The pull of the big city is irresistible for many, but making the big move can bring heartache
The attraction is understandable enough: Dazzling lights, being freed from the clutches of meddling parents and the endless fun that supposedly comes with big-city independence. Then there are the career opportunities and the cachet that comes with being able to say you have worked in Beijing rather than Beihai or Shanghai rather than Shangluo.
But is living in the fabled metropolises of China all it is cracked up to be?
Leaving aside the problem of foul air that has become an unwelcome trademark for Beijing, cities such as Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, magnets for the young and the ambitious, face the problems of a high cost of living, forbidding house prices and fierce competition for jobs.
Gao Bin, 31, knows the feeling well. In 2010 he left Wuhan, Hubei province - which with a population of 10 million is not exactly a village itself - for Shanghai, drawn by the plethora of job opportunities in the IT industry. Two years later, the urgings of his girlfriend who wanted him to return to Wuhan proved irresistible.
Yes, he earned a lot more money in Shanghai than in Wuhan, he says, but the cost of living was a lot higher, too, as was the cost of housing, his annual disposable income being only enough to buy four square meters of living space, meaning he would have to work for 20 years' on his salary at the time to pay off an 80 sq m apartment - without even taking into account inflation and interest on any money borrowed.
Gao was fortunate, because branch offices of IT companies domestic and international were springing up all over Wuhan at the time, and he decided, with friends of his who also work in IT, that Wuhan, with good jobs and a stable lifestyle, was the place to be.
"It was exactly the right decision. I have a happy family life and my son was born in December," he says.
Gao concedes that when it comes to infrastructure and public transport there is no doubt Shanghai beats Wuhan, but the Hubei capital is closer to his hometown, he says, and it boasts good educational facilities for children and has excellent hospitals.
Lack of opportunities
Zhang Jialu, 27, says she had a huge range of free-time opportunities on offer to her in Beijing - but which she would eventually abandon.
"Those who live in the metropolises have a rich variety of cultural events and activities available to them. It's easy to find something that appeals to you no matter what your interest is."
Zhang worked in Beijing for less than four years before quitting her job in May 2014 to return to her hometown of Zhoushan, Zhejiang province, initially to take a rest for several months.
Her parents regarded Beijing, more than 1,200 kilometers from Zhoushan, as being too distant and housing prices as unaffordable, she says, and wanted her to work in a city nearer home. So she took up a job in marketing in an Internet company in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang, about 200 kilometres away.
However, Zhang says the decision to relocate has left her with a feeling of loss, and she has failed to find her feet in Hangzhou.
"At work, things are slower, and the same applies to the pace of life. I have more spare time but I'm not passionate about life the way I used to be. In my mind I don't feel as young or as energetic as I did before, either.
"Beijing suits me better because the competitiveness that there is in the city makes me work harder. Another thing is that those you work with are more likely to let you know what they think and encourage you if you have a creative idea."
Zhang says the inclusiveness of people in Beijing also suits her because she is sociable, but people in Hangzhou are less inclusive, which has made it difficult for her to integrate.
In Beijing she rented an apartment with people who were strangers at the start but with whom she formed good friendships, but in Hangzhou she lives alone in her own house and misses the company and other friends.
Six months ago she seriously considered returning to Beijing to work, she says, and the only thing that has kept her from taking that step is the pollution.
"I didn't leave because of that, but at present it is what is keeping me from going back."
Giving up benefits
Another one to give up the benefits of big-city living, but for whom things have ended up otherwise, is Xia Zhenyu, 27. Before returning to Hefei, Anhui province from Shanghai, he had broken up with his girlfriend, he says, and he felt that his career had reached a dead end. In Hefei, he could attend to family matters.
"I stayed home and was able to look after my mother. Life is steady and I was spending a lot less. But there is something that is not quite right, and I just cannot adapt to my work or new lifestyle."
As in Shanghai, he worked in marketing for a Fortune 500 company, but the work in Hefei differed from that in Shanghai, he says. Those he worked with seemed to be less open-minded and unwilling to try new things, and seemed to be preoccupied with getting whatever they were doing over and done with rather than trying to do a good job.
His family had wanted him back because they could not afford a house in Shanghai, and they had other priorities for him in mind, too, such as marriage. In that aspect, they see Shanghai as a poor market, he says, and his mother frequented a park in Hefei where a kind of marriage bazaar takes place, parents gathering to find a spouse for their child. The most important information to be swapped seemed to concern, jobs, houses and cars, Xia says.
"I had a few blind dates in my hometown, and many were more interested in my job and where I lived. In big cities, young women may have similar yardsticks for finding a boyfriend, but for me these are not the most important things."
After 14 months in Hefei, Shanghai, with its professional attractions and the possibilities it held for him of getting back with his former girlfriend, put out its siren call and he heeded it. Though his romantic aspirations eventually met with failure, he says, his life in Shanghai is more interesting. He goes to concerts, exhibitions, museums and plays and does volunteer work.
Faced with the possibility of living in two different places, the question to ask is exactly what kind of life you are looking for, he says.
"In Shanghai you can always find something you're interested in, but in small cities there is not so much on offer, and it can be hard to find a friend who shares the same hobby, such as going to the theater."
Hu Xiaowu, vice head of the Institute of Urban Science at Nanjing University, says that many of those who return to their hometowns or move to smaller cities find it difficult to become accustomed to their surroundings, including a rudimentary economic and industrial structure in which jobs in certain sectors are difficult to find.
Returnees may feel a sense of loss and even depression, he says, and some will end up returning to the big cities.
Zhu Di, an associate professor at the Institute of Sociology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, says there are young people who leave the competitive big cities to take what some people would regard as second best to work in second-tier cities.
However, "some second-tier cities in developed regions have good prospects and are rich in resources and the gap between them and the big cities is closing", she says.
She suggests that people pick up transferrable skills through school and work, ones that can be used in many situations.
"You can never take it for granted that you will have a secure lifetime job once you enter a State-owned enterprise or become a public servant. Young people in big cities have more crisis awareness and are more likely to improve themselves by learning new things."