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Warren I. Cohen on China’s ‘Factory Girls’

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Posted on Dec 5, 2008

By Warren I. Cohen

Many years ago, a Fulbright lecturer visited my graduate class at National Taiwan University and asked my students why they studied history. They each responded with variations on the theme that their studies would enable them to serve China. Bemused, the visitor told the class he studied history because he enjoyed it. The response was outrage: my students contended that his motive was frivolous. Maybe “you Americans” could take classes for the fun of it. “We Chinese” would never study anything if it would not help our country. 

      Leslie Chang’s grandfather came to America in 1920 with precisely the same goal.  Contrary to his father’s instructions to seek a degree in literature, inviting his father’s wrath, he chose to become a mining engineer, his perception of what his country needed most.

      But Chang’s subjects in “Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China” are far less interested in serving China than they are in improving their lives—earning more money, getting bigger apartments—and taller boyfriends. The thread that runs through her account is the revolution occurring in Chinese culture, as young women with money in their pockets reject the values of the village, challenge the authority of their parents and revel in their new freedom.


book cover


Factory Girls


By Leslie T. Chang


Spiegel & Grau, 432 pages


Buy the book


Chang, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal, spent several years examining the lives of young Chinese women who migrate from the countryside to Dongguan, a factory town in the Pearl River Delta, not far from Guangzhou and Shenzhen. The factories there produce an extraordinary range of goods, primarily for export. Seven million or more migrant workers turn out plastic parts for most everything, toys for Hasbro and Mattel, luxury handbags for Coach, and an enormous percentage of the world’s athletic shoes. Most of the latter are manufactured by Yue Yuen, a Taiwanese-owned plant that employs 70,000 workers and contains its own kindergarten, hospital, and fire department, as well as its own criminal gangs. Dongguan also appears to be a center for prostitution, with some of the brothels disguised as karaoke bars where attractive and better-educated women find the work more appealing than joining an assembly line. 

Working conditions in the factories are generally brutal, comparable to the worst found in the West in the 19th century. Yue Yuen is noted for paying its workers on time, despite the poor reputation of Taiwanese-run businesses. Many of the firms consistently cheat the workers out of their salaries and they have little if any legal recourse. To the extent that local officials get involved, it is to collude with the factory owners and managers. Seeking payoffs, not justice, is their purpose. Chang observes tartly that in Dongguan, government service is an alternative route to profiting from the market economy. The workers join the culture of corruption by lying about their job qualifications, stealing merchandise and taking kick-backs if they are able to move up to more responsible positions. It’s a Chinese variation of the old Soviet adage: “You pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.”

“Factory Girls” contains two interwoven tales. The primary story is of the women of Dongguan, two in particular—the conditions in which they live and work, their aspirations, how they are changed by their experiences, and what these changes mean for China. Scattered through the narrative is the story of Chang’s own family, the Zhangs of Manchuria.

      Born in the United States, majoring in college in American studies, deciding to begin her career in Prague, Chang was determined not to seek her roots in China.  For 12 years after she began working there, she chose not to look for relatives or to visit her ancestral village. Eventually, perceiving that the grandfather who studied in the United States, became a Chinese government official, and was murdered by the Communists in January 1946, was also a migrant of sorts, she tried to piece together the modern history of the Zhangs. It’s a familiar story of the suffering of those who stayed to build the “New China”—and endured the torments of Mao’s utopian vision—contrasted with the successes of those who migrated, first to Taiwan and then on to the United States. Interesting, sad, but ultimately not as compelling as the story of her factory girls.

One of two women upon whom Chang focuses is “Min,” who is constantly jumping from one factory job to another in an effort to improve her working conditions and salary.  Dongguan has a talent market where Min and others attempt to sell themselves to prospective employers, never scrupling to lie about their experience or qualifications. Forged diplomas are readily available, but degrees are of little importance in the factories, as long as one can do the work required.

      On one occasion, Chang travels with Min back to her home for the Lunar New Year. Min’s family home is primitive, without plumbing or much space. The women sleep together in one bed, head-to-toe. Min’s parents—and apparently the parents of most factory girls—seem to ask two things of their daughters. They want them to marry local husbands, from the same province at minimum, preferably from the same county. And they want money. Chang contends that parents see migrant workers as cash machines. But Min and her older sister see no reason to be responsive to parental pressures. Angering her mother, her older sister goes off with a man from a different province. When Min’s father complains that other girls send home more money, her retort is that other fathers go to work to earn what they need. This is not the traditional Chinese village that we all studied back in the last century.

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By Evelyn, December 7, 2008 at 8:08 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The values that now dominate in the West do not arise form anything in our cultural heritage. They are the result of industrialization and urbanization. China is also becoming industrial and urban, which is the inevitable result of the need for manufactured products in a world market. It happened in England, in Europe, later in the United States, then in Japan and Korea, and it is happening in China. Some day it will move to Africa. Urban industrial life is harsh, but so too is farm labor and a peasant economy. Given a choice, those who know both best, such as the young women of China today, usually make a free choice to endure the worst of sweat shop life over life on the farm, as did the girls of New England in the early 1800s.

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By martin weiss, December 5, 2008 at 11:22 pm Link to this comment

Just when the west has begun to see the end of viable industrial society and the foreshortened limits of wealth, China and India are entering the course of capitalist hazards and broken dreams.
Now we here in the US can clearly see the depredations of market values on our society, China must scale back its ambitions to preserve its future, and look elsewhere for its models.
Role reversal and cognitive dissonance strike when one least expects. Free women finding enduring values outside of labor-saving devices and investments define roles only R. Crumb, Stephen Delaney and Phillip K. Dick could have imagined.
Confucius would be amused that the sustainable China acquires wider responsibilities with its wider horizons. The Maoist cadre has left the building and Rachel Carson and Kate Hepburn are sympathizing with the social pressures that once confined their feet to distortion. Now the once imitative Oriental cultures shine with ancient design, and Eric Burden and the Animals big hit enjoying new recognition is “The Teahouse of the Rising Sun”.
Fortunately, the human condition still displays the reliance on communication that has set us apart from the merely ferocious. And just when China got its steel mills competitive, steel has become an embarrassment of riches.

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By Ipsi Dixit, December 5, 2008 at 10:11 am Link to this comment


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