Nathan's Reviews > Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China

Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang
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's review
Nov 03, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: other-non-fiction
Read in November, 2012

I've been reading the last few months, but struggling to find something worth saying about the books I've read. This excellent book, however, moved me to words. It's an account of the highly mobile and mostly-female workforce in China, the 16-18 year olds who leave the farms in the countryside and flood into factory cities like Dongguan and Shenzhen in southern China. The author tells the stories of several girls, as well as her own investigations into her family history, and the results paint a fascinating picture of the social changes, and constants, over the last seventy years of China.

The real heroes are the girls. Brave, focused on self-improvement, constantly hunting for new opportunities, and creating this new social identity in a space which hadn't existed before in the same way. Their stories are by turns fascinating and frustrating, inspirational and banal. They're living a hypermodern life: job seeking, self-improvement, upwardly mobile, but with everything exaggerated and accelerated. They rise quickly, fall fast, experience orders of magnitude of income change that we can't dream of, change careers, search for marriageable men, and so much more, while optimistic and opportunistic.

I've been curious about China's Great Leap Forward for a while now, and Chang's exploration of these new women of the Pearl Delta and of her own family history both serve to help make sense of what happened and how it's currently dealt with (or not). The necessary subjugation of self to society in small farming communities, the ferocious turning on intellectuals, the decision to show the shape of history but blur its details, it's all part of a repeating pattern and structure which the novelty of today's factory girls is poured into. New material, same mould.

Passages which stood out for me:

My assumptions had come from studies of Chinese migrant workers done in the mid-1990s; almost a decade later, this world had utterly changed, but things were happening too quickly to be written down.

(on the relationship between locals in political power, and the migrants): We already disliked each other. In the middle of the interview, I looked over at the assistant and he stared blankly back at me. The young woman next to him had fallen asleep. The phrase mutual contempt popped into my mind. The interview was useful: Without seeing for myself, I never would have believed how completely the government ignored the migrants.

Another high-speed negotiating tactic was to offer to take a passenger partway to his destination for a smaller fare; drivers were such short-term thinkers that they would rather earn less money but get paid sooner.

Chinese history museums are troubled places. Ancient civilization was great, or so the official narrative went, but it was feudal and backward. Modern China was ravaged by foreigners, but the Chinese people were heroic in humiliation and defeat. China stood up in 1949 when the Communists came to power, but there were other years since—1957, 1966, and 1989 in particular—that went prominently unmentioned. Everything that was jumbled and incoherent and better left unsaid must be smoothed into a rational pattern, because the purpose of history from the time of Confucius has been to transmit moral lessons to later generations.

In the seventh century, the emperors of the Tang Dynasty ordered court historians to compose a chronicle of the previous reign. Every dynasty since has written the history of the preceding one, slanting or omitting facts to bolster the ruling regime; since 1949, the Communist Party has done the same, presenting modern history as a heroic struggle to resist the will of foreign powers. But here in Dongguan, the past contained a startlingly different lesson: History was openness, markets, and foreign investment. History began with a handbag factory, and schoolchildren must be indoctrinated in the merits of good infrastructure. The museum guide urged the children to be “civilized spectators,” and the third- and fourth-graders filed into History in ragged lines. Soon the huge lobby was deserted, and I was left alone to ponder the unlikelihood of a Chinese history museum that did not make a single mention of Mao Zedong.

THE STORIES OF MIGRANT WOMEN shared certain features. The arrival in the city was blurry and confused and often involved being tricked in some way. Young women often said they had gone out alone, though in fact they usually traveled with others; they just felt alone. They quickly forgot the names of factories, but certain dates were branded in their minds, like the day they left home or quit a bad factory forever. What a factory actually made was never important; what mattered was the hardship or opportunity that came with working there. The turning point in a migrant’s fortunes always came when she challenged her boss. At the moment she risked everything, she emerged from the crowd and forced the world to see her as an individual.

Women make up more than one-third of China’s migrants. They tend to be younger than their male counterparts and more likely to be single; they travel farther from home and they stay out longer. They are more motivated to improve themselves and more likely to value migration for its life-changing possibilities. In one survey, men cited higher income as the chief purpose of leaving home, while women aspired to “more experience in life.” Unlike men, women had no home to go back to. According to Chinese tradition, a son was expected to return to his parents’ house with his wife after he married; a son would forever have a home in the village where he was born. Daughters, once grown, would never return home to live—until they married, they didn’t belong anywhere. To some extent, this deep-rooted sexism worked in women’s favor. Many rural parents wanted a grown son to stay close to home, perhaps delivering goods or selling vegetables in the towns near the village. Young men with such uninspiring prospects might simply hun—drift—doing odd jobs, smoking and drinking and gambling away their meager earnings. Young women—less treasured, less coddled—could go far from home and make their own plans. Precisely because they mattered less, they were freer to do what they wanted. But it was a precarious advantage. If migration liberated young women from the village, it also dropped them in a no-man’s-land. Most girls in the countryside were married by their early twenties, and a migrant woman who postponed marriage risked closing off that possibility for good. The gender imbalance in Dongguan, where 70 percent of the workforce was said to be female, worked against finding a high-quality mate. And social mobility complicated the search for a husband. Women who had moved up from the assembly line disdained the men back in the village, but city men looked down on them in turn. Migrants called this gaobucheng, dibujiu—unfit for a higher position but unwilling to take a lower one.

The network-sales model was ideally suited to a Chinese society in which traditional morality had broken down and only the harshest rules—trust no one, make money fast—still applied.

“If I only go to school, come out and do migrant work for a few years, then go home, marry and have children,” Min said, “I might as well not have lived this whole life.”

The migrants I knew spent a great deal of time managing their phones—changing numbers constantly to take advantage of cheaper calling plans, and switching phone cards when crossing to another city to save on roaming fees. That was the short-term mentality of Dongguan: Save a few pennies, even if it meant losing touch with some people for good. Migrant workers are a major reason the Chinese mobile-phone market is the world’s largest, yet the industry has mixed feelings about them. Migrants were behind the market’s poor economics, one friend in the telecommunications industry told me; they supposedly drove down prices because they were willing to pay for only the cheapest services. Popular culture also felt their negative impact: The quality of Chinese pop music had deteriorated in recent years, I was also told, because migrants chose the least sophisticated songs for the ring tones of their phones.

Newer migrants have looser ties to their villages. Their trips home are no longer dictated by the farming calendar or even by the timing of traditional holidays like the lunar new year. Instead, younger migrants come and go according to their personal schedules of switching jobs or obtaining leaves, and these are often tied to the demands of the production cycle. It is the seasons of the factory, rather than the fields, that define migrant life now. Migrants increasingly look and act like city people. Migrant magazines launched in the 1990s have folded or are struggling to find readers now. Songs about the migrant experience are no longer heard in the factory cities of the south; the workers on the assembly line now listen to the same pop tunes as urban teenagers.

THE TRADITIONAL CHINESE calendar divides the year into twenty-four segments and gives farming instructions for every two-week interval. The year begins with lichun, the start of spring on February 4 or 5 and the time for spring sowing. The calendar dictates when to plant melons, beans, coarse cereals, beets, and grapes and when to harvest rice, wheat, apples, potatoes, radishes, and cabbage. It predicts heat and heavy rains. It sets the proper time to protect crops from the wind, to kill pests and collect manure, to weed and to irrigate, to fix fences for livestock and to welcome in the new year. The calendar was standardized during the Former Han Dynasty—with regional variations, it has governed the rhythms of life on the farm for two thousand years. The girls at Yue Yuen know nothing of the farming cycle. When they go home, their parents don’t usually want them to work; if they help out in the fields, they suffer sunburns and blisters from the unfamiliar labor. One migrant worker described to me a typical day at home: She kept farmers’ hours with the rest of the family but spent most of her day watching television.

Management introduced Lean Manufacturing to increase efficiency and reduce waste at Yue Yuen. Workers say that while they work shorter hours now, the time on the line is more stressful; tasks are parceled out precisely and there is almost no downtime. Assembly lines have been restructured into small teams so workers can switch tasks every few days, whereas before they might have done the same thing for a month at a time. This makes production more flexible, but it is exhausting for the workers. Also in the name of efficiency, living arrangements have been reshuffled so workers live with their assembly-line colleagues rather than with their friends.

The parents of migrants had terrible instincts. At every stage, they gave bad advice; they specialized in outdated knowledge and conservatism born out of fear. Some initially forbade their children, especially their daughters, from going out at all. But once a migrant got to the city, the parental message shifted dramatically: Send home money, the more the better. Some parents pressured their daughters to marry, though only someone from their home province—which seemed as unreasonable as telling a person living in New York to date only natives of Ohio. On the job front, their advice was invariably bad: They warned against jumping factories, which was usually the best way to get ahead. Migrants learned quickly how to deal with their parents: They disobeyed, they fought, and they lied. They kept their distance; Chunming did not go home during her first three years in the city. The girls were matter-of-fact about such transgressions. “They don’t know how things are outside, so I do something first, and then I tell them about it,” Min said. A new life began the day they arrived in the city, and they would do what they needed to protect it. The past did not matter, and the present was everything. Family was a trap that would pull you backward if you weren’t careful.

Chang attends a class for self-improvement: In the weeks to come, other rules would pile up fast. When pouring tea, the cup should be 70 percent full. Purple eye shadow suits all Asian women. In pursuing success, knowledge contributes 30 percent and interpersonal relations 70 percent. Hold the receiver in your left hand and dial the number with your right. When smiling, the mouth should be opened so that teeth don’t show, the lips flattened with the corners of the mouth slightly upturned. During the noon rest hour, do not lie horizontally on the chair or desk. No action was so elementary that it didn’t require instructions; the class sometimes felt like a crash course for Martians trying to pass as human beings. The heroes from history never varied. Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong led the pack, with Hitler a distant third. He was valued for his eloquence; the Nazi leader was a wonderful speaker. Etiquette, not History. But I noticed something: The students did not fall asleep. They did not look bored. No one ever left to use the bathroom during the two-hour class; they were afraid they might miss something. All their lives, these young women had been taught by teachers and textbooks that struggled to make sense of the modern world. They knew by heart the incoherent mush of rules, self-help, and Confucian exhortation. They took only what they needed, grasping the principal lesson long before I did: If you look and act like someone of a higher class, you will become that person.

Dongguan learning took place in humble settings. Classrooms were bare and dim and plagued by power cuts, and computers so grimy and ancient they looked like archaeological finds. The students were poor and spottily educated, and even their teachers apologized for their heavy rural accents. Almost none of the instructors had a proper degree; many, like Teacher Deng, trailed a string of failed businesses behind them. But for all that, they were revolutionary. In the regular Chinese school system, students did not speak in class; often they did not even take notes until the teacher told them to. They studied a set curriculum determined by a government committee. Teachers pitted students against one another to make them study harder, and the entire system revolved around tests—a test to get into a good middle school, then a good high school, and finally a good college, or any college at all. Like the imperial civil service exam, the educational system was designed to reward the few: Every year, the equivalent of only 11 percent of the freshman-age population entered college. Students who fell off that track were channeled into vocational schools to learn employable skills like machine tool operation and auto repair, but the curriculum was generally so outdated that the schools functioned more like holding pens for the students until they went out to work. China is trying to reform its education system. Some teachers have embraced “quality education,” which emphasizes student creativity and initiative over rote learning. To that end, richer and more progressive schools have introduced electives such as art and music. Making higher education more accessible is another goal: In recent years, the government has sharply expanded college enrollment. But education remains one of the most conservative areas of Chinese society, burdened by hidebound teachers and administrators, political constraints, and a historical obsession with test scores.

The commercial schools in Dongguan belonged to another world. Unburdened by history, they were free to teach what they wanted. They focused unabashedly on practical skills; teachers used material from the Internet or from their own experiences working in factories or companies. They did not pit students against one another and they didn’t give out grades. Since every student was there to improve her own job prospects, class rank was irrelevant. They ignored writing—the cornerstone of traditional scholarship—in favor of public speaking. Knowing how to speak would help the students win a better job, obtain a lower price quote, or sell more of whatever they ended up selling. “We are all in the sales business,” the White-Collar teachers reminded their students again and again. “What are we selling? We are selling ourselves.”

I later learned, not from Teacher Deng but from his students, that the Zhitong school sold fake diplomas. Each one was a small book with a shrink-wrapped plastic cover, like the cheap photo albums some of the girls carried around with them. A counterfeit degree from a vocational college cost sixty yuan—around $7.50—while one from a vocational high school was half that. Formal education was not valued in Dongguan, but until then I had not realized how little it was worth.

I asked him what he thought about the other success studies books sold in China. He hadn’t read a single one. “All the books in China just take their ideas from the outside,” he said. “China really has no original ideas.”

Chunming got a job as a reporter at the China Inspection and Quarantine Times. The newspaper was run by the government agency in charge of import and export inspections, and the nature of her work would have been unrecognizable to any conventional practitioner of journalism. Chunming would decide to write an article about a company; her chosen subject, fearing trouble getting its goods through customs, would pay the paper for positive coverage. The price for good press was determined on a sliding scale, in the same way that advertising rates are set. Two thousand yuan bought a brief mention, while a full-length feature might cost fifty thousand yuan. This was journalism as extortion, and Chunming worked on commission and did well.

Maybe it’s impossible to write the history of a small place in China, because everyone with talent or ambition goes out.

I had met this type of person—every reporter in China has. He was the protester, the petitioner, the person so focused on righting a wrong that the effort consumed his life and cast him into a separate universe where he lived alone.

“This is an economic era,” Zhang Hong’s son had told him, “and the Party cares only about business. Your problem is political. If you’re looking to the Party for an answer, you will never get it.”

In 1978, the Communist Party set up commissions to review and rehabilitate hundreds of thousands of victims from two decades of political campaigns. In the Party’s judgment, the Anti-Rightist movement had been “unnecessarily broad,” with many people “mistakenly” labeled Rightists. This followed the piecemeal approach to history laid out by Deng Xiaoping, allowing the reversal of individual verdicts without addressing whether the movement itself had been wrong. But the numbers said otherwise. Across China, more than half a million people had been named Rightists—all but ninety-six, it was eventually decided, had been labeled by mistake.

And, finally, insight into drivers: Driver’s licenses were another racket: Aspiring drivers had to take fifty hours of classes at government-affiliated schools, but on test day they still had to bribe their examiners. “In each car there are four people taking the test,” a factory executive explained to me, “and if one person doesn’t give money, all four may fail.” It was far easier to buy a fake license, as Chunming had done years ago. She had taken a few lessons since—“I know how to drive forward”—and she figured that one day she would learn the rest of what she needed to know. “Driving is not hard,” she informed me. “The key is not to get angry at other people.”

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