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Swallows and Settlers: The Great Migration from North China to Manchuria

Author(s):Gottschang, Thomas R.
Lary, Diana
Reviewer(s):Wright, Tim

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
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII