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.

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