The National Catholic Review
Peter Heinegg

The largest migration in human history has nothing to do with barbarian tribes, the slave trade or Ellis Island. It is the movement of 130 million Chinese who, starting in the late 1970s, have poured out of rural China into the cities. No one person could adequately analyze or summarize this tremendous, ongoing sociocultural transformation; but by closely studying the lives of some of its young female participants, the former Wall Street Journal Beijing correspondent Leslie Chang has given outsiders an illuminating picture of something very much like terra incognita. Born in the United States but fluent in Mandarin, Chang inevitably wound up exploring her own roots as she recorded the experiences of Lu Qingmin, Wu Chunming and others who were drawn or driven to chuqu, “go out,” from tiny traditional villages to seek their fortune in sprawling, soulless agglomerations like Dongguan.

Dongguan, in the Pearl River Delta north of Hong Kong, has anywhere from seven to ten million inhabitants, 70 percent of whom are women. For a minimum wage of $50 to $80 a month (though many get less) the “factory girls” toil 10 to 13 hours a day, six days (sometimes seven) a week, making clothing, toys, shoes and electronic products, eating in the company cafeteria and sleeping in jammed rooms with a dozen or more co-workers. As with previous generations from Manchester, England, to Lowell, Mass., the willingness of these women to endure such hardships—wretched, possibly poisonous working conditions, no health insurance, loneliness, mistreatment by predatory males—provides a powerful measure of just how intolerable they found life down on the farm.

If nothing else, places like Dongguan offer job mobility. Though they may have to sacrifice their compulsory deposit of the first two months’ salary as the price of escaping, the girls can jump to and from making or selling industrial molds, paint, computer parts, Coach bags, sneakers, plastic Christmas trees or anything else in the cut-rate cornucopia destined for the shelves of Wal-Mart. With luck they can save some money, acquire new skills, impress the boss, learn a little English, meet a reliable boyfriend (almost no one talks about love or romance) and, in the best American-dream fashion, enjoy more freedom and affluence than their parents ever knew.

All of which naturally comes at a cost. The basic rule for survival on the factory floor in Dongguan (or nearby Guangzhou or Shenzhen) is: Trust no one but yourself. Friends are rare, colleagues come and go. Since everyone’s address is constantly changing, your only long-term link with people is your cell phone. Lose that or have it stolen, and you are incommunicado. As for male companions, the ideal but hard to find candidates are unattached go-getters who have their own apartments and are 5’7” or taller. Personality and looks are a plus. The girls will eventually marry, but no time soon. Meanwhile they have constant hassles with their parents, who want sons-in-law from nearby towns, lest they be separated from their daughters—who traditionally would move in with the family of the groom.

But that was then, before the urban explosion and the overturning of the Confucian apple cart. Once doubly inferior, as young and female, the factory girls now typically earn far more than their parents, to whom they mail home substantial chunks of their wages and thus gain higher status than their elders. Along with Confucius, John Stuart Mill, who loved to cite China as the supreme example of the “despotism of Custom,” would be spinning in his grave.

Culturally and intellectually speaking, Chang’s girls are impoverished. Their education has been beyond shoddy. They have no politics or sense of history. They read, if anything, Chinese knock-offs of American self-help manuals. (Of course, before Communism they would have been illiterate.) They are materialistic and banally pragmatic to a fault. They have exchanged Buddhism for self-boosterism.

But while Chang will gently laugh at them, she is still on their side. Exhausting and deprived as it is, their world looks more humane than the decades-long nightmare of Mao & Co.—a subject on which Chang is especially eloquent. Her grandfather studied engineering for eight years in the United States before returning to help his people, only to be bayonetted to death by Communist guards in 1946 while tending to the country’s largest coal mine. Another relative was harassed into committing suicide during the Cultural Revolution; and yet others, defamed as “Rightists,” lost their jobs and were condemned to years of meaningless drudgery in the remote countryside.

Chang goes on pilgrimage to various sites of her family’s suffering and speaks and compares notes with the few remaining survivors. Inevitably she sees a parallel between her parents, who escaped to the United States via Taiwan, and the factory girls who have embarked on similar, if less perilous and promising, journeys. Among other things, they all share an extraordinary toughness, resiliency, openness and hunger for opportunity.

Given this impossibly vast canvas, Chang has had to leave a number of spaces blank. The ubiquity of syphilis and gonorrhea clinics in Dongguan suggests a huge, grim underworld of sex slavery; but she only shows us one upscale brothel (the Silverworld “Hotel”), where the prostitutes are far better paid and cared for than their oppressed proletarian sisters. As Chang’s many vivid snapshots of the factory girls’ trials and adventures provide little sense of their earlier and later lives, this book cries out for a follow-up. And, speaking of snapshots, alas, we have no photos of Chang’s spunky informants or their gritty, grungy, sardine-can environment. Next time around, Chang might want to contact a good undercover documentary filmmaker.

In any event, her report is a brilliant one: sharp-eyed, sensitive, independent, alert to the parade of ironies and absurdities around her (who knew that Dale Carnegie was a philosopher king in today’s China? That some factories have Hula Hoop clubs for their employees? That “information exchange” is Chinese for “speed-dating”?). Chang was uniquely equipped to tell this crucial story; and she has nailed it.

 

 

 

 

Peter Heinegg, a frequent reviewer, is professor of English at Union College, Schenectady, N.Y.