Asia Life

Inside China’s Rural Migration

A growing number of Shanghai’s seniors are discovering the joys of community by leaving the city.

No one doubts China is facing a big problem, with urbanization spurring youth to flee rural villages where some 50 million elders remain. Chinese newspapers have been worrying for years about the poor living conditions of the parents of new city dwellers. The Chinese legislature even passed a law this July requiring people to frequently visit their elderly parents to prevent them from developing psychological problems.

However, it’s not all bad news for China’s countryside. A new trend of rural migration is picking up steam as big city seniors in the developed Yangtze River Delta pour into remote villages known for specializing in catering to centenarians. Those escaping the frantic pace of urban life are eying the bigger spaces, long-lost neighborhood relations, and trying to ease the burdens on their only-children. The town of Wentang in Jiangxi province is one such place.

At 6:00 sharp every morning, the 200-year-old hot spring well in the center of Wentang (literally, “hot spring”), is full of elders, who lounge around and chat in the lively Shanghai dialect while soaking their feet in water clocking in at 68 degrees Celsius. The topic today is the extraordinary heat in Shanghai this year. “My daughter called me from Shanghai last night. I told her that in Wentang we don’t need air-conditioning at all, deliberately making her jealous,” one says, making everyone else burst into laughter.

“The day in Wentang starts when you put your feet into the hot spring,” 60-year-old Zhang Dacai from Shanghai says. His wife Wan Fumei agrees, as she has on almost everything during their 40 years of marriage. They bought an apartment in the little inland town last year and finished decorating it early this August. So goes the lives of Tang Chi, or the elderly Shanghaiese who settle in Wentang.

Zhang prefers to have his foot bath in a big group. “It’s not fun to do it at home, just two of us staring at each other. What’s more, the water coming from pipes is not as hot as the water that comes directly from the ancient well.” 

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Over the past ten years, Wentang has attracted thousands of Shanghai’s seniors, and nearly 600 of them have decided to stay. Among them are retired officials, teachers, and professors, as well as relocated Shanghai suburbanites making use of their resettlement compensation. 

No one can tell who first discovered this little slice of utopia. But the message has spread by word of mouth among friends and relatives that the hot spring here can help cure hypertension, hyperlipidemia and diabetes. Xu Xiufang was among those who were encouraged by her neighbor to explore the purportedly healing waters. At her behest, ten of her “brothers” and “sisters” were encouraged to see for themselves as well.

The communal atmosphere makes it easy for Wentang residents to catch up on neighborhood gossip – which disappeared together with the Shikumen Lilong, or traditional Shanghai neighborhoods now buried under the city’s skyscrapers. “People here smile at each other and do not ignore strangers,” Wan says. “We share our dumplings with the seven other families in the same building and also play Mahjong together. We help each other and never feel bored.”

“It’s actually better than the life we had in Shanghai,” Zhang adds. They used to get up at 5:00 am every day to prepare breakfast for their grandson, son and daughter-in-law, and then take their grandson to kindergarten. Afterwards, Zhang usually went to the security exchange to try and earn some money from the market – he usually had to take his heart pills with him. Meanwhile, his wife kept busy cooking and washing at home. 

“We are also looking at the future,” he points out. “Life for the younger generation is not easy. Young couples have to take care of four elders and children as well. I don’t want to be a burden for them when I grow older.” 

But his son does not agree. “I can accept them living in Kunshan (a city in Jiangsu next to Shanghai), but not a place I have to spend 24 hours on a train to reach. If any of them falls ill, how can we help them immediately?”

His opinion is echoed by many on Sina Weibo. “The medical service there is not developed in the mountainous area, and there’s not enough infrastructure suitable for the aged. Who can guarantee it is a good idea to leave your parents there?” commented one Weibo user from Shanghai’s Xuhui district. 

But the elders in Wentang seem to really be enjoying their golden years. As communities grow colder, more shops hang signs in English, and even children look worn down, communities like Wentang give them a place to call home.