Worried about her mother and the future of her family, she began suffering from insomnia and dark moods. For months, she tossed and turned at night, spending her days in a daze. What should she do to support her family? Would the factory pay her mother, a rural worker without a labour contract, any kind of compensation? What if her mother would never work again?

In 2019, Li married a striking young man. Her mother recovered slowly from the hip injury, never regaining her full strength. Her father now spent more time away from home, working as a migrant worker in other provinces, to compensate for the loss of income. The questions about Li’s marriage had now been answered, yet the family still struggled with fundamental issues confronted by many rural-urban migrant families. Members of these families have often lived and worked in cities for decades and no longer have a base in the countryside to return to. At the same time, they do not own a house in the city and – most importantly – do not have access to urban pensions (Sier & Verstappen 2023). Aging rural-urban migrants therefore face serious uncertainty and rely on their children for support. In the Chinese family system, often described as patrilocal, patriarchal, and patrilineal, most of this care is expected from sons, while daughters are considered as “marrying out” and becoming part of their husband’s family (Driessen & Sier 2019). However, as demonstrated in the literature on gender relations in rural Chinese households, reality is messy, and daughters often provide care to their parents, especially when their brothers fail to do so (Judd 1989; Yan 2006; Shi 2017; Sier 2021).

It would be an understatement to say that Li’s brother failed at providing care to her parents. His life had been derailed by being sentenced to five years in prison at the age of sixteen for robbery. Stumbling from one disaster into the next bad decision, his life choices were a constant drain on the family’s finances and energy. In 2021, Li’s brother got access to his parents’ life savings, which had significantly increased due to a 170,000 RMB ($23,000 USD) compensation from the factory for covering the fall-out of the accident. He emptied the accounts and disappeared, pretending to have travelled to the Philippines. Li was livid and desperate: “He ruined everything, including the hope for a new house. We are back at zero.” With a brother like this, who would take care of her parents?

It was Li’s husband who made a bold proposition: what if we pool our savings to buy your parents a house? Throwing caution, tradition, and Li’s parents’ objections to the wind, the couple moved quickly, buying a three-bedroom apartment in Jingmen City for Li’s parents in 2023. The purchase has brought peace to the family, after decades of relentless movement and constant uncertainty. And, more importantly, it cemented the young couple’s relationship, who are now confident they can rely on each other when times get rough.


Driessen, Miriam, and Willy Sier. 2021. “Rescuing Masculinity: Giving Gender in the Wake of China’s Marriage Squeeze.” Modern China 47(3), 266-289.

Judd, Ellen. 1989. “Niangjia: Chinese Women and Their Natal Families.” The Journal of Asian Studies 48 (3), 525–544.

Shi, Lihong. 2017. Choosing Daughters: Family Change in Rural China. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

Sier, Willy, and Sanderien Verstappen. 2023. “Empty Homes: Filming Homeownership in Rapidly Urbanising China.” Visual Studies, online first: https://doi.org/10.1080/1472586X.2023.2217796

Sier, Willy. 2021. “Daughters’ dilemmas: the role of female university graduates in rural households in Hubei province, China.” Gender, Place & Culture 28(10): 1493-1512.

Yan, Yunxiang. 2006. “Girl Power: Young Women and the Waning of Patriarchy in Rural North China.” Ethnology 45(2): 105–123.

​​Willy Sier is an Assistant Professor in Utrecht University’s Department of Anthropology. She is interested in China’s rapidly urbanizing and increasingly diverse society and reflects in written and visual form on rural-urban dynamics, gendered family relations, and the position of international migrants in China. Willy currently develops research on China’s low birth rate and recently co-produced a short documentary with Li, entitled Baby-Stress in China, about young Chinese couples’ decisions about whether to have children.