Illustration 1: Internal migration in China


This illustration focuses on the changing distribution of population in China as an example of spatial change. It does so through a series of vignettes about people's lives as they migrate backwards and forwards from rural districts to large urban areas. This approach enables students to interpret choropleth and flow maps and statistical tables. Armed with such knowledge they are well informed to make judgements about video films that depict some of the difficulties that face Chinese migrants attracted to the opportunities for a better life in large urban agglomerations.

Learning goals

The illustration-specific leaning goals are: 

  • understanding the patterns of internal migration in China
  • developing an appreciation of the social and economic geography that lies beneath cartographic and statistical data
  • understanding contemporary change in China
  • developing the ability to make informed judgements about social and economic change in China.

Geographical understanding and context

Each year, 200 million workers from China's rural districts travel between the country's cities and regions in search of employment. This has been called the largest contemporary human migration in history. These migrants contribute half of China's gross domestic product (GDP). They are often exploited, marginalised by city dwellers and impoverished by circumstance.

Teaching approaches

Stories about the lives of Chinese migrants in large urban centres bring to life some of the realities behind the struggles of migrants to and from Chinese cities. Journalists from two of the world's leading newspapers build up valuable understandings about the lives of people in contemporary China living in Chongqing and Shenzen.

A choropleth map showing Internal migrations, actual and projected, 1999-2005 can be compared with flow distribution maps (listed in the 'What you need' section below). One such map also includes Human Development Index data. Examination of data about interprovincial migration in China will enhance understanding on interprovincial migration and serve as a vehicle to develop geographical skills. 

Students will be well equipped to make informed judgements about China's internal migrants as they watch the multimedia production, Living in the shadows: China's internal migrants (duration, 15:40), a project that tells the story of three families of Chinese migrant labourers in Shanghai and the struggles they face as undocumented internal migrants.

The examples provided in the 'What you need' section below will support you and your students to embark on meaningful inquiry work.

What you need

Access to the Internet.
Pu Jun the technician's story (PDF)
China's company towns (PDF)
Peng the unemployed security guard's story (PDF)
Bo Zhang the noodle seller's story (PDF)
Lei the young mother's story (PDF).

Invisible city. Jonathan Watts of The Guardian provides an account of daily life in Chongqing. He reports on the lives of porters, city bureaucrats, entrepreneurs, builders, doctors, engineers, the police, the educated elite, the nouveaux riches and street kids.

Maps and tables:
Human development index (HDI) flow map (PDF)
The 30 largest interprovincial migration flows, 2000-2005 (PDF)
Internal migrations, actual and projected, 1999-2005 choropleth map (PDF)
Data about China's population and migration patterns can be found on Migration information source website. It also lists a number of other sites to access information and data on China.

Living in the shadows: China's internal migrants (duration, 15:13).


Books and articles:
Chan, K. W.China, internal migration. Retrieved September 2019, from:
Pai. H. (2012). Scattered sand: The story of China's rural migrants. London: Verso.
Sanders, D. (2010). Arrival city: The arrival migration and our next world city. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.