A Portrait of China's Left-Behind Children

By Dominique Wong, November 13, 2016

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Zhou Na didn’t set out to document a family of so-called ‘left-behind children.’ It just sort of happened.

In 2013 she was working for an NGO focusing on history and cultural preservation in Jiangxi’s Ji’an Suichuan County. The photographer would spend her free time shooting and, over the course of two months, got to know the Huang family.

“It was a big family – two grandparents with four sons and five grandchildren. The grandparents lived at home with their grandchildren and two daughters-in-law, while their sons worked outside the village, returning twice a year to visit, in summer and spring,” Zhou tells us.

The Huang family setup is representative of many households in China over the past generation. The country’s rapid economic development has seen millions of migrants move from rural villages to big cities in search of opportunities and a better life. 

The late Grandafather Huang spends a quiet moment with his grandkids

Many parents choose to leave their children back home, for a variety of reasons. Some feel that urban living conditions are inappropriate for raising a child, while hukou restrictions mean that children are unable to attend school or receive medical care outside their hometowns.

The offshoot of this is a phenomenon known as liushou ertong, or ‘left-behind children.’ The All-China Women’s Federation and UNICEF found that in 2010 there were 61 million left-behind children below the age of 17 in rural areas.

Without parents, children are often left to their own devices. More commonly, they are taken care of by their grandparents, such as in the Huang family.

Or, they were, Zhou says. “One evening, the grandfather died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage. The sons came back for the burial, which was carried out according to local traditions.”

Zhou attended the funeral as a friend of the family and – with the Huangs’ permission – took photos of the event as a memorial of sorts. 

Tears are shed at Grandfather Huang‘s funeral

An infant wipes dust from her grandfather's portrait

The images shown here, showing scenes before and after grandfather Huang’s death, offer a personal insight into the children’s lives. They show the children playing and laughing together like typical siblings. Small smiles between a grandfather and his grandkids; being and then not. 


The heartrending photos also hint at what life is like for the millions of other left-behind children across China, who in recent years have been categorized as a social problem. Safety and mental health issues are cited as most problematic. Without protection left-behind children are more vulnerable to abuse and a lack of emotional or educational development.

Reports of left-behind children committing suicide, dying by accidental means or becoming victims of sexual abuse highlight the dangers and consequences of being left behind. In June this year, four siblings living alone in rural part of Guizhou died from drinking pesticide. The oldest, a 13-year-old boy, had written a note saying, “It is time for me to go – death has been my dream for years.”

But this is an extreme case. Of the Huangs’ situation, Zhou observes: “The five children all differed [in temperament]. One was very naughty because, as I saw it, she wanted to draw people’s attention. Another was shy and sensitive.

“The children live in a beautiful natural environment and are growing up happily. But on the other hand, poverty and unequal opportunity limits the family’s horizons and possibilities, as well as the cohabitation and relationships experienced between family members.”

For Zhou the topic hits close to home – she was a left-behind child herself. “I grew up with my grandparents,” Zhou shares. “I think that safety and love is more important than distance, although one cannot replace the other. In some ways I feel like I lack something, which I am now making up for as I grow older.”

Still, Zhou is dismissive of the term ‘left-behind,’ claiming the label “insinuates neglect and amplifies the tragic nature of this issue. It makes others resort to lazy thinking.

“In fact, every family’s story is different. For some children, even if their parents are not around, they are still able to feel love, connection and support.”

Images by Zhou Na 

Zhou Na is a documentary photographer and regular contributor to the Eyes on China Instagram project. See more of her work via  www.zhounaphoto.com

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