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Home  /  Inside China  /  Dagongmei – Women migrant laborers – Independence through Capitalism or Capitalism through Independence?
Dagongmei – Women migrant laborers – Independence through Capitalism or Capitalism through Independence? print version
For dagongmei (打工妹), woman workers who come from the country side to work in one of the factories in eastern China, there are no illusions about the hard nature of their work. Leaving home and becoming urban workers is for them the adaptation of a modern lifestyle as well as a unique root of becoming independent of their parents' moral authority. 
In an article published in the journal Cultural Anthropology, Pun Ngai (Hong Kong University of Science and Technology) deals with the desire of women laborers dagongmei (打工妹) from rural China to pack up their bags and join city sweatshops. The article is quite old (2003) though the phenomena it describes are still very relevant, even if the stat figures have changed since it was written (perhaps the 400-500 yuan sweatshop salary per month has reached 700 today).

The women described in the article (mostly migrant laborers in Shenzen) know quite a good deal about their prospect and don't possess any dramatic illusions about the hard nature of their work, even before their first working day. Still they seek the opportunity to leave the country side and become money earning individuals within the capitalist chain, in which they contribute mostly to the production force but also don't neglect their consumption aspiration.

The main conclusion is that the dagongmei indeed see themselves as consumers of goods, a desire that binds them socially one to another helps them obtain (slightly) higher social status and become less alienated in their new urban environment. Becoming a migrant laborer is also a channel to becoming independent of the rural parents' home, a fact that the author mentions only briefly.

For a young rural girl few routes of becoming independent and leaving her family home exist. In the likely case that she didn't achieve outstanding grades in the gaokao (高考) College Application Exams (if she has finished her high school studies at all), then the two remaining options to leave home that I can think of is getting married (perhaps her parents want to set her up with the geeky neighbor who lives down the street...) or becoming a production force in urban factories.

It's true that the latter desire could be strongly induced by dagongmei who return to the country side with new ‘luxury' items, wearing stylish clothes and showing everyone that they are no longer the farm girls they used to be. The wish of becoming a part of the modern-capitalist lifestyle is indeed embedded in the quest for independence, but is not necessarily its main motivating force.

However, after moving to the new urban danwei (单位), the contrast experienced by the dagongmei, between the production sweat and the elegance of the flashy urban environment, could become a heavy emotional burden. Such contrast isn't so intense for women who works in rural factories, but in the city, with higher class ladies showing off their new designer outfits in every street corner the money the dagongmei  is used substantially as a tool to cover up their low social status (usually by buying fashionable cloth, skin whitening lotions, etc).

Independence is the main target, but the atmosphere where it's fulfilled put the dagongmei in the position where they see themselves as both producers and consumers, both acquiring a higher social status, but never really coming close to that of city dwellers, and overall ‘joining' or ‘sinking' (choose your preferable term) into modern urban Chinese capitalism.

Source: Pun, Ngai. 2003. "Subsumption or Consumption? The Phantom of Consumer Revolution in ‘Globalizing' China". Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 18, No. 4, pp. 469-492

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