Factory Girls, communal village life, and the growth of individualism in China

Millions of young Chinese are developing a sense of individualism. That’s one of the insights revealed in the pages of Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China. The author suggests that the previously unknown degree of personal freedom offered by factory work in a city far from one’s village is a big reason that migrants are willing to tolerate the conditions in the factories and the lifestyle that comes with it. She compares the suffocating social world of the village (and the traditional Chinese subjugation of the self to family and nation) to the new-found degree of independence in the migrant worker life:

When I read my grandfather’s diary, or watched the adults gang up on Min and her sister during a village wedding, I felt as if I were witnessing over and over where China went wrong. The concerns of the family and nation were overwhelming, and they trapped a great many people–millions upon millions–in lives they never would have chosen. …it was also why my father suppressed so much emotion. It had led my aunt Nellie to express her feelings through poetry, and it had driven Lijiao’s children to diminish the past. Only Zhang Hong had chosen to remember, and for him this memory had become a kind of torture.

And perhaps I, too, am more Chinese than I knew. Because now I understand all of them–understand why a person would choose not to tell her story, or be unable to tell it, or not admit to any feeling, because the emotion would overwhelm you otherwise. [p.382]

The Chinese countryside is not relaxing. It is a place of constant socializing and negotiation, a conversation that has been going on for a long time and will continue to go on after you are gone. Spending time in Min’s village, I understood why migrants felt so alone when they 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. [p.293]

There was a lot to dislike about the migrant world 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. …their 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. [p.383]

I’ve heard people point to the often sub-human treatment of strangers as evidence that individualism is on the rise in China. I think that’s backward; the way Chinese treat outsiders comes out of their communalism, not individualism (though individualism is certainly no guarantee that strangers will be treated well; and in certain contexts communalism can encourage great hospitality toward strangers — though obviously, not in China). And even the sprouting individualism described in Factory Girls still has a long way to go before it reaches the point of actually ascribing value to the individual (and I don’t at all assume that that is inevitable). Still, young people making personal life decisions based on personal, rather than other people’s, desires is a huge step.

Here’s some related stuff:

Lying, “Lying” and Mainland China [Updated 2x]

“Lying” isn’t just a cross-cultural communication pot-hole between Chinese and Euro-Americans, it’s a crater. Conflicting communication styles result in Westerners sometimes thinking their Chinese counterparts are lying even when they actually have no intention of deceiving anyone. The Americans get the (long-standing) impression that the Chinese are devious and deceptive, while the Chinese, who weren’t intending to deceive anyone and were merely being polite and gracious, are annoyed to no end at the simplistic and judgmental Americans.

But there’s another side to Mainland Chinese society, where ethics are simply a non-factor in decision making. Mainland Chinese lie and deceive reflexively in many aspects of their daily lives and relationships; it’s routine, accepted, expected and generally considered unavoidable. If you’re straight, honest and genuine, people will think you’re simple, naive and stupid. Corruption is endemic in every layer of society, and it is common for it to taint thesis papers, resumes and job applications, personal ads, and communication between spouses, parents and children, employees and employers, clients and suppliers, etc.

This is the China revealed Factory Girls: the post-Communist, unapologetically amoral, full-on materialistic free-for-all China. It’s a social world where everyone seems to automatically, reflexively lie all the time about everything to everyone else, including parents, boyfriends, coworkers, bosses, clients, employees and potential spouses. This is deliberate deception, not mere non-literal communication. Here’s one of many examples:

Married men who pretended not to be were the number-one dating hazard of Dongguan… In a place where people lied reflexively for work, deception naturally seeped into personal relationships. Lying was often the pragmatic choice because it got you what you wanted. Eventually your lies might catch up with you, but few people thought that far ahead.

Chunming had her own rules for such affairs. No one should get hurt, and neither side should make demands. “Of course, I’d like to find the right person and get married,” she told me. “But since I haven’t, it’s fine to be with someone you don’t love. You can still enjoy your time together. You can still rest your head on his shoulder when you’re tired and feel a sense of security.” [p.350]

So Mainland China presents outsiders with a cross-cultural communication double-whammy: a relatively high reliance on nonverbal, “high-context” communication, and generations of people raised in a corruption-saturated society in which deception is routine. You can find both aspects of Chinese “lying” in the posts below:

  • Caging a Monster (by Murong Xuecun)
    “In my country, there is a strange system that rewards liars, and with the passage of time, people have become accustomed to lying. People lie as naturally as they breathe, to the point that lying has become a virtue.
    “In this system, people only care about short-term profits. In this system, not following the rules is the rule, and unscrupulous means are the only means in government and business so only the dirtiest players emerge victorious. In this system, everyone is a criminal so no one needs to repent.”
  • Chinese “Lies That Bind” (Frog in a Well)
    “because they live in closer and longer lived groups, Chinese are more focused on the social consequences of a statement than its literal truth. […] these differences cut two ways. To be “free” or “independent” can also be “irresponsible,” “lonely,” or “selfish.” What Chinese call “harmony” can be “conformity” or “repression.” American “straight talk” can be childish, reckless, or self-righteous, and Chinese “sweet talk” can cover up realities until they fester.”
  • Do the Chinese Lie? That Depends… (The Lingua Franca)
    “In short, for most Chinese people, lying is not really lying. What we in the West would consider to be a bald-faced lie, a person in greater China might think of as a courtesy, a convenience, or a smart tactic, none of which are immoral. In fact, lying to achieve some business or social aim, and getting away with it, is considered to be a sign of intelligence and social skill among many Chinese.”
  • Dumb Americans (Seeing Red in China)
    To many Chinese, Americans don’t have xin-yan (心眼, meaning, literally, eyes of the mind; or figuratively, calculating, wily), they trust what you say, and they believe you are doing what you say you are doing. For that, they are dumb.

    …to speak your mind straightforwardly, to defend your position forcefully, and to uphold what you believe without compromise, are all signs of childishness. A lot of Americans, alas, fill that bill.

  • Chinese people like it when you “lie” to them? (China Hope Live)
    “Interpersonal communication ‘with Chinese characteristics’: A little understanding goes a long way when feelings get hurt by Chinese/Expat miscommunication”
  • To “lie” or not to “lie” (China Hope Live)
    “If you stop to think about it, there a tons of common situations in English where we use words to mean what they don’t actually literally say, but to us it’s “obvious” in those situations what the intended meaning really is. Our delivery, the context, and our non-verbals all speak quite loudly and quite clearly, so clearly that we would never think of such instances as “lies.” Sarcasm is only one kind of example.”
  • Free Advice – for you and your Chinese friends (China Hope Live)
    “If you’re a Westerner with Chinese friends, or a Chinese person with Western friends, you probably ought to read this. It’s from the end of Communicating Effectively with the Chinese, which is co-authored by a Chinese and a Western scholar and easily the single best-all-around book I’ve read on the subject so far. They should force-feed it to all China-bound Westerners, in my opinion.”