Every Woman for Herself

Against the Current, No. 144, January/February 2010

Jane Slaughter

Factory Girls
From Village to City in a Changing China
By Leslie T. Chang
Spiegel and Grau 2008, Random House paperback edition 2009, 448 pages, $16.

FACTORY GIRLS SHOWS the reader what it’s like to live inside the largest human migration in history. It feels, apparently, pretty lonely. Leslie Chang’s subjects are the young women who’ve left tiny farms throughout China for a chance at making money in the big city. Their lesson and mantra is that each person can depend only on herself. “The easiest thing in the world was to lose touch with someone,” Chang notes.

 As I read Chang’s portraits of the Pearl River Delta’s factory girls, I felt that she was describing people I knew. This was silly, because the girls and boys I knew when I lived in the Delta for a semester in 2007 were all university students, and at an elite university, at that. (I heard over and over that Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou was “the best in South China” or “the tenth best in China.”) How could these science majors, all destined, eventually, to become Party members by virtue of their Ph.D.’s, remind me so strikingly of Chang’s undereducated teenagers straight off the farm?

The girls Chang grew to know best were strivers. They “went out” (chuqu) because there was nothing to do at home; they jumped from one factory to another on a whim; they lied in order to get jobs they weren’t qualified for; they joined dating clubs; they took English classes. Like most of the graduate students I taught, they were obsessed with getting ahead.

If Chang’s many interviews and her long-term friendships and my own experience are evidence, China’s Communist past has left little or no imprint on the mindset of today’s twenty-somethings. Marxist theory is still a required class at all levels of schooling, even through graduate school, and it is universally boring, resented and tolerated. China’s 5,000-year tradition of family loyalty and the folk ways of the countryside have more apparent salience today than do notions of collective uplift — and those too are being eroded by the migrant experience.

Chang’s contacts worried about finding tall boyfriends and about making money to send home so that their parents could buy appliances; my students wanted a job with health insurance. In neither the university nor the factory is there a sense that a class might rise together or that a person could depend on society for security.

When Factory Girls was published in 2008, China had 130 million internal migrant workers.  That number, according to Chang, is three times as many as the Europeans who emigrated to America over a century. Since then, at least 20 million migrant workers have lost their jobs in the worldwide recession. Most probably have homes to go back to, with their parents or with siblings who didn’t go out. But a constant theme of Chang’s book, though she doesn’t quote the World War I song, is “how you gonna keep ’em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Guangzhou?”

Chang befriended Lu Min, a teenager who worked in a 5,000-worker handbag factory, and was invited to go home with her to Hubei province for a lunar new year visit. There she saw Min on a “campaign to civilize her family” — closing windows, lecturing her father for smoking, telling her younger siblings not to throw trash on the floor, buying a hot-water dispenser.

There was no plumbing or heating in the house, built in 1986; the family wore their coats and gloves indoors.

Min made a shopping trip to the nearest city, an hour away by bus, and returned disappointed. “This city is no good,” she said. “It’s not as developed as the places outside.” “On her second day home, “Chang writes, “she had already figured out the most important thing: how to get out again.”

Migration There and Here

Comparisons with the 19th century Yankee girls of the New England mill towns are frequent and inevitable. Young women move from the farm to the city, live communally (in dorms), work long hours — and get out from under Dad’s thumb. Independent in the city, Chang’s friends defy their parents’ wishes that they marry someone from their home province, that they stick to one factory instead of jumping from one to the next. Chang reports that parents’ initial fears about their daughters’ moving so far away are quickly assuaged when the first remittance money arrives home.

American-born Chang, a former correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, also includes chapters on her own family’s history in China. Her grandfather was a mining engineer who graduated from the Michigan College of Mines in 1925 — he too had gone out, and Chang sees migration as the touchstone of the Chinese experience.

He was assigned by the post-World War II government to oversee the return of a huge Manchurian coal mine from the Japanese. The Communists were then strong in Manchuria, and they wanted control of the mine too. The way Chang’s family tells the story, Zhang Chun’en and his engineer colleagues were taken off a train and bayoneted by Communist soldiers.

Photographs of Chang’s grandfather’s corpse were widely disseminated by the anti-Communist government. His blood-stained clothes were hung in a temple in Shenyang, a friend wrote in his memoirs, “in order to strengthen [people’s] feelings of bitter hatred for the enemy.”  When news of his assassination spread in February 1946, student demonstrations in major cities demanded that Soviet troops leave Manchuria.

As it became clearer that Mao’s troops would win, Chang’s grandmother managed to get her family to Taiwan, from whence most continued east to America. But once in the United States, her father shut down, preferring not to talk about China, and Chang continued the pattern.

Unlike some exiles — Cuban Americans come to mind  — Chinese immigrants don’t dwell in memories of what was lost. Chang sees them as pragmatic: “the present is everything, and the past recedes.” It took a long time for her to overcome her reluctance to research her family’s history.

The closest Chang comes to a conclusion is to say that perhaps China “had to go so terribly wrong,” the Communist experiment, “so that people could start over” — the capitalist “reform” era  of today — “this time pursuing their individual courses and casting aside the weight of family, history, and the nation.”

 The fact that factory girls, by the millions, can now make personal attempts to change their fate trumps the “materialism, the corruption, the coarseness of [the migrants’] daily existence.”  So capitalism is ugly, but we’re told there’s no alternative; perhaps Chang’s friends can succeed in it through hard work.

This salute to individualism doesn’t keep the book from being thoroughly eye-opening and entertaining; Chang is an excellent writer with an ear for dialogue and telling detail. Though we learn little of life on the assembly line itself, readers get a feeling for how young women negotiate a city of anomie, ambition and exploitation, and how quickly the old ways are broken or forgotten when parents’ authority is removed.

ATC 144, January-February 2010