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

Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang
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Dec 11, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: china
Read in December, 2012

Author Leslie Chang explores the lives and attitudes of a handful of young Chinese women who have migrated from rural villages in the interior of the country to work in urban factories near the coast. A second, minor thread recounts Chang's own family's migrations. It's not initially clear how that second story relates to the first, but it gradually appears that Chang intends it as a counterweight to the essentially history-less lives of her subjects. By the end, she balances a cousin whose life has been largely destroyed by his obsession with family history against the migrants' deracinated senses of self. The comparison shows how losing one's roots can constitute a kind of freedom for migrants, a conclusion reinforced by Chang's descriptions of smothering village life.

I was particularly impressed with Chang's writing, which is accessible but smart, loaded with nuance and insights. The book is thoughtful and stimulating, and conveys with telling details what life is like for migrants, both in the factories and back at home in the village. At the same time, it's depressing: the rapidly growing cities have a deeply amoral culture, in which workers lie to obtain jobs for which they are totally unqualified, steal from their employers, extort kickbacks from business partners, and spend much of their time feeling lonely. While Chang largely avoids judging her friends, I felt a consistent note of sadness at the ways in which the migrants' hopes for themselves, and capacity for empathy for others, were repeatedly undercut by the realities of their lives. The world Chang sketches seems profoundly alienating, and I wonder how it compares to the culture of American cities in the 1800s, during the era of great migrations and industrial revolutions there.
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