New Masters, New Servants: Migration, Development, and Women Workers in China

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On March 9, 1996, tens of thousands of readers of a daily newspaper in China's Anhui province saw a photograph of two young women at a local long-distance bus station. Dressed in fashionable new winter coats and carrying luggage printed with Latin letters, the women were returning home from their jobs in one of China's large cities. As the photo caption indicated, the image represented the "transformation of migrant women"; the women's "transformation" was signaled by their status as consumers. New Masters, New Servants is an ethnography of class dynamics and the subject formation of migrant domestic workers. Based on her interviews with young women who migrated from China's Anhui province to the city of Beijing to engage in domestic service for middle-class families, as well as interviews with employers, job placement agencies, and government officials, Yan Hairong explores what these migrant workers mean to the families that hire them, to urban economies, to rural provinces such as Anhui, and to the Chinese state. Above all, Yan focuses on the domestic workers' self-conceptions, desires, and struggles.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822343042
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 11/28/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 328
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

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New Masters, New Servants

Migration, Development, and Women Workers in China
By Yan Hairong

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4304-2

Chapter One


"No Way Out"

It's like going through a reincarnation and you still choose to be human [ren].


If I had to live the life that my mother has lived, I would choose suicide.


Tomorrow, I will be more like a human [ren].


When asked why she has returned to Shenzhen after surviving a blaze that took the lives of sixty-eight of her coworkers in a factory there in 1991, the young woman from Hubei expresses her determination to be ren, literally "human." The blaze has not diminished her resolve. The second woman, Xiazi, adamantly rejects her mother's way of life in the countryside, as it seems to her to be a life so lacking in meaning that it annuls livability altogether. The third young migrant, Xu Xue, resolutely expresses a hope of being more like ren. These young women invoke a meaning of ren that is not inherent within all humans, but is instead achieved through social action. Ren is a possessor of socially validated and meaningful personhood or subjectivity. As personhood is often associated with "culture," I adopt the concept of subjectivity in my analysis because it leads to questions of discourse, power, and history, and it facilitates an examination of a historically specific process of subject formation. In the discursive context of postsocialist development in China, these three statements register a dramatic rejection of the countryside as it is considered a field of death for the modern subjectivity desired by young women, who imagine the spaces of hope for such subjectivity to be somewhere else, in the city. What may appear in these statements to be desperate articulations of desire for a new, modern subjectivity encapsulates the ethos of the widespread longing among rural youth to "see the world" (jian jian shi mian), and the migration of these youth to the city both enables and is enabled by China's post-Mao efforts at "modernization" and accumulation.

Yet one cannot help noting in the women's comments that the imagining of a new, modern subjectivity is coupled with the idea of death, as expressed by the use of the terms reincarnation and suicide, as if violence were its necessary companion. Marx long ago revealed the contradiction inherent in primitive accumulation as simultaneously a process of laborers' emancipation from serfdom and guilds, and a history of expropriation and violence "written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire" (1977: 875). But the unprecedented rural-to-urban migration involving more than a hundred million free laborers, whose labor power has fed the engine of China's post-Mao accumulation since the early 1980s, is not based on the forced expropriation of land, as described by Marx more than a century ago. It is, ironically, based on the distribution of once collectively owned and managed land to individual rural households for production and management. Rural reform-the reapportioning of collective land to individual peasant households as accounting units, known as the "household responsibility system"-was introduced as the first measure of China's post-Mao structural adjustment in the early 1980s. This political economy of land, seemingly opposed to the classical model of primitive accumulation, provided a necessary condition for unfettering the mass of peasant labor power to drive a neoliberal, flexible machine of accumulation. It thus begs the following questions: how does the political economy of post-Mao China generate the conditions for a new carnival of accumulation, with its attendant contradiction of freedom and violence? Why was the countryside in the 1990s often invoked by rural young women as a symbolic field of death compelling them to seek a modern subjectivity elsewhere? Pursuing these questions requires one to link the political economy of development and the processes of subjectivity formation, and to track the discursive conditions and contradictions embedded in the struggles and agonies of subaltern subjectivity.

To capture the epistemic discontinuity in rural women's migration before and after the post-Mao reforms, I compare and analyze two cohorts of rural women migrating in the late Mao era of the 1970s and in the post-Mao era of the 1980s-1990s. Although both cohorts are migrant wage laborers, their experiences have been shaped by two modernization projects that hinge on radically different forms of rural-urban relations. A comparative analysis serves two purposes. First, it seeks to reveal the radical shift in rural-urban relations that has impressed itself on rural young women's subjectivity. Second, it places my analysis in conversation with the anthropological discussion of modernities. The experiences of two cohorts of migrant women illustrate modernities in the plural, not in terms of essentialized cultures to argue for a Chinese brand of modernity, but in terms of historicity to examine the tension and discontinuity in social processes, and thus to offer a critique of the teleology of capitalist modernity that has become hegemonic in China and elsewhere.

My interviews in Wuwei County in 1998 included 104 women in twelve villages in three townships. Eighty-eight women I interviewed had experienced migration, among whom fifty-nine had migrated on their own initiative, the rest having migrated with kin. Thirteen were over forty years of age and had migrated by themselves before and during the 1970s. Seventy-five were between their late teens and early thirties, and had migrated at some point between the mid-1980s and the time of research.

"Rural Women," state, Patriarchy: a small exodus of Rural Women in the 1970s

Wuwei County lies in southeast Anhui Province, north of the Yangtze River, its southern border defined and often threatened by the river. A base for rice and cotton cultivation, Wuwei has 1.34 million mu (1 mu = 0.165 acre) of agricultural land and a rural population of 1.2 million, about 92 percent of its total population. Wuwei was once a base for the Communist New Fourth Army in its resistance against the Japanese during World War II. Local legend has it that some New Fourth Army officers left their young children in the care of local women during the war. Because of this connection, shortly after the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, some of these women were asked by veterans to continue to look after their children who had moved to Beijing. This established the link for later migration. It is estimated that three to four thousand rural women from Wuwei had worked as domestics in the cities up to the 1970s (Wang Shucheng and Li Renhu 1996: 23). In 1993 the number of rural Wuwei women migrants working as domestics reached 263,000.

During the Mao era, women in the countryside shouldered a double burden of gender and rural origins, and the patriarchy and the state played a role in the discursive construction of the subject position nongcun funü (rural women). Nevertheless, rural migrants of the period positively claimed a "rural woman" identity through their participation in agricultural labor and asserted that this identity was undiminished by their migration experiences.

Great Aunt was sixty-five years old when I met her in Beijing in 1999. Living with her son and daughter-in-law in a single-room house in the suburbs of Beijing, she looked after her one-year-old grandson and cooked for the young couple while they went out every day to sell processed chicken in the market. A mother of four children, Great Aunt had first come to Beijing from Wuwei more than twenty years before to work as a baomu. Sitting in the courtyard, she told me about her experiences of being a migrant, at one point describing her daily labor in the field and at home during the Maoist collective period.

At that time we had the production team leader and the accountant leading us. The leader blew his whistle, calling out, "Hurry up!" [to summon us to work]. Our production team leader at that time, how should I say it, was a single stick [unmarried]. After he went home and ate his meal, he was all done. But we had to take care of our children, wash them, and then cook. Every morning I got up before dawn: cooking breakfast, washing diapers, feeding the baby, cleaning around the house. I got up before sunrise. After the breakfast was cooked, I ate hurriedly. Then I had to wash rice and fetch water from the river. When I heard the call, I left for the field. Sometimes I hadn't got a chance to really finish eating myself, because I had to feed the baby first, right? And then during the work break, I would hurry home and cook rice for lunch. I got it boiling and almost done, and then I had to rush back to the field. It was the same thing when we came back home around noon. First we lit the stove. Then while the children's father [her husband] made lunch, I fed the youngest baby. After lunch, I would wash dishes and diapers, and then feed the baby again before leaving [for the field]. During the busy season like now [summer], we wouldn't come home until seven or eight o'clock. We worked endlessly, yet we didn't always have enough to eat.

Great Aunt spoke with excitement and sighs of frustration. She also remembered with a hearty smile how her fellow villagers in the production team remarked on her ability to carry full loads of sludge on a shoulder pole balanced above her slender "watersnake-like waist." She derived a certain pride and sense of heroism from this public recognition. She remembered the days of collective labor as bustling with communal activities in the field and in the village, with women's labor contribution publicly recognized and compensated in terms of work points, which gave women some standing in the public arena. In the post-Mao era, when "production responsibility" was contracted to each household, rural women in Great Aunt's village witnessed a loss of the limited ground they had gained in the public arena. With the demise of collective life, rural women's status substantially contracted, and the public sphere came to belong more exclusively to men.

With three small children, Great Aunt's family experienced food shortages during the collective era. To earn a bit more money, Great Aunt went to work for families in Beijing in the late 1970s. The predicament for rural women like Great Aunt during the Mao era was that they were subjected to the double postponement reflected in the discursive category of "rural woman" deployed by the state, whose political-economic policies were formulated to prioritize national industrialization. The Mao-era state was determined to achieve rapid industrialization and nationwide accumulation, which it regarded as a necessary step toward resolving the material and technological gap between the countryside and the city and the "price scissors" (differential) between industrial and agricultural products. In the meantime, to maximize the surplus of industrial output for accumulation and expanded reproduction, the state practiced price controls through a unified procurement system. This system established a state monopoly over surplus agricultural products and kept prices for agricultural products at a consistently low level. The improvement of the peasantry's living standard was put on hold, although the leadership at the time did not imagine that the wait would be long.

For rural women, this postponement was accompanied by a persistent, albeit sometimes restrained, patriarchy in the domestic division of labor and in the organization and rewarding of collective labor. Thus, for peasant women like Great Aunt, the subject position of rural woman in the postliberation period was, on the one hand, highlighted by active participation in collective labor and surplus production for the state's industrialization and, on the other hand, marked by a continuation, although constrained, of the patriarchal structure that circumscribed the nature and value of women's labor. Certainly the gender politics in the Mao era that based gender liberation and equality on women's participation in public labor enabled women like Great Aunt to draw a new sense of pride from their active performance in collective labor. The liberation of women from the burden of housework, however, was expected to be realized through the eventual socialization and mechanization of domestic labor rather than by challenging the gendered division of labor. One may argue that the surplus labor performed by a woman-on top of her own participation in public labor-to put food on the table to enable her husband's full participation in production mirrored the peasantry's contribution of surplus labor to enable the nation's accumulation and industrialization. The final liberation of "rural women" from their burdens was presumed to be contingent on further industrialization, which was to make the expansion of urban-based industrialization all the more compelling in the national agenda and women's labor contribution all the more necessary. Postponement was thus a matter of awaiting the improvement of technology and socialization rather than recognized as a discursive practice. Writing of the genealogy of funü (women) as the principal subject position available to women in Chinese socialism, Tani Barlow argues that "the Revolution restituted funü/women inside guojia/state (and thus by synechdochic logic, inside jiatiing/family) under Maoist inscription" (1991a: 132). Although the discourse of funü was briefly open to a range of heterogeneous subject positions in the early communist base-the Jiangxi Soviet (1930-34)-and it taught and mobilized women to constitute their interest with the state rather than with the family, the gender praxis of the party in the 1940s and in the socialist period at times restituted women in reformed familial relations (ibid.: 145). Reflecting on feminist researchers' critiques that China's revolution did not deliver gender equality, Ann Anagnost questions the relationship between the state and women in socialist gender discourse: "This is not to say that the state's concern for women is not genuine, but the relationship between the ideologies of kinship and the state as they have emerged over the several centuries are so interwoven that their disarticulation was perhaps never a conscious goal of China's revolution" (1989: 317). Although their participation in collective labor and the recognition of their labor contribution in the form of work points accorded rural women a visibility for their work and a limited degree of equality (Davin 1975), the continued presence of the patriarchal structure defined the work performed by women as nei (inside) and hence categorically worth fewer points than the work performed by men, which was deemed wai (outside) (Harrell 2000; Jacka 1997). During the time of collective labor in Wuwei villages, as elsewhere, the highest number of work points for a male laborer was ten per day, whereas the highest possible number for a female laborer was typically eight, even when she performed the same task as a man. Besides taking part in collective labor, a married woman still shouldered most domestic labor in a family whose head (jiazhang) was most often her husband.


Excerpted from New Masters, New Servants by Yan Hairong Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface vii

Introduction 1

1 The Emaciation of the Rural: "No Way Out" 25

2 Mind and Body, Gender and Class 53

Part I "Intellectuals' Burdens" and Domestic Labor 57

Part II Searching for the Proper Baomu 80

Intermezzo 1 A Survey of Employers 109

3 Suzhi as a New Human Value: Neoliberal Governance of Labor Migration 111

Intermezzo 2 Urban Folklore on Neoliberalism 139

4 A Mirage of Modernity: Pas de Deux of Consumption and Production 145

5 Self-Development and the Specter of Class 187

Intermezzo 3 Diary and Song 217

6 The Economic Law and Liminal Subjects 221

Notes 251

References 287

Index 307

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