Recently, I read Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie T. Chang, originally published in 2008 by Penguin Random House. Chang, a journalist by trade, immersed herself in Chinese society in the mid-2000s, as the rise of industry and manufacturing brought along new challenges. As a Chinese-American, Chang’s multi-year journey’s purpose was two-fold: 1) to trace and connect with her family history and 2) to catalogue the dynamics of young women’s lives in China. This is a work of non-fiction, borrowing both from Chang’s journalistic training, academic research, and her own observations while getting to know herself and those around her. Importantly, this book allows for readers of all sorts to get to know modern China — you do not need any prior knowledge to grasp the concepts, as it is written accessibly.
A book of global significance, it demonstrates how the movement from rural villages to cities is remaking individual lives and the fates of families, transforming our world much as immigration to America’s shores remade our own society a century ago.
Why is any of this important in 2020? Simply, this book shows the human side of the migrant workers in China. I am sure that many people are aware of “made in China” label; when you think of workers in China, what do you conjure up in your mind? What do you know about where our products come from? This book is not really an expose about the factory conditions or labor rights. Instead, I found it more to be an exploration of the people within them, how industrial cities like Shenzhen and Dongguan brought forward new opportunities and challenges for Chinese workers, social/cultural implications of a changing China, and so much more, all crammed into a huge book! Even ten years later, there is something to be gained from thinking about these changes, as they are starting to really come to the forefront in Chinese politics and foreign relations.
This book has received its praise for bringing attention to the role of gender in changing China. Chang meets two young women who moved to the cities from rural villages in China. Their experiences are similar to that of thousands of other migrant workers — factory work, saving up money, dealing with pressures to marry or earn, loneliness and friendships. Chang developed a long-term relationship with these two women, who also allowed access to diaries, texts, and private thoughts; as a result, the book follows these two women in conjunction with Chang’s academic research and her search for familial history.
The book is split into two parts: The City and The Village. Chang presented central themes studying gender roles, education, class divide, urban-rural divide, and social and economic mobility. Within this context, Chang also included a substantial chapter dedicated to her own familial background in China. Ultimately, the portrayal of these migrant lives repeatedly drives home an overarching theme regarding shifts in modern China in relation to labor. These young women were given the opportunity to move from rural villages to expanding cities, meet many new people, experience both negatives and positives of urban life, and earn and spend more money than they could have in their hometowns.
Here is a YouTube video that does a great job of discussing this book from the POV of the author: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GIE8LahWO5g
She also has a TedTalk here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bc2wVyl8RLI
This book covers A LOT of concepts and themes. There is so much you could talk about; you could probably fill another few pages just thinking about gender alone. I think that I took away two major, overarching themes of economic and social implications of labor in modern China. Within these themes, there are several subsidiary concepts that are critically important to the point of writing this sort of book: education, gender, isolation, physical/mental health, religion, relationships, corruption/crime, and so much more. What makes this particular book unique was its methodology and ethnographic approach.
The book is not really about the politics of China. That is unique in itself, when considering most Western research published in the area. However, while it does of course relate directly to politics (what doesn’t, nowadays?), labor is the central theme critically assessed. The young women Chang followed chase economic opportunities from factory to factory, they look for new classes or skills training. Their relationship with their hometown villages changes after life in the cities, as they are introduced to new technologies and lifestyles — not to mention they now have economic opportunity to make spending money (and there is something to spend it on!). While it’s not always a rags-to-riches or rosy life view, this book attempted to show the human side of migrant work and how it impacted women in particular. This also includes the shifts in traditional Confucian values which influenced women’s roles in society, as well as the new opportunities allowed from making money and seeking education.
Of course, I do not have enough room to tell you the whole story, but Chang does. One critique that I have about this book is one that seems to be shared among numerous other readers: I think that the family history is out of place in the discussion and way too long. It’s nice that she was able to achieve this and found it useful, but I do not think it forwards the story in any meaningful way. Without it, the book would be the same, albeit significantly shorter. Also, just an irk I have… the book is a bit disorganized, but all in all, it does its job.
One good point I’d like to drive home: even though it’s been some time since this book was published, you’ll see this title on top 10 lists for politics or IR, Chinese or cultural studies. It’s a great piece, and even if you don’t have a background on China, you can follow this book just as well. It can even be a primer across several different aspects. Just do not expect a whole deep dive into history or politics, there’s other books for that when you get your grounding.
Rating: 3 stars.