image of book goes here
Arianne M. Gaetano and Tamara Jacka (eds)

On The Move:
Women in Rural-to-Urban Migration in Contemporary China

New York: Columbia University Press, 2004, bibliographical references and index, 355 pp, IBSN 0-231-12706,
ISBN 0231-12707-3 (pbk).

reviewed by Louise Edwards

  1. This volume is a welcome addition to a growing body of academic literature on rural women in contemporary China. Jacka's previous volume Women and Work in Rural China (1997) has become a standard reference in this field and in On the Move she and her co-editor, Arianne Gaetano, have continued the important work of giving voice to women from rural China. As disparities between urban and rural China have increased in the two decades since China's economic reforms commenced, it has become even more important to provide a platform from which the experiences of rural women can be heard. Within China itself, rural dwellers in general are marginalized but for women in rural China the problem is even more acute. This volume presents an English reading audience with the opportunity to understand the motivations, aspirations and tribulations of women in the world's most populous nation within the context of their engagement with the modernisation processes occurring so rapidly in urban China. The volume reveals the agency of the women and their mobility within the dynamic economy and society that is contemporary China.
  2. At its core, On the Move is a scholarly study of the experiences of rural women as migrants to China's urban areas. There are approximately 100 million (domestic) migrant workers within China and the social and political anxiety they present has seen them dubbed the 'floating population.' Women comprise a significant proportion of this so-called 'migrant worker population' filling positions in factories, households, markets and the entertainment and service sector within China's booming cities. Their highly mobile labour underpins much of China's recent economic growth, yet this very mobility is perceived as presenting a threat to social order as rural disadvantaged China confronts urban privilege on a daily basis. The use of the term 'migrant' connotes the cultural dislocation that normally is associated with international relocation. Yet, these 100 million migrant workers are in fact moving within the borders of a single nation. Nonetheless, the term 'migrant' is entirely appropriate. Like international migrants, domestic migrants in China face discrimination and prejudice generated by their cultural disconnections with the host locale. Indeed, people moving from rural Sichuan to Shanghai face a wider cultural divide than those moving from Shanghai to Sydney. Linguistic and cultural practices differ vastly between regions in China and between rural and urban China. The geo-political unity of the Chinese nation-state belies these vast cultural differences. Like many refugees in contemporary Australia, the semi-legal status of migrant workers within China's restrictive residency legislation reduces their access to the legal system and the protection of the authorities. Women migrant workers face an additional level of difficulty when making the move to urban China. They face discrimination based on urban Chinese assumptions about rural women's sexuality and the sexual abuse, sexual exploitation and sexual violence that accompany this 'othering.'
  3. So why would women leave rural China to come to the cities to work in the clubs, factories and households? The chapters in this volume show us the diversity of their motivations, the richness of their experiences and the challenge of their opportunities. Some leave to increase their financial prospects, others to expand their world experience, yet more leave to escape the hard physical labour of the agricultural economy and others leave in the hope of finding a suitable marriage partner. Combinations of these motivations forge together to create a mobile, dynamic and vital sector of the world's working women. Indeed, Jacka and Gaetano's contributors show that rural Chinese women are often empowered by their experiences.
  4. Gaetano's opening chapter reveals that women perceive domestic work as being appropriate for women and working in a house in urban China appeals to aspirations for modernity within a 'family setting.' Yet such work carries an ambiguous stigma for women involved. The provision of personal services such as cleaning and cooking for non-family members can be seen to detract from a woman's moral purity. The very intimacy of the services provided and the close proximity of the living arrangements can be seen as polluting a girl's innocence. The chapter alerts readers to the phenomenon of abuse of domestic workers already common in Singapore and Hong Kong. Gaetano's research suggests that low-level abuse and overwork are common among this sector of China's migrant workers. Further work in the field will reveal whether the abuse has reached the extremes noted in Singapore or Hong Kong.
  5. Tiantian Zhang's chapter on bar hostesses presents a fascinating perspective on women who take substantial risks with their 'reputations.' She describes how women astutely market themselves to customers alternatively as modest, rural innocents or as sexually available rural wenches. The 'play acting' roles adopted plug into existing fantasies and prejudices urban dwellers have about rural dwellers. The chapter gives a clear indication of the fetishisation of rural Chinese women from an urban perspective and simultaneously demonstrates how rural women manipulate these stereotypes while perpetuating them for personal financial gain.
  6. Sun Wanning's chapter on migrant workers from Anhui notes the power of the urban media in containing rural women. In her analysis of narratives about migrant women in newspapers and magazines Sun exposes the various persona permitted rural women. Either victims of abuse or dangerous, manipulative whores in the commercial evening papers, the same women emerge as noble, moral, hard-working women in All China Women's Federation papers. In the latter perspective migrant women are temporary urbanites—women who come to urban China for short periods to enrich their rural families. But these virtues are extolled in the context of their inevitable return to their rightful place—the farm. In the commercial evening papers, the loose, mysterious and violent migrant woman is a construct created for urban readers hankering for a 'a taste of the other.' These readers are presented with visions of rural women that perpetuate a fantasy of their own urban superiority and cultured-ness that confirms their legitimate access to wealth and privilege.
  7. Two chapters address the question of marriage. As chapters by Louise Benyon and Lin Tan and Susan Short reveal, migration is often intimately linked with marriage in China. Rural China has overwhelmingly had a tradition of women marrying out of their natal villages and movement to an urban area simply supports this exogamy. Migrant women often seek the stability and increased prestige associated with marriage in their new residences. However, these chapters reveal that even within marriage often the rural women's lower status is reconfirmed. Rural women often find partners among those men who for various reasons (disability, economic hardship etc) were unable to marry local urban women.
  8. Importantly, the volume acknowledges the impact of out-migration on the rural regions themselves. Rachel Murphy's chapter addresses the problem of excessive work burdens placed on women who remain behind in the rural areas. Carrying the labour previously handled by their now-urban-dwelling sisters those who remain behind find their daily life more difficult. The chapter reveals how opportunity for some women becomes a burden for others. Cindy Fan's chapter provides an alternative perspective. Readers are reminded that money sent by migrant women to their sisters and mothers at home in the countryside have had a transformative effect on their lifestyles by providing previously unknown financial security. Moreover, women's status as income earners increases their prestige among their families and peers. A chapter by four authors, Binbin Lou, Zhenzhen Zheng, Rachel Connolly and Kenneth Roberts provides a in depth study of rural women from Sichuan and Anhui who returned back to their rural homes. Through an analysis of focus groups and individual interviews, readers are presented with the very personal experiences of leaving home, urban life and returning home. The comparisons between the two different geographic regions provides important perspectives on the diversity of the experiences women migrants are likely to experience in both leaving and returning.
  9. The volume ends with seven stories written by migrant women workers and published in a journal called Rural Women Knowing All specifically targeted at this sector. The stories were prize-winning entries in a competition run by the journal. In each the voices of women migrants speaks with poignancy and vibrancy. The very publication of their stories challenges a deeply entrenched prejudice in Chinese society about literary voice and the authority to 'write'. Urban Chinese and in particular male urbanites have long held this authority and justified their continued exercise of power through assertions of greater culture, education and virtue. By writing and publishing their migrant, female, rural voices these women have presented a challenge to entrenched paradigms of literary power.
  10. In sum, this is an important book. It is grounded in solid social science research methodologies while simultaneously providing an overview of the macro economic impact of gendered migration to China and the world's economic growth. But overwhelmingly it is a book that gives voice to millions of women's anxieties, aspirations and identity transformations. It is a volume that tells us many of the subtleties of rural women's experiences. It will be of tremendous use to a wide scholarly audience as well as the student reader and those working in the Gender and Development sector.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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