Millions of farmers are flocking to China's cities, seeking work in an effort to secure better lives for their families left behind in rural homelands.
Over the past decade, millions of rural elderly, women and children have been separated from the family's breadwinner as sons, husbands and fathers head to the cities in search of a better wage.
"I feel sad every time I pick up my dad's picture," says Liu Qian, 14, from Bamudi Village in Yanqing County, Beijing.
Liu's father left the village five years ago and has been working as a construction worker in Beijing and Tianjin ever since.
In 1993, Liu's mother was struck down with a serious muscle disease.
In tune with the old Chinese saying "misfortune never comes alone," the following year, Liu's father developed a stomach ulcer.
Medical bills bled the family dry.
"Usually farmers go to cities seeking better-paid jobs to repay debts caused by medical treatments and wedding ceremonies back home," says Ye Jingzhong, professor with the People and Development School of the Agriculture University of China.
It is reckoned there are about 150 million former farmers now working in urban areas. About 10 million children under the age of 15 have been left in the countryside to grow up without their fathers.
The research findings have been collected in the book "Left-behind Children in Rural China," published by Social Sciences Academic Press in September.
"It's from the perspective of the children that we conducted the investigation and released our research to see the phenomena's impact on the left-behind children, both physically and psychologically," said James Murray, country director with China Plan, an international organization targeting children's issues.
The fast growing urban economies offer migrant workers what seem like fantastic opportunities, but there is a stark downside.
"Every night when I lie down on my bed, I just can't help thinking of my son," says Ling Zejiang, 33. Originally from Jiangjin, near Chongqing Municipality, Ling has been a construction worker in Beijing for eight years.
The only comfort to his homesickness is a long-distance phone call, but the expense means communication between father and son is very limited.
Ling says he worries about his son's school performance, basic health and safety.
They bear the separation for the promise of a better life in the future.
Yu Xiaoyun, dean of the People and Development School of the Agricultural University of China, believes the flow of farmers to cities reflects the impoverished rural population's wishes to pursue freedom, welfare and happiness.
"It's the first time in China's history that mass migration has had nothing to do with war or revolution," he says.
Balancing the benefits of an increased income with the, albeit temporary, loss of a parent is not an easy challenge.
According to research, left-behind children's behaviour and character are both affected.
Once a father has left a family, greater responsibility falls on the children, not just for chores around the house, but also in looking after younger siblings.
In school, left-behind children often fall into one of two extreme groups, either topping the academic tables, or languishing at the bottom, says Ma Aiqin, a primary school teacher from Jiaxian County in Northwest China's Shaanxi Province.
In addition, possibly because of increased responsibilities at home, the left-behind children don't dress as tidily as others and are often inattentive in class, she adds.
But one psychologist, who declined to be named, believes there are also positive effects.
"Leaving children behind is not an absolutely bad thing," he says.
In his opinion, when a father leaves, it can liberate the children from traditional strict discipline.
Without the pressure of an authoritarian presence, children can grow up with greater independence, he says.
Almost all experts attribute the left-behind children phenomena to problems with the urban household registration system which restricts the inflow of rural parents together with their children.
Because children from rural areas cannot register as urban residents, they also have more difficulties and may pay more to enter cities' schooling systems.
Ma Rong, from Peking University, says the flow of rural workers into cities not only affects their children but also skews labour markets and gender balance.
According to Ma, the solution lies in combating the negative impacts on left-behind youths with efforts from schools, village communities, volunteers, experts and policy makers.
(China Daily October 21, 2005)