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Livelihood strategies of Multi-Locational Households in the PR of China


  • preparatory phase and fieldwork 2010
  • data analysis and interpretation 2011-2013


Project team

  • Einhard Schmidt-Kallert (TU Dortmund University, Faculty of Planning)
  • Peter Franke („Forum Arbeitswelten China & Deutschland", a German NGO)
  • Lin Zhibin (Migrant Workers' Museum Beijing)



TU Dortmund University, Dept of Spatial Planning in Developing Countries


Background, Objectives and Approach

The focus of this research project was on informal rural-urban linkages, and more specifically on livelihood strategies of migrants (the “floating population” in the Chinese terminology), who maintain multi-locational households in Beijing, Chongqing or the Pearl River Delta and in their home village. According to recent estimates, there are currently 240 million migrant workers in China; they account for the better part of urban growth in the Chinese megacities. Thus China is the country with the highest number of temporary migrants in the world. There is a rich body of topical literature on rural-urban migration in China written from the sociological, the anthropological or the economic perspective. But most empirical studies look at the migrants either at their place of origin or at their place of destination. This is where we see a research gap. Our project thus emphasised the informal linkages between villages of origin and megacities. We hoped to ascertain livelihood strategies of multi-locational households by interviewing members of the same household at their place of origin and the place of destination. The project focused on the household perspective and addressed both economic and non-economic livelihood opportunities (e.g. education of children, health care or care for the elderly). Beyond the household level, the study looked at specific informal support networks for multi-locational households along family, kin or dialect lines.

Some guiding research questions

  1. What are the migration histories of the migrant workers (step by step, sequential, seasonal, circulatory; how are migration decisions related to the life cycle)?
  2.  Which factors play a facilitating role in the migration decision of rural dwellers? What is the role of kin, clan, language, home village? What is the role of local government and provincial government institutions?
  3. How are government policies and government and party rhetoric reflected in migrants memories of their decision to migrate and migrants’ mindsets?
  4. How do multi-locational households combine monetized and non-monetized means of survival at two or more different locations? Does a pattern of reciprocity between the rural and the urban household members emerge?
  5.  Which arrangements are commonly made for children’s education and for health care?
  6. How are migrants’ general aspirations in life/ worldviews/ life styles/ consumption patterns transformed over time and through the different stages of the migration process?
  7.  In the final analysis: are there distinct patterns of livelihood strategies of migrants and multilocational households, which can be classified in a general typology?


Between July and November 2010 80 in-depth interviews with members of multi-locational households were conducted, recorded, transcribed and translated. The fieldwork sites covered three distinct migration corridors between the rural provinces Henan, Sichuan and Guizhou linked with Beijing, Chongqing and the Pearl River Delta, respectively. Care was taken to interview, wherever possible, members of the same multi-locational household in the city and at their place of origin.

Some key results

  1.  Most migrants have gone through a long and varied migration history, often with a succession of short‐term employments in different cities and provinces, in some cases also alternating with attempts at self‐employment or informal employment as traders or in small workshops.
  2.  There was ample evidence of intensive reciprocal economic relations between rural and urban members of the same household. There was also evidence of joint planning for both parts of the household. Unmarried daughters, who migrate to the cities, remain part of their rural household. The same applies to male migrants who leave their wives and children in the village, and also to many household constellations, in which grandparents and grandchildren in the villages maintain close ties with father and mother in the city. The multi-locational households vary in composition, comprising either two or three generations.
  3. However, not all migrant workers in China could be classified to be living in multi-locational household arrangements. There were others who maintained kinship ties within the extended family network, but these linkages lacked the intensity of continuous reciprocal exchange and joint planning. In such cases one could rather speak of social networks, which are also very important, for example, when members of such a network can fall back on more distant relatives in emergency situations.
  4.  All households interviewed were, beyond the nuclear family or their respective multilocational household, embedded in a support network within the extended family. It was not uncommon to receive money for medical care or for major purchases from a brother, a cousin or an uncle. But the understanding was that these moneys were loans and needed to be paid back after a period of time.
  5. Remittances for the care of left‐behind children varied from one household to the other. Some parents sent money on a regular basis, while others left most of the burden to the grandparents.
  6. The younger, urban based generation among our respondents were aware of their obligation to provide care for the elderly, when they become frail; but their parents appeared also to be aware that in case of need the support from the urban based children might not be forthcoming.
  7. The migrant workers’ identity was, even after more than twenty years in the city, very much tied to their place of origin. Most of them considered themselves as people from the countryside. However, this persistence of the identity as rural people has been forced upon them by government policies as well as by the perceptions of the urban dwellers around them at their place of current residence.
  8. Hometown associations played a paramount role for newly arriving migrants in their endeavour to establish a foothold in the city. The destination of the migration was, in most cases, determined by family members (brother, sister, uncle or a more distant relative), school-mates or people from the same village, who could provide some kind of guidance during the initial stages of orientation in the city. It would appear that company recruitment agents played a less important role in this respect. Those setting up informal sector businesses invariably gave preference to their kin and school mates, when offering jobs opportunities.





The publication can be purchased through any bookshop in Germany or directly from the publisher: Klartext Verlag.

ISBN: 978-3-8375-0805-5

Price: 24,95 €