|Author(s):||Gottschang, Thomas R.|
Published by EH.NET (November 2001)
Thomas R. Gottschang and Diana Lary, Swallows and Settlers: The Great
Migration from North China to Manchuria. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Center for
Chinese Studies, The University of Michigan, 2000. xvii +231 pp. $45
(hardcover), ISBN: 0-89264-134-7.
Reviewed for EH.NET by Tim Wright, Chinese Studies, University of Sheffield.
This book deals with one of the most important economic phenomena of pre-war
China, and one of the largest migrations in world history — the movement of
some twenty-five million Chinese farmers in the first four decades of the
twentieth century from the provinces of Shandong and Hebei in North China to
Manchuria. Of the twenty-five million who made the journey, about two thirds
returned home, around eight million stayed.
In addition to its important subject matter, the book is also interesting for
another reason, as an example of collaboration between two leading China
scholars from different disciplines — one an economist, the other an
historian. Thus it brings different perspectives and different kinds of
evidence to bear on the major problems that surround this migration. Diana
Lary (Professor of History, University of British Columbia) provides
fascinating historical detail and color through important interview material
from ex-migrants in Shandong province in the 1980s; in particular this
material makes clear the central role that intermediaries, whether family
members, labor contractors or fellow locals, played in the migration process.
The great contribution of Thomas Gottschang (Professor of Economics, College
of the Holy Cross) is a painstaking and pathbreaking compilation and analysis
of the statistics of migration; in particular, his estimates of the dimensions
of the migration are likely to remain standard in the field. However, the
book tends to eschew formal statistical analysis, and economic historians will
certainly want also to consult Gottschang’s important 1987 article in
Economic Development and Cultural Change, the conclusions of which are
only briefly summarized on p. 68 and hinted at elsewhere.
In their foreword, the authors identify their focus as the understanding of
“the forces that stimulate population movements in the course of economic
development” (p. xv). Five major chapters deal with the statistical and other
contours of the migration, with the push and pull forces that shaped that
migration, with the roles of the family and of local connections, and with
return migration, before a conclusion sums up the lessons of the study and
brings the story up to date.
Two central conclusions of the study are that “pull” forces generated by
economic development in Manchuria were the key determinant of migration, and
that migration decisions were made almost entirely in the context of family
rather than individual strategies. The evidence the authors present adds
considerable flesh and sophistication to these bare conclusions.
Migration to Manchuria was voluntary, and took place largely for economic
reasons — people migrated “because they believed they could earn more money
[in Manchuria] than at home” (p. 43). Gottschang’s earlier article shows a
strong statistical correlation between migrant numbers and indicators of
economic development in Manchuria. In making this argument, however, the
authors have to struggle against the Confucian belief that nothing but the
direst circumstances can ever draw people away from the land and from their
ancestral home. Although Gottschang points out that the temporal pattern of
migration does not really bear this out, there is a tendency for the interview
material — and indeed contemporary Chinese reports — to stress push factors
such as natural and man-made disasters in their home areas and the bankruptcy
of the rural economy. Migrants described their aims in overwhelmingly
negative terms. They did not see themselves as going out to “seek their
fortune,” still less to make history — “migration was seen as something
dismal but unavoidable” (p. 5).
Family decision-making is put right at the center of the analysis, with the
needs and desires of individuals having little weight against the plans of the
family (which, however, sometimes refers to the nuclear, sometimes to the
extended family). There is no doubt that this emphasis is in broad outline
correct in the case of China, and indeed similar findings are made by studies
of migration in other areas. One might, however, wonder whether statements
such as “Personal motivation was not the issue . . . the individual
expression of free will is absent here” (p. 10) perhaps present too static and
one-dimensional a picture of a complex reality. In fact, some of the interview
material bears out a more nuanced picture of family relationships such as can
be seen in some anthropological studies. Thus some men migrated because they
felt uncomfortable at home once they had heard about the world outside (p.
78), others in order to get away from uncongenial wives (p. 84). The authors
also point to resentment on the part of migrants towards (even close)
relatives who they felt had exploited them (p. 83).
The postscript to the study also makes important points about post-1949 China.
Many scholars will not have known that migration during the Mao period — when
the household registration system was supposed to have locked farmers in their
home villages — was of about the same magnitude as that between 1900 and
1945. The return of long-absent migrants to booming Shandong in the 1980s,
with which the book closes, also raised a number of problems in terms of their
reintegration into their home villages. Finally the authors point to many
similarities between the migration to Manchuria in the first half of the
twentieth century and the massive migration that has taken place in China
during the reform period
The use of such a wide range of sources presents a convincing overall picture,
though some questions remain. Sometimes the two main types of evidence could
have been better integrated — it would have been interesting to know, for
example, roughly what proportion of migrants came from the eight counties that
were the source of the interviews. Moreover, although the interviewees in no
way toed a narrow Party line, one cannot help wondering what effect the
passage of almost half a century had on their perceptions. It is also slightly
disconcerting to start so strongly with the story of one migrant, Zhang
Zhenbao, but never to follow it up and find out what happened to him later.
Moreover, there is one clear gap in the picture: the views of those who
settled permanently. As two-thirds of migrants returned home — probably a
greater proportion than was the case in other major migrations such as that
from Europe to America or the settlement of the American West in the
nineteenth century, returnees naturally form the main focus of the book.
Because, however, the interview material exclusively involved settlers who had
returned to Shandong (though a few of them did stay for several decades), the
eight million who stayed and may even have prospered are perhaps
underrepresented in the analysis.
In sum, this book will remain a key reference for economic historians of
pre-war China, while students of migration will ignore at their peril its
conclusions about one of the world’s largest migrations.
Tim Wright is Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Sheffield.
His recent publications include Modern Chinese Economic History: Recent
Chinese Studies; in addition, in the field of migration studies, he edited
for publication Sow-Theng Leong, Migration and Ethnicity in Late Imperial
China: Hakkas, Pengmin and Their Neighbors. He is currently working on the
history of the 1930s Great Depression in China, and on economic reform in the
contemporary Chinese coal industry.
|Subject(s):||Historical Demography, including Migration|
|Time Period(s):||20th Century: Pre WWII|