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Chang, Leslie T. Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2009.

This is a really good book. I had some quibbles (I always have quibbles, seriously), but all in all Chang has done a remarkable job of telling the stories she found rather than the story she wanted to write, and Factory Girls resonates accordingly.

To wit, in this book Chang, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal who is married to the writer Peter Hessert, explores the lives of migrant workers in China, mostly in and around the southern city of Dongguan, where (among many other things) 2/3 of all the world's running shoes are made. Migrant workers in China are overwhelmingly young and female, girls from the villages with varying levels of education whose only real option for economic advancement is moving to the cities to work. There are 130 million migrant workers in China, the largest migration in human history according to the back cover.

Chang lived in Dongguan herself for extended periods, and followed two workers, Wu Chunming and Lu Qingmin, particularly closely. By tracing the frenetic courses of their lives Chang is able to elucidate and explain the migrant experience in China, which is also, in many ways, an experience of liberation and of burgeoning individuality. I tend to distrust the "[Asian society X] is collectivist" truism, not because it's entirely untrue but because I think it gets used as an all-purpose explanation, an a priori justification, a bit too often, but in tracing the cleavages between traditional values and modern economic pressures and impetuses Chang does a good job of neither over- nor downplaying the importance of both.

This is a popular rather than an academic book (as Chang's repeated swipes at academic studies of migration from the 90s make clear, hah), and one of the ways in which this is most readily apparent is in Chang's decision to include her own family history in the book: her grandfather was a KMT official murdered by parties unknown in 1946 when the KMT and the Communists were slowly edging back into civil war, and her immediate family decamped with the Nationalist government to Taiwan just ahead of the Communist advance on Beijing. All but one of her grandfather's children eventually moved to the States. There are more than a few similarities between her family's movements out from inner China in the 17th century to Taiwan to America and the migrant experience, and I thought both complemented each other fairly well, particularly when Chang went back to her family village in the northeast (aka Manchuria). But I do have to take issue with her characterization of Manchuria in the early Qing period as "primeval forest" and "virgin territory." In point of fact there were any number of indigenous tribes living in the region, the Oroqen springing most readily to mind, and many of them are still there, though many are gone. But Manchuria in the 17thC was no more virgin forest than was North America in 1491.

I tend to read these books against my own very limited experience in China (two trips totaling three weeks in 2007, Shanghai and Beijing), to make sense of and to augment the same, and as a woman in China Chang's experience strikes a lot closer to my memories of the country than, say, a book like John Pomfret's Chinese Lessons, which one of my classmates in undergrad summarized as "I'm hot and Asian women want me!" This characterization is perhaps a bit unfair, but it's illuminating to realize just how elite Pomfret's classmates in Beijing were, and to compare them with the mostly ignored, marginalized and politically disconnected migrants with whom Chang socializes. Anyway, a really good book, and beautifully written.

Chang wrote about writing the book here on The China Beat (which is a great blog, incidentally).
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