Floris-Jan van Luyn

A Floating City of Peasants

De grote trek in China

The great migration in China

The largest human migration in history is taking place in China. Since the 1990s, 120 million peasants have left the countryside for the big city, sometimes motivated by ambition but more often by economic necessity. They work on construction sites, in factories, in catering or prostitution, and they are strong, tough, and without even the most basic rights. They are a crucial factor in the spectacular economic growth of the People’s Republic.

Historian and China expert Floris-Jan van Luyn – who spent six years as a newspaper correspondent in China – hears from migrant farmers why they have abandoned their settled existence and what they dream of achieving. He discovers an enormous gulf between countryside and city. He visits farmers in their new urban environments, and travels back with them to visit those who stayed behind.

Van Luyn commiserates with Chunming, who stole money from his parents to pay for the long trip to Beijing and found work on a rubbish tip, work that regularly makes him vomit, which he accepts as part of the job. We meet Xiao Li, a prostitute in Haikou, tough and clever enough not only to make her pimp rich but herself as well, so she can send her little girl to the best school in Chongqing. Then there is Yingmin, too stupid for the village school, who describes how he worked his way up to become a project developer in Shenzhen, growing fat from drinking with civil servants to obtain the necessary stamps. The story of Lüsong is particularly horrifying – he campaigned for a village school and against corrupt government employees and as a result was tortured almost to death.

The book reveals the cruelties of life in rural China. Localised revolts are increasingly common and are violently repressed by the government. Van Luyn emphasises how important it is to see the dark side of the Chinese economic miracle. China’s success depends on the efforts of peasants, who nevertheless remain second-class citizens.

The author has an impressive ability to see their side of the story. No outsider could get closer than he does, and his writing is excellent, personal yet objective and discriminating. He is never tempted to idealise. The relevance of his subject for the outside world is obvious. A Floating City of Peasants documents an historic turning point people outside China still know very little about.

Floris-Jan van Luyn brings China to life by listening to the people, whose voices would otherwise have gone unheard. Here are stories, not of high politics, but of life as it is led by most Chinese. This is reportage at its best.

Ian Buruma, author of <em>Bad Elements</em>

This is a great book and a fine piece of investigative journalism which gets behind China’s economic boom and brings to life the people who make it possible. Anyone who wants to understand what is happening to China or to the world economy should read this book.

Jasper Becker, author of <em>Hungry Ghosts and The Chinese</em>


Floris-Jan van Luyn

Floris-Jan van Luyn is a journalist and filmmaker. He has been active as a South East Asia correspondent for the Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad following his stint as China correspondent from 1995 to 2001. He has studied history and Chinese in Leiden, Taipei and Beijing.

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Een stad van boeren. De grote trek in China (2004). Non-fiction, 239 pages.

with illustrations



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