CLUTCHING an overstuffed bag, Jin Mei edged onto the back of a bicycle pedaled by her son and set out from her mud-and-thatch village into a sunrise blazing along the road to the city.
The sun shone in Mrs. Jin's eyes as the bike jostled toward a bus stop. But it was the uncertainty of what lay ahead in the city of Shashi that overwhelmed Jin as she pressed her face against her bag.
Jin looks back on the dawn ride to Shashi in 1986 as an epochal leap for her farming family toward prosperity. By working seven days a week as a seamstress in a sheet-metal hut, Jin has earned enough to build a brick house with a tiled roof back home. With the higher pay she earns in Shashi, she also has put a daughter through medical school and sent another one to Xian to study English.
Jin is proudest about how her earnings helped her oldest son parlay a university degree in Beijing into a scholarship for graduate study in the United States. (Jin requested that her real name and the name of her village not be published.)
More than 60 million rural Chinese like Jin are on the road taking up difficult, dangerous, and dirty jobs shunned by city dwellers.
These mangliu, or "blind drifters," toil at construction sites on rickety and towering bamboo scaffolding. They haul flatbeds of garbage and tanks of night soil through the streets. They crouch amid the din and dust of curbsides, repairing shoes or awaiting work as charwomen or day laborers.
The exodus by Jin and other farmers is a wrenching rite of passage for China as it evolves from an agrarian to an industrial society. In terms of the scale of the population shift, the stakes are enormous.
The "human avalanche," as it is called, is one of the largest peacetime migrations in history. The migrants are restless forerunners for a vast army of idle laborers among China's 860 million farmers, the world's largest rural population.
Surplus workers in the countryside will increase this decade from 150 million to 200 million as every year 10 million Chinese born during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) baby boom come of working age.
Construction on arable land will annually push 4 million farmers from their fields. Rural industries, the most dynamic sector of the economy, cannot employ all the extra hands. Many of these redundant workers will seek work in cities, officials say.
The migrants testify by their footsteps to the poverty, hardship, and discontent of rural life. Unrestrained by the communal controls and Maoist dogma of the past, they are a potentially explosive force and a leading worry of China's top leaders, Chinese sources say.
The "muddy legs," as they are called, loiter in teeming cities across China. They lack urban residence registration and the grain rations, housing, health care, and other benefits that go with it. Many of them are hungry, tired, disillusioned, poorly educated, and easily abused.
Although Communist leaders appear firmly in control in the countryside, the migration recalls the rural unrest that has provoked upheaval and government collapse throughout Chinese history.
As migrants, Jin and her children have been both coaxed and compelled from their home: They have sought wealth but also fled corruption, strict state controls, lack of opportunity, and a slowdown in the rise of living standards in their village.
But the city sojourn has separated Jin from her husband Li Guosheng, a former soldier and "barefoot doctor" who runs the village's medical clinic. (Chinese women retain their maiden name.)
The move from the village has also provoked political tension between Mr. Li and his firstborn son, who embraced liberalism in college and joined the 1989 democracy movement before going to the United States. Still, Jin does not look back.
"I've never regretted coming to Shashi," she says, under the glare of a lone fluorescent lamp in a cramped brick dwelling she shares with her brother-in-law's family.
"My family has so much more money and opportunity now," Jin says, sitting with her in-laws around a small round table.
The toil of Jin is as lucrative as it is tough. She makes $10 a day bending over a low table and cutting cloth in a squat sheet-metal shack. Her niece and a fellow villager sew the cotton and wool pieces into dresses, mostly for workers at a nearby towel factory and power plant. Jin works 70 hours a week for an income many times what she earned back home.
At Jin's village the prosperity of her family gleams from among brown and gray thatched dwellings in the form of a whitewashed, brick-and-tile home built with her earnings. Within the main room of the bright house a scroll proclaims the family's other token of wealth: education.
"This land of intelligence produces people of intellect," the bold characters read. Beneath the scroll a soldier, sailor, and fighter pilot glare from out of a pastel-colored propaganda poster expressing Li's simple conservative outlook that his children have left behind.
Although Li and Jin's children have a new home, they feel no desire to return to the village.
Village officials in recent years have raised a "management fee," a land tax, electricity charges, and other levies. The officials also are guilty of the petty abuse of chihe, literally "eat-drink" - using public funds for wining and dining, Li says.
Villagers have no sure-fire way to revoke unjust taxes or to unseat abusive officials.
"Even if someone points his finger in an official's face and says `You're corrupt,' the official will say, `Okay, so go to Beijing and sue me,"' says Jin's brother-in-law. "Everyone knows there are bigger problems for the leaders to deal with than corruption in the countryside."
Every three years the villagers "elect" a seven-member village council from among 11 candidates selected by the Communist Party branch in the township. But the ballot serves mostly as an announcement. The first seven candidates listed on the slate always win, Li says.
Among the rigid controls of the state, family planning is the most intrusive and alienating.
"Deal resolute blows to criminals who undermine birth control!" says a slogan scrawled in large characters on a wall outside the village.
When Jin's youngest son fathered a second child, village officials seized his black-and-white TV, bed, table, bureau, and other furniture.
The officials auctioned the possessions and compelled the son's wife to undergo sterilization. Often officials pocket part or all of the "excess birth" fine of $280, a figure exceeding the per capita annual income in the village, Li says.
Villagers who hope to raise their income level have had to look to a sideline business or to the city.
"Even if we reaped gold, we couldn't expect to make much; the land is too limited and the profit of farming is too low," Jin's brother-in-law says. The per capita allotment of land is only 0.3 acres.
Farmers' incomes have shrunk since 1987 as the rising price of plastic sheeting, pesticides, fertilizer, and other goods far outstripped increases in the state price of grain and cotton. About half of the village households are in debt, Li says.
The stagnant economy offers few opportunities for craftsmen like Jin's youngest son. The carpenter recently left his wife and two young sons behind and found work with a roofing company in Shashi.
The flight from the village has pitted young migrants against their elders who have stayed behind. To different degrees, Jin's children have become estranged from her husband.
Youths like Jin's firstborn son believe China's repressive regime curtails their opportunities beyond the village. Older villagers like Li tolerate political abuse, mindful that their livelihood is better than before the communists took power. The tension suggests that migration could eventually play at least a limited part in promoting progressive political change in the countryside.
"My father is very passive like most farmers; he doesn't get involved in politics and he's happy just to have a full belly and a place to live," says Jin's eldest son by telephone from a university in the US.
Indeed, Li says political change is unnecessary. "If decisions made by the party are correct, it doesn't matter if one leaves decisionmaking only in its hands," Li says. "After all, China is a democratic country."
The political tension between Li and his son are clearest when they discuss the 1989 massacre of student protesters in Beijing. Li accepts the leadership's decision to order the Army to fire on his son and other unarmed demonstrators.
Expressing a traditional Chinese view, Li says brutal retribution was inevitable because the impatient, upstart youth had humiliated China's paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.
Mr. Deng "didn't have any choice. He was irritated by the students so he took revenge."