“Lost Childhoods” of Ethnic Yi Migrant Worker Children

A 3-year-old girl carrying her 3-month-old baby sister on her back on the kelp drying fields in Jiaodong, China.


From QQ:

Lost Childhood

To this day, the Liangshan Yi autonomous prefecture is one of China’s most impoverished regions. Starting from May every year, large numbers of ethnic Yi compatriots come to the Jiaodong coast [in Shandong province] for work drying kelp in the sun. For them with poor economic prospects, dragging their family across half of China is ultimately better than staying in the mountain regions without enough to eat. The children who come with them are as old as their teens and as small as several months old, not yet weaned.


Because of its seasonality, the work of drying kelp in the air is extremely hard. At 3am in the early morning, boats go out to cut kelp and by 5am, the fresh kelp is transported onto land. After being unloaded, the kelp needs to be cut and repeatedly turned over to dry under the sun, bundled together, and sealed before it can enter the warehouse. These workers from Liangshan often have to work from before the sun is up until the sun has set.


As their parents are busy laboring, the children can only “grow up free” [look after themselves]. At the site where the kelp is dried in the sun, a small canopy of maize and Chinese bellflower becomes the children’s temporary “home”. Because it is dark and unventilated in the canopy, the children prefer to play on the plastic tarps used to cover the dried kelp, and use the plastic tarp to block the wind and shield themselves from the sun.


The drying of the kelp under the sun occurs before the rainy season, so the temperatures are relatively high with little rainfall, but for the children, this golden season for kelp is somewhat difficult to bear. This 3-year-old little girl wrapped the plastic tarp around her, to lessen exposure to the sun. Only upon seeing someone pass by did the little girl open the plastic tarp.


Some parents carry their children on themselves in slings, simultaneously laboring and taking care of their children. The children look like little mountains on their parents’ backs, similar to the burdens/pressures of life [weighing on their backs]. If they stayed in the mountains, they would essentially have no income, so while carrying their children is exhausting, they can still see the hope of their lives.


Some children disregard the scorching sun and accompany their laboring parents, even if it is boring.


Almost all of these laborers from the mountains have several children in their families, and in many situations, the older brothers and sisters must bear the responsibility of taking care of their younger brothers and sisters. Only when his younger brother sleeps can this 6-year-old elder brother get a bit of rest. Lying in the plastic tarps under the blazing sun, watching the back of his parents as they work, the older brother hopes his parents can finish work early, to free him [from looking after his younger brother].

A 3-year-old girl carrying her 3-month-old baby sister on her back on the kelp drying fields in Jiaodong, China.

This just 3-year-old little girl is the oldest child in her family, and thus shoulders the responsibility of caring for her little sister, who is not yet 3 months old. The children’s mother had given birth right by a small reservoir at the work site. She used a sickle for cutting kelp to cut the umbilical cord, and a bottle of distilled liquor to disinfect. After resting seven days, she took the child to the work site to continue laboring, with the duty of caring for the child given to her older daughter who had just turned three.


With mom busy working and without time to look after her newborn daughter, the job of feeding milk is done by her 3-year-old older sister. This 3-year-old girl has learned how to take care of others when other children her age still require all-around care themselves.


All three meals a day are rationed by the work site [employer]. They can get wheat flour steamed buns and vegetable soup. Meals are the happiest moments for these adults and children, when everyone is able to eat until they’re full. The children each get two wheat flour steamed buns, which is much tastier than eating potatoes for every meal when in the mountains. To make it easier for the children who don’t yet have all their teeth, adults soak the steamed buns in the vegetable soup until they’re soft before feeding the children.


Although life has forced them to “mature early”, the children’s innate natures still require their parents to keep an eye on them. This little boy fell asleep on the ground where the kelp is dried under the son, and woke up crying trying to find his parents.


Upon seeing his child crying, the boy’s father rushed over, slung him to his back, and asked the little boy’s older brother to fetch a steamed bun. Parents occasionally have no choice but to personally interrupt their work to come look after their children.


Most of the time, the children are very well-behaved and thoughtful, helping their parents with the work. The work site for drying the kelp is contracted by several people where the kelp is turned over to dry under the sun and bundled according to requirements, their wages calculated on their final production output. On average, every person can earn about 3000 yuan in a month. The sooner they finish their work, the sooner they can rest, so the children will help their parents to finish their work earlier.


These children don’t have the circumstances to got o school where they are from. After their parents come to Jiaodong to work, and because of the unfixed working time and location as well as language barriers, they have even less prospects for going to school. They can only live out their childhood on the work sites where their parents work. In an environment of material poverty, what brings them happiness can be as simple as finding a wooden plank on the ground.


While resting, the 3-year-old little girl holds her beloved toy as she lies on the leg of her sound asleep father. This is what rest time is like for a family. The so-called toy is nothing more than whatever can be found/scavenged, all discarded and abandoned objects.


Children are the flowers of the country’s future, and they should be cared for by society rather than forced to learn how to be strong. If only their silhouettes could disappear from these working sites tomorrow, with every child able to wear neat clothes, sitting in classrooms, with the sounds of learning.

Comments from QQ:


Where are those dog-lovers now? Are these children less important than cats and dogs?


My tears poured forth upon seeing the 3-year-old older sister feeding her baby sister. All flowers of the country but the difference [in life between different children] are so large.


Where’s Chen Guangbiao?


Why is that people in distress in Africa get aid from China [Chinese government] but the people in distress in China aren’t able to? Even if the country has money to distribute down, what reaches the hands of the poor is still the leftovers of government officials [after they’ve embezzled or skimmed off], is this not true? Those who agree with me, ding!


Poor children, poor financial situation and still having two or three children, no quality in the life of the children!


These are very moving. I hope they can be helped. I remember also getting to know a group of Liangshan younger brothers and sisters [youth] at a factory several years ago. Although I myself was only 17 years old at the time, they too were all very small in stature, about the size of 7-8 year olds, but perhaps because of needing to make a living or something, someone had taught them to say they were already 16 years old, but it wasn’t very convincing! In the factory, a lot of people avoided them, feeling they emitted a strange odor, but they were very sincere. Even though they haven’t had any schooling, they were very polite. They too regarded us with curiosity and wanted to get to know us. I looked at them without colored lenses, and I found a notebook to teach them how to write, with the first word being “train station”, because in my mind came appeared the thought of them having to travel everywhere in the future for work, and was afraid them and their companions getting lost. I wonder how they are doing right now. I really hope kind-hearted people in China can help them!


So sad! Our country uses so much money to go help so-called “brother nations”, to go buy United States debt/bonds, and to donate to others, so why can’t it first improve the living conditions of its own people? China still has so many impoverished places like this, where the poorer they are, the more children they have, and the more children they have, the more backwards [impoverished] they are.

Editor/author, publish more of this kind of news, and ignore the Editor in Chief who always wants to publish stuff like car models, school flowers [the pretty girls in schools], and other vulgar news. Those who agree, ding this up…


These children truly have it too hard. Seeing this, I can’t stop my tears. Our children are so fortunate that they are like flowers, but they, still so small but already have to take care of the even smaller children. Children like these, truly are heartbreaking. What will their futures be like/will they be able to make it? Just being able to take care of oneself is already very difficult. Darlings, you must be safe and sound, must grow up healthy, live every day well. Babies, you have it hard.


Sigh…the country [government] does everything it can to impress outsiders, yet doesn’t consider its own people at all.


Written by Fauna

Fauna is a mysterious young Shanghainese girl who lives in the only place a Shanghainese person would ever want to live: Shanghai. In mid-2008, she started chinaSMACK to combine her hobby of browsing Chinese internet forums with her goal of improving her English. Through her tireless translation of popular Chinese internet news and phenomenon, her English has apparently gotten dramatically better. At least, reading and writing-wise. Unfortunately, she's still not confident enough to have written this bio, about herself, by herself.


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