The ‘Left-Behind Children’: Shanghai’s Role in Children’s Identities

Previously, I explored how urban land constraints in Shanghai has lead to a series of uneven developments. In particular, it has lead to a phenomenon of ‘left-behind children’, who are severely disadvantaged by the population control strategies employed in Shanghai. These disadvantages can be further studied through idealisations of ‘nature’ and ‘childhood’ that urban landscapes create (Shillington & Murnaghan, 2016). Here, I will unpack these idealisations and suggest how these have watered down the complex relations between children, nature, and urban spaces.

A large part of childhood can be tracked through a child’s overall development. This development is stunted in ‘left-behind children’ as parental migration negatively impacts them from infancy to early teenage years. Numerous studies have found that these infants are stunned in their cognitive and non-cognitive development and as they grow up, and more recently, the mental health of these children are negatively impacted too (Chang et al., 2018). These developmental deficits have resulted in the rise of social problems amongst the ‘left-behind children’. 

Watch how the ‘left-behind children’ are affected by parental migration.

Development, can be traced to a defining characteristic of childhood – education. The ‘left-behind children’ are highly disadvantaged in this aspect. Compared to their counterparts – the migrant children in Shanghai – ‘left-behind children’ are unable to enjoy a diverse education.There are a multitude of reasons for this: a lack of educational resources, the children’s custodians not prioritising education for them, and critically, these children are preoccupied with work.

While migrant children find themselves on educational trips to museums, ‘left-behind children’ have no such resources. Source: China Global Dialogue (x)

With migration of their parents, Chang et al. (2011) found that the participation rates of children in both domestic and farm work increases. The additional time for such work for the children is simply a substitution for their migrant parent(s)’ labour. Inevitably, the increased workload impacts the children’s well-being negatively and interferes with their schooling. 

Increase in Number of Farm Work Hours for
Children After Parent’s Migration (Per Annum)

Time that could be set aside for play and education is instead dedicated to familial duties and providing for themselves. Yet, the ‘left-behind children’ and their custodians seem to accept this added responsibility and interference with ease. In doing so, notions of ‘childhood’ and what being a ‘child’ means takes on a different meaning to these citizens.  Arguably, this has also challenged their connection with ‘nature’. Unlike the ‘nature’ and ‘childhood’ for urban children, which is idealised as having fun in the park, interactions with ‘nature’ is linked to farm work and obligation for these children. 

A further influence on such identities can be identified through examining the unequal division of responsibility amongst male and female children. Amongst the children, the most substantial increase of work time for the children lies in domestic work for female children (Ibid.). The ‘left-behind’ female children see an increase of 0.751h per day to domestic work, whilst for the boys, a lesser increase of 0.239h per day. Such a gender-divided spread of work reinforces the traditional gender roles present in the patriarchal Chinese community, in which women are expected to have higher participation and more hours invested in domestic work as compared to men. This is wholly contrasting in contemporary Shanghai (and other leading cities in China), where expectations of Chinese women have expanded greatly. This is once again reminiscent of my previous claims regarding urban development – both structural and social – in Shanghai. In this case, Shanghai’s growth comes at the expense of regressive characteristics taking root in other communities.

The off-loading of work on the children and priority this has taken in their lives lead me to believe that parental migration and separation has a pervasive effect on children’s identities. As ‘childhood’ experiences are transformed for the ‘left-behind children’, new and existing identities are carved out or reinforced for them. These urban metabolic flows have both changed what being a ‘child’ means and reinforced gender stereotypes for these children. As such identities diverge from the idealisations of ‘children’ urban residents subscribe to, it is clear that there is a greater need to children as active participants in urban landscapes (Gustafson, 2020), in order to create a better understanding of the complex children-nature and children-society relations.


Chang et al., 2018. ‘Understanding the Situation of China’s Left‐Behind Children: A Mixed‐Methods Analysis’, The Developing Economies, vol. 57, no. 1, pp. 3-35. 

Chang, H., Dong, X. & MacPhail, F., 2011. ‘Labor Migration and Time Use Patterns of the Left-behind Children and Elderly in Rural China’, World Development, vol. 39, no. 12, pp. 2199-2210.

Gustafson, S., 2020. ‘Children Breathe Their Own Air: Reflections on Children’s Geographies, the Urban Political Ecology of Air Pollution, and Ongoing Participatory Action Research with Undergraduates Near an East London Primary School’, Area, 2020:00, pp. 1-8.

Shillington, L. J. & Murnaghan, A. M. F., 2016. ‘Urban Political Ecologies and Children’s Geographies: Queering Urban Ecologies of Childhood’, ijurr, vol. 40, no. 5, pp. 1017-1035.

3 thoughts on “The ‘Left-Behind Children’: Shanghai’s Role in Children’s Identities

  1. This is a really interesting insight into an often missed group. How exactly do these ‘lost children’ experience nature and urban flows in Shanghai, could you go into more detail? What aspects of the city do they experience differently i.e exposure to noise, are they closer to nature?


  2. Hi! These two posts on Shanghai as a migrant city and its impacts on the ‘left-behind children’ are really insightful and a great read! You’ve exemplified how the urban is inherently relational, situated in an intricate web of metabolic flows that extend beyond its spatial boundaries – in this case, the flow of labour has profound consequences not only on Shanghai’s built environment (e.g. emergence of informal settlements and the implications on migrants’ living conditions) but also on the children left behind in rural areas.

    Arguably, this is a stressing issue faced across the world as many cities are increasingly reliant on migrant labour, especially for blue-collar jobs. Your posts made me reflect on the lived realities of Singapore’s migrant population and the families they left behind in their homelands. What kind of sacrifices have they made to earn a living in Singapore? Who is waiting for them back home? These hard questions are seldom asked. With Covid-19 illuminating the poor living conditions in Singapore’s migrant worker dormitories, it is timely to reflect on how society at large treats the migrant population – both in affording them the respect they deserve and finding ways to better support them emotionally. After all, as you highlighted, the city will not be where it is without its migrant workers.


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