“These Villages Are My Laboratory”

Xiaobo Zhang takes to the road to study the realities of life in rural China.

Xiaobo Zhang on a crowded street

Xiaobo Zhang in Chengguan. © 2012 Xi Chen

In one of his trips to rural China, Senior Research Fellow Xiaobo Zhang came across something he didn’t expect to see: the construction of a spacious two-story house. It seemed out of place among the village’s other homes, which were small with no heat or indoor plumbing. When Zhang asked one villager why he was building this large house, the man responded, “I must make sure my house is taller than my neighbors’.” A bigger house meant that the matchmaker would bring more potential candidates for a wife for his son. And in a country where men of marrying age far outnumber women, finding a wife has become a serious competition—so serious that the man donated blood twice a week to earn extra money for construction materials.

Bridge to the Past

Every year, Zhang travels to rural China to talk to villagers and get ideas for research. He goes in the dead of winter, traveling slick roads to stay with villagers in their cramped, spartan homes. These conditions could not be farther away from life at IFPRI, where Zhang has an office overlooking the hustle and bustle of K Street in Washington, DC. But for him the conditions of rural China are familiar territory.

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“I have firsthand experience with poverty and the socialist regime,” says Zhang. “I didn’t see a banana or seafood until I was 10 years old. We basically ate no meat all year except for the Chinese New Year.” By his 10th birthday, Zhang had logged hundreds of hours working in the fields in Liu Jiazhuang Village in Hebei Province in northeastern China as part of a collective farm.

Some people would choose to forget such a life. But through his research, Zhang has created a bridge that connects not only his past and his present, but also the social, institutional, and economic motivations behind people’s choices. “I just ask villagers, ‘What’s a major problem in your daily life?’” Zhang says. “I treat these villages as my laboratory.”

What he sees on the ground sometimes flies in the face of conventional wisdom. For example, Chinese households save at a very high rate compared with other countries, and their savings have increased rapidly, but standard economic theory has not been able to explain why. When Zhang investigated, he found the motivation for saving so much money was not a mystery; it was the same reason men were building large houses in remote areas. The bigger the bank account, the better a man’s chances of winning a wife. With Professor Shang-jin Wei of Columbia University, he has written a series of papers to empirically test this hypothesis.

Bottom-Up Research

Zhang was introduced to his bottom-up approach to research at Cornell University. His math skills took him to Nankai University in China, where he discovered a love of economics. But Chinese schools did not teach “Western” economics. After four years as a lecturer, Zhang decided he could not stay in China if he wanted to advance his career. While he was a student at Cornell, he applied and was accepted for an internship at IFPRI. He repeated the internship the next year. Then, when future director general Shenggen Fan was looking for a research assistant, he called Zhang. “Xiaobo has always tried to learn from reality, not just from books,” says Fan. After graduating from Cornell, Zhang became an IFPRI postdoctoral fellow and eventually a senior research fellow.

Zhang’s current research was inspired by a conversation he had with two teachers in a rural village. The lack of qualified teachers in rural areas causes the students there to fall behind their urban peers, putting them at a disadvantage in the job market. Zhang is investigating solutions to this problem, including bringing retired educators from coastal regions to teach in rural villages. “I learn tremendously from doing fieldwork,” says Zhang. “This is where I really get to know people’s concerns.”

For more information on this topic:

A Foreign Policy article on the pressures on Chinese bachelors, quoting Xiaobo Zhang

Recent papers on Xiaobo Zhang’s research on saving and spending in China

  • Shang-Jin Wei and Xiaobo Zhang, “The Competitive Saving Motive: Evidence from Rising Sex Ratios and Savings Rates in China,” Journal of Political Economy 119, no. 3 (2011): 511–564, http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/660887.
  • Xi Chen, Ravi Kanbur, and Xiaobo Zhang, Peer Effects, Risk Pooling, and Status Seeking: What Explains Gift Spending Escalation in Rural China? IFPRI Discussion Paper 1151 (Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute, 2011), http://www.ifpri.org/sites/default/files/publications/ifpridp01151.pdf.
  • Philip H. Brown, Erwin Bulte, and Xiaobo Zhang, “Positional Spending and Status Seeking in Rural China,” Journal of Development Economics 96, no. 1 (2011): 139–149, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jdeveco.2010.05.007.
  • Shang-Jin Wei and Xiaobo Zhang, Sex Ratios, Entrepreneurship, and Economic Growth in the People's Republic of China, NBER Working Paper 16800 (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2011).

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