[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

A few weeks ago I was visited by a fellow Wichita resident who was thinking about getting into politics. We talked for a while about his education and background, about the situation here in Kansas, and about what might be involved in his finding volunteers and support. One thing he didn’t lack–fortunately, for anyone with political ambitions–was money: he was a bit of an entrepreneur, and fortunately had lucked into some great opportunities in recent years in China. As we talked about his experiences in Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Beijing, it became pretty clear to me–and he admitted as much forthrightly, when I asked him about it–that he’d in fact been doubly lucky: he’d been able to benefit from the chaotic and ofttimes corrupt circumstances which characterize doing business with banks and factories in southern China these days…and then he’d been able to get himself (and his money) out of those dealings, before the convoluted scheme he’d found himself helping to finance collapsed, as they do with great regularity in China these days.

That China today–and for the past twenty years, really–has been utterly transformed by pervasive booms and busts, a process of super-charged “creative destruction,” as Joseph Schumpeter long ago accurately labeled it, seems like a commonplace observation. My youngest couple of daughters, just a couple of days ago, were joking about how everything was made in China, and when the revolutionary emergence of the most populous country on the planet as the primary manufacturing of half the mass-produced consumer goods on Walmart’s shelves and our garages and bedrooms has become a source a casual, childish humor, what new is there to say? Not much, perhaps–at least not if you’re looking at China’s place as the clearing-floor of globalization in the marco, global economy sense. But the visit I received from this fellow who’d made a killing then gotten free of the rapacious capitalism of China put me in mind of a book I’d read recently, a book that looked at the “made-in-China” trope from a decidedly mirco level. The book is Leslie T. Chang’s Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, and it puts a human face on a few young women out of the nearly 150 million people–nearly half as many people as live in the whole United States of America–who have become migrant workers, fleeing rural villages and economies, and traditional schooling and sexual expectations, and instead have flocked to the manufacturing centers of southern China, where they arrive mostly alone, undirected, and ambitious and open-minded and desperate beyond belief, crowding into apartments, quickly learning new jobs assembling cell phones or computer game joysticks or gas tank caps, taking night classes in English or computer programming or accounting, and somehow building lives for themselves. The book was published in 2008, so given the pace of change in China no doubt more than a few of its details are already out of date. But I found it fascinating all the same.

The primary source of my fascination with it was that so much of its story–whose broad outlines basically matched those of the stories my visitor told me–depicted a complete rejection of everything that I we here at Front Porch Republic strive to take seriously: tradition, locality, equality, and community. Chang’s story (which she developed out of years of ground-level reporting for The Wall Street Journal, as well as from her story as a Chinese-American woman reconnecting with her own family’s history) doesn’t celebrate that rejection, though in some ways it does find it inevitable, or at least unavoidable. Mostly though, the rejection of family ties and the farming duties and traditional filial connections is simply documented, put into the reported statements and observed realities which Chang heard and saw. This rejection comes in many forms, put it essence it is repeated again and again:

Migrant workers use a simple term for the move that defines their lives: “chuqu,” to go out. “There was nothing to do at home, so I went out.”….Migration is emptying villages of young people. Across the Chinese countryside, those plowing and harvesting in the fields are elderly men and women, charged with running the farm and caring for the younger children who are still in school. Money sent home by migrants is already the biggest sources of wealth accumulation in rural China. Yet earning money isn’t the only reason people migrate. In surveys, migrants rank “seeing the world,” “developing myself,” and “learning new skills” as important as increasing their incomes. In many cases, it is not crippling poverty that drives migrants out from home, but idleness. Plots of land are small and easily farmed by parents; nearly town offer few job opportunities. “There was nothing to do at home, so I went out.” (Factory Girls, pp. 11-13)

Chang’s observations (and her book is filled with hundreds of them, as she fleshes out her portraits of young women, in their late teens and early 20s, striving to educate, refine, and transform themselves, to better take advantage of endless opportunities for making money, being robbed, learning lessons, and starting over again) match those of studies which have been made of this phenomenon, the largest human migration in recent history. Most of those (particularly most of the women) who choose to throw off the predictable limitations of rural life and embrace the risks of migratory work, moving from one factory to another and not-infrequently from one name to another, do so mainly because staying at home and in school seemed both uninteresting and unpromising. What reason have they to stay, against the appeal of the city, especially for the ambitious and curious? What established system of mores, what reliable infrastructure of opportunity or security, what confident body of teachings or traditions, exists in the lives of the rural Chinese to overcome the capitalist lure of the dollar and the complete make-over? As Chang weaves her portraits and her own family story together, the absence of many of those countervailing communitarian weights seems, more than anything else, a legacy of the Cultural Revolution, when the parents of today’s migrants were children:

For more than a century, Chinese leaders and thinkers had wrestled with how to fit their traditions into the modern world. The Cultural Revolution proposed a simple answer: Throw everything out. Over the decade that followed, radical student groups known as Red Guards beat, and sometimes killed, their own teachers. Seventeen million students went to the countryside to labor on impoverished farms, a life that rural Chinese had been fleeing for centuries. Education, long the mark of achievement and the path to mobility, was deemed “counterrevolutionary.” The Cultural Revolution took everything the Chinese people had long held sacred and smashed it to pieces, like an antique vase hurled against the wall. It finished off the world of moral certainty and Confucian values into which my grandfather, and countless generations before him, had been born. (p. 160)

Partly as a result of this, Change observes, the world into which the migrants hurl themselves is one without any kind of stable system of rules or expectations: contract-breaking, dishonest job applications, faked resumes, copyright violation, false addresses, bank fraud, and more sit along alongside much more explicit and routine crimes (prostitution, theft, etc.). Those who find one or way or another of succeeding in this environment of graft, back-stabbing, and self-promotion often make no bones about the lack of moral or intellectual resources which their own identities or communities might have otherwise provided them with; they accept themselves as copying, adapting, or simply stealing, and feel it is only reasonable to do so. One of my favorite–and most head-shaking–examples of this came when Chang spoke with the one of the self-help gurus whose books fill the aisles of stores throughout southern China:

Ding Yuanzhi’s bestelling book, “Square and Round,” was a perversion of an American self-help book. It did not urge people to discover themselves, to look beyond material success, or to be honest about their failings and in their relationships….Instead it taught them how to do better what they already knew so well: pettiness, materialism, envy, competition, flattery, and subterfuge….”Square and Round” painted a bleak world of complicated relationships, intense workplace politics, two-faced friendships, corrupt dealings, and status-conscious bosses with absolute power over one’s fate….[It] was essentially a point-by-point rejection of the virtues Chinese tradition had preached for two thousand years.

The author of this manual of unscrupulous manipulation….had come to Shenzhen in 1987….and decided to start a public relations company. “We thought it would be easy to say, ‘We are China’s first public relations company,'” Ding Yuanzhi told me. “We figured the commercial bureau did not know what is was, so it would be easier to get approval.” The publication of “Square and Round” in 1996 was similarly unorthodox. Ding Yuanzhi did not sign a legitimate publishing contract; he simply bought a serial number from a publisher and printed and marketed the book on his own. On weekends he traveled to bookstores around Shenzhen, set up a banner and a table outside the front door, and signed books. “Square and Round” was written at a middle-school level so even factory workers could understand it. “Migrant workers need consolation in their hearts,” Ding Yuanzhi said. “They need to know that success is possible. These books are a solace to them.”

I asked him what he thought about the other success studies books sold in China. He hadn’t read a single one. “All the books in China just take their ideas from the outside,” he said. “China really has no original ideas.” (pp. 196-201)

As someone who is rather passionate about the Confucian tradition which Chang depicts as often simply ignored or dismissed by the young women at the center of her story, and as someone who has even published some on the “original ideas” which that tradition conveys, this bothers me. But what bothers me the most, I must confess, is that Chang’s work makes it clear that, however much abuse, confusion, frustration, misdirection, and pure waste (of money, time, talent, and plain good sense) may characterize their lives in the factories and faux-communities which have sprung up almost overnight throughout China, these girls, for the most part, nonetheless wouldn’t want it any other way. They delight in having spending money of their own. They thrill in the realization of their own powers as actors without a formal script. They own up to the responsibility of providing a supplemental income to their limited families at home, and wield the authority that income gives them over their parents or friends who stayed behind with pride. Most of them recognize that their lives in Guangzhou are in many ways desperate, with most of them having to constantly watch their every step, with danger or destitution or despair as a constant possibility. But to go back to village life instead? Quite a few do, it must be said. But many more don’t. Chang, a Chinese woman whose Nationalist parents fled to Taiwan when the communists triumphed in 1949, and who had lived most of her life in the United States, is sympathetic:

Staying in with Min [one of the migrant workers whose life and choices she documents, including visiting her ancestral home over the New Year holiday] in her village made me think about my own family….In America, my parents had raised my brother and and me very differently [from the traditional way they had been raised], encouraging our independence and freeing us from family obligation. My parents had not expected us to visit relatives; they never told us what we should study in school….One morning after a large family meal, I walked out alone on the muddy road toward town. I saw things I had not noticed before: a blackboard listing school fees and livestock vaccination rates, a store whose entire merchandise consisted of cigarettes and fireworks, children no more than four playing with lighters….I had been gone an hour when my mobile phone rang. “Where are you?” Min demanded. “We’re all waiting for you so we can eat lunch.”

I hurried back, to amazed accusations. “You didn’t eat lunch! Where did you go?” “What were you doing walking on the road all by yourself?”

The Chinese countryside is not relaxing. It is a place of constant socializing and negotiation, a conversations that has been going for a long time and will continue after you are gone. Spending time in Min’s village, I understood why migrants felt so alone when the first went to the city. But I also saw how they came to value the freedom they found there, until at last they were unable to live without it. (pp. 292-293)

Front Porch Republic’s own Adam Webb has long been a fine traditionalist voice in the ongoing debate over what China’s recent experiences suggest for the rest of the world. For sometime scholars of eastern Asia like myself, the conclusion that China’s experiences suggest the obvious triumph of modernization, globalization, and atomism have been a constant refrain, emerging from bestelling books and academic conferences alike, and finding ratification in the observations of reporters like Chang. Webb has long noted this, having once described eastern Asia as “occupying a crucial place in the psyche of today’s atomists” and as the “universal atomists’ dream region” (Webb, Beyond the Global Culture War [Routledge, 2006], p. 124). For a long time, I saw myself as very much on Webb’s side; I wanted to argue for a fuller and deeper appreciation of the possibilities for a Confucian revival in China and elsewhere, to effectively respond to the get-rich atomism and re-invent-yourself individualism which has stepped into the moral vacuum of Chinese life and unleashed such a magnitude of capitalist dislocation and creative destruction that, among other things, China has been transformed in less than a generation into the world’s worst polluter, and resulted in dramatic increases in inequality. Against this, I wanted to think more about how Confucian traditions might directly challenge such awful developments; I wanted to see Chinese premodernity (perhaps when combined with some Western postmodernity) acting to provide a neo-traditionalist alternative to the ravages of modern life.

I still hope for this, at least to some degree. But I’m not sure I’m so comfortable with the way Webb and other traditionalist elide, at least as I (perhaps inaccurately) read them, the brute fact of technological and structural change in the construction of what is and isn’t traditionally viable (much less desirable) in the lives of men and (especially) women. When Webb speaks of the status of women in a world that might be shaped by a Confucian revival, he rightly notes that we need to consider traditions as bearers of the means by which different people, in different time and different places, have attempted to inculcate, construct, or maintain virtuous lives–and hence we need to form our critiques around the virtuous point of the practices by which traditions were embodied, rather than simply fixing ourselves upon the (obviously often historically rather misogynistic) practices themselves. But I wonder if that doesn’t go far enough. In a comment to that post of Webb’s, I brought up the issue of technology, and how the changing contextual infrastructure through and within which people build their lives have to be considered if those of us interested in the power of local traditions want to bring the virtuous substance of those traditional ideas into conversation with the lives that are actually being built in Gunagzhou or Dongguan or anywhere else. That contextual infrastructure can be something as simple as the mobile phone, which in the lives of the young women Chang profiles takes on awesome importance as they establish (or reject) their identities in the midst of ever-changing networks of friends, colleagues, lovers, clients, and bosses. Or it could be something huge, like the steps China took in the late 1970s and 1980s to respond to the chaotic aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, on the one hand imposing draconian controls over family size (thus making it essential that children be wage-earners rather than simply maintainers of the family plot of land), while on the other hand greatly loosening the hukuo system that had been imposed a generation earlier to classify Chinese citizens as rural or urban (thus making it possible for large numbers of the former to become the latter). For women, in particular, the consequences of these changes have been monumental…and hardly uniformly “awful,” as I once tended to believe. There was something condescending about that belief, something that failed to respect the reality that hundreds of millions of Chinese people were voting with their feet, and even if it is the case that economic destruction beyond their control is forcing most of it, the fact remains that, having voted, a not insignificant number of those people–many of them women who had never experienced this kind of individual liberty before–a building something with their choices. It may not be particularly beautiful what they are building, but it is their own, and that’s something. Whereas the Confucian tradition, and the virtuous insights it may be seen to provide into how young women (and young men, and fathers and mothers, and everyone else too) might be able to order their lives–that isn’t theirs, even if it is still part of them. Some balance must be struck, and perhaps if finding that balance requires some destruction…well, I’m no Panglossian; I don’t think everything works out the way it is supposed to. But then there are Chang’s young migrant girls, and more than a few are making their transformed, deconstructed and reconstructed lives work, and I have to acknowledge that.

Chang writes near her conclusion:

Learning my family story changed the way I saw the factory towns of the south. There was a lot to dislike about the migrant wold of Min and Chunming; the materialism, the corruption, the coarseness of daily existence. But now there was an opportunity to leave your village and change your fate, to imagine a different life and make it real. The journey my grandfather attempted was one that millions of young people now made every day–they left home; they entered an unfamiliar land; they worked hard….[T]heir purpose was not to change China’s fate. They were concerned with their own destinies, and they made their own decisions. If it was an ugly world, at least it was their own. Perhaps China during the twentieth century had to go so terribly wrong so that people could start over, this time pursuing their individual courses and casting aside the weight of family, history, and the nation. For a long time I though of Dongguan as a city with no past, but now I realize it isn’t so. The past has been there all along, reminding us: This time–maybe, hopefully, against all odds–we will get it right. (p. 383)

That is probably a ridiculously optimistic and simplistic conclusion–but then, speaking as I am as the descendent of immigrants, as I presume nearly all of those Caucasians (as well as many others) who read this in the United States are also, wasn’t there likely a fair amount of ridiculous, simplistic optimism in the mind of someone, somewhere in my past as well, not to mention a little bit of destruction of tradition? That doesn’t excuse not thinking about what is lost, but maybe it’s a reminder that (especially when we are dealing with those who have usually suffered at least as much as they have benefited from the traditions in question) we ought to focus on what is being still carries and what is being built anew by those who have thrown the past off to move on.

Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture
Local Culture


  1. This sounds a little like a guest post from Bryan Caplan.

    Before we go embracing modernity for the opportunities it has provided to this particular group of people, perhaps we should take into account the global perversions that keep the system that granted them these opportunities going. I mean, did you read Mr. Hoyt’s piece from a few days ago? I think a little unquestioning respect for their ancestors’ way of life would have done the people of eastern Ohio some good when Hanna Coal came calling.

  2. Gabe, believe me, I’m not remotely a libertarian, and hold no candle for Caplan’s perverse defense of the destructive powers of the freedom of contract. In this particular case, I both like and to a certain degree truly believe in the moral worth of the traditions which were first trampled by the Cultural Revolution and are now being rendered moot by rapacious capitalism. And I agree with you that the migrant girls in Guangzhou are able to experience what they are significantly because of “global perversions” in trade and capital flows. This isn’t, I’m quite comfortable saying, a good or healthy way to build up a society. But by the same token, I don’t think the early American expansion into the American West, and the rapacious, chaotic, money-making railroad-building destruction which carried much of it forward (see this review of Railroaded by Richard White for all the ugly details) built a good or healthy society here in the United States either. And yet, we are here, as our parents/grandparents/great-grandparents were, and apparently lives were built by them, often not “awful” ones–in fact, sometimes they managed to build communities with front porches all the same. So yes, I think “a little unquestioning respect” for tradition is an important and wonderful thing. But when it becomes next-to-impossible to maintain, because technological and economic and structural realities change and appeal to our real human needs and desires in such a way as to make such respect almost totally irrelevant to the choices before us, does that mean we should blind ourselves the “particular group of people” who happen to have benefited from such? The young women Chang lived with would laugh in our faces if that is our position. That’s their loss, probably–but we’d be losing something too if we simply dismissed their laughter as being without a point. (Incidentally, Hoyt’s piece was very fine.)

  3. As I’ve heard it described elsewhere, the “draconian controls over family size” only ever worked in the cities and suburbs, where the population relies on employment. In farming China, the penalties were never enough to offset what a cynical friend of mine called the grow-your-own-farmhands strategy. It’s not unusual for a Chinese farming couple to have five or six kids. In the days when lives were short and famines were frequent, this might have been barely enough to keep the extended family going, but now they all live and only two of them can follow their parents into farming. In a sense, the high birth rate built into the traditional way of life might be seen as a strategy for coping with the high death rate; as modern sanitation and medicine extend lifespans, the tradition must be adjusted or it will be discarded, as it is being discarded now.

  4. I’ve spent most of the past 10 years living in rural China, teaching English to exactly the same young Chinese described in Chang’s book. Most of my students left home in China’s interior after middle school, found jobs in the coastal factories of Shenzhen and DongGuan, and spent all day, every day, standing on an assembly line. After 10 years of this, most of them hate their lives, despite the increase in wages. Many of these 20-somethings married, but left their child at home in the village to be raised by grandparents, who keep the family farm plot going, at least for a few more years.

    Every semester, I would ask my students if they thought that life in China was better today than it was for their great-grandparents. The overwhelming, automatic response was yes – until we began to define our terms. The terms that they automatically use are strictly material. However, when we began to speak in terms of spiritual criteria – quality of relationships, connection to parents and children, and membership in a community, things which were part of the fabric of traditional Chinese village life – they quickly acknowledge that they have paid a very steep price for their new perch.

    There are few places on earth that I find more hellish than Shenzhen and DongGuan, few places less conducive to human well-being. These are modern gold rush towns, complete with all the prostitution, crime, corruption and chaos. Currently, these young people are in the middle of a capitalistic knife fight. And they know it. They simply don’t see any alternatives.

    Part of my hope was to give them a glimpse of alternatives. We read the Great Gatsby, Anna Karenina, and Jacob Have I Loved, by Katherine Patterson. Patterson grew up in China as a child of missionaries before the Japanese occupation, and her novel, though it is set in rural America, oozes the riches and tensions of growing up in rural China.

    My students – most of them children of peasant farmers – were incredibly responsive to these stories. They had never considered – no one had ever suggested the possibility to them – that they might be able to preserve some of their traditional values, while navigating their way through China’s brave new world.

  5. Joan, your comment is correct, and points to an important contraction of the narrative which I made in my post. My reading of the situation is that the one-child policy was much more strictly enforced in the lives of the current migrants’ parents, which made the necessity of young people becoming wage earners who “went out” from the village near-universal. As I recall from the book, just about all the young female migrant workers Chang interviews come from families larger than was possible in the previous generation: often there were three, four, or even five children back in the village. And, again, just about all of those young women had fathers and mothers who themselves “went out” for a time–but the difference now is that they didn’t go as far, or for so long, or make as much money doing so; the game of “going out” has dramatically scaled up in rural China over the past twenty years. (The end of the hukuo system in time for the rising generation was also a big part of it; these migrants’ parents faced discrimination and legal harassment which they don’t.) So the point of all this is that leaving the village to earn money to send home had already become an established possibility by the time these young women came of change; with changes in family size and other matters, the fact they could do so as successfully, in as large of numbers, to satisfy such a huge and growing labor demand, makes more sense.

    And this, of course, goes directly to Nathan Musgrave’s point about the worldview of these young women: “They had never considered–no one had ever suggested the possibility to them–that they might be able to preserve some of their traditional values, while navigating their way through China’s brave new world.” Exactly! Amongst the rural poor of much of China, traditional values had already been devastated by the Cultural Revolution, with much of the older generation silenced or killed off, and they’d already been obliged to adapt themselves to a new way of working and living. Now, as their sons–and daughters–find opportunities and dangers and changes beyond their parents’ imagining, the younger generation barely even has the empty form of the old knowledge to fall back on. Their parents had already struggled to learn to live without that knowledge; the women Chang interviewed are simply living out that the implications of that vacuum to the nth degree.

  6. You people should be aware that the migration to the Eastern cities has slowed in recent years and that the interior of China is now the leading the economic growth in China. It is also worth considering that many of those Chinese young people, once they have made it financially, are now returning to their villages to start new businesses ranging from restaurants and hotels to manufacturing companies. These people, upon their return, often bring economic prosperity to their villages beyond what they could have done if they had never left.

    This sounds like a win-win situation to me.

    You should also consider that the technology revolution could actually make it easier for people to stay “at home” and yet create whatever future they want for themselves. One example is 3D-printing. If this technology lives up to its hype, it will be a serious boom for localized manufacturing and DIY type people.

    Same for DIY biology and biomedicine.

    There is absolutely no reason why localization and decentralization must necessarily be low-tech.

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