Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 23, January 2010
Wanning Sun

Maid in China:
Media, Morality, and the Cultural Politics of Boundaries

Routledge Studies in Asia's Transformations
Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-415-39210-5 (hbk), xviii, 206 pp.

reviewed by Yasuko Hassall Kobayashi

  1. Wanning Sun's book is, as its title suggests, about female domestic workers in post-Mao China. However, Maids in China: Media, Morality, and the Cultural Politics of Boundaries is not just about who these maids are, how their agency is constructed, or how they are situated in socially and economically disadvantaged positions. This book shows how symbolic and cultural boundaries are constantly being negotiated and created both by the maids, who are from rural areas in China, and by their employers, who are members of the emerging middle classes who live in rapidly growing and changing Chinese cities.
  2. Sun observes that boundary-making between middle-class city residents as employers and maids from rural districts constantly takes place, and asks why it this must be so. Unlike in Southeast Asian countries, where maids are most likely to be foreigners imported from abroad, these maids in China are Chinese nationals from rural districts. What sort of boundaries need to be created when they come to live in the household of an urban Chinese middle-class family? The author identifies one significant reference point for boundary-making, which is place of origin: city versus country. The system of population registration created in the Mao era makes it very difficult for rural village residents to move into the city, take a job there, and gain access to its services such as public education and public health care, unless they obtain registration as a city resident. Moreover, obtaining city registration is very difficult.
  3. In post-Mao China, rural women are only allowed to come to live in the city if they come to perform the domestic labour outsourced by the growing band of middle-class women. While the rural women are allowed to work in cities, they are kept unprotected and highly vulnerable, socially and legally. As they cannot register as city residents, firstly, they are denied access to social facilities available to residents (housing subsidies, health care, public schooling, and so forth). Secondly, their working conditions are not protected by labour law. Like foreign domestic workers in Southeast Asian countries, these Chinese maids from rural districts are treated and regarded as if they are foreigners. In China, therefore, internal migration is technically very similar to international migration, with little legal protection, little access to social welfare, and exposure to prejudice.
  4. Such rural residents are now not just living in the cities but coming into the houses of middle-class people. Maids are total strangers to middle-class city people but they are taking care of rather intimate roles in household - performing the functions of mother, or wife, or daughter in law. Maids are total strangers to middle-class city people but they are taking care of rather intimate roles in household - performing the functions of mother, or daughter in law, or even sometimes wife, as we will see below. Two different kinds of people who are meant to be kept apart physically by the registration system are now sharing the space within a house. In this situation of lost physical distance, differentiating the intimate stranger from their own family becomes meaningful and necessary for middle-class city people. An effective symbolic and cultural boundary is one based on their place of origin (i.e. rural village)—alongside those based on their gender and class. This book carefully analyses rich, detailed, and actual narratives collected by fieldwork, and reveals how such boundaries are created by reference to place: rural and city.
  5. Chapters 2, 3 and 4 mainly analyse how these boundaries are drawn between the two parties by urban city middle-class residents in particular, by investigating fieldwork narratives of both maids and middle-class employers, TV dramas, newspapers, magazines AND cartoons, to show the ways in which employers, namely urban middle-class families, consume maids' services. Chapters 5, 6 and 7, to redress the balance, focus on maids and how they also participate in boundary-makings in creative ways.
  6. Chapter 2 demonstrates how TV dramas frame maids and employers in cities. The key concept here is shuzi (human quality). An ideal human quality expected by the post-Mao China State consists of: middle class, living in the city, with high consumption power, high literacy, middle-class sensibility, and high morality. These more 'desirable' citizens are high shuzi people. In TV dramas these high shuzi people as employers often have problems with maids as low shuzi people, with low literacy, inadequate job skills, lack of urban sensibility, and needless to say almost no consumption power. If the problems between those two kinds of people are resolved in such dramas, it is through the raising of the maid's shuzi, due to her awareness of the need for self-improvement to become a maid of higher human quality.
  7. This shuzi discourse provides a convenient node for maids, employers and the state. For the maid, to improve herself by becoming a better maid sounds feel-good and positive and is something she can take pride in, particularly in post-Mao neoliberal society. For the employers, they can safely sit in the position of enlightening these lower shuzi women from rural districts, and from this position of control can constantly reassert how distant the two parties are from each other, socially, economically, culturally and symbolically. For the state, without any need to take the responsibility or cost of fixing the existing structural and cultural inequality, the problem is innocently transferred into an issue of individual morality, shuzi.
  8. Chapter 3 is about newspaper discourses. Urban newspaper discourses provide a certain discursive formation, the 'three guans.' This means guanzhu: paying close attention to, guanxin: showing concern for, and guanhui: showing loving care for. This is state propaganda discourse to middle-class people which shows them that the state expects them to have to have the three guans and exercise them to help the weaker and disadvantaged in the society. Thus 'three guans' creates a middle-class sensibility, or sense of middle-class political correctness.
  9. Through this filter of three guans, a weak, inexperienced and uneducated maid abused by a heartless employer can be the story of a news article. This type of story sometimes even triggers an act of the three guans to rescue the maid from her plight (e.g. a lawyer might offer the maid help to sue her abusive employer). However, to receive such acts of benevolence maids need to fit a certain image created by newspaper discourses. They need to look like victims: weak, disadvantaged 'inexperienced, unknown and inarticulate' (p. 68), like children, and abused enough to touch upon a high moral sense of the urban middle class. While the newspaper discourses propagate such notions as social justice, harmony among nationals, conscience, and compassion by the middle class to provoke acts of kindness, they never try to ponder the nature of the population registration system—the very source of maid abuses. Like TV dramas, the 'three guans' in the newspaper provides a neat node point. A maid can gain compassion and support from the middle class if she fits a certain identity as maid. Middle-class people are willing to exercise and prove their three guans by helping those who are weak and disadvantaged in multiple senses, while the state turns the very issue of a social and economic gap in the society into an issue of personal morality instead.
  10. Chapter 4 argues that a consumer revolution in China has not reduced social inequalities, and rather has redefined consumer needs and rights to suit those who have higher consumption power. Having maids is considered a necessity in post-Mao urban Chinese cities. The market responds to 'needs' to provide a variety of maid services alongside the provision of regular live-in or part-time maids—including maids who breast-feed babies, and maids who also provide sexual services for elderly men. Both breast-feeding services for mothers reluctant to breast-feed their babies and sex services for old, single and possibly widowed men are rationalised as needs of those consumers and are also rationalised by the fact that the rural women who provide those special 'needs' can receive a higher salary than maids providing regular services. By this economic logic, there is little space to ponder why and how rural women ended up providing sexual services for old men, or breast-feeding someone else's baby in the city while having to leave their own babies behind. There is little room to reflect on how wide and deep the gap is between rural women and urban middle-class people, or on why this gap exists.
  11. At the bottom of the society as they are, those rural women have little power even to claim subtle injustices, such as molestation and sexual harassment, since they knew their voices raised against middle-class people with high shuzi simply go unheard or are not taken seriously. Male employers could deny it by saying scornfully 'Maids are not my cup of tea,' (page number) even if they had in fact approached a maid in that way. And female employers, the wives of these middle-class men, would not risk their own middle-class pride by acknowledging the possible truth of the maid's claim either. Such claims, while perhaps slightly denting an employers' pride, would also likely cost the maid her job, which is the lifeline not only for herself but also for her family.
  12. Chapter 5 is about how maids themselves participate in consumption in Chinese urban cities. Their low wage prevents them from participating in most conventional urban forms of consumption. Also the maid knows and palpably feels an acute, unbridgeable gap in consumption power between her and the middle-class family she lives with, whose everyday consumption she witnesses from an intimate distance. In these conditions, maids use urban space creatively and consume urban-ness without spending money. Supermarkets are a significant space for maids to consume urban products. They visit supermarkets and study products: the range of prices, brand names, what items are newly introduced and so forth, without spending. Also they deal with their initial loneliness caused by being separated from their family by spending time in the supermarket with constantly floating popular music. In this creative way, they can also participate in consumption and learn how to cope in the city with their limited means. Despite the image of weak, inexperienced maids created by middle-class discourses in TV dramas and newspapers, in fact maids develop impressive competence in living in urban centres with a far larger population than they are used to, and surrounded by an unlimited range of products while they have little social network and support. This study provides useful detailed analysis of how such subalterns who lack material consumption power consume in urban cities.
  13. Chapter 6 reveals what maids' everyday lives are like in urban cities. The significance of this chapter is that the author looks at the maids as women, with no dramatisation and exoticisation, and point out the different types of subjects that maids can be. Unlike in the familiar maid stories about 'weapons of the weak' (where the maid uses wily petty tactics in order to gain some measure of power over her employers and negotiate her position with them), some maids can become severely depressed due to their working environment. Indeed, a maid's working environment is peculiar. It is behind a closed door without much communication with the outside, and with constant surveillance by employers. While keeping close surveillance of their maid, employers also want to guard their own privacy so maids are never allowed to have a close relation with the family they live with. Sometimes they have no privacy due to having no room of their own in the employer's house (sleeping on the sofa in the living room). They also have little chance of developing an outside community with friends. In this working environment maids can experience considerable emotional and psychological distress—even chronically. Due to the lack of any outside community to help them to maintain perspective, some distressed maids can easily internalise the blame cast on them by their employers and regard their misery as their own fault, blaming themselves for personal insufficiency. These depressed maids are likely to gain little attention from international human rights activists (unlike, for example, female factory workers), since they are kept inside the house (p. 129).
  14. It is true that some maids manage to exercise their skills in negotiating with their employers, such as lying to their employers to get permission to go back home for a visit, or creating a network in her neighbourhood and using it as an asset in her negotiations. However, not so many maids are skilful enough to employ such weapons of the weak. Occasionally an emotionally and psychologically-distressed maid will try to gain sway over her employers by kidnapping their children. Middle-class sympathies are not aroused by such cases. Instead they create a sentiment among employers of 'foolish maids do stupid and dangerous things,' (p. 141) and so we must control them and keep them under strict surveillance.
  15. The seventh and last chapter is about how maids use strategies to navigate through their city lives by taking the few opportunities that are provided to make the most of their harsh environment. Some maids read magazines and newspapers in the employers' home without having to incur the cost of buying them. A maid who was hired by the author sometimes even asked the author to keep articles on topics of the maid's interest. Maids can sometimes find ways to be allowed to watch TV—which was a common entertainment for them in their village—in the employer's home. The maid agencies which hire them out do not condone them watching TV at the cost of being available for duty around the clock. However, once a maid learns which programs are favourites of the family, if she expresses her shared interest in them, she might be able to participate in the family's TV watching. Using a mobile phone is another significant strategy of some maids which allows them to stay connected with the family left behind, although it is costly for them. Some maids with a more stable economic situation can purchase computers. A part-time maid hired by the author quickly learned how to use a PC and enjoyed her time in cyber-space. These acts show the ways in which some maids make their voices heard, express themselves and articulate their existence.
  16. An important contribution of this book is to show that China's population registration system plays a vital role in differentiating rural women(as maids) from city residents. This system creates a social, economic and legal gap which in turn creates a symbolic gap. The book shows us that understanding 'maids in China' means understanding Chinese society with its growing middle class and post-Mao government, and seeing how it accelerates its neoliberal economy at the cost of maids—those internal yet 'foreign' migrants to the cities. Although the author demonstrates how the maids, too, participate in boundary making or demarcating themselves from their urban employers, they seem rather powerless in relation to their middle-class employers. While pondering how maids' current status at the bottom of Chinese society might be improved, these questions crossed my mind: what role would this middle class in China have to play? Would they ever care about equality and rights for all members of the society? Outside the frame of 'three guans', do they ever pay attention to the fundamental problem: an acutely growing social gap caused by the system of population registration? Would they ever contemplate changing this system, the very source of the social gap, at the cost of compromising their own everyday convenience? In other words, how we see the social future for maids rests largely on our understanding of the Chinese urban middle class—beyond their role as powerful creators of boundaries between maids and themselves. This insightful book will benefit students in a range of fields: Chinese studies, migration, gender, and media. It will also appeal to those who study social and political roles of the middle class.


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Last modified: 11 January 2010 1616

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