Novel Reveals Plight of China’s Declining Villages

Jia Pingwa’s novel uses the story of a trafficked women to expose the growing crisis in rural China.

“The cities are gaping mouths, swallowing up money and goods from the villages.” Credit: Mingjia Zhou/The Third Pole

“The cities are gaping mouths, swallowing up money and goods from the villages.” Credit: Mingjia Zhou/The Third Pole

Renowned novelist Jia Pingwa’s latest work, Jihua, tells the story of a trafficked woman named Butterfly to show the plight of China’s remote villages.

When Butterfly’s father passes away, she and her mother leave their village for the city, where they make a living sifting through rubbish. Butterfly is full of hope for her new life, but when she tries to find a job, she becomes the victim of human trafficking and is sold to a poor family in a remote village in north-west China.

Butterfly is imprisoned in a cellar by Heiliang, the man who buys her. He and several other men rape her and she gives birth to a baby boy. Having a child gives her more freedom and she manages to phone her mother and the police, who come to rescue her after three years in captivity. She then returns to the city but finds herself looked down upon by the locals. Unable to bear being ridiculed and missing her son, she eventually returns to the village she was sold to.

The title of the novel is taken from a plant valued in Chinese medicine. The villagers collect the plant as it fetches a high price. Heliang’s mother dies after she slips on a steep slope while collecting the plant.

Speaking at the book launch, Jia said that the novel was based on the experiences of the daughter of a friend from his own village ten years ago.

Jia also emphasised that he wanted to show the reality of life in China’s most remote villages and expose an underlying crisis, rather than produce a thrilling tale.

Jihua continues my years of examination of rural society,” Jia said. “The villages have been in decline for a long time now. I’ve seen many empty of people, with buildings in ruins and weeds knee height. We’ve lost the villages, and with them our ancestral homes.”

JihuaA gradual decline

Through Heiliang, Jia in the novel says, “The government’s developing the cities. Now the cities are like gaping mouths, swallowing up money and goods from the villages, swallowing up all the village girls.”

Jia himself is from a peasant family, and only left his village in the north-western province of Shaanxi at the age of 19. The decline of the villages pains him. The character of Heiliang is treated with sympathy and understanding, and ultimately Butterfly returns to him. Jia hopes China’s villages can survive.

Jia describes the “Butterflys” (the trafficked women) as being too easily fooled. “Don’t you have to blame Butterfly? Why did she have to be so easily conned?” He also explains why Heiliang bought a wife, “If he didn’t buy a wife, he’d never have one and the village would die out.”

Heiliang’s family is not the only one to take drastic measures to secure their lineage. The village head proudly says six wives have been purchased in the past several years.


Jia’s novel attracted fierce criticism. He was accused of defending the traffickers and of putting the plight of men who cannot find a wife above the suffering of women. The role of women, critics argue, is reduced to providing sexual services and continuing the family name. Many readers objected to Butterfly returning to Heiliang, feeling she should have rejected that option.

Others complain that the novel mourns the loss of village life, while ignoring the evils they conceal. Such backward village ways should die out, they say. A legal expert reviewing the book wrote that almost every character is a criminal – trafficking is a crime, rape is a crime, even the violence used by the police during Butterfly’s rescue is a crime.

But author Liang Hong praised Jia for portraying difficult social issues, adding that finding a wife is a grave problem for rural men in a country with a large gender imbalance. Jia’s book doesn’t make simple moral judgements – it explores the soul of the protagonist.

Bleak reality

The village Jia depicts in his novel is a suffocating place: women are trafficked, “ghost marriages” are arranged for the deceased and the elderly kill themselves. The air of tragedy is set right at the start, when a 73-year-old man commits suicide by drinking pesticide, as he was unable to stop his daughter-in-law eloping with another man after his son leaves to work in the city.

China’s villages are declining in real life as well. According to Feng Jicai, deputy chair of the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles and chair of the China Folk Literature and Art Association, China had 3.6 million villages in 2000 – but only 2.7 million by 2010. In one decade 900,000 villages disappeared, almost 250 per day.

Most young people have left the remaining villages to find work, leaving the children and the elderly behind.

Death of Butterfly’s dream

China’s powerful push for urbanisation has seen huge numbers of rural residents relocate to the cities – with an estimated 240 million migrants nationwide. However the cities have not welcomed them with open arms.

Butterfly dreams of leaving the village behind for a new life in the city, but reality shatters her hope. She is sold for 35,000 yuan (USD 5,300) to a poor village. When she is rescued and returns to the city, she is made fun of and is ultimately forced to flee back to the countryside.

Professor Wang Junbo of Hunan University, describes migrant workers as “sugar cane” – the cities chew them up for their strength and intelligence while they are young and spit them out once they grow old. Wang adds that the cities are unwelcoming to older migrant workers who mostly return to their villages. “That’s the ultimate fate of the first generation of migrant workers.”

That older generation still miss their villages. But their children are no longer accustomed to rural life – which means they are neither accepted in the city or at homes in the villages.

After Chinese New Year festival this year, Huang Deng, a professor at Guangdong University of Finance, wrote of her experiences visiting her husband’s home village in Hubei province, sparking a nationwide debate.

Huang wrote that “rural residents have paid a terrible price for our so-called modernisation.” But society still struggles to give them the chance to improve their circumstances. Education was once the only route out for a village child, but there are minimal resources for rural education currently, and with many parents away working in cities, the children left behind are suffering.

Children of trafficked women often meet with tragedy, with no parents to care from them. In September 2015, the Chinese media reported that four children in Bijie, Guizhou province, had committed suicide by drinking pesticide – the youngest was only five. Their father had left to find work and their mother had been “stolen away” three years earlier.

As rural populations fall, schools are closing. According to a report edited by Yang Dongping, director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, an average of 30 elementary schools and three junior middle schools were closed every day between 2000 and 2010.

A sample study across ten provinces found that primary school pupils live on average over five km from their schools, while junior middle school pupils live almost 17 km away. These distances contribute to high drop-out rates. Children who accompany their parents to the cities struggle to get into good schools. They are not eligible to attend mainstream schools and so poor quality “migrant worker schools” are often the only option.

Unsurprisingly, the number of rural students entering top universities has also declined. Liu Yunshan of the school of education at Peking University estimates that between 1978 and 1998, rural students made up 30% of Peking University’s intake. But that figure started to fall in the mid-1990s and has now stands at about 10%. Educational expert Yang Dongping has found that the number of rural students attending China’s other key universities has also been falling since 1990.

To leave the village and make a home in the city may seem a simple enough dream, and it is one the new generation holds even more fervently. But will they be luckier than their parents?

Liu Qin is an editor in chinadialogue‘s Beijing office. This article was first published on chinadialogue.

It was republished by The Third Pole