Along a narrow mud road that cuts through the unending farmland of central China sits a peasant village so modest it hardly deserves its evocative name.

At the end of the lane is the dirt-floored hovel of Bai Li Yun, an illiterate farmer who cannot afford to support his five children.

Until recently, Bai, 46, had left Two Dragons only once before. Ten years ago he rode a bus two hours to the provincial capital to buy a 15-inch black-and-white television, which pulls in the fuzzy signal of just one channel.

For at least eight generations, members of the extended Bai clan have lived in Two Dragons, the rhythm of their lives almost unchanged as they have struggled to survive as farmers in a poor, overpopulated country. There have been years of famine and of bounty, eras of political upheaval and of calm. Yet always they have lived and worked with "our eyes facing the yellow earth, our backs pointed toward heaven," according to a proverb quoted by one Bai.

There is no ancient saying to describe the changes sweeping through the Bai clan of today. One by one they are fleeing the land.

Their destination is the city, where many in the family have found opportunity and heartbreak as tiny, nearly anonymous contributors to the modern economic boom that is reshaping China.

The migration of the Bai family and millions more from the countryside is transforming a vast communist country that is still, at its heart, a fiefdom of lords and peasants into a fierce competitor for the West.

Tens of millions of former farmers now work in China's urban factories. They build the industrial equipment, sew the clothing and make the toys that are sold around the world. Many if not all of these products once were manufactured in the United States. Now many of those jobs have gone to China, where a vast workforce is willing to endure harsh conditions and low pay out of a desperate desire to get ahead.

A double-edged sword

The peasants have always defined China. They have been the cause of its strength and the source of its despair. They built the Great Wall and defended the empires that rose to become some of the world's great civilizations. Yet time and again they have proved ungovernable through their unmanageable numbers.

Once more, the 1.3 billion people of the world's most populous nation present both strength and weakness. They are the largest pool of cheap, uneducated labor on the planet, but they also are an extraordinary, perhaps unsupportable burden on themselves. That is especially true for the 900 million Chinese from the countryside, many of whom--like those in Two Dragons--eke out meager existences.

China's own economy never could provide work for them all. But perhaps the rest of the world can employ enough of them to sustain the country and keep the Communist Party in power.

That was part of the logic behind the Chinese government's decision to abandon rote communism 25 years ago and open itself to the outside world. It was China's good fortune to get the timing just right, laying the groundwork to become the world's factory at the moment countries were becoming more interconnected economically. Companies from the United States, Europe and elsewhere in Asia were recognizing that it made sense to search the globe for the cheapest, most efficient workers to manufacture their products. They found what they were looking for in China.

China's great advantage is not just a low-cost labor force but the people's desperation to succeed. Over the past decade or so, more than 100 million peasants have left their villages for China's cities, so hungry for work that they accept nearly any wage and will tolerate nearly any living condition if it means a job.

It is an exodus that constitutes one of the greatest mass migrations of all time.

Members of the Bai family have become determined and resourceful participants in this extraordinary journey. Though it has been terribly difficult at times, they have discovered that the dirt road through their village connects them to the outside world and the possibility of a more lucrative life.

The patriarch and matriarch of the family are Bai He Ping and Wang Fu Ying. It is their children, five adult brothers and one sister, who are changing family history. Illiterate farmer Bai Li Yun is the second-oldest son. The oldest brother also is illiterate. The next two younger brothers went to middle school. The youngest graduated from high school.

All of them grew up in a home much like the one now occupied by the second brother. There is no indoor plumbing. The family draws water from a well and uses a walled-off bit of back yard for a toilet. During winter, the house is freezing cold. At night, the six chickens that share the living space huddle quietly in a covered basket.

In their windowless home, lighted by a single bulb, cooking is a two-woman operation: A daughter crouches behind a concrete oven in the corner of the main room, stoking the fire with fistfuls of hay as Bai's wife stirs the wok that rests over a hole on top. Smoke fills the room and soot collects on the mud-and-straw walls.