The end of emigration? The case of a Chinese village

Studying Chinese emigration from the perspective of the region of origin provides a new approach to the migration trends regarding this country. It enables to analyse the changing relations between the locality of origin in a country in full economic growth and the diasporic members who are trying to keep in touch with their common ancestor.

The historical anthropology fieldwork research conducted in Shenzhen,  China, from 2011 to 2017, reverses the approach prevailing in the field of migration studies. First of all, it tackles emigration  viewed from the region of origin– which some specialists, such as Abdelmalek Sayad or Douglas Massey, see as fruitful, but unfortunately very rarely undertaken.  

Secondly, the studies on emigration generally focus on countries experiencing strong emigration flows, and examine the factors and motivations for emigrating.  On the contrary, this fieldwork research studies a region, which, for a long time, produced major migratory flows worldwide but whose motivation for emigrating has decreased– and where emigration has taken on a different meaning.

While development economists give priority to studying causes, such as poverty, for example, demographers focus on the social networks fuelling migratory flows and concentrate on particular destinations.  As for anthropologists, anxious to restore the multidimensional construction of social facts, they study similar elements but also mean to recreate representations, that is, the values and meanings associated with leaving one’s country, the social constraints, the feelings and the imaginary narratives surrounding emigration. As a result, this study shows the weakening of the « diasporic relationship », i.e., of the economic, moral and kinship ties in a  Chinese era of reopening and reforms.


  • Trémon A-C., 2019, Pour la cause de l’ancêtre. Relation diasporique et transformations d’un village globalisé. Shenzhen, Chine, Nanterre : éditions de la Société d’ethnologie, collection « Recherches sur la Haute Asie ».

The choice of one of the villages of origin of the Chinese diaspora

The project which started in China in the summer 2011 followed on a thesis dedicated to the Chinese community in Tahiti, entitled Chinois en Polynésie française, Migration, métissage, diaspora (The Chinese in French Polynesia, Migration, metissage, diaspora). This community settled there at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries in the context of major migratory flows worldwide. At that time, millions of Chinese left to look for work and try their luck in the European colonies of the Asia-Pacific region and in the « new countries » (United States, Canada, Australia, New-Zealand).

The research focused on the factors which had led the Chinese community to keep apart from the rest of the Polynesian society while demonstrating the weakening of its ties with the villages of origin.

The fieldwork research conducted in China aimed at studying these ties more closely, not from the emigrants’ and their descendants’ point of view but much more so from the inhabitants of these villages of origin. It was necessary to verify whether the weakening observed in Tahiti was actually experienced by other diasporic communities since other inhabitants from this very village had emigrated to South eastern Asia, the Pacific, the Americas and more recently to Europe. The study therefore focuses on one of the villages of origin of the Chinese in Tahiti, « Fort-les-Pins », a translation intended to anonymise its name.

This particular village, located in the province of Guangdong, in southern China, was chosen because of my long-lasting collaboration in Tahiti with the genealogist Alain whose paternal grandfather came from « Fort-les-Pins » which he left in 1911. I must emphasize that Alain is a pseudonym respectful of his French first name; just like many third-generation descendants, he has a Chinese middle name.

Shenzhen and the Chinese economic take-off

In order to understand what has affected both the nature and strength of the ties linking the village to the diaspora, changes must be considered in light of what had taken place over the last decades. One must first go back to the evolutions the village, and more broadly, the region had undergone. « Fort-les-Pins » is nowadays located in the town of Shenzhen, situated in the Pearl River delta, north of the border with Hong Kong special administrative Region. This rural area was among those selected by Chinese authorities to create one of the first four Special economic Zones (S.E.Z.), in 1980.

These S.E.Z., set up to open China to foreign capital and adapt the country to market socialism, were purposely located in the emigrants’ main regions of origin, that is, the southern and coastal provinces of Guangdong and Fujian. Following the 1949-1979 isolation period during which ties with the diaspora greatly loosened, China launched a strategy of reopening. Authorities encouraged inhabitants’ family networks in these provinces to reinforce their ties with their relatives settled in Hong Kong and overseas. It was expected that encouraging emigrants and their descendants to visit their villages of origin would foster investments which, in turn, would contribute to the Chinese economic take-off.

Like several hundred villages in the area, « Fort-les-Pins » became part of Shenzhen’s incredibly fast-growing megalopolis. The village was next erased from the administrative map: it became a district of Shenzhen. On their agricultural land, the inhabitants of « Fort-les-Pins » built factories with dormitories which they rented to multinational companies as well as apartment buildings to accommodate migrant workers ‘families.

As a result, their collective and individual property income considerably increased. The development of the special economic Zone of Shenzhen enabled all the villages like « Fort-les-Pins » to participate, via their own contribution and their emigrants ‘economic support, in the transformation of the region into a global manufacturing hub.

The role of the lineage structure in supporting diasporic ties

The diasporic relation is altogether a bond to kin and to a territory; it plays a particularly active role in supporting ties other than with « close kin », ties between parents and children, brothers and sisters, thanks to the lineage organisation which maintains the ties with « extended kin ». Until recently, the village of « Fort-les-Pins » had almost exclusively been a lineage village, which means almost all its inhabitants descended from a common ancestor, known as the founding ancestor.  After the  Communist Party took power in 1949,  they tried to eradicate lineage organization because it was seen as  patriarchal, unequal and  conservative.

Nevertheless, the lineage cult of the ancestor continued during the Maoist prohibition of religious activities – mostly by moving to Hong Kong, where many of the region’s villagers had fled. It then « came back » to the village in the early 1980s. Lineage organisation has since been flourishing but, concerning Shenzhen, it grew all the strongest as the economic collectives set up under Mao Zedong were there turned into joint-stock companies owned by lineage-organized villagers. These lineage organisations therefore operate like actual corporate companies, while fulfilling a ritual and philanthropic mission. They participate to what anthropologists call a « moral economy ».

Lineage bonds have not only fuelled emigration, but they have also played an extremely significant role in the fundraising campaigns launched by villagers – particularly to build or rebuild village schools. The founding ancestor is both the reason for and the tool used to pursue the « public good», which is a central concept to the lineage community and to its relationships with the diaspora.  When one compares the amounts raised over almost a century, it is clear that the money sent from overseas to the benefit of the lineage members of the village and of Shenzhen has decreased over the last decades.

The « Fort-les-Pins » community is today more than prosperous and can presently do without diasporic contributions. And yet, these contributions have over time and recently played a decisive role in helping the community resist urbanisation and administrative rationalization plans. It is clearly illustrated by the two collective mobilisations organised to save, on the one hand, the remains of the founding ancestor which were to be exhumed, and on the other, the village primary school in danger of closing. The diasporic financial support very quickly generated the large amount of money required to preserve both and provided the inhabitants of « Fort-les-Pins » with a strong reason for resisting the authorities.

The end of emigration

The diasporic relation culminated with these two mobilisations in the late 1990s; since then, there has been no more funding calls to emigrants or to their descendants. The inhabitants and their leaders in « Fort-les-Pins » are happy to emphasize their present financial independence from overseas. However, although it can be seen as a kind of historical revenge by those who had stayed behind and remained poor until the 1980s while some of their relatives were making a fortune overseas, the inhabitants are nevertheless proud of the global extension of their lineage. 

This is mirrored in the ambivalent attitude of the official bodies responsible for receiving and managing overseas contacts. They are torn between the legal constraints compelling them to treat emigrants and their descendants as foreigners – since they have often adopted the nationality of their host country– and the moral duty of giving them a proper welcome which distant relatives are entitled to.

Laid on by the genealogist Alain, a group of Polynesians of Chinese origin got together in 2014 to organise a « return to their roots » in Shenzhen. This stay, which I shared with them, enabled me to observe all the initiatives taken by these visitors to locate their parents and grandparents’ villages of origin, which is quite a difficult task in the current context of urbanisation and village disappearance. The observation of the visitors’ reactions to Shenzhen and to its inhabitants allowed me to better understand the ties linking Shenzhen inhabitants to their diasporic relatives as well as their limits.

Shenzhen inhabitants’ reactions to these meetings reveal the way continental Chinese see overseas Chinese. Better standards of living in China have changed perspectives when comparing its (under) development with the rest of the world: it has led to a critical reappraisal of emigration, no longer seen as desirable and has given way to strategies of transnational mobility.

Even if « Fort-les-Pins » inhabitants praise emigrants’ everlasting dedication to their « roots » and their unfailing support, they are proud of their current economic independence from the diaspora; they feel that the new prosperity in Shenzhen and in China has, in a way, re-established a fair balance. That is why they see overseas Chinese and emigration as a thing of the past which they contrast with their new modernity. 



Illustration by Adèle Huguet for Mondes Sociaux: licence CC BY-NC-ND.
 https://adelehuguet.wordpress.com/

Image credits in CC : Flaticon ultimatearm, freepik, Darius Dan  

 

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Citer ce billet
Anne-Christine Trémon (2023, 20 février). The end of emigration? The case of a Chinese village. Mondes Sociaux. Consulté le 22 février 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/u9mc

Anne-Christine Trémon

Université de Lausanne, ISS LACS (anne-christine.tremon@unil.ch)

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