Factory Girls: From Village To City In A Changing China, by Leslie T. Chang

Factory Girls: From Village To City In A Changing China is one of the most interesting books I have ever read about China. Contrary to what the title might suggest, this is not simply a book about China’s working class, the engine of the most astounding industrial revolution in history. It is also an insightful, profound depiction of Chinese society as a whole.

Chinese-American journalist Leslie T. Chang, a former Wall Street Journal correspondent, shows the vitality, energy and dynamism of this nation of 1.3 billion people which is emerging from a century of unrest and chaos, of uncertainties, hopes, revolutions, and immense human suffering. Leslie T. Chang is herself the descendant of a Chinese family that fled first to Taiwan and then to the United States, following the Communist takeover of mainland China. 

The author interweaves two different threads into her book: on the one hand, there is the China of today, with its breathtaking economic development; on the other, there  is the China of the past, of Chang’s own ancestors, who struggled to survive in a chaotic, impoverished China marred by wars and revolutions. 

The book begins in China’s modern industrial regions, in the new metropolises that within a few decades have materialised out of nowhere, propelled from the gloominess of the Soviet-style command economy to the unrelenting, incessant bustle of the global industrial age. The writer spends months together with the people whose lives have been shaped and whose actions are shaping this fast-changing world: the migrant workers, the common people who have moved to the big cities in order to make a living, and who are at once caught up in the spiral of social competition. 

Ms Chang does not reproduce the cliches that present these workers as innocent victims of an evil capitalist system of exploitation. She rather shows the other side of the story: she portrays these women as young and ambitious individuals who voluntarily and willingly choose to leave the countryside in search of better life, and who want to climb up the social ladder to become something more than simple factory workers.   
Chang’s journey starts in the city of Dongguan, in Guangdong Province, an impressive industrial hub that produces goods for the whole globe:

The best way to understand the city of Dongguan is to walk it. Bank headquarters of mirrored glass tower over street-side shops selling motorcycle parts and plastic pipes and dental services. Roads are ten lanes wide, high-speed highways in place of city streets. Migrants walk along the shoulders carrying suitcases or bedding, while buses and trucks bear down from behind. Everywhere is construction and motion, jackhammers and motorcycles, drills and dust; at street level the noise is deafening. The roads are wide and well paved but there are no pedestrian lights or crosswalks. This is a city built for machines, not people.

The city is divided into thirty-two towns, and each one specializes in manufacturing. Chang’an produces electronic components, Dalang is famous for sweaters, and Houjie makes shoes. Samsung and Pioneer operate plants in Liaobu; Nancheng is home to the world’s largest Nokia mobile-phone factory. All the Nescafé instant coffee that is drunk in China is processed at a plant in downtown Dongguan. Factories are the bus stops and the monuments and the landmarks, and everything exists to serve them.

In this new giant city, Chang meets common migrant workers who came from the backward countryside to make their fortune in the urban centres. The method used by the author could be described as ‘anthropological’; she makes friends with them, interacts and talks with them, and thus she gains a deep insight into their lives and their social environment. 

The lives of the migrants are in a constant flux – they incessantly switch jobs, make new friends and soon lose them, find boyfriends, upgrade their skills, compete with millions of other migrants, cheat and are cheated. It is a life full of challenges, opportunities and insecurity. 

On the other hand, the migrants are not entirely uprooted. Old Chinese values are still alive, though they are adjusted to the new circumstances. The story of a young factory worker, Chunming, shows the complexity of the relationship between the past and the present:

Even as Chunming plotted her rise in the factory world, in her letters home she struggled to be a good traditional daughter. 

Mother, I have knit you a sweater . . . If I weren’t knitting a sweater, I could have used this day to read so many books. But Mother, sometimes I think: I would rather be Mother’s obedient daughter, a filial daughter, and even throw away those books I want so much to read. Mother, I have knit my love for you into this sweater . . . Mother, remember when I was still at home, you always said other people’s daughters knew how to knit sweaters but that I lacked perseverance. But today, do you see that your daughter also knows how to knit?

Remember, your daughter will never be dumber than other people!  

The expectations of family weighed on her. Young women from the countryside felt particular pressure from home. If they didn’t progress quickly, their parents would urge them to return home to marry.  

I finally got a letter from home . . . Other than Father, who else can write me a letter? Mother did not include even a single line to tell me that she misses me . . . In the last letter, she added on a line telling me not to find a boyfriend outside. Although it was only one line, it made me happy, as if Mother were at my side teaching me.

Social relations and hierarchies also reflect these apparent contradictions between the old and the new. Gender roles and family values shape the working environment as well as the individual choices of the people in Dongguan:

Inside a Dongguan factory, the sexes were sharply divided. Women worked as clerks and in human resources and sales, and they held most of the jobs on the assembly line; the bosses felt that young women were more diligent and easier to manage. Men monopolized technical jobs like mold design and machine repair. They generally held the top positions in the factory but also the dead-end occupations at the bottom: security guards, cooks, and drivers. Outside the factory, women were waitresses, nannies, hairdressers, and prostitutes. Men worked on construction sites. 

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.

The second thread of the book, the family saga centred on Chang’s own father’s and grandfather’s generation, is not less intriguing. Her stay in China becomes for the author a long-awaited opportunity to rediscover the drama of her family which had been eclipsed by the momentous events that followed the end of the Second World War and then the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists. In her family, the past was never a topic worth discussing. Her journey in Dongguan thus becomes the chance to search for the lost past:

Almost a hundred years ago, my grandfather had been a migrant too. He had left his village, changed his name, and tried to remake himself for the modern age. In his youth, China was emerging from a long, self-imposed isolation to rejoin the world—and so it is again today. My grandfather left home for good when he was sixteen years old—although he probably did not know it then, just as today’s migrants might not know it now. Chuqu, to go out: This is how the story of my family also begins…  

When I was growing up in America, my parents rarely talked about the past. There is a mode of exile that dwells on everything that was lost—the twilit boulevards of the capital city, the large house and the servants, the shaded garden with the persimmon trees where we will return one day when the regime falls and we reclaim what is rightfully ours. But the Chinese who fled the Communists seldom indulged in such reveries. Their way was to move forward and make a new life; to linger on loss was pointless. The migrants and immigrants I have known have shared this pragmatism, which seems so deeply ingrained in the Chinese character. The present is everything, and the past recedes.

In Factory Girls, Leslie T. Chang depicts is a world of bitter social struggles, of old values coexisting with new ways of life, of conflicts and tensions, of hierarchies and gender roles, of ambition, deception and greed. In many respects, it is a cruel, volatile world. In the end, it is a negative, gloomy narration of Chinese society. But it is one of the most incisive, lively, and well-written chronicles of the immense social change China is experiencing. 

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