Reporting from Lizhuang, China — This is a village of empty rooms, children left behind and frail grandparents who struggle to hold it all together. Most of the able-bodied adults have left the hamlet of rutted, muddy roads and drought-withered fields of corn.
House after house, the same family tale repeats itself: The parents migrated to the big cities for work; their young children stay with grandparents, great-grandparents or any other relatives who can shelter and feed them. At the age of 10 or so, when the youngsters are considered old enough, many move into packed boardinghouses attached to their public schools.
A generation of left-behind children is growing up in China. Researchers estimate that at least 58 million — nearly a quarter of the nation's children and almost a third of its rural children — are growing up without one or both of their parents, who have migrated in search of work. More than half of those were left by both parents.
The youngsters face stark psychological and emotional challenges; many struggle to keep up with their lessons and end up abandoning school in their teens to join their parents on the road, say researchers.
Migration rates exploded over the last two decades as residents left their fading villages in droves to seek jobs in the cities. The left-behind children are the fallout of a rapid dissolution of traditional Chinese values in the rush for economic opportunity and growth, and a vivid reminder of how routine migration is in the country's lifestyle.
"Their education is always lagging behind," said Nie Mao, author of "Hurt Village," a book on the fate of the separated children. "Their safety is always compromised because they are far from their parents. Their future is not clear.
"This is a social problem in China and, as a society, we have to find a solution," Nie said.
At 77, Cai Zhongying is matriarch of a nearly empty homestead. From a mud road where scraggy dogs roam, the cluster of family homes looks almost splendid — a string of buildings adorned with turquoise trim and statues of birds perched on curled rooftops, still being built piece by piece with wages from Cai's faraway children.
Inside, the rooms are mostly bare. Her children and the grandchildren who left have spent virtually every bit of their money — scraped together during shifts in far-flung urban factories — to build the rooms. The cash to furnish them will have to come later. They come home once a year, if they can earn the fare and get the time off.
It's the job of Cai, along with her 78-year-old husband, to keep an eye on the houses and raise the younger children until they too become teenagers old enough to work. The couple had six children, and hopes of being cared for in old age. Instead they are locked into perpetual parenthood, raising waves of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
These days, they are tending to two youngsters, ages 4 and 6; fields of vegetables; and a pomegranate orchard in the mountains.
"My husband just cries sometimes because the little boy is always clinging to his neck and climbing all over him," Cai said. "And my husband is exhausted."
Still, caring for these two youngsters is an improvement from recent years, when the couple had as many as six small children under their roof. Back then, they struggled to find enough food for everyone. Bitter arguments would erupt at mealtimes.
"The whole scene was a mess," Cai said. "Some of them really needed to be taken away to be with their parents. Thinking about it now, I want to cry."
Once home and inspiration to Pearl S. Buck, Anhui province is one of China's poorest regions. For years, people here tried to stay ahead of hunger as subsistence farmers. There is a coal mine nearby, but only a few villagers have been lucky enough to land jobs there.
For the rest, there's the road. Villagers go south and east, to the massive coastal cities of skyscrapers and suburban factories, or to bigger coal mines in more prosperous towns. To Shanghai, Pinghu and Xuzhou.
Bringing their children along means paying city school costs, sheltering them despite their own dubious living arrangements, and keeping them supervised during long work shifts. Chinese children are entitled to nine years of free public education but must pay steep fines to enroll in schools outside the town or village where their residence is registered.
"People choose to be separate from their children because they don't have any other choice," said Shi Zhengxin, secretary general of the China Social Assistance Foundation.
Despite the hardships, Shi urges parents to try to keep their children with them. Most of them will eventually end up migrating anyway, he argues, so they might as well get used to urban life.
"If they get left behind, they grow up into the second generation of migrant workers," he said. "They'll still have to come to the city to work, and it will take them much longer to adjust and learn how to live here."