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China's annual long march

Li Guangqiang rises early and pulls on his sharpest city clothes: dark jeans fashionably distressed, puffy down coat, black pouch slung over one shoulder. An outfit carefully chosen to announce: I am not a farmer or a villager. Not anymore.

Li's journey will be long, and he has no time to lose. Heading out into the dry, dirty cold of a Beijing winter, he rolls his suitcase along frozen canals the shade of curdled milk, through the warren of alleyways where he and other migrants sleep in makeshift shelters of concrete block walls and corrugated tin roofs.

When the holidays are over, when he makes his way back to work on the construction of the new Microsoft site, his home will be gone, swept aside in booming Beijing's tireless bouts of gentrification. But he's not thinking about that now, because these are the dying days of the old lunar year.

Today Li will go home.

Figures loom out of the darkness and make their way up the worn steps of the bus station, lugging booty for seldom-seen families: gifts of clothes and food wrapped in auspicious red to ring in the Year of the Rabbit, boxes of cheap toys, sacks of grain hefted on broad shoulders.

Li is one of many now.

This is the world's largest human migration: Every year, millions of workers flee the big cities and industrial hubs en masse and retrace their steps to their home villages.

These precious days are the most eagerly awaited of the year: a rare chance for rest, and the coming together of families painfully split apart by economic necessity. Self-conscious spouses are reunited. Children peer shyly at parents they haven't seen in a year. Men who are mocked and exploited in the slick cities puff out their chests and strut, get drunk on rice wine and lavish their hard-won cash on their families.

Many of the workers sleep outside train stations for days to get tickets, then stand packed tight as cattle in train carriages. Li opts for the relative comfort of the bus for the 12-hour trip to his village, about 400 miles south of Beijing in Shandong province.

In the drowsy din of the bus station, Li's eyes dart anxiously from gate to gate, but he tries hard to appear nonchalant. The 38-year-old has been making the journey for 16 years, and tries to adopt the swagger of the big city.

"I used to get very excited," he says, shrugging, "but now I go back and forth every year."

Li's bus is called, and he joins the crowd surging through the gate. They toss bags into the belly of the bus, scramble aboard and elbow their way down the aisles. Every seat is full, and almost all of the passengers are men.

The bus shudders to life and pulls onto the road. It rumbles south past shopping malls, gas stations, construction sites. The bus is filled with the click of cellphone cameras taking parting shots as Beijing falls away.

Turn on the heat, the passengers beg.

No, the driver replies. It's a waste of fuel.

The passengers do not insist. They're used to shabby conditions and physical discomfort. Soon the bus is rocked by snores and coughs. Li doesn't sleep; he just waits.

Familiar journey

Li is not tall, but there is a bullish solidity to his body. In repose, his features fall into a wary stillness, and his eyes narrow as if he is perpetually on the lookout for a trick. But his smile is quick, spilling unexpected relaxation over his face.

When he migrated to Beijing in 1995, he planned to stay only a few years. He'd make some cash and go home.

But now he's addicted, not just to the money, but to the city itself. He describes his village as unsophisticated and dull.

"I'll stay in Beijing until I'm 50," he declares.

Hours fade, and the bus rolls over country roads cluttered with the tokens of Chinese growth. Factories and sprawling construction sites are overhung with cranes and fronted by billboards showing the housing developments that soon will be completed.

In the early afternoon, the driver pulls over, urges everyone off the bus and then locks the doors. This is the lunch stop; always the same place, Li grumbles.

In the restrooms, waist-high partitions separate one stinking hole from the next, and icicles drip from the ceiling. In the cafeteria, Li grimaces at vats of oily vegetables and indistinguishable meat.

"It's not clean," he warns, and heads back outside. In the trash-strewn parking lot, he stuffs his hands into his pockets and stares at the horizon until the driver finishes his lunch.

The landscape turns to mountains and thicker trees, then flattens out again into fields as darkness falls.

The county seat is gaudy with lights, the market stalls and supermarkets packed with shoppers from surrounding villages who've come to town to stock up on holiday delicacies and decorations. Everybody is a little more flush with cash at this time of the year.

Li is the first one off the bus. Early fireworks burst into pinwheels in the sky.

He snatches up his bag, pushes past the taxi drivers and finds his cousin waiting for him in a ramshackle silver van. They smile shyly, light cigarettes. They don't embrace.

The van pulls out of the city, back into the darkness of a country night, on rough roads that slice through the winter-dry fields of wheat and corn.

Li's house looks dark and abandoned. Last year's faded wishes for prosperity and happiness, printed on red paper gone to pink, still cling to the metal gate.

He makes his way through the courtyard and onto the concrete floor of the sitting room, bone-cold and bathed in thin sulphur light. A television flashes and flickers behind a cotton curtain.

"Hey, come out here!" Li shouts gruffly.

Ducking her head bashfully, his wife sweeps slowly through the curtains. She is only 39 but she looks older, much older, than her city-dwelling husband. She has pulled her hair neatly back from a face grown ruddy and chapped from the sun and wind. For her husband's homecoming, she wears a padded cotton jacket printed with bright red swirls.

Li shoots his wife an impatient, unreadable look. She stands at his side uncertainly. Their 13-year-old son comes skittering over the threshold from the yard. Both father and son seem embarrassed to make eye contact, let alone touch; the boy stares at the floor and races in nervous circles around his father.

But the uneasy moment is broken, diluted in cries of welcome as neighbors pour in to greet Li.

He has made it home at last.

Price of prosperity

Nobody remembers just how Liloucun village came to be. There is a vague story, something about how a group of Li men moved here 300 years ago in search of wider tracts of fertile land for farming.

The name translates as "Li house village," and the men who live here today all bear the surname Li. The exact relations are lost to time, but the villagers assume their blood is shared, and intermarriage is forbidden. Men remain in the village, choosing wives from elsewhere, and the village daughters marry out.

Today, Liloucun is home to 160 people, three computers and a single car, the rattling silver van.

There are two main roads; at their intersection are two general stores, a fertilizer shop and a small restaurant. There is no running water, and the town got electricity only a decade back.

Most of the money comes from migrant workers. About 40% of the villagers leave home to join China's urban workforce.

The migrants' salaries have bought bricks and lumber to replace the grass and mud once used to build homes. People proudly show off their televisions, washing machines and refrigerators; everybody knows who has what, and how much it cost.

The price is paid in absence. Most of the year, these hamlets are ghostly, drained of the young and fit.

For these two weeks of the holiday, though, the village looks like its old self. Couples get married, taking advantage of the luck of a new year and the presence of migrating relatives. Roving holiday markets spill from one village to the next, peddling live fish, dried lotus, pigs' heads, hand-pounded sesame oil, mountains of fireworks.

During these fleeting weeks of holiday, everybody has everything. But it doesn't last, and sometimes the cracks of distance show.

Fractured family

Li's children have grown up without him. He seems uneasy around them, scoffs that their mother gave them names that are embarrassingly rural.

His son, Shengshun, has been acting out. He skips school, runs off with his friends. To the fury of his teacher, who threatened to ban him from school, he dyed his hair bright red. His grades are terrible; in a few years, he'll probably follow his father's example and migrate to a big city.

Now he trails after his father, hurls himself at the older man, who brushes the boy away. He manages to lure his father into a wrestling match, but it doesn't last long.

As for 15-year-old Yingying, she is tall and dreamy. She earns better grades than her brother, and helps her mother in the kitchen. She pines for adventure, of becoming a factory girl someplace bustling and distant.

"I always think outside is better than my village," she says.

New Year's Eve is drawing closer, and Sun Fengzhi is mincing goat fat for the stew, banging it over and over with a shining cleaver. She married Li more than 13 years ago, when she was 26. She has hardly seen him since.

It's cold in the kitchen; her breath hangs in front of her mouth, and the fat is freezing. Her thick, strong fingers ache from the work.

Since coming home, her husband has shared his son's bed, not his wife's. He has spent a lot of time visiting his friends, driving around in his cousin's van. He wears his nice city clothes, and although his family speaks to him in local dialect, he stubbornly replies in the Mandarin of Beijing.

With her husband out of earshot in the yard, Sun describes a melancholy family life.

"He went away and I had to take care of everything," she says quietly. "It was really difficult for me. I had to take care of the kids myself. I used to hold them so long my arms were in pain. I had to be their father and their mother."

One of the neighbor women slips out to warn Li: Your wife is criticizing you to outsiders!

Inside, Sun's face is clouding over with coming tears, her voice hardly audible.

Li bursts into the room.

"Stop complaining so much!" he yells at his wife, who cringes and shrinks from him.

Their son joins in, echoing his father's orders: "Stop complaining!"

Sun drops her reddened eyes and turns her attention to the goat stew.

On the wardrobe, in pride of place, hangs a picture of Sun and three other women. They stand in factory smocks, smiling shyly at the camera. She looks younger and prettier, but the photo is only 2 years old.

That year, Sun tried her hand as a migrant worker. She left her children with her parents and found a job at a DVD component factory in Qingdao. Those days were happy. But her son grew unruly; nobody could control him. After six months, Sun returned to the village.

Li is sullen. His efforts to portray a family life unscathed by his gaping absence have fallen apart.

"I guess you can tell, since my wife just says whatever comes into her head, that we don't have a very good relationship," he says grimly.

Still they try to put on a happy face. A few days later, the whole family travels two miles down the road to visit Sun's village.

"I don't go to her village very often," Li says. "It's something I have to do."

Ancient rituals

The day of New Year's Eve is clear enough that the sun pierces the chill, heralding the coming change of season; the entire holiday period is called chunjie, or spring festival.

Li wears a gray woolen sweater and jeans as he works in the back courtyard. Much of his holiday is spent catching up on the repairs, the broken water pump on the well, the loose tiles on the roof.

Then it is time to change the faded banners decorating the house. Li climbs a bamboo ladder and, as his son stands below peeling off strips of tape, they hang the auspicious couplets purchased for the New Year. Across the top of the gate, gold letters on a strip of red paper read: "Happiness and fortune will prevail."

As the sun drops low, the menfolk begin one of the most important rituals of the holiday, burning fake paper money for their ancestors.

The earth crunches underfoot as they walk through the wheat fields. Seven generations of Li ancestors are buried here. There are no gravestones, just simple mounds of dirt for each of the families.

Without uttering a word, Li squats with a cigarette lighter and ignites a bundle that looks like old yellow paper towels.

He explains later that his father, who died in 1989, was cremated in keeping with the Communist directive against traditional funerals, and his ashes were buried somewhere in a small box in the field.

"Really, I don't remember exactly where. I just approximate," he says with a sheepish shrug.

The women aren't invited to the ritual. By Chinese tradition, they're not really part of the Li family, maintaining their birth names for life.

Instead, they spend the day cooking.

They roll out rounds of dough the size of coasters and with nimble fingers wrap them into dumplings that will be the main attraction of the festivities. On New Year's Eve, dumplings are to be eaten at midnight, but the Lis don't want to wait.

By 7.30 p.m., the older men are seated around a low coffee table in a chilly sitting room with motorbikes parked behind the sofa. A bamboo pole lies across the entrance from the courtyard to keep out Nian, a mythical monster who is said to emerge at the New Year to attack children. Loud noises from the firecrackers and fireworks are also supposed to scare him away.

Although Li is younger, he also joins them; he has a prominent place in the family: the eldest son of the eldest brother. The men pick disinterestedly at the food with their chopsticks, lavishing more attention on the baijiu, distilled alcohol, that they're pouring into tiny shot glasses.

The women flit in and out of the room, eating a few bites, but they don't sit for more than a few minutes. They begin to drift into a bedroom off the courtyard to watch television.

Outside, the younger people have gathered on the crossroads to set off the fireworks. Little children clutch cigarette lighters in tiny fists in anticipation of lighting the sparklers. The older boys scamper about with excitement. The men carry out the boxes wrapped in shiny red paper.

Each family has bought its own stash of fireworks, but they'll set them off at the crossroads so everybody can see who could afford to buy what. Across the fields, splashes of color from richer villages are visible in the sky.

A few stragglers on their way to dinners in neighboring villages roar by on motorbikes or three-wheel cars, dressed in their holiday finery. They shout out New Year's greetings as they pass. By now the fireworks are popping.

Each fresh explosion drenches the street scene for a split-second like a strobe, and then it's gone.

The holiday will soon be over, and Li and the other migrants will head back to a place they don't call home.

megan.stack@latimes.com

barbara.demick@latimes.com

Tommy Yang and Nicole Liu of the Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this story.

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