Page 1 of 5 Migrate or educate in China's borderlands
By Stevan Harrell and Aga Rehamo
Early 21st-cenutry China is undergoing several radical transformations that are profoundly affecting its physical, social, and cultural fabric.
Not as dramatic, perhaps, as the earlier series of land reform, collectivization, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and final decollectivization that framed the era of Mao Zedong's state socialism, the current processes of urbanization, labor migration, universalization of education, transport network modernization, reconstruction of villages, and social class formation, nevertheless seem destined to have an even more
permanent and profound effect on the physical landscape, social structure, and culture of the world's largest nation.
Physically, China's cities already contain about half of its citizens, while freeways, high-speed trains, and ordinary paved highways radically reduce transport distances, and hundreds of millions of rural residents migrate yearly to cities to work in factory, construction, and service jobs, while increasingly modern urban social services remain unavailable to them because of the caste-like restrictions of the household registration, or hukou system.
Almost all urbanites and most rural children in the wealthier coastal provinces receive at least a high-school education, while even in remote rural areas middle-school has become the legal and in most cases the factual minimum.
In many ways, these rapid social changes have their greatest effect on China's 110 million ethnic minority residents. Because of the physical remoteness of their home areas, even into the 1990s many members of China's ethnic minorities were relatively little affected by the trends of infrastructural construction, expanded rural education, and rural-urban migration that transformed rural areas in China's majority-Han regions.
But in the past decade this has changed, as migration, education, and media now reach just about everywhere in China. Yi migrants from Liangshan in Sichuan were found enslaved in factories in Dongguan, Guangdong, in 2008; the government recruits migrant workers from places as remote as the Dulong river valley in the far northwestern corner of Yunnan, which before 1999 required three days walking just to get to the local county seat, and the ethnic riots in Urumqi in 2009 were started when Han migrants in Guangdong spread an untrue rumor that Uyghur workers had raped a Han woman, inciting Han to kill two Uyghur workers and, when the news spread to Xinjiang, setting off what can only be described as race riots.
Recent changes have also had their cultural effects in minority regions. Education, mobility and media reach have brought dramatically higher rates of literacy to minority regions, but partially because of the increasing economic importance of migration to Han-dominated cities, most of the increased literacy has been in the Chinese language, threatening many of the gains in minority-language literacy made by the regime's otherwise praiseworthy policies of promoting minority languages and cultures.
But there is also mobility in the opposite direction, as mostly-Han urban tourists visit minority regions by the hundreds of millions, seeking clean air, natural vistas, and the nostalgic experience of a less complex and harried life. This, in turn, causes governments and local people in minority regions to re-fashion their traditional cultures to appeal to tourist tastes; at the same time they become more and more fluent in the mainstream culture that combines Chinese tradition and globalizing trends.
As a native scholar and an outsider with considerable experience in the minority communities of Sichuan, we have observed this process as it has unfolded over the past two decades in one of China's formerly most remote minority regions: Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture in southwestern Sichuan. In this article, we illustrate the interwoven physical, social, and cultural changes of 21st-century China as they have taken place in the interaction between local society in Liangshan and larger national and global trends.
The Nuosu Yi people, who live in the Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture and neighboring counties in Sichuan and Yunnan, are experiencing China's social, cultural, economic, and environmental change at unprecedented speed. All through the period of Maoist socialism, despite the political and economic revolution, the overwhelming majority of the population continued to pursue a modified version of their traditional livelihood, which combined agriculture, animal husbandry, and forestry, employed exclusively human and animal labor, and was tied to markets only in very minor ways.
Few went to school, and even fewer continued beyond a few grades of elementary school. A Nuosu child's education was mainly concerned with the techniques of farming and herding, gender-appropriate handicrafts, and ethnic and clan lore, with perhaps a few years of ineffective Chinese-language schooling thrown in, and the expected life course was to grow up, marry a spouse selected by clan elders, and settle down to continue the life of farming, herding, forestry, handicrafts and ritual.
Almost no one worked outside their home county, and in many areas most people, especially women, remained effectively monolingual in the Nuosu language, or could only speak local varieties of Chinese with a heavy accent.
Since the beginning of the Reforms in the late 1970s, however, and particularly since about 1990, all this has been changing rapidly as part of China's overall transformation. Liangshan has become much more closely connected to the outside world, and almost no one goes without school education or expects to spend his or her whole life in a village. This has brought about a real revolution in the life cycle and life choices of Nuosu people in an increasingly commercialized, globalized, and unequal China: there are both unprecedented opportunities and unforeseen perils in this transition.
Map showing Liangshan Prefecture and our field sites in Sichuan and China
Liangshan's local economy is being transformed. Commercial agriculture has come to dominate much of farm production - crops such as apples, walnuts and other orchard fruits, huajiao (Sichuan peppercorns) and Green Revolution varieties of hybrid corn now provide cash income for farm households. In some areas, particularly Ganluo County, mining developed rapidly after the 1980s, taking advantage of the rich metallic and non-metallic mineral resources of the Panzhihua-Xichang Rift Valley, and driving economic development.
Most significantly, local labor surpluses and seemingly insatiable demand for factory, construction, and service labor in China's cities have opened up the opportunity for labor migration. Migration began very slowly in the 1990s, but has accelerated dramatically since 2000, with hundreds of thousands of migrants traveling short-term to large cities all over China.
Although almost all families in the areas where we work still maintain their agricultural lands, and many still depend on forests for fuel and construction materials, animal husbandry is declining in many areas and becoming rationalized in others.
All this has meant that Liangshan villagers' family economy has changed from an almost pure subsistence basis to a mix of subsistence and cash income, which has in turn meant a proliferation of consumer goods from clothing to electronics to prepared foods, and increasingly to motorized transport and agricultural machinery.
Education is also expanding rapidly, in Liangshan as in other minority areas in the southwest. Although the regime officially promulgated the policy of nine years of compulsory education as early as 1986, and announced that the policy had reached 85% of the counties in the country by 2000, in fact at the beginning of the current century most children in Liangshan, especially girls, either attended no school at all or only went for a few years, most adults were illiterate, and many remained monolingual in the Nuosu language.
For those who did manage to graduate from elementary school, continuing to middle school was expensive and thus uncommon. By about 2007, however, Liangshan implemented the policy of "two waivers and one supplement" (liang mian yi bu) in minority areas of the prefecture, eliminating tuition and miscellaneous fees and providing monthly stipends for boarding students.
School attendance rates at both levels shot up as school expenses came down. By now, elementary school attendance rates in many areas approach 100%, and most children continue to middle school. In the 1990s, only a small number went beyond middle school, almost all of them going to high-school level (zhong zhuan) vocational education in teaching or healthcare fields. Now academic high school (gao zhong)  is the preferred route, and college is not out of question for the academically successful if they can raise the funds.
Most of the younger generation has become effectively bilingual in Nuosu and Chinese (and increasingly, with the spread of television, often in standard Chinese as in local varieties). Even formerly monolingual older folk have sometimes learned good Chinese from their favorite television programs.
In many ways, this process of rapid social and economic change is both inevitable and desirable. It has brought job opportunities, familiarity with the world beyond Liangshan, better healthcare, and a higher material standard of living. At the same time, there are dangers and new dilemmas, which are a primary topic of this essay.
As Nuosu children graduate from elementary school, they no longer automatically become full-time herders and farmers, but instead face a choice between school and work. Should they proceed to middle school, and if so, how long should they stay? As they get older, they face a contradiction between their increasing ability to earn income immediately through labor migration and the possibility that, with a few more years of investment in education, they might be able to continue to college and a professional job.
Who makes the decision to continue in school or go to work, and how? And importantly, what are the ramifications for the local economy, ecology, and culture? Change in all these areas is interconnected, and part of China's current transformation.
Although a model we developed relating social change in China as a whole to local change in Liangshan captures some of the complexity of contemporary change in Liangshan on a macro level, we have several caveats. First, it takes a pessimistic view, implying that the end results of modern change necessarily include resource degradation and loss of language and traditional knowledge. Although we believe these are likely results, we do not believe they are inevitable.
Second, the factors in the model often work out very differently at the household level and at the macro level; hence we examine both in this paper. Third, these factors work differently in different parts of Liangshan. The body of, this paper is a detailed investigation of the economic, educational, and ecological processes of rapid modernization in villages belonging to two Liangshan counties, Ganluo in the north and Yanyuan in the west of the prefecture.
Both of these counties lie in what has generally been considered the periphery of the Nuosu culture area, with mixed populations of Nuosu, Han, and other ethnic groups, and so the processes of social change are probably quite different, in nature and in timing, in the core areas of Liangshan in Meigu, Zhaojue, Butuo, and Xide counties.
Finally, the present article concentrates on the economic aspects of the process: the changes in China's labor and consumer-goods markets and its transport infrastructure, and the decisions that families make in light of these changes. It pays only brief attention to the linguistic, cultural, and environmental aspects of the process, which will be covered in other articles.
The study areas: Yanyuan County and Baiwu Township
Yanyuan is one of the largest counties in Liangshan Prefecture, with an area of 8,400 square kilometers and a population of 380,000 in the 2010 census, of whom 50,000 were classified as urban and 330,000 as rural. Figures on ethnicity are not yet available for 2010, but in the 2000 census, the population was 47% Yi, 44% Han, and 9% other ethnic groups, mostly Na (classified as Mongolian) and Premi (classified as Tibetan). 
The county has a varied topography, but its demographic, political, and economic center lies in a high-altitude basin (2,400-2,500 meters elevation) containing the county seat at Yanjing and five other townships with a total population, according to the 2000 census, of 118,920, of whom 78.6% were Han and 21.4% minorities, including 17% Yi,  which can be assumed to be very unevenly distributed, with much higher incomes in the plains areas dominated by Han people.
Map of school distribution in Yanyuan (from Chan and Harrell 2009, map by Amanda H Schmidt).
Baiwu township is just 35 kilometers from the county seat but belongs to the outlying areas economically and ethnically. Its population in 2000 was 16,533, of whom 236 were Han, 15,833 Yi, and 414 other minzu, primarily Premi people classified as Zangzu ("Tibetan").
In 2006, the most recent year for which statistics are available to us, the total population was 20,038. The valley floor with the town of Baiwu stands at an elevation of 2,500 meters, too high to grow rice, so the primary crops are corn (mostly hybrid varieties grown with plastic mulch), potatoes, buckwheat, and oats. The most important cash crops, in addition to corn, are Sichuan pepper and walnuts.
Baiwu Administrative Village, where our work was conducted, consists of the rural population of two villages immediately adjacent to the town of Baiwu, as well as the large concentrated villages of Pianshui and Yangjuan, about 5km west of the town. Pianshui and Yangjuan constitute Villager Small Groups 3, 4, 5, and 6 of Baiwu Village, and currently have a total population of approximately 240 households and 1,100 people.
There is a comprehensive nine-year school in Baiwu Town, which combined the former Baiwu Elementary School, founded in 1958, and Baiwu Middle School, founded in the early 1970s. There is a six-year elementary school at Yangjuan, founded by a group of local, Chengdu, and foreign people in 2000, and serving village children from Yangjuan, Pianshui, and two small satellite villages, as well as some from neighboring Mianba Administrative Village.
The Baiwu River Plain from Nuosse Hxobbu Mountain, 2012. (Photo by Stevan Harrell.)
Ganluo County and Vato Village
Ganluo County is in the northeastern part of Liangshan prefecture, and is known as the "north gate to Liangshan". Its topography consists mostly of steep hillsides and deep valleys, ranging in elevation from 950 meters at the junction of the Ganluo and Dadu Rivers in the north to over 3300 meters along the border with Ebian in the east.
In the local Han parlance of Ganluo, the terms "Black Yi District" and "White Yi District" divide the county into areas east and west of the Erzu River, and refer to two sub-ethnic groups rather than to social strata. In the old society, the "Black Yi District" was primarily governed by Nuoho Aristocrats, mainly concentrated in the three districts of Jimi, Sijue, and Puchang. The "White Yi District" was governed by the nzymo or tusi, primarily concentrated in the districts of Tianba, Chengguan, Suxiong, and Yutian.
Map of Ganluo, showing location of the county seat (red dot in the center) and Vato in Bobo Township (circled).
The Current resident population of Ganluo is 195,000, representing an 11.21% increase over the 175,426 found in the 2000 census. Registered population is 215,000, reflecting long-term out-migration for labor. Of the resident population, Yi constitute 76.2%, Han 23.3%, and Ersu, classified as Zangzu, 1.5%. Han population decreased by 6%, and Yi population increased by 6%, between the 2000 and 2010 censuses.