Narrating Livelihoods Across Rural-urban Spaces: Migration, Risk and Networks - a Chinese Case

Dr Heather Zhang, University of Leeds

28.Oct.2010 17.00 - 18.30
G40, Baines Wing - Leeds


China has turned from a 'low risk' to a 'high risk' society since the start of the market transition and economic reform in the late 1970s. The reforms, while bringing diverse livelihood opportunities to rural people partly through generating higher geographical mobility and developing a more open social structure, have seen a greater penetration of market forces in public and social life with a much weakened role of the state in social welfare provisioning. In this context, the distribution of, and exposure and vulnerability to the rapidly proliferating economic and social risks have become increasingly unequal among different social groups across rural and urban spaces.

This paper attempts to apply a risk concept to the study of one of the most socially disadvantaged groups in China, namely rural-urban migrants in Chinese cities through analysing the narratives of members of a migrant family of the Hui Muslim national minority from the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau of China, who run a family business in the northern coastal city of Tianjin.

Drawing on data collected during ethnographic fieldwork in 2008-2009, the research employs an actor-oriented theoretical perspective and a qualitative longitudinal methodological approach to delineate a translocal livelihood trajectory of this family across three generations, and to explore the relationships between entrepreneurship and risk, the importance of familial ties and social networks as a buffer against risk and its materialisation – contingencies – in the absence of, or difficulties in accessing formal institutional resources and social protection mechanisms, and the strategies employed by migrant individuals and families as social actors to deal with risks and socio-economic insecurity in their daily livelihood struggles.


Dr Heather Xiaoquan Zhang is Senior Lecturer in Chinese Studies and Director of Postgraduate Studies at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Leeds. Her research is in the field of social development, political economy, contemporary change and transformations in China and South East Asia (Vietnam), as well as qualitative research methodology. Her current research focuses on urbanisation, migration and livelihoods, social risk and social policy, health and wellbeing, globalisation, gender, agricultural and rural development, and poverty dynamics and institutional change in urban China. Recent publications include Guest Editor of a special issue Transforming Rural China: Beyond Urban Bias? vol. 38, no. 4, 2009, Journal of Current Chinese Affairs; 'A Better Life? Migration, Reproduction and Wellbeing in Transition' (with Locke), Society, Biology and Human Affairs (forthcoming); Marginalisation in China: Perspectives on Transition and Globalisation, 2007 (eds. with Wu and Sanders), Ashgate; and articles published in leading academic journals, e.g. Development and Change, The Journal of Peasant Studies, Geoforum, Women's Studies International Forum, Journal of International Development, Public Administration and Development, and so forth. She is currently co-editing a book Rural Livelihoods in China: Political Economy in Transition, Palgrave McMillan – a collection of papers presented at the Ninth European Conference of Agriculture and Rural Development in China (ECARDC9) which she and her colleagues at Leeds organised in April 2009.

This presentation is part of the Worldwide Universities Network Contemporary China Center (WUN CCC) virtual seminars series, which this year focuses on:

  • China's Changing Urbanities
  • China Business: Green Opportunities
  • Class and Class Consciousness in China

The series allows audiences around the world to hear from leading scholars in contemporary China studies and to engage in dialogue with one another across geographic boundaries. Each seminar includes an interactive question and answer session across all sites.

If you wish to attend the lecture from a WUN member university other than Leeds, please consult your local WUN coordinator for details of where the seminar is being held.

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