Sunday, September 14, 2014

The dynasty of household register is dying

When I was a little girl, I learned a fact about adults: they are always busy. But there was an important exception, my neighbor, Dahua. He was different. When I went to the kindergarten with his daughter, he stood outside his house, talking to himself and sometimes laughing. When we were returned, he was still there. He did not busy at all. One time, I saw Dahua's father lock him in a small room and I could hear him shouting and crying. But I think he is one of the luckiest psychiatric patients in this world because he has a wonderful wife Caiying, and two lovely children. I was always curious about why Caiying, who is beautiful and diligent, had married him.

The answer is in this picture:

The red book is the household register (or Hukou) in China. A Hukou is a record in the system of household registration required by law in the People's Republic of China. Similar system was in existence in China as early as the Xia Dynasty (2100 BC - 1600 BC). In the centuries which followed, the Hukou developed into an organization of families and clans for purposes of taxation, conscription and social control.

So how did the household register influence Caiying's marriage? In 1958, the Chinese government officially promulgated the family register system to control the movement of people between urban and rural areas. Individuals were broadly categorized as "rural" or "urban".Caiying was born in the 1960s, just after the Great Chinese Famine(1958-1961) when 36 million died of starvation, while another 40 million were not born because people were too weak to conceive. She was born with a household register classified as rural,with that background she knew clearly about the meaning of poverty.

Between 1955 to 1993, China's economy was planned by the state. People used food stamps to buy food within the area where their household register belonged. The government distributed food stamps to urban people by the population of their household register. But for rural people, they received different food stamps that decided their food distribution based on the crop yield of their local group for the year. The food stamps system was the basic national food security system for urban residents. Urban residents enjoyed a range of priority treatment because they received quota of food stamps monthly. Therefore food stamps became a symbol of identity and rights. Many rural teenagers wanted to change their category of household register from rural to urban. Caiying was one of them. She was not educated and apparently she couldn't  get a city job. So marrying an urban- classified person was the only way to reach her urban dream and can keep her from starvation. When they got married in the early 1980s, caiying officially became an urban person. But only a few years later, the China Economic Reform began and there was no food stamps system for urban citizens by the end of the 1980s. Caiying never thought that she would lose the safeguards of her urban classification so quickly. She also could not go back to her village again because as an urban person she lost her right use to use rural farmlands.

Although women no longer married for food stamps after that period, this household registration system still restrict people to receive social services, such as like healthcare, housing, employment and free public education in their specific registered area. As a result, people preferred to stay in their specific area, which discouraged movement and urbanization. It is an obstacle to market economy which is an area that the Chinese Government is trying to grow. Thus, this year China moved to ease home-registration rules to push for urbanization and market economy growth. At last,the dynasty of household register is dying away.


David Gomez said...

This is an interesting insight into China's recent and ancient history. It is hard to imagine from an American perspective that "marrying up" could mean marrying for food stamps.

Kate said...

I REALLY liked your post, Xiaodon. I felt it was very insightful and I enjoyed the personal feel. The insight into the Chinese government and the approach to family registration was also very interesting- the little I do know about rural China is that it is overwhelmingly impoverished. Really wonderful post!

Ahva said...

Thank you for this article -- it is so interesting get a perspective on the rural-urban divide as it exists in another country. Your article mentions China's "urbanization push." Last year, China announced its plan to move 250 million rural Chinese into newly-built high rises in urban areas within the next 12-15 years. China's goal is to for 70% of its population to reside in urban areas so to boost the internal economy. To put into perspective what it means to move a population of 250 million in so short a period, watch this video:

Aside from whether the economic goals of this engineered mass-movement will be successful, I am curious to see how the 250 million movers will fare during the transition. Will they be accepted by their urban neighbors? Will they feel a loss of identity as they transition from rural to urban life?

Desi Fairly said...

Coincidently, I was reading about the opposite social movement in China- forced migration from the urban areas into rural farming villages. It was known as "up to the mountains and down to the countryside" movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. As part of the Maoist rein, thousands of urban youth were forced to learn about agrarian ways. The overall idea, it seems, was an anti-urban sentiment. I would be curious to know if Caiying had been swept up in the "down to the countryside" movement and was looking for a way to reintegrate into the urban areas.