The miserable family life of migrant workers in post-socialist China

Sometimes change leads to negative transitions in the society. Lixan Fan’s The Last Train Home follows the lives of migrant workers in post-socialist China as they compete to fit in the global capitalist economy. China, before joining the capitalist’s economies was a communist country, and capitalism is a new phenomenon that has broken the family cords and emotional attachment to cause chaotic strife in the families. Therefore, the new capitalist world is characterized by individualism, homelessness, poverty and lack of family ties. Through this film, viewers are able to learn the relationship between a country’s legal institutions and its effects on the social and cultural lives.

The film is contextualized in a time when China has shifted from agrarian period to a period of industrial revolution and economic growth where there is a huge requirement of manual laborers. Nonetheless, due to the high population of China, the monthly payment is very low due to surplus labor and cannot sustain the families in the urban centers as the peasants from rural areas are not recognized by the government as city dwellers (Wang, 2016 p. 14). Zhang’s have not even made any plans to settle in the city even after 17 years of working there. They have to leave their children in the rural areas because they cannot access public schools in the city since the government is unwilling to fulfill its responsibilities to its citizens fairly without any form of discrimination (Wang, 2016 p. 13). Even when Changhua falls sick, he cannot access medical services because he’s not a city dweller but a migrant worker. His wife is even more worried that she won’t finish the labor without her husband’s help. She cannot even tender her sick husband in peace. This is psychological torture this capitalist economy has brought to these families.

The transition from communism to the new capitalist era in China has brought many social changes that have brought trauma to the migrant workers and their families as they live in separation and homelessness.  For instance, Zhang’s family has worked in Guangzhou for 17 years, having migrated from their rural home in Sichuan province due to poverty. Their lives are transformed by the industrious post-socialist China to become hopeless (Wang, 2016 p. 23). They live in a dormitory room just inside the factory they work in. There is no personal space neither sex life, no separation between work and private life. They cannot perform their parental duties as they can only travel home once a year at the New Year’s Day.

China’s new capitalistic legal institution has created a deceptive mentality of freedom and individualism rather than patriarch family. For example, the focus of the Zhang’s, for instance, is to work hard and educate their children as they believe it is the only way to detach from poverty (Svetvilas, 2016 p. 4). However, they cannot offer parental guidance to their children due to separation. Qin, their daughter, is forced to take parental responsibilities as a teenager such as lifting heavy baskets of corn and taking care of her younger siblings (Wang, 2016 p. 12). Due to parental negligence Zhang’s  daughter drop out of school and chooses her way of life which she calls freedom but which is a total lie as she ends up the same fate as her parents. This form of freedom has created wedges in families instead and ruthlessly broken up families. This is a loss of the previous culture of family coexistence, emotional support and a feeling of home.

The film reveals the inequalities in education and infrastructure while Chinese brands of “Made in China” traverse the world as cheap commodities. The director digs into what happens behind the scenes of those products through Zhang’s family as an example of the traumatic experiences of families caught up in the neoliberal China in a style that depicts lies in the perspective of the existence of a free society (Svetvilas, 2016 p. 4). For example, images that depict the city that has undergone adverse effects of capitalism are different from those used to depict the rural areas (Wang, 2016 p. 8). The city has been turned into congested place with many problems such as lack of jobs and high population due to immigration. On the contrary, the rural areas are portrayed as being vibrantly green and peaceful but poor at the same time. For instance, the house in which Changhua and Suqin live is small and lacks privacy. One room is separated from the other by a thin board through which the rumblings of the factories penetrate to remind them of their permanent connection to their work.

Lixin gives the migrant workers a voice by exploring their sufferings in capitalist China. The shots here show enormous congestion, struggles and pain as the workers try to find a train ticket to go back home after a year of hard labor and disconnection with the rest of the family members. Lixan captures this moment of relieve after getting the tickets when Chen Suqin outbursts, the only kind of laughter captured in the film (Wang, 2016 p. 5). This is a special moment as it distances them from the workplace. But again there is nothing to talk about when they get home. The native family structure has been ruined by the capitalist life. Individualism is all that works this time (Wang, 2016 p. 11). This is evident when Qin finds a job at the hotel and later moves to the city as a tailor. Individualism and the feeling of independence captured when she says she doesn’t have to rely on her parents for money. However, the freedom is just a lie by the government, and it dawn on her when she goes to the city.

In conclusion, this film depicts that the social-cultural aspect of the family has been broken, and migrant does not have real families. These families have to undergo through problems of homelessness, lack of jobs and family breakups as they try to cope with both work and family development.  Before the situation was easy because old China practiced communism but the new capitalistic institutions have developed era of individualism. This shows that changes in the legal institutions have a direct effect on the social-cultural lives of the people living in that country.



Svetvilas, C. (2016). Made in China: ‘Last Train Home’ Documents the Life of the Migrant

WorkerInternational Documentary Association. Retrieved 28 March 2016, from

Wang, Y. (2016). Trauma, Migrant Families, and Neoliberal Fantasies in Last Train

Home. Concentric: Literary And Cultural Studies1(42), 2-24.