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Wars and Walls

Chinese people are traditionally deeply attached to their homeland. But poverty, wars and business caused several large-scale migrations in ancient China

By Song Yimin Updated Aug.1

Decorative roof tiles are displayed at the Oriental Metropolitan Museum in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, May 13, 2020. The museum’s collection includes artifacts from the early 3rd-late 6th centuries when Nanjing served as the capital of six dynasties ahd massive migrations from north to south occurred

The results of China’s seventh national census show that in 2020, nearly 376 million people did not live in the cities where they had registered their household information, up by more than 154 million, or 70 percent, from the size of the migrant population in the 2010 census.  

It is a marked change from the traditional views of attachment to place of birth and living on the land that you farm. Yet it is the fading of this tradition that has underwritten China’s industrialization and economic takeoff over the past 40 years.  

In global history, flows of people, either in peaceful or violent ways, have been both a big factor of and a result of fundamental societal changes. The Western Roman Empire fell in 395 due to incursions by Germanic tribes. After the fall of Byzantium in 1453, waves of Byzantine scholars and intellectuals who were expert in Hellenic culture and art migrated to Western Europe, which many historians believe provided major impetus for the Renaissance between the 14th and 16th centuries. The Age of Discovery starting in the early 15th century brought Europeans to nearly every corner of the world, fundamentally changing geopolitics forever.  

Just like those in Europe, mass migrations of ancient Chinese occurred in times of monumental changes that would have a lasting impact on history.  

Cross the Wall and Sea 
“My brother you are venturing to Xikou and as your little sister I cannot stop you,” are lines from famous Chinese folk love song “Venture to Xikou.” In Chinese folk ballads, “brother and sister” refer to lovers. Xikou, literally “the west gates,” means the way through the Great Wall to Mongolia from what are now the provinces of Shanxi, Shannxi and Hebei to the south. Since the mid-Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), impoverished farmers from those areas moved to the west of today’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, which had rich land resources but few people to work it. Like migrant workers today, they migrated at that time for opportunities for a better life.  

After the fall of the Ming in 1644, China’s last imperial dynasty, the Qing, lasted till 1911. The ruling Manchus of the Qing came from the northeast, an area which is now referred to as Dongbei, but back then was known as Guandong, which means “east of the pass,” referring to Shanhai Pass in the Great Wall. A lot of land was left idle there after a great many Manchus moved south of the Great Wall. Under Manchu rule, ethnic Han from south of the Great Wall were forbidden to work the idle land in Guandong. But with an eye to the vast tracts of fertile land and other resources such as ginseng and pilose antler from deer that were used in traditional Chinese medicine, many impoverished people from today’s Shandong and Hebei risked their lives to make the journey. Many more went there after the ban was lifted in the late 19th century. Those migrants made up the majority of the 18 million people living there in the early 20th century after the end of the Qing.  

Business Goes Far 
In ancient China, businessmen were the most frequent travelers. The typical image of an ancient businessman comes from a 9th century poem by Bai Juyi in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). In the poem, Bai describes meeting a lady who was adept at playing the pipa, or Chinese lute. The lady told him that she was a singer when she was young. She had married a businessman who always prioritized his business and never minded leaving her behind on long business trips.  

Traders went much farther than other migrant groups. Since the late 14th century through both the Ming and Qing dynasties, overseas trade was largely banned. In the Qing Dynasty, only officially licensed traders were allowed to conduct overseas trade on one island in the delta of the Pearl River, in what is now Guangzhou, Guangdong Province. To get around the ban, some traders in China’s southeastern coastal areas decided to gamble on risky sea voyages and seek their fortunes in Southeast Asia. Their descendants still live in those regions, where they constitute a large part of the population in places like Malaysia and Singapore.  

Tough Services 
But ancient Chinese people moved not just for a better life or business opportunities. Very often they were forced to leave their homes.  

A famous Chinese legend tells of Meng Jiangnü, a woman during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE), who set out on a long and dangerous journey to look for her husband Wan Xiliang, one of the hundreds of thousands of workers who was conscripted to build the Great Wall by the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. But when she arrived, she was told her husband had died from hunger and overwork, and was buried, like many other deceased conscripts, in the foundations of the Great Wall. She cried for 49 days, until the wall collapsed and her husband’s body was found.  

Emperor Qin Shi Huang was notorious for his cruelty and megalomania. He forced 10 to 15 percent of the 20 million population to leave their homes in service of building his mega projects, including the Great Wall and his mausoleum complex and Terracotta Warriors near his capital, close to Xi’an. He also forced many to move to southern parts of China, in what are today’s Guangdong Province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. For most, it was a one-way trip. Many, like Meng Jiangnü’s husband, died from the tough and dangerous labor.  

In 214 BCE, Guangdong and Guangxi became part of the Qin empire. Some 500,000 people from the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River were moved there to develop agriculture. They, along with the Qin soldiers that conquered the area, remained.  

Five years later, the Qin was toppled by another migrant group. About 900 men were assigned to today’s Beijing to guard the border. But they were delayed by heavy rainfall, and according to the law, would be executed if they failed to complete their mission. Even if they arrived on time, most would never be able to return home as military service along the border was hard and dangerous. So two of them, Chen Sheng and Wu Guang, launched the first large-scale civil rebellion in China’s history. Other rebellion forces followed, and one led by Xiang Yu and Liu Bang toppled the Qin. Liu Bang then fought and defeated Xiang Yu to found the Han Dynasty in 206 BCE that would last more than 400 years until its overthrow in the year 220.  

The Han Dynasty saw wars and conflicts among competing powers, particularly the Wei, Shu and Wu kingdoms. The Wei controlled the north and the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River. People fled their homes and left their land idle in years of chaos. As a solution to the shortage of food, taxes and soldiers, the Wei encouraged landless peasants to come and farm on land controlled by the government. The peasants could keep half the harvest. This stimulated social and economic development. Ethnic groups in the north and the northeast, such as the Huns and Wuhuan, were welcomed to live and farm on the land.  

Run for Life  
The Wei kingdom was replaced by the Jin kingdom in a coup in the late 3rd century. The Jin quickly unified China, but the peace did not last long. The Jin was mired in internal struggle among its royal family just a few years after it united China. In the meantime, it faced invasions from northern tribes, which led to three large-scale migrations from north to south. This resulted in the rise of the south and ethnic integration. 

The first was the movement of intellectuals and skilled craftsmen of the Jin who moved from north to south to escape the wars. This process lasted more than 200 years. The north was occupied by dozens of tribes. The Northern Wei established in 386 by the Xianbei, an ancient tribe, is the first strong ethnic regime in China’s history. The Xianbei revered Confucius. Within 50 years of the founding of the Northern Wei, more than one million Han people had moved to its capital, today’s city of Datong, in northern Shanxi Province, where they lived among other ethnic groups.  

The second large-scale migration took place after the eight-year rebellion of An Lushan and Shi Siming in 755 had greatly weakened the Tang dynasty in the late 8th century. Many people moved south as the north was devastated by the rebellion. China’s political and economic center shifted further south. Again, regimes set up by the Han and other ethnic groups fought against each other for years. The wars drove people to move.  

The third war-driven mass migration came in the early 12th century. In 1127, the Song Dynasty (960-1279) was forced to move south by the northern Jin kingdom which was founded by ethnic Nüzhen. The Song court and its elites escaped to the south where one of the imperial family set up a new regime in Hangzhou, today’s Zhejiang Province, which became known as the Southern Song (1127-1279).  

Mass migration was also used as a solution to balance regional populations in the aftermath of long years of unrest. Still today, many Han people in the north believe their ancestral roots stem from a single locust tree in what is now Hongdong County, North China’s Shanxi Province. After the Ming toppled the Mongol-controlled Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) in the late 14th century, a lot of land was left idle as the population in the north had sharply dwindled during the war. The Ming government wanted to move people back to the devastated areas. It chose the populous and prosperous Shanxi region to focus its efforts. Ming officials set up a migration agency under a locust tree in Hongdong County which arranged the transfer of people from Shanxi to other places, particularly to Hebei, Henan and Shandong which had been ravaged by wars and floods. 

After the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) succeeded the Ming, there was a similar migration drive. Many people were killed in what is today’s Sichuan Province in rebellions during the last years of the Ming. The Qing decided to move millions of people from the neighboring areas of Hunan and Hubei to Sichuan. This is why many Sichuanese claim their roots lie in those areas.  

Now people migrate around the world, but still feel an attachment to their ancestral lands. 

People offer sacrifices to ancestors at a locust tree during a local cultural festival in Hongdong County, Shanxi Province, April 4, 2021. It is believed that the official migration office of the Ming dynasty was located by the tree