June 19, 2013
Warren I. Cohen on China’s ‘Factory Girls’
Posted on Dec 5, 2008
Chang’s other principal subject is Chunming, older than Min, and intent upon self-improvement, as are many of the factory girls. In what little time they have after work, many take English classes, usually taught by charlatans. Others attend lectures by motivational speakers who tell them how to become rich by direct sales of items such as cosmetics, Tibetan medicines or “soul pagodas”—spaces where a loved one’s ashes can be deposited after cremation. Some of these turn out to be pyramid schemes.
One of Chang’s most fascinating observations has to do with the importance of the mobile phone to her factory girls. It is the only means of contact for what is essentially a floating population. Most of the women live in dormitories, but move from one to another as they change jobs. They can find each other again—and their boyfriends—by calling them on their mobile phones. At one point, Min’s phone was stolen and with it all the contact information she had for everyone she had met in Dongguan. She had little choice but to begin her social life all over again.
Another point Chang notes is the sexual freedom her young women enjoyed. The Internet seemed to be the favorite vehicle for arranging dates, with both parties usually lying about vital statistics—and the men often about marital status. Sometimes they posted doctored photos. None of this would be unusual in the United States or Europe, but sleeping with multiple partners was not something life in the village had allowed. Dongguan permitted its residents a degree of privacy, at least for those who had succeeded in leaving the dormitories for their own apartments, however grim these may have been.
Finally there is the absence of Mao. It’s not likely that many factory girls turn to Ben Franklin for guidance, but there’s no indication that any of them are carrying around Mao’s “Little Red Book.” Communism as ideology is absent from Dongguan, from its museum and from its conversation. Indeed, the young women demonstrate remarkable political ignorance and indifference, often unaware of who China’s current leaders are—and not caring.
Chang’s subtitle conveys the meaning of her story. The migrants, more than 100 million nationwide, are changing China. Unmoored by their travels from the village to the city, they leave traditional values behind. Returning to their homes for the Lunar New Year, they find village life stifling and their behavior and rhetoric leaves their families discomforted and unsettled.
Much of this experience will be familiar to students of urbanization all over the world: “You can’t go home again.” What remains to be seen is what impact the current recession, with tens of thousands of Pearl River Delta workers being laid off, will have on the structure of Chinese society. The factory girls of Dongguan, unlike previous generations of Chinese women, seem most unlikely to just sit around and chi ku (eat bitterness).
Warren I. Cohen, professor emeritus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and senior scholar in the Asia program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, is the author of several books, including “America’s Response to China,” the fifth edition of which will be published by Columbia University Press next year.
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