Peoples of China

“City Slickers” and “Country Bumpkins”

Are They People Groups?

The urban-rural cultural divide seems to be a nearly universal phenomenon. I’ll never forget the glee with which my language teachers in Taichung taught me how the syllables in the Taiwanese word for “country person” could be transposed to form a derisive name they used to describe rural people. I will also never forget how difficult it was for me to gain even a grudging level of acceptance from the ranchers in the small town in Texas where I served as a young pastor, fresh from the city.  I don’t even want to know what they called me behind my back! I suspect you have similar memories.

In an incisive issue of ICWA Letters,[1] China researcher Dan Wright comments on the cultural divide that separates migrant laborers from the rural areas around Duyun from their bosses in this prefecture capital of southeast Guizhou.

Life is difficult in the mountains; but for farmers-turned-migrant laborers in the city, it is bitter, degrading and dangerous. . . . ..

“What do you enjoy most about working here in the city?” I ask this to see their reaction to something they probably don’t think about very often: pleasure.

No response. I don’t fill the silence. Finally, one of them says, “Full stomachs.”

“And the hardest thing?”

The answer comes more quickly: “City people look down at us. We occupy the bottom of society.”


“Because we’re from the countryside. The work we do is dirty.”

Wright goes on to confirm that the laborers’ comments are more than just perceptions by relating another conversation:

“Dirty” is the first word used by a young urban woman when I ask her about migrant laborers in Duyun. “Of course, though, I don’t feel that way,” she adds when she sees the look on my face.

“When we were children,” she explains, “our parents often told us that if we didn’t study hard we would end up like them, working on the streets.”

He observes:

. . . Prejudice runs deep. In the eyes of most urban residents, rural folk are just, well, filthy. Though the primary ways in which the urban-rural divide was institutionalized in the 1950s—household registration and migration restriction—have been eased or eliminated, they produced a two-caste mindset that remains until today. The result has produced perhaps China’s greatest wall: little understanding or appreciation between its agricultural and non-agricultural populations.

Wright also observed a strong sense of community among the migrant laborers. The closest ties, naturally, seemed to exist between those from the same village. However, there was also a strong sense of community based on their common occupation.

Throughout the time I spent observing and getting to know pushcart pullers around Duyun, they would often describe their work as ku li. [literally translated: ‘bitter labor’]. But it was not until one noonday when I was home speaking in Chinese with my wife, Guowei, that it suddenly struck me: ku li sounds like the English word “coolie.” I asked the guys about it. My “distant relative” Lao Tang gave confirmation: “We porters have a long legacy; we are one and the same with the Shanghai dockworkers of old.”[2]

These insights highlight the fact that there are other kinds of people groups in China than those we commonly think of. In our zeal to identify and reach every ethno-linguistic people group with the gospel, we must not forget that there are other kinds of barriers to the spread of the gospel, especially in the cities. The urban-rural divide is only one of them. People groups may be identified by educational level, occupation, socioeconomic status, and in many other ways. The crucial issue is how they see themselves. The gospel will spread more quickly, and churches will expand more rapidly if we pay attention to these differences and develop appropriate strategies for each group.

There are, of course, also, ethno-linguistic issues that must be taken into account as we seek to reach the cities of China with the gospel of Jesus Christ. The State Ethnic Affairs Commission estimates that, as of 1997, 20% of the total minority population were living in the cities, up from 8.4% in 1982.[3] That is 20 million people!

Beijing alone has 414,000 ethnic minority people (3.8% of the population), representing all 55 official minority nationalities. The Chinese capital has a complete ethnic education system, more than 2,000 shops, 200 restaurants, and 117 enterprises that cater to the needs of the city’s ethnic minorities.[4] Per capita income and education level of minorities in Beijing are both lower than those of the Han majority, creating a challenging combination of distinctives.

Minorities who move to the cities tend to live in their own communities creating what someone has called “Chinatowns within China.” Those who feel called to serve the cause of Christ among a particular minority nationality would do well to consider seeking out one of these communities as an option to the traditional focus on reaching minorities in rural areas.

Throughout Scripture, God calls upon us to take the gospel to people where they are. Increasingly, the people groups that have yet to hear the gospel may be found in the cities. Whether “city slickers” or “country bumpkins,” they all need the Lord.

As we look for ways to advance the kingdom of God in the cities of China, let us carefully consider the many different people groups in the cities, and seek God’s wisdom to develop appropriate strategies to reach every one of them.


  1. ^ ICWA Letters is a publication of the Institute of Current World Affairs, The Crane-Rogers Foundation, Four West Wheelock Street, Hanover, NH 03755 USA. 
  2. ^ Daniel Wright, “‘Hey, Coolie!’—Local Migrant Labor,” ICWA Letters, January 1999, pp.1-8. 
  3. ^ “More ethnic people becoming urbanites,” China Daily, 14 February 2000. 
  4. ^ Tang Min, “New minority regulations to aid ethnic development,” China Daily, 6 January 1999.
Image credit: Migrant Worker II by Kevin Schoenmakers via Flickr.
Share to Social Media

Jim Nickel

Jim Nickel was vice president of ChinaSource from 2000 to 2004 and was involved in promoting work among the unreached Chinese peoples for many yearsView Full Bio